LANGUAGE, US AND SOCIETY- The confusion between culture and communication

This essay was submitted as an assignment for a course at YIF. These also were thoughts I had in my mind since long and finally, got an opportunity to write them down. I wrote this essay with a friend of mine whose story I have omitted from this essay.

Through this essay, we have attempted to look at the role of language in our personal lives and in the society we live in. We have primarily used the paper, ‘Decolonising the mind ’, by a Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. We start by narrating our own tales, then looking at the larger society in itself.

THE TALE

I was six years old when we moved from Chandigarh to Nagpur. My father had around four years left with Indian Air Force, which he eagerly wanted to leave. Chandigarh was his longest posting and we came back to Nagpur, only to realize the language crisis I was facing, a kind of existential crisis in itself. In Chandigarh, I spoke mostly Hindi, because I needed to. Coming back to Nagpur I realized I cannot speak Marathi properly. My grandfather often used to correct me, the pronunciation, and the grammar. I was fortunate enough, unlike other defence kids, to not face that existential and linguistic crisis again. Living in Nagpur meant I was comfortable both in Hindi and Marathi; adding to that, English, which was the language of instruction in school.

In school, all teachers were Marathi-speaking; nearly all of my classmates were Marathi-speaking. So, English became the language we read and wrote but Marathi became the language we spoke. Other than English and Marathi, I also studied Hindi for three years, and Sanskrit for three years. All this confusion ensured that I could never be comfortable in writing Marathi, I enjoyed reading it, and I even used to compose poems in Marathi but somehow I couldn’t manage to score well in exams. In matriculation, I scored the highest marks in English and Sanskrit in my class, but my lowest score was in the language I loved more, Marathi.

This is not just my tale, but a tale of so many students across the country. Speaking English is a privilege, a privilege not many Indians have. Knowing three languages is a privilege in a country where a significant population can speak just one language, the mother tongue. Many of those who speak can’t even read and write the very language they speak. Language is not just a medium of communication but it is an insight into the culture. I studied in a state-board school, which ensured Marathi was compulsory to us.  I read poems of Sant Tukaram, Kusumagraj, Grace, Anil, etc. I read excerpts from famous Marathi works like Yayati, and Chhava. Marathi was an insight into the very society I was living in. Sadly, after school, my usage of Marathi reduced significantly. It remained a language I spoke. I was never comfortable speaking English, primarily because it was not needed. The songs I listened to, the movies I watched were mostly Hindi and Marathi. I started watching English movies after I joined college; partially because the movies were good and also because of peer pressure. The dominance of English was complete in a way.

COLONISATION, CASTE, CLASS and LANGUAGE

English, a colonial language, has become primary means of communication for an urban-educated Indian. As Ramchandra Guha also points out, there is a dearth of bilingual or multi-lingual intellectuals in our country because English has dominated our academic sphere and also because we no longer have time to read and write in two different languages. English has become a professional language, while regional languages have become more personal to us. English is a medium through which we look at the world, understand other cultures.

The dominance of one language over another has led to many languages being threatened, dialects getting extinct. A whole culture is lost with death of every language. Imposition of one dialect over another makes it difficult to read and write a language which one speaks differently. Nagpuri Marathi, for example, has borrowed from Hindi and the dialect is heavily influenced by Hindi. Puneri Marathi on the other hand is considered ‘shuddha’ or pure and therefore becomes Marathi taught to everyone in school. The emphasis on one dialect, emphasis on proper pronunciation and grammar as per one particular dialect means that most of the art forms will be in that dialect, whether it is music, films or television serials. Marathi film and television industry revolves around Pune and Mumbai, propagating only the shuddha dialect of Marathi. Thus, what you listen to, read, or watch is not what you speak, creating a dissonance within a language.

Caste and Class, rural-urban divide adds to these existing dimensions. Puneri Marathi was primarily the language of the officials in Maratha Empire, of which Pune was the capital. Most of the officials were Brahmins, who could read, write and speak shuddha Marathi. Depending on whether you can pronounce certain words or letter, your class or caste becomes evident. This hegemony over language transcends to classical music which has again been dominated by upper castes and primarily Brahmins. The emphasis on certain dialect, pronunciation, meant that only Brahmins and other upper castes got access to learning classical music. Of course caste bias does play its own role but emphasis on shuddha bhasha adds to it. This hegemony is also witnessed in much-acclaimed Marathi theatre which for a long time was controlled by Brahmins. The Marathi Brahmin community that takes pride in its own culture of theatre, music and arts seldom realizes the inherent caste biases present in it.

Seeta Swayamvar
A still from Seeta Svayamvar, the first Marathi play.

Language is a carrier of culture, which dialect and which culture is an important question to be asked when we talk of Indian society. Carnatic music, Hindusthani classical music, theatre and dance-forms like Bharatnatyam all came to be dominated by upper-castes because they had the privileged access to it but also because they controlled the language, they could read and write. Folk songs, folk music will often have a dialect that upper castes will not speak. In Maharashtra, shaheer sangeet became an instrument of propagating Dalit movement, the dialect they speak will never be found in textbooks, in classical songs, or theatre. The new millennium has seen new kind of movies which are open to different dialects and music and have won national awards. In Marathi cinema, music directors like Ajay-Atul, Avdhoot Gupte have popularized songs which are not in the dominant dialect. In Punjab, the influence of western music is visible as rap singers like Hard Kaur, Honey Singh are increasingly gaining popularity. An amalgamation of Hindi, Punjabi and English in popular songs also goes with the aspirations of today’s youth who seek to fit into the global culture. Rock and Indie pop bands like The Raghu Dixit Project, Adwaita, and Asmi mix the local languages and dialects with Hindi and English. The youth resonates with this form of music because it depicts the fluidity of languages even in the daily lives of urban community in India.

