Until I was 16 and went to university, I had hardly ever used English for social discourse. My parents came from Kumaoni/Hindi-speaking homes and my writer mother Shivani, though a polyglot educated at Shantiniketan, saw to it that all four of her children spoke Kumaoni or Hindi at home. To this day we speak to each other in English only out of courtesy to non-Kumaoni/Hindi speakers who may be present. And of course, like most Hindi speakers, my everyday Hindi is liberally laced with English, Urdu, Punjabi and Kumaoni, and with flecks of various dialects like Awadhi, Bundelkhandi and Brij. When I have to speak English to my natal family, it still feels somewhat stilted, like eating from a thali using a knife and fork.
With so many languages and dialects as Hindi’s linguistic sponsors, I found it somewhat amusing to read Renee Ranchan’s article on this page, It’s theek hai (November 22). Ranchan’s piece was on how real Hindi was no longer ‘Hindi’, even among her servants, upstaged and/or polluted as the language is today by the Queen’s English.
Actually, the conversational Hindi that millions use has never been a monoglot’s country with sealed borders. It has always been a delightful melting pot. A vast number of languages and dialects have flown into it and have fermented and released their aromas in Hindi for centuries. In fact, ceaseless language acquisition has been one of the greatest adventures of the last century of Hindi. This has given us priceless works — from writers like Munshi Lalloo Lal of Fort William, Devki Nandan Khatri, Premchand, Amritlal Nagar to Manoharshyam Joshi, Kamleshwar, Mohan Rakesh, Nirmal Verma and countless others.
Learning new words all the time and shaping them to suit Hindi’s grammatical structure (like Sharad Joshi’s ‘Hum to narbhasay gaye’ — ‘We became nervous!’) serves to further intensify the pleasures and pressures of a Hindi writer’s creative journey that may take him or her to the television, the radio or even the Wikipedia. Then there are the unexpected linkages between sounds and objects and the delight in the natural rhythms of dialects being constantly uncovered. Could Omkara’s jaunty lyrics like “Na gilaaf na lihaaf…” have been written in any other language? Or Sholay’s dialogues?
Of course, English attracts the young. Why should it not? In the age of the Net and the iPod, the young will want to venture into the dominant cultures surrounding them. And you may be sure, having lost their linguistic virginity with khadi boli and Urdu, the Hindi beltwallahs of today will also not stop at English, but go on to other global languages. For them, language is not just a matter of words, but an invitation to fly to another exotic place. And no, it does not spell ‘death for the mother tongue’, but encourages more colourful phrases and a greater ability to express oneself to a larger number of people.
I am now convinced, more than ever before, that my mother was right. Speaking more than two languages not only constantly extends the boundaries of one’s vocabulary, but it also sharpens the mind and unlocks children’s latent creativity in no small measure. Research has also confirmed time and again that bilingual children have higher IQs than monoglots.
It is always tempting to paint and treat a majority language as a brute and a bully and to double over in delight at any signs of weaknesses it may show. But just as children don’t see the lines between themselves and the world, Hindi speakers (and writers) do not distinguish between different languages or harbour hostility towards other vernaculars. They are all mother tongues and worthy of our utmost love and respect. The crunch comes when people begin to politicise the issue and stigmatise all Hindiwallahs as grubby vote-seeking politicians, which most are not.
In Allahabad, where I went to college, some of the most respected professors of the English department, like Firaq Sahib, PC Gupta and Amrit Rai, were famous writers in Hindi and Urdu, not in English. The silos our present-day English and Hindi writers work in, just did not exist for them. There is a lovely story about Firaq Sahib, who once chose to pull up one archetypal sahib for refusing to speak anything else but the most chaste form of English with a ‘propah’ British accent.
“Bhai Bhagwat Dayal,” Firaq Sahib is said to have drawled one day, as the hapless professor held forth in the staff room one day, “Hum sochtey hain tum ek baar phir vilayat ho aao.” (Brother Bhagwat Dayal, I think you need to visit England once again.)
“Kyonki ab to tumhari English meri bhi samajh mein aaney lagi hai.” (Because even I can now understand your English now).
Caught between so much derision and linguistic hostility, a vernacular writer, instead of asphyxiating over hostile comments from the other side, can perhaps trip his opponents best like Firaq Sahib with incisive wit and lazy irony. The language will do the rest.
Mrinal Pande is Editor, Hindustan