December 11, 2010

Spoilt for choice

Before I get into the actual content of this post, I would like to point out to the reader that Blogger with its wonderful autosave feature, combined with my excessive usage of Ctrl+Z to strategically replace the crap I normally write with sophisticated, profound and inspiring synonyms, just before publishing, have somehow contrived to delete an entire post that I had been writing for a while and thinking about for even longer. So, I will attempt to recreate from memory the intellectual property that Google stole from me and then deleted. Needless to say, I am furious at this point, so what follows is bound to be more caustic and offensive than what I had originally written. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This post is being written by a Malayali, raised in Bangalore, who has spent the better part of the past 3 months in Coimbatore and the better part of last night with a bottle of Jägermeister. Now, having been in Bangalore all my life, I, or any Bangalorean could tell you that language in Bangalore has never been a problem. Whatever you say, in whichever language you say it, there is atleast one person who will understand(but occasionally misinterpret) what you are trying to say. In fact, it is widely rumoured that in certain parts of Malleshwaram, Afrikaans and Hebrew are widely spoken and understood.

Which is why, for any person who is forced to go to Tamil Nadu(and Coimbatore in particular), the transition can be a very slow and painful one, because the people here, for some ethnic, social, philosophical, religious, geographic, historic, scientific, economic, mathematical or god-knows-what-other-undiscovered reason, either do not know/plainly refuse to speak either of India's "official languages". Which is not really a problem, since language(or rather, umm, communication) has never been a problem for me. My Hindi impresses Chennaiites, my Kannada impresses Malayalis, my Malayalam impresses Andhrites, my Tamil impresses Biharis, and, last time I checked, my English impresses the Queen. Therefore, even with(or perhaps because of) my moderate knowledge of several Indian languages, I take it upon myself to make the following observations.

I will attempt to do so with the help of a conversation that I overheard at the provisions store just outside my apartment. Disclaimer: The following conversation did actually happen, though the dialogues may be suitably exaggerated for comic effect and the translations may be laughably inaccurate. Close scrutiny will also show that transliteration is not my cup of tea either.

Apartment caretaker, from Orissa(with a poorly concealed bottle of brandy), to shopkeeper from Kerala: Cheta Ji, ek bothul soda dena(Brother sir, please give me a bottle of soda)  
Myself to shopkeeper: Oru boetel Pepsi theraamo, Cheta?(Brother, can I have a bottle of Pepsi?)
Local boy to shopkeeper: Cheta, Cheta, Maggi irukka Cheta?(Uncle, uncle, do you have Maggi, uncle?)
Caretaker to boy: Kyaa cheta, cheta bol rahe ho? Badon ko sammaan nahi hain, kyaa?(Why are you calling him directly by his name? Don't you have respect for your elders? In my home town, they would hang impudent pricks like you upside down and force them to watch every single episode of "How I met you Mother" back to back!!)
Caretaker, aside to me: Aajkal ke bochhe sir!(children these days, I tell you!)
Myself to caretaker: Malayalam mein hum bhaiyya ko cheta hee bolte hai(Cheta is not his name, you idiot!)
Caretaker to boy: Sorry, meri galti hui hai (sorry, my mistake!)
Boy to caretaker: Barrage of South Indian expletives

Now, since Wikipedia assures me that i live in a country that has only 28 states but more than 400 languages, I presume that language-related misunderstandings such as the one above must happen all the time, having been at the receiving end several times, myself. So as I admired the boy's excellent command over South Indian insults that target family and genealogy, the caretaker sought comfort in his brandy, and I walked away with a bottle of Pepsi, sufficiently entertained.

And then, the next day at office, it happened again. Having made it just in time for the breakfast of also-rans, I took some bread and coffee and headed to the nearest table. As it turns out, you will be asked a series of questions before you are allowed to join the others at a table. The questions are straightforward, objective-type, and generally have only one correct answer. Reply in the same language as the question, and you have found favour with them. Reply in any other language, and you will be banished from their presence forever. So if Selvanathan asks you if you have watched Endhiran, and you say that it was only the greatest movie ever made, he will hug you in public and promise you his sister's hand in marriage. Ask him whether Enthiran is that movie in which a ship sinks eventually, and he will beat you into shape. Similarly, if Deshpande comments that the people of Coimbatore have no road sense whatsoever and must all have their licenses revoked simultaneously, you must agree completely, profusely using the word Saala, which, I have come to realise, is perhaps the most versatile word ever invented, and can be used to describe a place, a person, sometimes even an inanimate object, as a substitute for someone's name, to refer to a third person, as an exclamation mark, to express disgust, and most frequently, to join two unrelated sentences--something like a semi-colon in Hindi. Likewise, if Byregowda insists that all the water in Coimbatore comes from the Cauvery, and actually belongs to Karnataka, agree and he will display his affections publicly, disagree, and you might have to display your afflictions publicly. 

The irony of this problem of excessive social, cultural and linguistic protectionism, that can only be described as local racism, is that all of us are working for a German MNC. We are safely housed in a building constructed exclusively with Saint Gobain glass. We use ThyssenKrupp lifts and steal Faber Castell pencils from the office stationery. We use Lenovo PCs and Legrand switches. We have Vodafone connections on our Nokia phones. Dammit, even the pen drives we use are SanDisk. Look around in the office for anything remotely "Indian", and the only thing you will find is an assortment of languages. 

This assortment of languages that are India's pride and joy, are perhaps the reason why the folks who drafted the longest national constitution in the world, could only offer 6 pages regarding the use of "official languages" that, the more you read it, the more confusing it gets; which, perhaps is the intention behind any form of documentation. So, in order to simplify this system, and bring people together by way of a common language, I, in my humble capacity as a non-voter, am suggesting any one of the following as a national language:

a) Hindi(because, it is currently the most widely spoken language in India, and, from experience, it gives us the added advantage of being able to curse at strangers while abroad)
b) C++(because, according to the Census of India 2009, about 97% of our educated population is capable of getting the Hello World output and the first words of about 83% of India's children is #include)
c) English(quite simply because, it is the only language in which I am capable of blogging)

Once a language has been selected from the above list, swallow your pride and learn it. Speak it. Apart from this language, please also feel free to speak the languages you already know: Tamil, Urdu, Bengali, Pig latin, Sign language, Body language, whatever suits your fancy. Just make sure that at the intersection of all these languages, there is a common one.

I guess the point I'm trying to make, without sounding like a member of the RSS, is that we, in India, have a lot of misplaced pride. Pride in our religions, culture, heritage, languages, diversity and monuments. Good roads, public welfare, drinking water, sanitation, education? Thats really not so important, if you think about it. What matters is whether my religion is older than yours, my language is older than yours, my traditions are more ambiguous and unscientific than yours and whether my wife is younger than yours. We are divided on so many fronts and united by precious little. What we really need is to find something that can bring us together. Fast. Could be a common hatred of Bollywood movies. India-Pakistan test matches. Music. Free beer. Strong coffee. Cheap ration. But surely, most crucially, Language. I guess, till then, as someone once famously sang, we're just children of tomorrow, hanging on to yesterday. 
And that, in case you were wondering, is mostly from memory.


  1. Though I could have argued on almost all of your comments about Indian languages, I enjoyed your post!!! Nice one...


  2. Hilarious! Superb.. Loved reading it..

    Akhila Prabhakar

  3. You forgot Batak Toba as a language which is popularly available on Facebook choice of languages

  4. mama sita...getting better with each blog..nice read..

  5. Great read sajiv. Keep it flowing!!


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