Modern Babel Mumbai downgrades English | india | Hindustan Times
Today in New Delhi, India
Dec 11, 2016-Sunday
-°C
New Delhi
  • Humidity
    -
  • Wind
    -

Modern Babel Mumbai downgrades English

india Updated: Jul 26, 2008 12:27 IST
Jonathan Allen
Highlight Story

Earlier this month, a Mumbai city official stood up to make a presentation on water meters only to be heckled and jeered into silence by his colleagues. He had tried to make his presentation in English.

India's capital of commerce speaks in many tongues but from this month, when it comes to official communications within the municipal authority, English will no longer be one of them.

The decision to ditch English, the global language of business, in favor of Marathi, a language largely restricted to the surrounding state of Maharashtra, has left some officials struggling to express themselves.

"I love Marathi. I am Marathi," said Ashish Shelar, an elected official. "But Mumbai city has become a global city now. The language of Mumbai city has changed."

He recalls being briefly dumbstruck when, in the middle of a Marathi speech, he wanted to urge colleagues not to "cherry-pick" his ideas. "Converting this idea of cherry-picking into Marathi is not an easy thing," he said.

India has long grappled with the problem of Babel. Its constitution recognizes 22 official languages, including English. Mumbai in particular, a cosmopolitan harbour city and a magnet for Indians across the country, is helplessly polyglot.

Movie stars film in Hindi by day, and party in English by night. Diamond dealers and stock traders swap tips in Gujarati. Politicians send their children to English-medium schools, but whip up rallies with speeches in Marathi about the erosion of Maharashtrian culture.

Nativist pride

The move was pushed through without debate by Shubha Raul, the mayor, who is a member of Shiv Sena, a political party that encourages the nativist pride of Marathis and chastises Indian immigrants who fail to behave like good guests in the city.

No city official is against Marathi communication -- although Marathis make up less than half of Mumbai's population the language is understood to some degree by many long-term residents.

But some officials say that while the Marathi of the bazaars is easy to understand, the officialese version of the language is confusing, and a poor substitute for English.

Like the Academie Francaise in Paris, city bureaucrats are increasingly on guard against English loanwords, even when they are more widely understood than the Marathi equivalent.

Many Mumbaikars will know what the Internet is; fewer will immediately grasp the meaning of sanganakiya jaali, which translates as "computer-based net".

"It's very difficult to go through the documents," said Amin Patel, another elected official fighting the move. "I have a translator who translates for me -- this is not the solution."

Proponents of the move say the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is working for the "common man", and so must not waste time speaking anything but his language.

"It's only this urbanised elite which have been ruling the corporation who are opposed," said Jairaj Phatak, the city's municipal commissioner, who is in charge of the BMC's 160-billion rupee budget ($4 billion).

He says the move is not as insular as critics make out. International tenders will still be in English. Mumbaikars can still write to the BMC in Hindi, and expect a response in the same. His press conferences will still be proudly trilingual.

He concedes it will take time for people to get used to typing documents up in Marathi. But he says people are already adapting, and soon the BMC will be back up to full speed.

"I am an employee, I have to obey," said PK Charankar, the deputy municipal commissioner heckled during his water meter talk. He spent two or three days translating his presentation into Marathi before returning to the scene of his embarrassment.

He found his audience had become much more receptive.