By Lata Jha:
While out for a walk in my society building last week, I was waved at frantically by a woman who was looking for directions. I could easily tell that she had been asked to come over to see if she would do well as domestic help. I pointed the way out to her and stopped in my tracks for a second when she charmingly dropped a ‘thanks’ to me in English. I’m not being patronising or pompous here, but it did unsettle me for a minute. She came back a while later, asked for further directions and thanked me the same way again with a disarming smile.
What I noticed was that she insisted on thanking me in English while I chose to respond the entire time in Hindi. Now, this could well be categorised as cute but I think our reverence towards the English language, in general, tends to border slightly on what may not exactly be self respectful. How many times have we overheard parents at stores and theatres persistently speaking to their kids in English? When clearly, they can neither manage it themselves nor is the child old enough to respond coherently. The conversations are painfully efforted. It’s hard to tell if such labour is to prove a point to the world around or to make sure the child learns to be ‘cool’ and ‘hep’ from a young age.
Then of course, there are your own relatives who think they’ve descended from nothing less than the Alps. It’s their duty to flaunt their arduously cultivated skills in English with you. And these are precisely the same people who torment their children by insisting they speak, sing and probably even eat and yawn in English in front of guests. And let us not even waste time talking of the snobs who are ashamed of non English speaking parents.
This is also the one problem I have with convents, and schools, in general. The fact that English is portrayed as the force behind the be-all and end-all of the world. Yes, it’s important to speak the language correctly, but so are a lot of other things.
There is no doubt English is a great language. And we all know how important it is to be comfortable with and fluent in it in today’s age. It removes a lot of barriers, gives you a lot of advantages, and puts you up on a certain pedestal. A lot of things come easy then. But it’s no parameter to being cool. It never was, it never will be.
You don’t become cool by speaking to your child or your relative in English. You don’t become cool by saying you can’t speak your mother tongue. You don’t become cool by saying you only watch English films and that Bollywood is passé. Yes, we’re all fiercely limited and there’s no one who can do it all. But since when have our limitations and challenges become signs of how modern and progressive we are?
I’m sorry, but they’re not. There are millions of other languages in the world, and not one of them is inferior in any way. Neither has language ever been the road to coolness and sophistication. You’re cool when English comes as naturally to you, as the dialect you speak in when you visit your grandparents in the village. You’re cool when you’re generally aware and well-read, not just bred on English literature and rock music. You’re cool when your child can have an open conversation with you, regardless of which language you choose to speak in. You’re cool if you make sense when you talk, and it doesn’t have to be in English.
I am writing this article in English, because that is the language I think I make most sense in. To both myself and to others. I’m not saying it’s a mark of how well I’m doing or how liberated I am in life. I’d be delighted to read work in Hindi on the same theme.
In a world rapidly bowing down to hegemonic powers, I believe these are things that matter. Being proud of tradition and holding on to it; not jumping on to the bandwagon and losing individuality. I don’t think it should be all about English Vinglish. It doesn’t have to be.