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Closely tongue-tied

I’ve often fantasised about people speaking one language in India — not one language in the metaphorical sense of ‘peace’ or ‘cricket’ or ‘Hindi movies’ but in the literal sense of a single language that everyone speaks. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Feb 23, 2013 21:50 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I’ve often fantasised about people speaking one language in India — not one language in the metaphorical sense of ‘peace’ or ‘cricket’ or ‘Hindi movies’ but in the literal sense of a single language that everyone speaks.

This fantasy thought-experiment took on a renewed appeal for me when I was sitting at the rather raucous bar of Hotel Ruposhi Bangla where I was staying in Dhaka on February 21, a day that the world nominally marks as International Mother Tongue Day, but Bangladesh celebrates with utter seriousness and uninhibited pride as Language Movement Day.

Being created from linguistic considerations — much as Andhra Pradesh was created from the demands of the Telugu-speaking people in 1956 — Bangladeshis’ relationship with their language, Bengali, and language in general, is special, indeed existential. If you love one language deeply, you love language deeply.

But a country where everyone (or, at least, barring a small group of citizens overwhelmingly comprised of non-assimilative immigrants or visitors) speaks the same one language is hardly rare.

Japanese in Japan and Russian in Russia (as opposed to Russian in the Soviet Union) are hardly startling monopolies. Bangladesh is another such country where everyone (more than 98% of its people, that is) speaks one language.

As in the other aforementioned countries, there are, of course, Bangladeshis who speak other languages as well — English among some classes and Urdu in some areas. But cutting across class, location and ethnicity, Bangladesh speaks Bengali.

Of course, a country like India — or, for that matter, multi-lingual Pakistan and Switzerland — doesn’t have one language that everyone can speak, let alone be comfortable speaking.

For starters, we don’t have any overwhelming single linguistic group across our much larger country. But the point of a thought-experiment is to make a moderately intelligent ‘What if?’ conjecture.

Which, sitting in Dhaka isn’t much of a conjecture at all. So what happens when one language is spoken and understood by (almost) all? One obvious advantage not to be scoffed at is that everyone understands what everyone else is saying.

This allows a culture — primarily carried by language(s) — to develop more ‘deeply’ and mono-maniacally. The Bengali in Bangladesh is a far more entrenched, thick (in the culinary sense) entity-cum-affair than that in the more multi-lingual and relatively less Bengali-speaking West Bengal (or as Bangladeshis call the Indian state, ‘India’).

Both communication and — popular as well as high — culture have benefited from this fixation.

On a more psychological level, the fact that the rural farmer and the Dhaka entrepreneur can understand each other without intermediaries can be a deeply enthralling affair (even without a Utopian classless society coming into being simply because of a common language).

Does that mean missing out on the great features tom-tommed about a multi-lingual society? The relative lack of celebrating hybrid language forms such as Hinglish is cited as a loss for ‘single-language hegemony’ countries. Really?

For one, it’s not that all Bangladeshis can speak only Bengali. So the mudwrestling of various languages do happen here regularly. But it happens with that massive advantage of one language being there that connects everyone at some significant, fundamental level.

That English has a powerful class aspect to it is hardly confined to Bangladesh or even to the Indian subcontinent. To know English is not only to possess a powerful currency for socio-economic mobility and international access, but as in India and in so many other countries in the world, it is also a status enhancer.

The suspicion with which many Bangladeshis suffering from an inferiority complex view English and resist it is something many complex-ridden Indians (and French people) share.

English has the additional problem of being viewed by many self-styled upholders of culture in Bangladesh as a ‘colonialist’ language, clubbed alongside the more historically anchored ‘Pakistani colonialist’ language of Urdu.

But I suspect that the celebration of multi-culturalism in India, where all Malayalis are unlikely to understand Oriya or all Marathis are unlikely to follow Bhojpuri or all Bengalis are unlikely to speak English, is actually putting on a jolly show out of what’s already on the table.

I would find it incredible if the advantage of all Indians sharing (at least) one language is not apparent.

As I listened to a Hindi film song being blasted and enjoyed by a loud bunch of locals at the Dhaka bar, I figured that the real growing link language in today’s India isn’t actually the global link language English, but it’s Hindi.

And the thought of every Indian being able to speak and understand Hindi makes me shudder with thought-experimental delight.