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Are we speaking the same language?

mumbai Updated: Feb 14, 2010 01:13 IST
Sweta Ramanujan
Sweta Ramanujan
Hindustan Times
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On Sunday evenings, Shailesh Satam and his friends gather at the katta, or parapet, in Rawalpada, Dahisar to chat. His friends are mostly migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat.

Of late, Satam has begun insisting they speak in Marathi. His north Indian friends, the latest targets of the city’s two nativist political parties, have slowly begun speaking the language.

“We expect outsiders to know the language, but how do they learn?” asked Satam, who happens to be a member of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which began the attacks on north Indians.

“I felt it was necessary to help them. Friendly conversation is one of the easiest ways.”

Six months ago, Satam went on to set up the Atharva Marathi Speaking Training Institute in Dahisar. It has 12 students.

Satam, is not doing this on behalf of his political party but in his individual capacity. His valiant but modest effort highlights how little political parties and the government, despite all their rhetoric, are doing to help non-natives, whom they revile so much, to learn the language.

Institutions like the University of Mumbai and the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh are doing their bit, but their efforts match neither the demand for learning Marathi nor the standards set by institutes teaching foreign languages.

Yet the government, the Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray’s party want non-native speakers magically to learn the language.

The state government recently reiterated a two-decade rule that those wanting taxi permits should have a working knowledge of Marathi.

The past year has seen several debates over language, with the Shiv Sena and its breakaway group insisting that everything, from names of establishments to official communication, should be in Marathi.

So what are they doing to help people learn?

“We don’t conduct any courses,” said an amused Shirish Parker, the spokesperson for the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Then how does the party expect people to learn?

“Arre, how do people working in Chennai learn Tamil?” asked Parker. “There, there is social pressure na, so people learn on their own. That’s what we expect of them here.”

The Shiv Sena, which is the self-appointed flag-bearer of Marathi culture, claims it does not have the infrastructure to educate the masses.

“That is the duty of the ministry of cultural affairs,” said Sena spokesperson Rahul Narwekar. “Even the Constitution says the state should do it. On our part, we hold cultural programmes and promote the language through dialogue and reading material.”

The government, so far, helps only minority educational institutions conduct foundation courses in Marathi. It has nothing for adult, non-native speakers.

Minister of State for Cultural Affairs, Fauziya Khan, said the government “would think about it” if institutions teaching Marathi approached it for aid.

Limited options

A quick search on the Internet does not throw up too many reliable results in terms of institutes in Mumbai teaching Marathi.

There are some limited, age-old options one can rely on.

The landmark Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh teaches the language for as little as Rs 100 a year. This includes processing fees, study material and “a cup of tea during lectures” as Suhasini Kirtikar, a teacher with the Sangh for 40 years, puts it.

Kirtikar, a former college principal, says the Sangh is not a commercial enterprise, but a social project.

The Sangh uses a sound syllabus created by Ramesh Tendulkar, cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar’s father. But its delivery needs modern pedagogical methods and a battery of trained teachers.

The University of Mumbai also offers courses — general ones but also specialised ones for companies and doctors.

It gets 10 to 15 students a year for its one-year certificate course in Marathi.

“They are mostly working professionals who need to know Marathi at their workplace and some who just want to learn the language,” said Prof Vasant Patankar, who heads the university’s Marathi department.

For those who cannot fit classes into their schedule, there is www.marathimitra.com that offers free Marathi tutorials.

“We started it in 1998-’99 when we realised that non-resident Indians from the community were finding it difficult to get the next generation to learn Marathi,” said one of the founders, Satish Kamatkar (39), a senior executive in a software company in the U.S. “But we soon found that 60 to 70 per cent of the people who logged on were from India.”

The website has 6,000 registered learners. Over the years, queries from non-Marathi speaking people increased. Some of these were Europeans adopting children from Maharashtra or foreigners visiting the state for work.

People do want to learn

There is indeed considerable demand for courses in Marathi among non-Maharashtrians, but clearly their options are very limited.

Being able to speak the language of the state one lives in is, after all, the fastest way for a non-native to fit in.

Fifty-one-year-old Kathak exponent Bharti Agrawal, for example, learns at the Sahitya Sangh. She feels thrilled when she can hold a conversation in Marathi with her driver.

“I wanted to learn Marathi because I live in Mumbai,” said Agrawal, originally from Delhi. “And I want to be able to write about Kathak in Marathi newspapers.”

The irony is that some non-natives have been able to learn foreign languages more easily after coming to Mumbai but not Marathi.

Agarwal’s Sangh classmate, Sunita Chitrapu (37), can read and write Japanese.

“But when we receive government circulars,” said Chitrapu who teaches at a mass media institute, “We have to run after our peons to read them for us. It was shameful.”

Chitrapu, a Telugu brought up in Tamil Nadu, also felt she was missing out on a lot of great Marathi cinema because she did not understand the language. “That’s why I decided to learn.”

But even these limited options have value.

Susan Tase (47), a British national married to a Maharashtrian, learnt Marathi at the Sangh for four years.

“I live in Vile Parle (E) [a Maharashtrian-dominated suburb] and I wanted to be able to converse with my in-laws in Marathi,” she said.

Suhas Limaye, who taught at the Sangh for seven years, said there is growing interest in Marathi, especially because of the pro-Marathi political movement.

“But nothing is being done by the government,” he said.