Language as doorway

Sunday, 5 January 2014 - 1:36pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: DNA

I grew up in a home steeped in Vaishnavite culture. Prayers, rituals, stories were all recited, conducted and narrated in our mother tongue: Gujarati. Evenings were a treat. My father would read from Bakor Patel. My primary education was at a “propah” girl’s school which operated, quite ironically, out of a palace belonging erstwhile royalty from a region in Gujarat.

Soon, I began speaking and writing in English. At home, I spoke in a new language: a patois peppered with words that were part Gujarati, part English, in diction deemed correct by our Catholic teacher. In college, I studied English literature.  With time, I thought in, wrote and spoke mostly in English. 

In a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, it didn’t seem as though anything were amiss. One day, on meeting the late Bhadrakant Zaveri, I was struck by the fact that I had lost the ability to read and write in Gujarati – an ability that I had as a child.

It was a moment of loss.  When I came to live in Ahmedabad, I found my cadence slipping back happily into the delicate hinterland of a familiar territory. My mother tongue, still alive, was rearing its head, whispering to me that it had only chosen to remain dormant in the face of a colonizing language.

Strangely, it is only in India that we find people of various generations peppering their speech with English words, mangled or otherwise – as though, it were a matter of pride. In France they speak French. In Turkey they speak Turkish and so on…but Indians speak in hundreds of languages and dialects, some of which are now classified as endangered, and many of which are bastardized. 

Our problem, if one chooses to view it as that, is compounded by the very fact that we are a nation with diverse sensibilities and linguistic differences. This was once a matter of pride. In recent years though, language has become a separator. A new parochialism, based on false regional supremacy, ensures that in some regions language is a tool for divisive tactics.

This weekend at the ongoing Gujarat Literary Festival, I found myself listening intently to eloquent speakers who shared their views on the importance of the mother tongue. 

Although their speeches contained words that eluded me, I was struck, for the second time by the poetics of the mother tongue. As well as recognition: that to embellish a language with nuances and to reveal its inherent poetry, one needs to know it intimately.

A few weeks ago I visited the Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul. Built around Turkish writer Orhan Pamukh’s eponymous novel, it is a museum that records the culture and a time period in the history of the writer’s country. Curated objects evoke emotions and lay bare the inner spaces of some lives, and through those the lives of many. However, despite translation, it was difficult to enter a world punctuated by words whose exact meaning is difficult to capture, even in a more universal language such as English.

  I was struck, again, by the fact  that to feel, write and speak with some measure of dignity and poetry, one must be conversant with its moistness. That I would not, at this point, be able to write the above in my mother tongue, fills me with regret. A mother tongue is a marker, a doorway — it allows you the privilege of belonging.

Anupa Mehta
The author is a published writer and an independent arts consultant

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