There are many old-timers in Nagpur who still cannot think of Jaya Bachchan as Bachchan. To them she is still Jaya Bhaduri, who went to the Bengali Girls High School in the late Fifties/early Sixties and whose father Tarun Kumar Bhaduri (though I think he spelt that name with two ‘O’s) was the Chief Reporter of the Nagpur Times for years.
The Bhaduri family were residents of the Bengali-dominated Dhantoli in Nagpur all that time and though Mr Bhaduri later moved out of the city, the association with the winter capital of Maharashtra was long enough to leave a lasting impression on his old-time neighbours.
So I find it strange that Ms Bachchan should now say, “Hum toh UP ke hain aur hum sirf Hindi bolenge.” Admittedly, Nagpur speaks Hindi as well as it does Marathi (the city was after all the capital of the Central Provinces and Berar) but the now defunct Nagpur Times was set up by the Sheorey family (as Maharashtrian as they come) and Anant Gopal Sheorey, its late publisher, is still well-regarded and remembered for taking Nagpur Times places by aligning with Maharashtra long before the States’ reorganisation was formalised in 1960.
While Mr Bhaduri eventually switched to The Statesman and relocated as its correspondent to Bhopal mid-Sixties, I do not believe Ms Bachchan could have entirely forgotten her roots and her early schooling in Nagpur. So I am surprised now at her denial of the language of a State that has sustained not just her and her sisters in their early years but given her husband and her subsequent family everything they own and are today.
I can understand how the Bachchans might be upset at Raj Thackeray who somehow seems to have betrayed Amitabh Bachchan and forgotten how the superstar helped to bail him out over the Ramesh Kini murder case in the Nineties. So the temptation to get even might have been irresistible. But Ms Bachchan’s comment was not as innocent as she is now making it out to be. While it was both thoughtless and irresponsible, it was also deliberate. She was, after all, at a non-political forum where the question of the language she chose to speak in should never have been the issue. But the entirely gratuitous remark about her inability to speak Marathi and “may the people of Maharashtra forgive me” (which is a dead giveaway) was not only just uncalled for and too clever by half, it was also downright provocative.
And what has she achieved except to endanger a whole community of North Indians in Bombay who might be targetted all over again by ruffians both in the
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena? If Ms Bachchan really thought she belonged to Uttar Pradesh, she would have spared a thought for the commoners from that State who do not live behind barbed wires and high compound walls like the Bachchans do and so cannot guard themselves against the wrath of rampaging Shiv Sainiks.
Rather, Ms Bachchan could have subtly made the same point by emphasising on the need to propagate Hindi which, like Marathi, is being fast overtaken by English. She was after all speaking at the music release of a Hindi film (Drona). The others before her had been speaking English, so it would have been a fitting comment not just for Uttar Pradesh but also for Hindi and India as a whole. Because, much as many of us abhor the manner in which Raj Thackeray is thrusting Marathi down the throats of people, there are still enough of us who believe in the beauty of our own languages and wish to prevent their eclipse by English.
I speak five languages to varying degrees of fluency myself and sometimes tend to jumble my sentences with smatterings of all. Nevertheless what is beginning to gall me these days is how Hindi is being written in English — for example, a recent television channel advertised itself at its launch, in English, as “Hindi ka sabse bada entertainment channel” as though there was no script in Hindi or enough words in English to maintain the sanctity of one or the other or both languages! Moreover, most channels in the country go by English names for essentially Hindi programming — I do not see why they cannot find suitably romantic or poetic words in Hindi to evoke the same sentiments or TRPs among the viewers.
But by trying to score brownie points off Raj Thackeray, Jaya Bachchan has played straight into his hands and helped both the Sena and the MNS vindicate their stand against uttar bharatiyas — that they stubbornly refuse to assimilate or integrate and destroy the culture of others. However, I believe Ms Bachchan is no uttar bharatiya; only pretending to be one. She is Bengali with roots in the winter capital of Maharashtra. And if she cannot be true to those origins, she certainly cannot be expected to have the interests of the people of her adopted State at heart.
I would rather uphold the example of Kripashankar Singh (among many others like him) who came to Bombay barely 30 years ago and is yet a fluent Marathi speaker and shows no disrespect to that language. “In fact, my children speak better Marathi than I do,” says Singh, who is saddened by Ms Bachchan’s remark and adds, “Languages are supposed to unite. I do not know why they should be used to divide.”
Even the maverick Govinda Ahuja (who hails from Ms Bachchan’s own world) speaks Marathi well enough to give television interviews in that language and I was pretty impressed by Akshay Kumar, too, who occasionally spoke chaste Marathi to contestants on the Khatron Ke Khiladi show shot in South Africa. Who compelled him to either learn or speak Marathi? And he has lived either abroad or in Delhi most of his life!
But denial of gratitude for things past seems to be a habit with Ms Bachchan. Not very long ago, she was so critical about the Nehru-Gandhis that her illustrious husband was compelled to publicly upbraid her for that insult offered to Sonia Gandhi for no rhyme or reason. And none but Amitabh could have put it better. As he said then, “My father’s relationship with Pandit Nehru dates back to before Jaya or the others (Rahul Gandhi, who had responded to her comment) were even born. So they have no locus standi at all in the matter.”
She was effectively gagged by her own husband then. Who will gag her now? Because, as a Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh, Jaya Bachchan has no locus standi in matters of Maharashtra either and should be restrained from provoking law and order situations as she did this week.
I am not a fan of Amitabh Bachchan’s but in many political situations I find him so much more practical and measured. At a recent book release function (of Shobha De’s Superstar India), where he was chief guest, Mr Bachchan brought the house down with his nuanced and “politically correct” statements before “getting down to the business” of releasing the book. The subtlety of his barbs against Raj Thackeray who had been personally targeting him at the time was not lost on anybody and yet was done with such finesse that I am sure it left Raj simply gnashing his teeth with no adequate response to the sweet reasonableness of the Bachchan remarks. No uttar bharatiya was endangered by Mr Bachchan, no Maharashtrian was insulted.
It is sad that none of that class or finesse has rubbed off on Jaya Bachchan.