Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mother Tongue

I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Jawaharlal Nehru

It’s an old horse, mostly flogged by politicians to win votes or voters’ brownie points. The debate about English versus Indian languages as the medium of instruction in our schools. And I write today conscious about the fact that “convent-educated” continues to be one of the most the coveted attributes of a prospective bride, next only to “fair”. That the “right” English accent can still open many doors that no “desi” accent can including getting you that fancy-salary paying call center job. That without the knowledge of English, higher education as it exists today will be impossible. That I myself am a product of such an education; reading, writing and doing all of my conscious thought in English. I also write wondering why this debate should exist at all. Because, for one, isn’t it obvious that children should be taught to use their minds and their hearts in their own mother tongue? Secondly, in a country where even the “anghuta-chaap” can fluently speak at least 2 languages, why should it not possible to have multi lingual education? And in case it isn’t obvious, too many research studies conducted over the years clearly show that bilingual children perform better in school when the school effectively teaches the mother tongue.

But since the debate exists, let’s get that out of the way first. As you must have guessed by now, I’m throwing in my lot with the Indian languages.
So, am I saying that the medium of instruction in our schools should be in an Indian language? Ultimately and primarily – yes. And before everyone gasps in disgusted astonishment, it won’t do harm to just look around at all the world around us. Every single “developed” economy – and let’s not go too far away and stick to the Asian tigers – speaks, reads and writes in its own native tongue.
And for the ones muttering about how difficult it is to undo centuries of British colonization that branded the English language as the superior-sahib’s language into the psyche of the nation, and how it’s virtually impossible to have one official language in a country which speaks 14 languages and over 3000 dialects, let me remind them that Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong were once British colonies. And Singapore has not 1 but 4 official languages of which one is Tamil. Iincidentally, the name Singapore was derived from the Sanskrit simha (lion) and pura (city).

Besides, some of the greatest Indian minds that shaped not only modern India but also the world were people who had their primary education in their mother tongue and later went on to become proficient in English. I could reel off a long and impressive list but perhaps just one name will do the trick.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

“Up to the age of 12 all the knowledge I gained was through Gujarati, my mother tongue. Then I entered a high school…. Everything had to be learnt through English. The tyranny of English was so great that even Sanskrit or Persian had to be learnt through English, not through the mother tongue. And let me confess to the reader that in spite of all my love for the mother tongue, I do not to this day know the Gujarati equivalents of the technical terms of Geometry, Algebra and the like. I know now that what I took four years to learn of Arithmetic, Algebra, Chemistry and Astronomy, I should have learnt easily in one year, if I had not to learn them through English but Gujarati.… I must not be understood to decry English or its noble literature. The columns of HARIJAN are sufficient evidence of my love of English. But….India has to flourish in her own climate, and scenery, and her own literature. We and our children must build on our own heritage. If we borrow another, we impoverish our own. We can never grow on foreign victuals. I find daily proof of the increasing and continuing wrong being done to the millions by our false de-indianizing education……”

Gandhi writing in HARIJAN, July 1938

Now let me get to the points that I really want to make.

First, that irrespective of what is the “medium” of instruction in school (and we can’t change the system overnight), the responsibility of teaching our children our mother tongue rests first with us parents. And I don’t mean teaching them to just be able to read and write it. We mistake language to be just an alphabet, a script, a conglomeration of words that is a conduit for communication and information.

When in fact, it is so much, much more beyond that. It is literature and music and theatre. It is our great epics and folklore. Listen to a tale from the Panchatantra in an Indian language and then listen to it in English. It is like eating a dosa or a chapatti with a knife and fork. It is with what we feel the summer heat sear our skin, smell the rain’s first kiss on the earth, taste a mango, hear Krishna’s flute, see the colour of his beautiful skin reflected in the night sky. It is our mother’s voice softly crooning us to sleep. It carries in it the fragrance of this land. It is the mirror in which we see and recognize who we are, defined not just by this lifetime but the thousands of lifetimes of our ancestors. It is as much who we are as is the colour of eyes that we inherited from a grandmother or the walk that we inherited an uncle. So how can we leave the responsibility of introducing our children to themselves to someone else?

Second, I plead the case for our mother tongues for one other very important reason. Because they are some of the most musical, most beautiful, most evocative, richest languages in the world, not to mention the most ancient. How can we not give this precious gift to our children?

