The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–College Prize

College Winner: Varun Ramesh, SJC.

 

BEING MULTILINGUAL

  Is something I would not know about. My lingual is solely singular, and for this, I have few regrets.

In a country as diverse as India, this may seem to be a weakness. And for long, that is what I believed it to be. As I progressed into maturity (which for me was when the first signs of balding appeared), I realized it to be something distinct to my being.

I was born speaking Malayalam as my first few words, but I then progressed towards English rapidly. In a classroom where everyone spoke either Urdu or Malayalam, I was at a loss.

I was not academically excellent. I was and still am bearer of the noble title of “Class Retard”.

English was the only strength I had. It was mine, and it was personal. It destroyed the taboo that reading books seemed to have become in modern society, because it seemed to me to be a unique hobby. I read fiction, non-fiction and dirty joke books. I devoured them and the happy world they seemed to bring to me. English became the creator of my parallel existence. And because no one else could speak it as proficiently, I soon found that few could understand me when I let my tongue loose.

It swiftly became a weapon. When a bully tried to target me in Class V, I deterred him with a few choice one-worders that some would consider profane ( the word in question being an accusation on the part of the child’s parents as to whether they truly spawned him). It worked beautifully. He ran from me, sobbing, and scarred for life by a word whose meaning escaped him, but which just sounded nasty. A forbidden sound that carried potent power over his mind.

I scraped through Hindi and Arabic classes by mugging the questions with their answers. It seemed to work well enough. However, when I shifted to India in 2005, I discovered that my education had missed out on something important.

Stepping onto the soil of my motherland from a country that could never call me a citizen (Saudi Arabia), I realized that I was as alien here as I was there. By the Constitution and its founding fathers, I was Indian. But in my very own motherland, by virtue of my lack of a Malayalam-spewing tongue, I was not.

I was alien in Kerala, and I was alien in Karnataka as well. Shopkeepers scorned my pronunciation, classmates mocked my feeble attempts at the vernacular and teachers fled my Hindi answer booklets to escape to foreign shores (true story).

My Hindi was a train wreck of verbal linguistics. Past, present and gender were all merged into one beautiful combination of sounds. It was oddly poetic in its attempt to recreate an English-approximated meaning, but disastrous in implementation.

However, the Indian classroom was far more tolerable to an English environment than the one I endured in Saudi Arabia. I made the friends I never had before, and I discovered that I could talk freely (albeit slower) without being misunderstood. I learnt enough Hindi and Kannada to be able to order groceries and haggle prices. More importantly, I realized that it is better to sound off as a master of one’s own language than to attempt to speak it brokenly in one that was not. When policemen accosted my Dad in the totalitarian government offices of Saudi Arabia, he spoke to them in fluent English, refusing to descend to a broken level of Arabic just to be able to communicate with them. It worked. The cops had to try speak his tongue piecemeal, and not the other way around. It is empowering to hold a greater command of a language than the person you’re addressing, and in a foreign country, this can save your life.

So, it is clear by now that I am firmly in command of only one language: English. But am I multilingual? I can speak brokenly several languages of the world, encompassing Arabic, French, Urdu, German, Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada. In any of the regions native to these languages, I can cope well enough to buy soft drinks and chasten taxi drivers. When I’m in need of an icebreaker in a party, I just let loose with some Hindi. It guarantees laughter (and occasionally violence). A winning smile is the universal tongue, especially when you have a broken tooth.

So what if I cannot speak my mother-tongue? English is the language my brain is coded in – I see no reason to be shamed by that. I respect a man who thinks in Kannada as much as a man who thinks in German, simply because it was not a choice of either to be fluent in any particular language.

If a mother-tongue is all that can connect one to his culture, then I’m afraid it must be a very weak culture. Culture is a way of life. It is more than just a tongue or a colour, it is something endemic to a region that goes beyond the surface of what is culturally apparent.

The biases inherent with language are perhaps what I hate most about the world I live in. To speak Tamil in Karnataka and Kannada in Tamil Nadu is somehow wrong to a populist mindset. It becomes a political issue, and is a fresh way to invite violence upon oneself.

A combination of hate, politics and the hate within politics has created this situation. As every state fights against the “degradation of its culture”, the walls between them grow taller and taller. They forget that once, they stood together, diverse in tongue but united against an enemy that spoke only one – English. They cooperated to overthrow India’s erstwhile rulers, forgetting all barriers and using the enemy’s own tools against them. The “gift” of English to India by the British is potentially what made it so much easier for the nation to unite together against them. It is what the IT boom owes it existence to, for without India’s vast pool of English speakers, BPO’s would have found themselves better located in Egypt. Within our tremendous diversity, we spoke a language completely alien to our culture, but because of it, we understood each other. It was the symbol of both our shackles and our strengths.

My point is that it needn’t have been English. It could’ve been Urdu or Hindi or Mandarin for all that it mattered. The world’s most culturally diverse nation just needed a way to communicate with each other. When the goal is something so simple and yet powerful, how does it matter as to which language is chosen? If everyone on earth could be given one chocolate each, does it matter whether it is a Cadbury or a Kit-Kat, as long as they all receive the chocolate? It may to the manufacturer, but in the case of language, the manufacturer is long dead and lives only in spirit. Few languages exist that are not bastardizations of another.

Being multilingual is doubtless a blessing in India. But to what extent? If your aim is to be a seamless part of every state in the country, you will need a lot more than just your mother-tongue and national language. There will always be elements that wish you spoke their language, and likewise, people who wish you’d stayed in your own state. Only a linguist can truly communicate verbally in every part of India. Between just Hindi and English, one would be hard pressed to communicate in many parts of the country. Though language may not be everything, there is something about being able to communicate with a stranger with the same intimacy with which you communicate fluently with your friends that is part of the appeal of being one with a nation.

I envy the American who can talk to anyone in his country with the assurance that they will understand them completely, at least on a lingual basis. It seems to me to be a vital part of forming a  unified country. I don’t believe that everyone should be forced to speak one language, but I wish it were already the case that we spoke one tongue. The inability to communicate with shopkeepers in states new to me seem like such a tragedy, when they can be so rich a pool of stories and knowledge. Everyone in India has a great tale to tell, but put them all in one room and most would fall on deaf ears. Multilinguism isn’t a solution to unifying a disparate and vastly divided country. You have elements such as the Shiv and Ram Sena’s that already promote disparity and separation between elements. With their every outburst, the idea of India dies a little more.

By speaking only English, I am already alienated by a vast part of the nation. It is a deficiency I cannot help. Just as a giraffe cannot juggle (much), I cannot fully grasp another language. It is a fact I have come to accept after years of struggle with various languages of the world. To speak but a little of any of them brings mockery upon me, and I tire of being the jester of a group. I would rather reign in English than serve in Hindi, so to speak.

Even so, India has been accepting to me. Random strangers have given me their stories, engaging me in conversation. Somehow, strangers seem to connect with me. I have been serenaded by hearty tales that I did not understand so many times that I’ve lost count. Conductors, Auto-drivers, shopkeepers, fruit-vendors, alcoholics, policemen, the list goes on. So many people have engaged me in conversation, and divulged to me intimate details of their lives. I mostly only comprehend the gist of what they’re saying, but what a joy it would be to know every word.

Indians have so much to say, and they will say it so freely. I do not look much like a local, yet the locals can always bond with me. What hurts is when I do not understand what a person tries to tell me so openly. I wish I could understand every word of what my countrymen are saying, and not one word less. I may be uni-lingual but I am still Indian.

 

 

 

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