21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
(This post was sent in by Bijal Vachharajani. When Bijal is not reading Harry Potter, she can be found looking for tigers in the jungles of India. In her spare time, she works to fund the trips and books. She did this by working as the Editor at Time Out Bengaluru. She now writes about education and sustainable development and is a consultant with Fairtrade Asia Pacific. She tweets at @bijal_v. She's yet to read Harry Potter in Gujarati. )
Exams passed, I blissfully forgot about languages until years later, I took up my first job in the media department of an animal rights NGO. Part of my profile included overseeing the translation of communication material into some nine regional languages. I would be faxing (ah yes, those good ole’ days) translated materials to volunteer proof readers across the country, waiting anxiously for them to check the language, grammar, and context.
Bakor Patel isn’t an ordinary goat. He is a Gujarati businessman who lived in Mumbai and was married to Shakri Patlani. He’s also the protagonist of a series of Gujarati children’s stories by Hariprasad Vyas. I still remember many of his adventures, but I have never read any of them. That’s because I grew up listening to them. My mother would open her magazine and read the anthropomorphic goat’s next adventure to us, and then open Mumbai Samachar to tell us the latest escapade of Jeff and Mutt in Gujarati.
While I could understand and speak Gujarati, my mother tongue, I never ended up learning to read and write it as a child. As a young student, I already had to learn to read and write English, Hindi, and Sanskrit (which I have promptly forgotten). And trust me, the CBSE Board keeps you busy. When I was in my sixth standard, my family moved from Delhi to Mumbai, and suddenly I had to learn a third language and Sanskrit wasn’t on offer. Instead of having to learn an entire new script for Gujarati, I was (ill)-advised by the school to opt for Marathi.
As I was carting a Gujarati press release home for my mother to proofread, the ridiculousness of the situation struck me. I should be able to read this press release. I can understand the language; how hard can it be to read it? I started teaching myself to read Gujarati. I began reading my parent’s newspapers, starting haltingly with the headlines, and then moving on to the opening paragraphs, and finally an entire article. My parents would point out difficult letters to me and explain the meaning of words to me patiently.
I could now go to our local library and pick up books for my mother instead of relying on staff to point out Chandrakant Bakshi novels to me. When I travelled to meet my cousins in Gujarat, I could read shop signs, instead of having them giggle at my ignorance. And of course, I could read Bakor Patel and proofread basic communication material.
But more than that it was another thing I could share with my parents. When I visit home now, I spend some evening with my parents – my mother curled up on a sofa and solving her Gujarati crossword puzzle, her face creased with concentration. Every few minutes, she would look up and recite a clue to my father. They would both think and then one of them would answer it and my mother would carefully print the answer in the white boxes. And I listen carefully, reciting the words in my head, making sense of them. After all, I am still learning.