I wish I could spout passages of prose or poetry to make my point, but I am barely literate, only being able to speak but not read or write my mother tongue and my Hindi comes largely from Hindi films and Hindi film songs. (Which isn’t all that bad because fortunately they come from writers like Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhinavi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Rajinder Kishan.) And dim though it is, even by that flickering flame, what I see is spectacular, breathtaking, enthralling. Languages vast and generous like the river Ganges in where there are a hundred choices to describe one thing, each word meaning the same yet not the same.

Aakash, aasman, amber, gagan, digh is all “sky”, yet each have a different shade of meaning. Shyam is evening but also Krishna and his beautiful colour. “Piya ” and “saajan” is lover, but the great bhakti poets of our land – Meerabai, Kabir and Surdas – also used it to mean God. Words so concentrated and packed with meaning and expression that in just one word, you can tell a life story, describe the universe. Perhaps that is why on the one hand, we have sahasranamas for every god and on the other just…..“Om”. And perhaps that is why the Sanskrit lexicon is is called Amar Kosh – eternal treasury.

Can you think of a more beautiful way of saying “mother” than “janani”? And can you find an equivalent word in English that is an adequate translation? For that matter, can you translate “Man tadapata hari darshan ko aaj”? Have you ever wondered why English subtitles in Indian films are so ridiculous? How, for example do you translate “jeevan se bhari teri aanken majboor karain jeene ke liye”? Or “chaudavin ka chand ho ya aftab ho”? How would you explain “sringaar rasa” to somebody who knows only English? Or what Tulsi Das meant when he said, “Tumaka chalat Ramachandra, baaje paijaniya”? Or Meera Bai when she pleaded “Hari tum haro jan ke peed…”? Or Purandaradasa when he begged, “Karuniso ranga karuniso, Krishna karuniso….”?

Many, many years ago, in my penultimate year in school, a wondrous thing happened to me. Her name was Sister David and she was my English Literature teacher. I still remember the class and the poets – Robert Frost and T S Eliot and William Blake – and the poems.

“Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it is likely to go better….”

And I still have that poetry book. Because that day I fell in madly, deeply and irrevocably in love with the English language, a love has not faded to this day. And all that preeti, pyaar, prem, lagan, mohabbat for English – even though today I write against it – started from the wonderful introduction that I had to its great literature and poetry. It led me to its songs and cinema and theatre. I wish I had met such a teacher of Kannada or Hindi Literature. I wish that there could be such a teacher of Indian language in every school.

Perhaps a vain hope because thousands of “English-medium” institutions are sprouting up all over the country even as we speak. Sadly, given the quality of the English taught in a majority of them, most of these children will be both inarticulate and for all purposes illiterate in both languages. Look at the average advertising slogan and you will see how dangerously close we are to that.

“Their vocabulary in the mother tongue is so limited that they cannot always finish their speech without having recourse to English words and even sentences.” Gandhiji wrote this almost 70 years ago but it applies to most of the current generation of Hindi film stars. And many VJ’s and TV show hostesses speak Hindi with an accent that the even the average Angrez baddie in a Hindi film would be ashamed to speak in.

Yet, a century ago, there were Indians with a different vision of things. Tagore founded Shantiniketan, Rukmini Arundale Kalakshetra and it is said that the great physicist, S. N. Bose fought for the introduction of Bengali as the medium of instruction and as Professor in Calcutta University in 1945, taught physics to the postgraduate students in Bengali.

You see, it’s really very simple. How can we have self-respect when we don’t know who we are? How can we raise generations of proud, confident Indians if they don’t know who they are, who cannot don’t read their own poetry and song, who haven’t been touched by the magic of their mother’s tongue? Who know their Mahabharata and Ramayana through assembly line serialization on television and English translations, who never fallen in love with Jayadeva’s Geet Govindam or Bhartrihari’s fabulous love poetry? Who have never seen a Yakshagana performance? It is not enough to declare Tamil and Kannada and Sanskrit as “classical” languages. They must roll off our tongues as easily as our mother’s name. In other words, they must truly become our mother tongues.

I end on a light-hearted note, but one that illustrates the exquisite subtlety of our languages. One of my mother’s closest friends was a Punjabi lady who was eager to make a good impression on her Kannadiga boss. So, after much tutoring from my mother, she went off to work one morning armed with a complete, freshly polished Kannada sentence. When her boss came in, she went up to him and proudly declared, “Neenu beku.” Translation : I want you. All that the poor lady wanted to ask for was water or ‘neeru” which slipped just by one syllable and became “neenu” - you. My mother says that it took the boss a long while to recover….