We’re glad that we didn’t bring up the issue and parliamentarians did themselves. For pucca types, speaking propah English has always been an important mattah. (Ask Jaswant Singh.) But what about speaking Hindustani with the right inflexions in place, especially if you happen to be an honourable member of the Indian Parliament? The Congress MP from Behrampur in West Bengal, Adhir Chowdhury, is no Atal Bihari Vajpayee when it comes to speaking in Hindi. But there he was on Wednesday, patriotically inclined to speak not in India’s ‘link language’ English, or in his mother tongue Bengali, but in the tongue that he thought best to suit his purpose inside the confines of Lok Sabha in Nay Dilli: Hindi. Nothing wrong with that at all, considering Hindi has lost its old ‘dehati’ image for most non-north Indians thanks to cinema and sports. The problem was that Mr Chowdhury’s Hindi, while he did his job of listing papers in Parliament, was wracked with a bad accent — somewhat reminiscent of Pranab Mukherjee’s apocryphal mispronunciation of the word ‘seat’ at the United Nations long ago. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, no character from Hum Log himself, had to react to Mr Chowdhury’s efforts by saying that the dear MP’s Hindi was “as good or bad as my own”.
But just in case we are accused of only focusing on Bengalis grappling with Hindi, there was more to follow. Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, sensing that it was unofficial ‘Elocution Day’ in Parliament on Wednesday, requested that he speak in English. After doing his deed,
Mr Yadav asked what his parliamentary colleagues thought of his efforts. Once again, the Speaker spoke frankly: “It almost sounds like English.”
In a way, such lightheartedness over matters of accents are heartening. It shows that we, as a nation, have come a long way since the ‘Language Wars’ of the past, when speaking Hindi was a nahin-nahin, especially for south Indian politicians. Identity politics, even if we take the anachronistic example of Raj Thackeray, has moved away from purity of language to what can only be called anomalous ‘dirty tricks’. But outside the sphere of politics, middle-class India’s fetish for speaking English without the ‘regional accents’ hasn’t totally vanished. While a Frenchman can speak Anglais a leetle haltingly without anyone sniggering, the desi with a thick accent still raises brows. So it’s nice that Hindi is also getting a similar snob value among our countrymen. We await Rahulji to say a few words in Hindi in Parliament very soon.