The best part of that house was its terrace. I was visiting my ancestral home in Bangladesh for the first time since my grandfather immigrated to India in 1953. The house, a mansion actually, was located amidst a mango orchard and adjoined a lake used for washing people and fishing.
It was winter time. The exact date was December 29, 2014. It was the year I met my whole family for the very first time in twenty years. I discovered to my great surprise that I was an aunt of five, grandmother of three and a sister-in-law of seven, not to mention a sister of God knows how many. Yes, my family is big.
As you can imagine, having being raised in a city in a nuclear family, I found the company of over 50 relations a little too overbearing and hence found myself escaping to the terrace often. The terrace is bigger than my father’s flat in Delhi and at night, one can lose oneself in its expanse. You see, that part of Bangladesh has very little electricity and the inhabitants take help of torches at night to navigate their way.
One of these nights, I was sitting on a khatia (a form of bed) in the terrace, looking at the night sky and admiring the constellations when a little girl came and sat beside me. I am still confused as to my exact relation with her. But it would be safe to guess that she was one of my nieces. I had seen her playing with the other kids and she seemed to be the ringleader to all the mischiefs.
She would be around ten years old and had bright, curious eyes. She was wearing her night dress and had a red ribbon tied to her head. She asked me what I was doing on the terrace all by myself.
I told her that I was watching stars.
“Can I watch with you too?” she asked.
To tell the truth, the prospect of watching stars with a kid beside me did not excite me much. Quite on the contrary, I dreaded it.
She sat down next to me and put her hand in front of her eyes. She then pointed her finger at the moon and dragged it to the nearest star. This gesture was followed by a question, the answer to which I am still pondering on.
“Mashi (aunty in Bengali), why do they say the moon and the stars are light years apart when I can join them with my finger. It doesn’t take me light years to go from the moon to the nearest star- just takes me a finger.”
The immediate response was to explain the science behind it all and bore the poor kid. She seemed not to want the explanation I was giving her and perhaps wanted me to say that she had bad teachers and recommend not going back to school. After my speech, she looked at me, called me a bore and left.
I smiled. I had never jelled well with kids. Their questions were either stupid or unanswerable. Some asked too many questions. But I had managed to bore my young companion enough that she had left me alone with my thoughts.
Smirking, I lay back and raised my finger to the sky. I too joined the moon with the nearest star in a straight line and it took me a second at most. It was that day that I understood the power of perspective.
‘English is an Indian language.’ I agree with R.K. Narayan there. It came into India with the British and was adopted by the people of this country, though grudgingly. It is the adopted daughter of parents who are still trying to figure her out. One might argue that the bond of blood is lacking in this case. But I would suggest that sometimes, bonds forged with struggle over time are stronger than the ones of blood.
Take Hindi, for example. It is not the mother tongue of the whole of South India, Rajasthan, Bengal, the northeast and Punjab. Yet it is the national language of this country. Isn’t that another kind of language domination?
Priya Venkateshan, in her essay ‘English gave my generation a voice*’, rightly says that “fewer and fewer children are born in India with both parents speaking the same language. Even fewer grow up in a state where the official language is the same as their mother tongue. An increasing number move all over the country during their childhood.”
I was born in Kolkata, grew up in Hyderabad and Delhi. Now, I reside in Bangalore. My father and mother, both, are Bengalis. However my step-mother is an Oriya and my step-father a Tamil Brahmin. What does that make me? Half Bengali, one-fourth Tamilian and one-fourth Oriya.
By this logic, my Bengali should be flawless. But that is not the case. My Hindi is better than my Bengali. The language I can, however, claim my own is not Hindi, Bengali, Oriya or Tamil. It is a language my people have adopted; a language which was forced on my country. It is English—the language I think in.
The boatman mentioned in Aatish Taseer’s piece ‘How English ruined Indian Literature**’ will not identify with me. He would rather glare at people like me and curse my family for not teaching me my mother tongue. I wouldn’t blame him. He is entitled to his rage. His son (say) Ramesh, despite having done graduation in accountancy, is unable to get a job. Why? Because his English is broken. This would enrage any father. What does an accountant have to do with English- he would ask his son? His son would reply that that is the way the world works.
It is indeed sad how we place one’s accomplishment in the English language above their academic merit and proficiency in their field of work. Anyone who can speak flawless English is deemed to be from a high social ranking. But how is this the fault of the language? The way I see it, the reason English has been given the status of a ‘class’ in this country is the naivety and gullibility of the people.
Language, for the mass, has a very utilitarian role. It is a mean of communication and only that. The academia and the literary community sees a different role of languages. They are right in their own way. For a literature student like me, English is more than a mean of communication. It is art and I take my art seriously. But just because my neighbor’s daughter has not grasped it with the fluency I did, I have no right to look down on her.
India needs to change its thought process. Blaming a language (which is after all, man’s creation) for class domination is not the answer. That is the easy way out. It is us who have placed English on a pedestal and it is us who will have to do the same with all the other Indian languages.
Read the following articles for a better perspective: