The Tower of Babel

By: Shreesha S. Bhat , L&T Defence (Source: The Hindu, 25th Mar’17)

Of linguistic identities and virtual jingoism across cities

I asked the vegetable vendor in Hindi: “Kitna hua, didi?”

“Muppai enimidi,” she said, or something like that. I did not have a very good idea how much Muppai enimidi was.

“Thirty-?” I ventured in English. It was obvious the lady knew neither Hindi nor English. Evidently, this was not to prove a hindrance at all to conclude the sale of vegetables – she promptly produced her cellphone and typed 38 on its keypad, and showed me. I handed over a fifty, and she returned the change, and I was off.

This was at the raithu bazaar (farmers’ market) in Visakhapatnam. Having relocated to this eastern coastal city from Mumbai for work-related reasons, it would be one of the occasions on which my discomfort at not knowing more than a few words of the local language would come to the fore. The vegetable vendor had nullified that discomfort in a flash, and I had a few days’ supply of vegetables at a ridiculously low price.

The reason for reminiscing about this was the numerous ‘trolls’ I keep seeing on social media, about the ‘us versus them’ debate. It is predominantly focussed on the presence of North Indians in Bangalore, or Bengaluru, a.k.a. the Kannad gothilla folk, who allegedly are disrespectful towards the local culture by refusing to learn Kannada and insisting that the locals speak Hindi instead. There have been inflammatory posts from both sides of the debate, leading to even more vitriol being spewed online. I was aghast to see several of my well-educated friends in Bengaluru also indulging in this with the argument, “They are taking our city away.” Look at Chennai, they say, where you either must speak Tamil or do not speak at all. Bengaluru suffering due to its all-embracing, cosmopolitan nature, and Kannadigas needing to change, is an argument I often come across on various forums.

All this led to some introspection on my part to my own situation – living in Visakhapatnam and not knowing Telugu. I must confess that despite having spent two years now in Visakhapatnam, I have only picked up a smattering of Telugu – sufficient, perhaps, to speak to the vegetable vendor or the security guard, but not enough to be able to watch Bahubali – The Conclusion in theatres in Telugu, and finally learn why Kattappa killed Bahubali, unless the Hindi version is available in the theatres. I must congratulate the makers of the movie Ghazi, who released a Hindi version in Visakhapatnam, enabling myself and several of my colleagues who also had relocated from Mumbai with me to watch it.

There has never been any negative reaction from anybody towards my inability to communicate in Telugu. The vegetable vendors do not overcharge me, but the auto-rickshaw drivers do, by not more than twenty to thirty rupees.. Hindi, English, and a combination of the two, often has worked out well for me, thus probably making me lazy enough to not put in more efforts towards learn the language. I can empathise now with the ‘outsiders’ of Bengaluru, who also get by, because almost everybody can communicate in Hindi or English.

The key is our attitude towards language – is it merely a means of communication, or part of your identity? The first definition is the harmless one. You either speak to the locals in Hindi or English, or sign language, depending on their understanding of either languages. Or, you put in some efforts to learn their language – with the sole intention of passing your point across better, and not to ‘respect the local culture’ or ‘not be an outsider’.

But once language becomes part of your identity, and non-adherence becomes an affront to your identity, it makes way for jingoism: if you know our language, you are one of us, or else you are not. These elements would be on the fringes of society, but they cause sufficient damage to vitiate the atmosphere. This arises out of perhaps unemployment or not having something better to do with their lives – unlike the lady at raithu bazaar.

I haven’t come across this in Visakhapatnam. It is more cosmopolitan than one would believe – take a walk on the Beach Road, and you would hear a babel of Indian languages, and a couple of foreign tongues too. The only glitch is the non-availability of good quality vada pav! But then, I would instead opt for a pesarattu.

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