Thursday, July 31, 2014

Other Tongue Blues

I’m always rather stumped when I have to fill out a form which asks me for my “mother tongue”. I have to resist writing “overworked” there. I also reflect fondly back on the boy in school who earnestly wrote “pink”.

Perhaps his confusion is quite reflective of what a handful of us feel. India with its gazillion languages, dialects and sub-dialects is mind-boggling to the unfamiliar ear. We drove the British out, kept their trousers, massacred their language and cried with indignation when they put tomato ketchup in Chicken Tikka Masala and called it their national dish.

And yet, in that melee, there were a few who chose to retain the English language as it was meant to be. A small motley group of people who know English to be their “mother tongue” – Wikipedia numbers this group to be about 225,000.

I’m one. I’m related to about 5 others and friends with a couple more. I don’t know where the rest have hidden themselves. A smart move since times are tough and circumstances are unwelcoming for Anglophones.

It’s equally frustrating to have to explain to an astonished foreigner and a gawping Indian that you've grown up speaking only English, your family communicates only in English (yes, even the grandparents and so on), you think in English and you struggle with vernacular languages because your brain is far slower than Google Translate on Internet Explorer on a dial-up internet connection. Yes, people like us exist. Yes, we’re Indian. Yes, this is our normal. And no, we do not think we’re better than everyone else.

An ex, an Englishman, was awestruck that I spoke as fluently as I did.

“Your vocabulary is even better than mine,” he exclaimed rather patronizingly.

“Why shouldn't it be?” I shot back. “My family is great with language, I went to a good school and I read a whole lot more than you do.”

“Well, yeah,” he acknowledged, “but, you know, you’re Indian.”

When he emailed a friend of his back in the UK telling him about his Indian girlfriend and that she “speaks only English”, the friend replied: “Did you mean she speaks no English?”

Say, how do you tell someone to fuck off in smoke signals? Or should I just tom-tom that on my Indian drum?

While travelling overseas, it’s somewhat insulting to be told I don’t sound like an Indian. Who are these Indians they've heard before? Ranjeet Singh in “Mind Your Language”? Call centre employees?

It’s no easier back home. My dad often tells of the times he and his brother were mockingly called “East India Company” for conversing fluently in English. My other ex - the loser Ducky - and his family tried to enforce their mother tongue on me and then rolled over and played the damaged victims when I dared voice my protest (yes, in English). A friend was told by a stranger to “Go back to England” when she got into a fender bender and tried to sort the matter out in English rather than the local language.

Anglophones are always given a really hard time. If you speak in English, they'll accuse you of being supercilious. If you try to speak a vernacular, they’ll mimic and mock your “anglicised accent”. If you shut up entirely, the men will call you shy and the women will label you snooty.

You can’t apply for several English-based teaching/writing jobs abroad because being Indian means you’re automatically not a “native speaker of English”. Even China’s “White is Right” policy means it prefers English teachers who are blond-haired, blue-eyed Westerners, particularly Americans, with pitiable grammar. We can’t seem to catch a break and it’s only getting worse.

There’s this sudden upsurge in enforcing the local language of the state on everybody. Our Prime Minister insists he will speak only Hindi while our state Chief Minister insists he will not look at any official documentation unless it is in Kannada. How they will ever work together is beyond me. But then, they’re politicians. Politicians don’t make anything work. They’re fluent in Stupidity.

There’s this ad on television currently which has a bunch of people lowering flags with English alphabets on them and raising flags with various alphabets in vernacular languages on them. Wouldn't it just be simpler to put in additional flagpoles instead and let the little English alphabets be? It’s sad. It’s very representative of what is happening in the country today.

We brag about our all-encompassing culture and yet curb one language for the sake of the other. We boast of a Constitution that grants citizens the freedom of speech but impose language restrictions on that speech. Hypocrisy is an unofficial language here and we're freakishly fluent in it.

We need to stop thinking of English as a foreign language. It may not be as old as some of our other Indian languages. But it still has considerable historical significance and has even evolved to include several words of Indian origin. English isn't foreign anymore. It was planted along with tea and coffee by the British. Yet we rant against this "foreign language", abhorring it over steaming cups of "chai" and "kaapi" and hailing our PM's humble origins as a "chai wallah".

That's something our pro-Hindi PM and mother-tongue enforcing politicians should think about as they slip into their trousers, don their foreign sunglasses and scoot off in their Morris-inspired cars to lecture people on language.

I’m all for preserving ancient languages and all that, but when you shove your mother tongue down my throat, I gag. In English.


  1. There are so many things I absolutely love about this post, Blah - so many. I promise to go on and on about it when we next speak - not that you asked.:p For now, I'll just leave you with 'a thousand apologies'. :-|

  2. @Kaotic: You're definitely one person I knew would completely identify with this :) Let's hope this unearths some others seeing as misery loves company ;)

  3. Makes sense...makes a lot of sense. And i just love the way you infuse humor in it.

  4. I loved this post, finding it both educational and humorous. Excuse my ignorance, but I didn't know there is a section of the Indian community whose first language is English (I know, such ignorance!) Also, your writing style never fails to impress me: polished, feisty and amusing. Great stuff!

    1. Thank you, Bryan!

      You're excused for thinking as such. The Anglophones in India make up just a sliver of the population. Any country that was colonised will have one generation of first-language English speakers that then goes on to raise more first-language English speakers - a pool that keeps getting diluted with each successive generation. We even retain some obsolete words in our everyday language that can be found only in archived editions of the Oxford dictionary. Quite fascinating :)

  5. This is great article and kind of eye-opener to some-one like me who hails from vernacular background and envied all the privileges this country gives to fluent English-speaking people. When English language is symbol of all modernity and prosperity in India (Look, even we refer our nation with that foreign name), I find it little unjustified to blame 'pro-mother tongue' attitude. If at all you wish to compare 'pro-mother tongue' attitudes of governments, then you have to compare today's Central government with colonial Indian government with British Rulers. That will be a justified comparison.

  6. Haha! Someone missed the point completely!:D

  7. Chanced upon your blog...loved this post...humorous while candid. You've vented my frustration for me.

  8. O God. I relate so much. Thank you for writing this.


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