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Salaam, Namaste, Goodbye and Good Riddance

In which language do you think? When I was ten years old, it became clear to me that I generally think in English. Many years later, the repercussions of this seemingly innocuous discovery became apparent. Since then I have tussled with the idea of ‘my’ language, and its loss.

‘My’ language is Punjabi. But Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and Kiswahili are also mine – I can speak and understand them (in varying degrees). I grew up with them; more importantly, I feel for them. I love their nuance and cadence, their idiom and rhythm.

Sitting above all of them, in terms of usage and general intimacy, is English. It is the language I find myself conversing in and writing in most of the time. I am devoted to it, but it also fills me with unease. Is it ‘mine’? And in giving it the crown, what have I lost?

English is the language of South Asians in Kenya today. It is the language of business, of general expression, of exuberance. Once upon a time, it was the language of external communication: our homes resonated with the sounds of Punjabi and Gujarati, of Cutchi and Hindi. Outside – in schools, shops, public places – we switched to Angrezi. But listen to the generation below thirty today: English is not only spoken in every single situation and every single interaction – it is the only language spoken.

So what? Languages do die out. There are more than six thousand still spoken around the world today, but by the end of this century more than half may have disappeared. Many argue that this is a good thing; that it reflects the end of isolationism and heralds a new integration of the people of the world. In the past, wars, invasions and colonisations often led to the loss of indigenous language. Today it is globalisation that leads the onslaught. English is lingua franca – you either speak it or you stay irrelevant.

So it is with the young wahindi of East Africa. The old folks may still be twanging the old tongues, but we who are modern can only express our freshness in English. All our learning – of medicine, of law, of science, of art – is conducted in English. Our expressions, our elations, even our put-downs – all English. “Take a chill pill, bro”, I hear you tell me. We are part of the South Asian diaspora. We are entrepreneurs and achievers, and we’re on our way to ruling the world. We can only do that in English. So don’t fulminate – reciprocate!

And yet there is another interesting phenomenon at work. We don’t abandon our songs and our movies – they have never been more popular. Bollywood keeps booming; our crooners keep crooning. Because of our films and songs, everyone has some sort of working knowledge of Hindi and Urdu. We can’t really speak the lingo, but we get the drift and don’t lose the plot. Hai na? It helps, of course, that the dialogues of most new movies are increasingly peppered with English (to sell to the diaspora) and have ve-e-e-ry simple plots (to sell to half-wits).

This ‘resurgence’ of the cultural values of home is largely driven by the diaspora dollar. No matter how well the brethren do in far-off lands, after a while of trying to fit in and doing as the Romans do, a lament rises deep in the soul: this isn’t mine! I want my songs, my words, my heritage. Sadly, this is not coupled with a desire to learn or relearn the mother tongue: it only manifests in a need to partake in ‘culture-lite’ – fusion music, movies with international settings, folk songs remixed and redux.

Why am I worried? Because you can only express a culture in its own language. Consider the following lines of poetry.

How will I ever prove to you
my smitten heart’s agony?
The problem is: my face lights up
whenever you are with me.

I know that it is the ‘garden path’
that leads to heaven’s door.
Yet, whether it is there or not,
Man lives in the happy thought.

Cheesy, but not too bad? The poet is struggling to make things rhyme, clearly (‘agony’ with ‘me’; ‘not’ with ‘thought’); but we can make out the glimmer of subtle thought: the lovesick one’s painful yet comic dilemma; the poking of gentle fun at the idea of heaven.

Now, if you understand Urdu, read the original lines:


Un ke dekhay se jo aa-jaati hai munh parr raunaq
Woh samajhtay hain ke beemar ka haal achha hai.

Hamm ko maaloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat, lekin
Dil ke khush rakhnay ko, Ghalib, ye khayaal achha hai.

The original ghazal was penned, of course, by none other than the legendary Mirza Ghalib, one of the finest poets (in any language) to have walked on the face of the earth. The translation is from ‘Ghalib: Cullings from the Divan‘ by T. P. Issar. Mr. Issar has a genuine ‘feel’ for the subtlety and magic of Ghalib’s word-play. Yet not even he could begin to convey the artistry of the original. The fault is not his; when you change the shell, the contents cannot remain unaltered.