CONCLUSION

English is seen as a language which will help shed caste bias and a language that will ensure the upward mobility. Urban Indian languages are fluid as inter-mingling of different communities and cultures have added to the language one speaks. But there is an increasing dissonance between what one reads, writes, watches, listens to and speaks. This lack of cultural connect has affected many of us. We end up knowing more about the world than our own society. As we increasingly read, write, listen and speak English we get more divorced from our own culture. English becomes the medium of our communication and becomes an approach to our own culture from an oriental point of view. Chetan Bhagats and Arundhati Roys of Indian English literature will not be known to a peasant in Karnataka, Bihar or any other part of India. Similarly even within the local languages, supremacy of one dialect over another will cause the school children from villages and lower classes to feel alienated. The language and culture they have experienced is not visible through the textbooks they learn, or the movies they watch. So the larger question that remains is should our education be English-centric or local culture-centric. Also, when we say local culture and language, whose culture and language are we speaking of?

 

Kanjar

Tired and exhausted after a memorable sojourn in Lansdowne, we reached Kotdwara more than a couple of hours before the train’s scheduled departure. We had watched a sunrise, a sunset and a wonderful ‘moonrise’ all in a day. The sight of the rising moon from behind the mountains was pretty unique for all of us. I was relaxing on a bench in the station, enjoying the pleasant breeze when Rahul called me outside to eat an omelet. I was a bit hungry and bored as well, wondering what to do for another hour. Hari and I finished eating the omelets we ordered pretty quickly. Another omelet was on offer for Rahul who joined us as we finished our omelets. Raghav and Hari soon left after that. Two girls, shabbily dressed, unkempt hair, approached us and asked Rahul for ‘anda’. Rahul, being a samaritan that he is, gave them whatever was remaining in his plate. As they were eating the anda, we inquired about their names, where do they live. I felt to ask the usual question, ‘School kyon nahi jaate?’, which I realized was meaningless. They lived near the station, didn’t have a proper shelter. They asked, “Aur chahiye,” as Rahul emptied his purse and asked the vendor to make two more omelets, which they took and left immediately.

We were about to leave when a young man came and told us that what we did was good. Even he on a daily basis gave them 10-20 rupees or something to eat. Rahul then asked how does he know these kids. The man told us that their parents are Kanjars, they don’t do anything other than drinking, and the mother is probably into prostitution; they ate bones of dead animals and even humans. We were shocked to here this and we could sense the casteist tone in the language. The man was a taxi driver who lived in Kotdwara and often ferried between Dehradun and Lansdowne. Rahul then asked him his name. He didn’t reply for a few seconds and then came near us and slowly uttered his name, “Mohammad“. We were taken aback by this. Why did he take so long? Why did he whisper? We told him, ” Are bhaiyaa, aisa kya hai. Dharam-jaat mai vagaire hum vishwaas nahi rakhte, aap bhi mat rakho.” He told us that he was drunk and Muslims do not drink. I told him it’s no big deal to drink. We asked him not to drink and drive which is risking not just his life but passengers’ lives as well. Mohammad married early at the age of 17, falling in love with the girl who was just fifteen when she married him. He has three kids, all of them go to school and he has been married for seventeen years! We were both sad and happy hearing his tale. We took his number, introduced ourselves, where we came from and told him if we come back we’ll surely call him.

IMG_20160324_214622_HDR

We went back to station, the train still had not arrived. We both were disturbed by whatever happened. Neither of us knew what the word Kanjar exactly meant but we knew it was casteist. We googled it to realize indeed it was. We came to know how a British act branded the whole Kanjar tribe as criminal under Criminal Tribes Act. A day before that I was reading Amita Baviskar’s book, ‘In the belly of the river’, where she described how colonialists viewed the tribals. They regarded those who lived in villages and cities civilized enough but the tribals were ‘uncivilized’ for them and they found it difficult to control them. Kanjar over a period of time became a curse word in North India and Pakistan. We both felt sad, how Indian society could not accommodate these tribals. No wonder they were regarded as Rakshasas in mythology, dark-skinned, bone-eating people who did nothing in life. They were savage, rakshasas.

The irony was that a Muslim was talking about Kanjars and both could not see how they both are oppressed. Oppressed over the years by the very society they live in. A large population of Muslims in India live in ghettos and live under poverty. Tribals have faced exclusion since centuries and they continue to face exclusion. Some of the reserved seats often go empty in premier institutions of the country. The question which we often don’t ask is how many of them even get through primary schools. What must they be facing studying in a school, when generations before them did not even have access to these facilities.

The train arrived and we left Kotdwara, with the wonderful memories in Lansdowne and that one conversation in Kotdwara. It left an impact on us. It did.

Jai Bhim.