India may lack literacy, but not language. We are proud of our mother tongues. Name another country on this planet that has twenty-two official languages. We are not even counting the unofficial ones and dialects.
English, not an Indian language, is the only true common official language. The other national language, Hindi, is mostly confined in its use in the north and west part of India, and Bollywood. Ask a Tamil or a Bengali, and you will know how much Hindi is loved outside the Hindi belt. For your safety, we recommend that you do not ask the question in Hindi. You have a better chance getting a response if you ask the question in English, or even in French. Given, we all watch Hindi movies; hum the latest Hindi hits, and even can speak a bit of it.
We turn to language to proclaim our identity. In the recent resurgence of India, the last vestige of British rule is eroding: the English names of cities are changed to their originals. No longer, we have Bombay, Madras, or Calcutta. They are back to Mumbai (since 1995), Chennai (since 1996), and Kolkata (since 2001). You cannot fly to Bangalore anymore; you have to fly to Bangaluru. The list goes on: Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram; Calicut to Kozhikode; Cochin to Kochi; Coimbatore to Koyamutthoor; Pondicherry to Puduchchery; Ahmedabad to Karnavati; Lucknow to Lakshman-puri. Even the capital Delhi would become Indraprastha or Dilli. I am not sure which one I prefer. Indraprastha has the ring of the epic times. Dilli is on the other hand has the charm of a toddler.
For most of us, language is a part of who we are: part of our identity. In India, it also reflects our mixed heritage: there is no purity of language. The spread of SMS and email only made it prominent. While speaking in local language, who amongst us can resist the temptation to garnish our speech with a few English words? And it is mostly subconscious. I am not talking about those English words that got into local language. I am talking about total bastardization of our native tongue. I did not care much when it was Indian English. It is not our language, I rationalized, why should we care? After all the things they did to us, this is nothing.
I did not realize it was a two way street. When was the last time you heard a complete conversation in one Indian language? I am not against it, just nostalgic about the purity of language that I grew up with. I do not even think most of us do it on purpose, or even consciously. It has sipped in our psyche. The invention is complete: from still water of Kashmir to the back water of Kerala, from busy streets of Bombay to the lazy shades of Bengal. Or should I have said Mumbai instead. I hear it everywhere, from everyone.
In a country where everything has to be written in three languages, it is expected. I am proud of a polyglot society. It expands our cultural horizon and broadens our individual mind. For the stability of our country we need it. I wish all of us become fluent in most languages. But we do not do that. In the Indian tradition, we mix it all up. We speak all the language at the same time. When needed to speak in English we use Indian words. When speaking to locals we cannot avoid English words. It is same in every sphere of our Indian life: in Bangalore we eat donut, and in Boston we look for dosa.
In today’s India, the need for basic understanding of different languages is not only nice but a necessity. This hit home a decade or more ago while I was in Bangalore. On one of those gorgeous late mornings, I was strolling down a secluded road inside a prestigious institute of higher education. I was interrupted by a middle aged man, who looked a bit lost. He seemed relieved to see me. When I smiled, he quickly said something. Which I gathered was a question, but I could not decipher his words. I did what I always did in such situation. I politely responded with the only one line of Kannada that I mastered: “I don’t know Kannada.”
He smiled one more time; paused a bit, and said something.
I just repeated myself. This went on for four times, each time his smile becoming more forced. After the forth time, he could not contain his frustration. He slapped his forehead with his right palm – his slap audible, and mumbled angrily.
I did not get a single word of it. But I am sure what he said was this:
“You call yourself educated? This you call education? I tried four different languages and all you can do is repeat that you don’t know Kannada. I was not speaking Kannada, you slow brain creature. I did not go to fancy institute, and even I can speak four languages. All you can do is to repeat like a parrot. If this is the product of higher education, where is this country going?”
Or something stronger that that.
Even if we cannot read or write our mother tongue, we are proud of our native language. It makes us happy when Panjabi becomes the forth largest language in Canada, or we proclaim victory when UK wants Bengali on par with French. Outside call centers, we are not too keen to shade our accent either. We carry the hint of our mother tongue with us. My friends claim that they can pin point someone’s mother tongue from their English. Accent is like a physical feature: we carry it with us like our second skin.
Despite the outside influence on our mother tongues, our passion for them is still unadulterated. We still derive unparalleled comfort when we speak in our mother tongue. We still relish to gossip in our native tongue. We still dream in the language of our homeland.
Of course, there is no single language. But the love is the same.