Mind Your Language

I grew up speaking English because that was the common language between my parents – my father’s Hindi wasn’t even half-way as good as my mother’s English. And most certainly not her Hindi. Her Tamil was no match for his Malayalam. So English it was at home.

But that was sheer accident of birth which got us all talking so many languages – I lived for ten years with a Bengali aunt in Bombay and got my own place in a hurry when I realised I was beginning to dream in Bangla!

So I was very horrified at news reports last week that two school children in Andhra Pradesh had been beaten up by teachers for speaking in Telegu instead of English.  After all these years of regionalism and linguistic chauvinism, one has to admit that English has become the language of commerce and hence of progress – even the French have been unable to escape the invasion of English. But that’s no case for not learning more than one language – and not being allowed to speak in your mother-tongue!

Mine is Hindi (if you speak of mother-tongue, then that’s what my mother speaks best). I have always regretted being unable to speak the South Indian languages too well. Malayalam was my `father-tongue’ and though I did well when my father made an attempt to teach me his native tongue when I was young (making him proud by scoring 20 out of 20 in dictation when all native speakers scored less), living in the North all our lives gave us no opportunity to pick up on the South Indian tongues.

But this century, I notice, even politicians who were the prime movers of linguistic chauvinism in earlier years have no compunction about attempting English, largely due to mobile technology, I think – there is a Sarpanch from a village in Maharashtra who regularly texts me in English, though sometimes I have to call him back to ask what he meant. Like a few days ago, after a prolonged text conversation, I couldn’t understand what he meant by `gn&sdms’. But at the end of the day (literally) it was so simple – Good Night and Sweet Dreams! Obviously even village politicos are catching up — and why not?

So here I reproduce a piece I wrote for the Bombay edition of Hindustan Times after the post-26/11 faux pas by then Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil – though this was now Hindi that had tripped him up. I hope the wider readership logging on to the Hindustan Times blogs might be somewhat tickled by some of these gems.

Here goes:

“What will India do if Pakistan goes for first strike?’’ a reporter in Mumbai asked Sharad Pawar soon after he became Union Defence Minister in 1991.

“Let them go on strike. How much does that matter?’’ replied the Maratha warlord who had just been bested by PV Narasimha Rao in the race to the PMO. Many critics had then written about his unsuitability for the job because he could speak neither English nor Hindi too well at the time.

Pawar, I noticed, was soon making a sincere effort to catch up. He once asked me to give him a “twinkle’’ so that he could tell me when to come over for an interview. And his language was liberally peppered with army slang so that when Bal Thackeray once angered him with some remark, he raged, “What do these Johnnies think of themselves!’’

The Sena tiger, though, was even less nuanced when it came to the English language (after all he has had to keep up with his Mee Marathi image all his life). So, in a counter-interview to me, he gave Pawar a fitting reply, “Tell that Tommy that I do not need him to tell me anything!’’ he snapped.

Of course, I did not have the heart (or the courage) to tell the Sena tiger that that sounded suspiciously like he was referring to Pawar as a dog. But this faithful animal has been under much abuse by our politicians of late. It was completely out of place for the Kerala Chief Minister to refer to dogs in the context of the martyred Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s family.

Now I do not understand the nuances of Malayalam too well but it was apparent even to me that Mr VS Achutanandan did mean to give as much offence to Sandeep’s father as Thackeray had to Pawar all those years ago.

My career as a political journalist has been liberally dotted with such instances of `misunderstood’ phraseology. But I started in an era before television journalism came into its own and so I understood what former Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil had been saying last week. He did not mean to trivialise 26/11. All that he meant was that big cities like Bombay should always expect to be attacked, big time or small, by terrorists. But he is a rural rustic uncomfortable in any language but Marathi and so it came out all wrong – Bade, bade shehron main aise chhote-bade haadse hote rahte hain.

Unlike Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (the lipstick-powder-suit-boot remark, remember?) and Achutanandan who meant to give offence, Patil was merely being sincere.

Pawar, one is sure, knows that as well as anybody else, considering he has been full of those malapropisms himself but it was expedient to sacrifice Patil for his party’s own political gains in Maharashtra. This is wartime, though, and I guess Patil should have been less earnest. But even during times of peace, across party lines, I have picked up gems from politicians.

Like this BJP politician who cribbed to me about her Gandhian husband who insisted that, out of deference to the less fortunate millions, she live in just khadi and cotton. “Even so I have managed to collect five functional sarees,’’ she said proudly. Meaning? “Oh, I have some silks and chiffons that I wear to functions.’’

But the jewel in the crown has to be this one: after a day’s coverage of a hot May election, all I wanted to do was to get home and under a long, cool shower. As this Congress party worker dropped me off at the nearest railway station, he graciously offered me and a colleague a meal to make up for the long hours on the road. When we shook our heads, he said reassuringly,“Don’t worry, Madam. Even I am a vegetable.’’

We were both vegetarians, you see.

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