What’s your language?

During the course of my arbitrary browsing today, I came across an article by Vikram Chandra in the Boston Review. Though Mr. Chandra’s motivation for writing the article came from something that would never happen to most of us (how many of us are likely to be accosted in a party and accused of writing books pandering to western sensibilities?), the feelings expressed in the article is something I have experienced many times.

I was born into a household that on a census form would undoubtedly be tagged as “Mother Tongue: Hindi.” But I called my mother “Mummy” and my father “Daddy.” They spoke to me in Hindi sprinkled with English. Sitting on my mother’s lap, I read newspapers in English. English was everywhere in the world I grew up in, and continues to be an inextricable thread in the texture of every day I live in Bombay and in India. English is spoken on the playgrounds, and we tell folk tales in it, we riddle each other and joke with each other in it, and we make up nonsense verse and nursery rhymes and films in it. Along with many other languages, it is spoken in the slums, on the busses and in the post offices and the police stations and the court rooms. English has been spoken and written in on the Indian subcontinent for a few hundred years now, certainly longer than the official and literary Hindi that is our incompletely national language today. I for one hear registers aplenty ringing away in it, and as it is spoken and written more widely, these registers will expand. A language is a living thing. A patois born in soldiers’ camps not so long ago became Urdu, whose beauty ravishes our hearts. To love Urdu for her low origins and her high refinements, for her generous heart and her reckless love, is not to give up Punjabi. What a mean economy of love and belonging it must be, in which one love is always traded in for another, in which a heart is so small that it can only contain one jannat, one heaven. How fearsome must be this empty land where each new connection must inevitably mean the loss of all roots, all family, each song you may have ever sung in the past. Any ghazal-maker, any Mareez, I think, would flee from such a hellish wasteland. But my region, where Kalidas Gupta Raza continues to sing his passion for Urdu, is different. If Hindi is my mother-tongue, then English has been my father-tongue. I write in English, and I have forgotten nothing, and I have given up nothing. And I know the tastes and quirks and nuances of my regional audience, of the people who live in the locality of Andheri, in the colony of Lokhandwalla, as well or better than any Bengali poet knows her regional audience.

I couldn’t help but feel that the first half of the paragraph above would be true for most of us. We grow up in such a bilingual state that sometimes it becomes difficult to clearly say which our language is. I mean, most of the people I know are well versed in two to four languages. As the author says in the article quoted above,“Now, in this, my region, it is very very common for a person to speak one language at home, use another on the street, do business in a third, and make love in a fourth.”

But still, when people accuse you, even good naturedly, of ditching your language in favor of the ”foreign” English, it can’t help but sting you a bit. Especially so when it comes from people you love. And even more so when the cause of the comment is because you like to watch movies and listen to music created in a western language.

Hell, does it even matter what language the lyrics of the song are written in? It’s true that not knowing the language can deprive you of the beauty of the lyrics, but so what? As long as the music captivates you, should you even care that you don’t understand the literal meaning of the singer’s words? In my opinion, a U2 ballad is as beautiful as a Sigur Rós song which is as beautiful as an A R Rahman composition.

Oh, you say you can’t sing along a Sigur Ros song if you don’t know Icelandic? Take Calvin’s advice and make up your own words!

I love loopholes!

Next come the movies. Just because I refuse to consume all the crap Bollywood throws at me, does it mean that I am an angrez? There are some very good movies produced in Bollywood as well as some outstandingly atrocious ones in Hollywood. The trick is to pick and choose your way through.  As long as the visual imagery captivates me, as long as I like the story’s flow, the language can be Klingon for all I care. If you are so worried about not following all the dialogues, just download a subtitle file. Who’s stopping you? And believe me, it DOES NOT make you look illiterate. Only more human.

Lastly, it does annoy me that the moment I try to write in my mother tongue, my hand wobbles like a newly born deer fawn. But it lasts only a few moments before it picks up the rhythm of old. It’s just that a decade of writing exclusively in the English Alphabet can be difficult to shake off immediately. Reading, on the other hand, poses no such problem. It is just that I’ve become so accustomed to reading in English that I don’t feel the need to look for something to read in any other language.Though this is something that I would love to do in the future.

So, if you are not watching movies, listening to music in languages foreign to your own, you don’t know what you’re missing. And you would be better placed doing these rather than telling me what I do and don’t do.

Sigur Rós