Thursday, March 28, 2013


My recent trip to India made me daughter rediscover her prowess in our mother tongue. As a child, she spoke Telugu with the aplomb of an old school scholar. I say that, because I notice that no one really speaks the language the way it has to be spoken anyway. I flip through the regional channels to catch something  native, to hear the familiar and comforting sound of a conversation in my mother tongue....What do I hear? A horror of first degree! - every program out there has hosts speaking in English, giving out opinions in English and laughing and gesticulating in English - well, I could say that they did those things in English as well. I made a mental pause to ponder over what has come over our language sensibilities and I did realize that most of us Indians take pride in knowing English more than we do in speaking our native tongue. We attribute a person's intellect and worth to the kind of English he/she speaks. Speaking pristine English makes us feel 'arrived' in a very gratifying and complete sense. I frequent to a neighborhood Subway franchise to pick sandwiches on the 'off' days and often times run into this middle aged Punjabi woman that refuses to answer my Hindi in any which language except a heavily accented and broken English that sounds more like Punjabi than anything else. I stick to speaking in Hindi as strongly as she does to her English.

Anway my little girl that rediscovered her mother tongue, started speaking Telugu in an American doused accent, often times mispronouncing words to alter their complete meanings and shunning all rules of grammar, including tense and gender, somewhat like this middle aged Punjabi woman. All and sundry 'ooh' and 'aah' over her funny Telugu - some family members take pride in announcing the lack of Telugu skills since she is born an American citizen. I make my 'trying to sound funny' comment  saying she should seek her career in dubbing for the imported Telugu heroines since the dubbing seems to defy all rules of language and grammar anyway - So there would be this pale north Indian 'pretty young thing' dressed in a half saree and intricately woven silk skirt, her lush hair braided and adorned with a basket of flowers - all to depict the nativity of being this 'sola ana' south Indian belle - and then she opens her mouth to speak verbal indignities in broken, bruised Telugu - and what surprises me to no end is that a native dubbing artist is hired to cover the flawed or non existing language knowledge, but then, the very artist speaks, defying grammar and punctuating every Telugu word with a handful of English ones - kind of like how my daughter started speaking the language. She says 'Yevaru Chestunnavu?" ("Who are you doing?") for "Yemi chestunnavu" ("What are you doing?") and we all used to break into a mass peal of laughter.

I did, in the course of migrating and 'growing up' in a foreign land, discover many specimens who, inspite of being born and raised in Andhra Pradesh, often announced in great pride that they don't know "Taalugu" that well :-D The Godmother of all such ladies was this woman I met in my daughter's class very recently. The lady had this perpetual smile plastered to her face, with two adorable girls in tow. One day while we waited in the corridor while our girls were in their activity, I asked her for her name and remarked about her Parsi last name being the same one as my friend's. She went about telling how her husband is a Parsi from Mumbai etc....And then, in the course of the conversation, I ask her where she is from. She pauses, hesitates, clears her throat and announces the name of a Coastal city in AP - I go - are you 'Telugu' then? with a brightness on my face that I could clearly feel and said it in Telugu- and what followed was jaw dropping. The lady admitted that her mother tongue was Telugu but quickly added that she does not remember a trace of it (despite staying in that very city for 24 years) and speaks only "English" and 'Parsi" to her children due to that glorifying lack....I look at her blankly, and ask what makes her forget her mother tongue and she goes - "It's been so long since I moved to the US - I forgot Telugu" - my half smile probably gave out my sarcasm while I said "Fair enough" - and then she confesses that she speaks to her family in Telugu and her aunts and uncles are often astound to see her still remember her language, notwithstanding her move to a foreign land and her marriage to a Parsi man :-)) - and somehow after that, that lady's perpetual bright smile, was always tinted with a stain of guilt every time she saw me - or so I thought :-D I hear about the cultural differences another Telugu woman talks about - since she is married to a Kannada guy. In my mind's little witty corner, I go - "Is he Kannada or from Canada?" - cause for all I know, marrying from my neighboring state is like marrying in a cousin's family since the language, food habits, culture and traditions are so very similar.

Long time ago, while on Orkut, I saw one of my friends add a page to her profile which said "We HATE people with bad grammar" - I go in there to kill time and there was all this ridicule of people speaking in lousy English and how that hurts the sensibilities of these "elite" English speaking group. I go on this ponder again - "Why does one have to "Hate" someone with bad English?". Aren't we as a nation, rich enough in our treasure of languages and dialects to express ourselves adequately? And why doesn't anyone really "HATE" people who cannot speak their own mother tongues properly, be it for the lack of knowledge or just to make themselves feel like they have an edge over others  because they cannot speak their own language!? - Why do we embrace the very western Katrina Kaif with her horrific Hindi as our own while we put down our own Kangana Ranauts for not having a good grip on English language? We endlessly comment about her lack of English skills and how she could use some "lessons" in the language. I neither have a problem with Ms.kaif nor with Ms.Ranaut for their language skills or lack thereof since they don't aspire to charm me with their literary prowess anyway. That being said - I do not have a problem with anyone who claims to 'not know' their language as a qualification of sorts either. It is one's own prerogative to like or loathe a certain tongue - but I do have a problem with the bias we have toward treating a person with lack of English knowledge as someone below us. That is probably why that Punjabi woman is bent upon convincing me that she can speak lovely English. One might question why I blog in English while I support 'not knowing it well enough' and oppose the opposition people get for being bad at this foreign tongue. The fact is that I love English as much as I love my mother tongue, it is a language - along with my mother tongue  - that opened me up to a whole universe of thought, emotion and depth. I love expanding my vocabulary and polishing my grammar skills - but I don't make it a point to hate, correct, or put down everyone out there with a badder English than mine nor do I undermine their worth because they cannot speak it in a grammatically correct format. I think the best of us make mistakes in the languages that are our biggest strengths - it is a part and parcel of our expression to speak and type errors. If a wrongly spoken Telugu sentence could be utterly cute for a whole generation to ape - we should at least let people get away with a few English mistakes here and there in their day to day lives. May be that way, we'll have less of the language floating around in regional channels, and less of the leading ladies trying to sound cute with a distorted native tongue.

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