Do you know the Hindi word for 'menu'? Can you name the three greatest writers who wrote in the Punjabi language? Can you appreciate Faiz's poetry without the aid of a translator? Unfortunately, neither can I.
Like most of us, I was born to educated middle-class parents whose sole ambition in life was to see their children do well. And, one of the prerequisites of doing well was a good command over the English language. So, having worked tooth and nail on their toddlers, they were overjoyed when my twin sister and I got admitted to a reputed school run by Christian missionaries. Now, if you have been to a Christian missionary school you will know how it is. You pray in English, you curse in English, you think in English, you speak in English and you even dream in English. Class 'monitors' are often asked to 'fine' the students for speaking in any language other than English. You will, of course, learn Hindi formally because it is compulsory, but you are forbidden to speak it within the school premises.
I grew up to be a English speaking snob who frowns upon those who make spelling and grammatical errors.
So, my schooling was responsible for my love of the English language, and my family for my love of books. It just so happened that 99% of those books were written in English.
I grew up to be an English speaking snob who frowns upon those who make spelling and grammatical errors and can't stand the 'texting' language. I will barely be able to read text messages written in Hindi and my proficiency in Punjabi is limited to whatever I have managed to retain after being home-schooled by my dad. Till date, I get cold feet if I have to write or speak formally in Hindi. Punjabi? I will hide my face and run. My accent is just too funny.
I'm assuming that many of you will identify with what I'm saying. Our generation grew up to be in love with everything 'English'.
My Nanaji often reprimanded my mother for our lack of Punjabi language skills. Trips to Nana's house meant that at least at some point in time you would be handed over the Ajit newspaper to read. "How will our 'virsa' (heritage) survive?" Nanaji would say.
My Nanaji often reprimanded my mother for our lack of Punjabi language skills.
To be honest, I did not think much about it until recently. While I did yearn to learn more Indian languages, I was happy and complacent in my English world. My recent move to a southern state in India woke me up from my slumber. Everybody here speaks a language I don't know and they guard it fiercely. They may know English well but among themselves, they will talk in their mother tongue. Add to the situation, a new mother's pangs about giving all the wisdom and knowledge that she can to her child. This led to my eureka moment. My virsa will be lost if I don't make an effort to save it! The onus of saving my culture lies with me.
Your mother tongue in is not merely your mode of communication, it is thousands of years of your cultural heritage. A heritage that comes with its own prose, verse, vocabulary, religion, social customs, medicine and science. If we allow our language to die, we are also letting thousands of years of heritage die. Who will tell the foreigners about the Shastras if we haven't studied them? How will I tell people why my Guru is important to me if I can't understand what it says? How will my children discover the joys of Panchtantra ki Kahaniya or Dinkar's poetry if they have no interest in Hindi?
How will my children discover the joys of 'Panchtantra ki Kahaniya' or Dinkar's poetry if they have no interest in Hindi?
I think I can safely say that most parents give their children a book of the English alphabet before giving them one in Hindi. We simply assume that our kids will learn their mother tongue in the natural course. That may be true, but it is also true that unless we work towards teaching it to them, they will be unable to appreciate the depth and richness of their language and culture. They will not be able to express the innumerable things that English has no words for. They will not be able to address an audience in their mother tongue.
We have to make them proud of who they are, and not just convince them that speaking good English is an important life goal. Learning English is important because it is the language of the world, of science and technology. It has brought humanity closer in many ways. You will be judged harshly if you can't speak and spell in English.
But it is not what defines us. What defines us are our roots. Roots that hold the fabric of our lives together. Roots that provide us our identity. Roots that will be lost if we lose our language.
We owe it to our children to give to them the best of our culture. We must talk to them in their mother tongue.
We owe it to our children to give to them the best of our culture. We must talk to them in their mother tongue. Teach them how to read and write in it. Introduce them to good regional literature that encourages them to read more. Let the school take care of their English, French and German. You take care of their Hindi, Punjabi and Kannada. Occasionally, wear the saree that you've been saving for the 'ethnic days' in office. Your dress is not a 'costume'. It is a part of your being.
I've recently made some feeble attempts at reading and writing in Hindi. I promise I will try writing more often until I learn to express myself meaningfully. My bucket list also includes writing a poem in Punjabi and learning elementary Urdu. Let's see how far I can get. Until then, let's try saving our virsa and make our children fall in love with it.
(Dedicated to my Nanaji, who has spent his entire life trying to teach Punjabi to reluctant souls such as myself)
This is an edited version of a post that first appeared here.