We cannot find our way back to the heart of our culture via translation. We will discover only a sad surrogate, a pale proxy of the real thing. Translations are useful in conveying the basics, and in helping multi-lingual people deepen their understanding, using the nuances of both languages; but we will not recapture in English that which was not conceived in English.

Language is a unique repository of knowledge, of culture, of traditions, of histories. It is a treasure trove of human experience. That is what we are going to lose when we finally cannot speak or understand our mother tongues: our knowledge of what we are.

Which raises another point: why is it we don’t speak our own language? What stops us? There are many answers: “No one speaks it anymore.” “It’s what my parents spoke, and I’ve spent years getting away from their outdated ways.” “English is the world’s essential language – it’s what you need to get on professionally and culturally; I just don’t have time to mess around with others.”

Actually, you should never need to find the time to learn your own mother tongue. It is usually learned in the most natural way possible: by speaking it in the home in early childhood. That’s the way our parents learnt it; and that’s the way many of us did – by usage, not by going to special classes or listening to CD-ROMs. Sadly, the natural way is the way we have all tossed out of the window.

Listen out: the language of parents and children today is English. Children are instructed, guided, encouraged and admonished in English. Their learning medium is English; they learn the English alphabet and use English learning materials. English is the only medium they ever encounter. ‘Culture’ they perceive as dimly understood ethnic rituals and songs. The future is clear, and it is in English.

If it was just another language we were assimilating, there would be little to worry about. But exclusive reliance on one language – someone else’s – means that we are also assimilating someone else’s ideas, knowledge, perspectives and view of the world. By making English the sole communication medium of the next generation, we are moving inexorably away from what it means to be us, towards someone else’s idea of reality.

Why would we do that? A clue: I was on a family holiday at the coast recently, and listened to the conversations of the multi-hued families around me. The English families spoke, naturally, in English. The Dutch, Germans and French children all spoke in their natural tongues. The South Asian and African families all spoke in English.

Another clue: if you go down the social ladder and eavesdrop on South Asian (and African) families of a poorer background, you will discover that they are still, even in today’s Anglophone, globalised world, speaking in their mother tongues. As affluence comes, however, the rustic sounds of the old language are dropped for the crisp professional tones of the world language.

I can only explain our wilful abandonment of our identity by thinking of self-hatred. A peculiar self-hatred it is, too. Is it the colonial experience that did it to us, and is that why continental Europeans and the Chinese have no problem retaining (and rejoicing in) their own languages? Why are we so willing to place our languages – and with them our poems and songs – on the rubbish dump of the past? What shame, what inadequacy are we running away from?

And when we want our children to learn a language other than English, we think of French. How unspeakably sad.

All that conditioning in childhood: all those Archie comics; Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books; Disney and Bond movies; Biblical epics; Shakespearean sonnets and Dickensian plots. We swallowed it without question, and it swallowed us in turn. We emerged unaware of Ghalib and Tagore; of raags and taals; of the Vedas and the Upanishads; of three millennia of cultural history.

Perhaps we should not be too harsh about this. Not all the abandonment of given tongues is happening because we’re too blase to care. In some cases, our mixing with the world has led to genuine difficulty. Sometimes, the environment is such that we are genuinely unable to practice and recapture what was once ours.

Yet, by and large, we are running very fast to be something other than we are. We are chasing shadows. Once you have accepted another’s way of looking at things at the expense of your own, you have already assumed inferiority. Your way is better. Mine is something to leave behind. Will unique development models, methodologies and mentalities emerge from this mimicry? No, we will always remain clones and replicas – never quite as good as the original. Can you build anything great when you question your own foundation as a human being?

All of life’s richness is reflected in its diversity. It is our varied experience of peoples, foods, tastes, sounds and attire that makes our lives exotic and interesting. Without diversity we are doomed to experience life as humdrum homogeneity. Language is the first loss; and all that is reflected in that language inevitably follows. It never ceases to shock me that we are going to stand by and let it happen.

Are there signs of a revival? Sanskrit is being learnt afresh in parts of India – and as far afield as Germany and America. The internet is being used as an effective medium by parents in diaspora to recapture Hindi and Urdu. Even right here in Kenya, demand is growing for language classes in temples and social centres. Perhaps the call of identity is stronger than we think. Aage dekho.

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