Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Language Club

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 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 to us by Genesia Alves. Genesia is fluent in one language, can make excellent conversation in two but she can swear in at least 8. She writes for love and money (in her mother language) for Scroll.in, TheSwaddle.com and TheCityStory.com among others. Genesia lives with her husband Rajesh and their three children, in Mumbai.)

I was six or seven years old, playing outside my dad’s office in Muscat with my siblings on a working weekend. One of his close friends and colleagues, an Omani, stopped to chat with us, as usual, on his way out. “Allah, you chikoos are here?! But your father, he gone back to Pakistan!” he said in mock horror. We laughed, it was a running joke with him. “Ahhh… yes, yes, I forgot. You not Pakistan,” he grinned, “You Hindi.” I had yet to learn that Hindi is the Arabic word for ‘Indian’ and so I started a little at that. “No,” I said to him, “I am English.” He guffawed, “No habibi, you is Hindi.” “No, no, Ali Uncle, I is definitely English.”

I didn’t enjoy the tears of laughter from him or those of my father and later my mother as he told her the story. I scowled as they pointed and said, “She’s English.” It was very annoying.

NRIs can be quite passionate about their mother tongues but this was not the case in our family.

Outside the home, for as far back as I could remember I’d heard at least three or four languages spoken every day, often by the same people who seemed to effortlessly shape-shift between Arabic and English and Hindi or Urdu or Gujarati or Tamil. An Italian girl who sat beside me in class spoke English with a British accent to our teachers but rolled her eyes and grumbled in Swahili to her sister when she was annoyed. On the playground we learned the word for ‘bum’ in Malayalam. My brother came home and proudly told us he could crudely suggest a crow had eaten someone’s testicles in Sindhi. In the years to come, we would know how to say ‘I love you’ in languages from across the world.

Mother tongues don’t just hold comfort and folklore.

They seem to enable cryptic conversations between brethren. (In my experience, Bengalis and Tamils will still lapse loudly into theirs at social gatherings sending non-speakers directly to Twitter to kvetch about it.) Mother tongues contain the ability to convey the personality of a people through unique idioms. (An Israeli friend would shrug, “Sometimes onion, sometimes honey.)

Mother tongues are a club. Except there was nothing exotic or exclusive about ours - nothing to preserve or present or promote.

At home my parents both spoke English. My four grandparents spoke English. I never met my great grand parents but they too spoke in English at home. When necessary, they spoke the East Indian version of Marathi. This Marathi, peculiar to the native population of Mumbai, was I suppose our only tenuous link with a ‘real mother tongue’. We didn’t speak it. It was something my parents dipped into when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying to each other. We also knew there were hilarious, bawdy wedding songs. And in my mother’s warbly repertoire, a solitary Marathi lullaby about baby teeth like a crab’s claws.
Then we moved back to Mumbai. “But how can English be your mother tongue?” people would sneer at me.

It was years before I’d developed my argument that English is very much an Indian language. I didn’t know that the use of English for official purposes was supposed to cease in 1965, fifteen years after the Constitution came into effect. I didn’t know about the Official Languages Act which allowed for the use of English alongside Hindi after 1965 to accommodate the non-Hindi speaking parts of the country. Or the fact that India has the second largest population of English speakers in the world (Pakistan is third).

I also should have known that Indians who speak English as a first language are all of 0.019% of the population. We’re quite the rarity. Instead I’d stutter and feel embarrassed like they were pointing and laughing “You English!” all over again.

After moving to Mumbai, to fit in, I clinically added local colour to my speaking. Interjections like “Arre!” and “Yaar”. I added slang, “Tapori”, “Pakao”, “Fasao”. (I also tried that thing of adding a ‘fy’ to make something into a verb – ‘jugaadify’ - but that didn’t work out.)

Still, a couple of years ago, I stood just outside a circle of mothers at the school gate, waiting for our children and listened with increasing discomfort as they railed against the sort of people who spoke English at home. I changed my son’s school that year.

Outside of incidents like that though, it’s working fine. In general, Mumbai is a real metropolis and therefore generous and good-natured with anyone attempting communication. Everyone speaks a little of everything and as a result I became more confident speaking in Hindi. Now I’m fluent enough not just to hold a conversation but manage sarcasm and humour as well. One of my finest moments was when our Hindi tuition teacher who never misses a chance to complain about us “English speaking Bandra people” remarked that my Hindi was really quite good. (The ‘for an English speaking Bandra person’ I assume, was left unsaid.)

Last year I met ex classmates from my school in Oman after nearly 30 years. They’d congregated from around India and the globe and eager to catch up, we all talked over each other. At some point, an old friend said, “You haven’t changed much but you speak like a pukka Mumbai girl now.”

I grinned like I’d been paid the highest compliment. It made me think of Uncle Ali is, bless him and how I would love to tell him I am now, “Hindi English”. And it is the mother tongue of my children.

Illustration by Suvidha Mistry

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