Our betraying tongues
Why does the privileged millennial generation think that vernaculars are beneath it?
I’m walking down the halls with a good friend of mine. Our school shoes, scrubbed clean the night before, squeak against the marble floor. Chatter swirls through the air around us, students push past us with files and smiles and worried looks on their faces. The corridor is abuzz with a sea of checked pattern, the occasional flash of colour signalling a teacher, around whom crowds an oasis of oddly dignified children.
Our cultural identities are not mounds of putty, to be shaped and changed and reformed at our will. They are faded gemstones, smothered within us, waiting to be acknowledged
“You know,” my friend begins, grinning already, “Last night, my cousin and I were watching this movie and an ad came on. I tried to mimic what they were saying and he just burst out laughing at my Hindi!”
I smile back, picturing it easily. “Don’t worry dude, that happens to me all the time. I never speak Hindi around my brother – he loses it whenever I try!”
“I mean I can understand it,” she cuts in, “but speaking it – I just sound ridiculous!”
A last laugh, and the topic of our conversation turns to other things. The exam paper next week. The new Marvel movie. Lunch.
Masses and classes
Later, when I’m supposed to be studying, my mind drifts back to the now somewhat faded amusement. But… why? Why couldn’t I speak Hindi? Why not as well as my brother? Obviously, my brain responded, it’s because he plays cricket. He’s surrounded by a team of people who don’t always speak English. So, he speaks Hindi all the time. You don’t. End of story. Get back to math.
But is it? Is it truly as simple as that? Or is there something far more sinister behind such simple words?
To contradict my earlier point, I am in fact immersed in a society of people speaking Hindi. The staff at home, the housekeeping staff at school, the bus didis that take us home everyday, and, most importantly, my own parents. The proof of this is in the simple fact that I understand it perfectly. But here’s the difference between my brother and I; he travels between pitches, between classes, between social spheres. He speaks with people to whom Hindi is a way of life. I have been settled in with the very same group of classmates since I was five years old; a group of rich, millennial, technologically advanced classmates – who see Hindi as an inferior language. We look upon those that speak it, and we see them as a little more uneducated, a little more naïve, a little more likely to belong to a class lower than ours. It’s something shameful, almost.
No one says it. Of course, no one would. But I see it in the way we hold ourselves, I see it in those we choose to admire, I see it in the way we speak, sentences measured, sharp and precise.
Growing up, you were never really scared of the Hindi teacher. At Parent-Teacher Meetings, in fact, some students just skipped that table altogether. They were, to us, loveable and amusing. Their subject was fun and fairly simple. But serious? Not often. And respected? Almost never. Classes were always more educative, poems more meaningful, speakers at events more enriching, when their words were English. English, it seems, is the symbol of an elite, sophisticated, and glorified way of life.
A girl at summer camp, forgettable but for the blood red bow in her hair, once casually remarked she was bilingual. “I guess it’s just a family thing,” she’d offered. “We prefer to speak Finnish at home.” “Wow,” I replied, nodding slowly. “Bilingual. That’s impressive. I wish I was.” She shot me a puzzled look. “But…aren’t you?” “I mean, yeah, but – ” I stopped myself short. Just short of saying, but Hindi doesn’t count. It isn’t like Finnish. It isn’t…what’s the word?...beautiful. She wouldn’t have understood. It was a lack of pride and self-worth that her country had never faced.
And here lies the most shattering conclusion of all. We believe that a telling-off from a grown-up is the worst that could come of this ideology. But we are, after all, Indian. We will never be able to separate ourselves from this language we don’t connect with. We have lost touch with our roots, and in them, ourselves. We will move to new countries, to posh boarding schools, to vast universities. We will become a part of a new society. Our own subconscious will tell us that our culture is in some way valued less. This is the complex my generation is facing.
It is a complex we must learn to fight. Our cultural identities are not mounds of putty, to be shaped and changed and reformed at our will. They are faded gemstones, smothered within us, waiting to be acknowledged. And I, for one, think it’s high time we embraced them.
Right. Back to math!
(The author is the daughter of film-maker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and journalist Anupama Chopra. She debuted as a novelist with The House That Spoke and has also penned two poetry books. He latest book, The Island of the Day Before, has just released)
From HT Brunch, August 26, 2018
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First Published: Aug 25, 2018 21:27:08