“Pannas dabbe tyachya office la pathvayache aahet!” (50 boxes have to be sent to his office!) I hear someone speaking Marathi at the gym. My instinctive reaction is to be appalled but then my research in Postcolonial Literature has taught me that I should be proud of my country and its languages. Yet, as this man continues talking, I see many people turning to look at him, wondering what kind of a man would speak his regional language in an upscale gym space.
Colonialism teaches you to associate shame with your language. It’s a very deliberate way of enslaving a race; by teaching them to be shameful about everything that is indigenous to them. I have read a Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who said his friends and him suffered corporal punishment at his English-medium Christian school for speaking their mother tongue. I went to a Convent school where we may not have been hit, but everyone who ever uttered a word in Hindi (or worse, any other Indian language) was termed a “verni” (vernacular). They were the pariahs of the class; the people the cool girls never touched with a pole. Thus, it was more subtle in our school, but nonetheless, growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, we had still received the message of the Raj loud and clear. English was cool! Your mother tongue is what you spoke behind closed doors, when no one who could judge you was within ear-shot. Hindi was like an urban deep, dirty secret.
I was a classic example of this Convent education, where we proudly came from a line of girls who spoke atrocious Hindi. Once we overheard my friend saying to her uncle “Baddadaddee meow!” (which translated to “Badda Daddy mein yahaan hoon!/ Uncle, I’m here!”) and we teased her, all the while thinking it was so cute that she spoke Hindi like that.
It didn’t matter that we came across as complete idiots with no credibility while talking to our staff (and pretty much more than 50% of India) with our ridiculous command over Hindi. We were cool in front of who mattered and Hindi-speakers didn’t count. We even looked down on the Dilliwalas, laughing at their English (never realising how stupid we seemed to them and the rest of the country!)
When I had BabyA, my cook told me, “Bhabhi, isse English mein hi baat kijiyega!“(Madam, only speak to her in English!”) When I asked him why, he said that to succeed, one only needs to know English. Hindi is a useless language. He believed that his life could have been so much better had he known English. Better? I’m not sure, but richer (in terms of material wealth)? Yes-that was sadly true.
I knew that I didn’t want to bring BabyA up this way! I wanted her to speak Hindi well, unlike me, and I wanted to teach her to take pride in her language. Being a bit of a mongrel, I neither had any lingual command over Punjabi or Marwari- either of my mother tongues.
On a mission, I went out to buy her books that I could read to her in Hindi and was pleasantly surprised. There were fantastic publications like Katha and Tullika that had stories with gorgeous illustrations in Hindi and most other regional languages. It was like being in a candy shop; I didn’t know what to choose. I came home excitedly and started reading to her. I messaged my closest mommy friends pictures of these wonderful books like “Dinosaur-Ek-Sau-Sathais-Bachchon-Jitna-Lamba” and “Maa Ganga aur Razai ka Sandook“. None of them were interested. They asked me if the same titles were available in English. Most of them were very clear that they didn’t want to buy their kids Hindi books. The excuse was that the kids will learn Hindi at home, as it is. I disagreed because none of my school friends or I ever did- not fluently at least.
There are such few communities that talk to their kids in their language any more. Shame is so deeply ingrained that sometimes we don’t even recognize it. We justify it saying that when they go to school, they need to be competent in English but in reality, we all suffer from Anglophilia. Fear of rejection at schools is a legitimate fear but this belief in the superiority of the English language basically stems from a Post Raj hangover that we all suffer from.
So I march along (a lonely crusader)- telling my maid to try to talk to BabyA in Telugu, and asking my mother-in-law to only speak to her in Hindi. I read several Hindi books to her and try my best to talk to her in it as much as I can (hoping the scars from being exposed to my fragmented, stammering Hindi heal due to better influences in her life).
At first, she just doesn’t speak Hindi but after turning 3, she likes to dabble in the language. It makes me happy every time she starts a sentence in Hindi, but then I can’t help but cringe as she sounds like Sonia Gandhi (or much worse, like Remo singing Hindi songs in the 1990’s). She looks at her maid and says, “Didi, main school jaayega today so snack box ready keep-ega. Ok?”* I look at the maid and open my mouth to translate, but I stop, hearing her say, “Ok baby. I keeping ubla bhhocolli tiffin mein ready!” (I have kept steamed brocolli in your tiffin box). Baby A looks away from her cartoons for a minute to flash a satisfied smile at her, and I realise that although I’m failing in my mission, I have to compliment the odd pidgin language these two have created to understand each other better. It’s like watching a cacophonous symphony that everyone seems to be enjoying while it wreaks havoc in my brain! Bhagwan, Mujhe Bachana!**
*Didi, I’m going to school today so keep my snack box ready!”
**(God, Save me!)