Friday, 22 June 2012

Mind your language!!

Languages are meant to communicate, period. They are not something to get agitated about, not something to get emotional about. This is not to say that I will not cheerfully castrate, with a blunt knife, any idiot who substitutes `d’ for `the’, `dem’ for `them’ and so on!

Maharashtra and Bengal are two states which still have some pretense towards `culture’ – as distinct from Punjab, where the only culture they know is agriculture! Theatre is active, and regional plays and movies are alive and kicking. But that’s where the similarity ends. Let’s say you have to visit a government office to get a driving license or a voter id card. Or even make a trip to the sabzi market to buy vegetables.

In Poona, the guy you approach may open the conversation in Marathi. However, if you respond in Hindi, then immediately, without batting an eyelid, he’ll switch to Hindi too. He won’t be agitated. The idea is to COMMUNICATE.

Not so in Calcutta. Try responding to the Bong in Hindi, and he will look you up and down in scarcely disguised contempt. “Tumhi Bangla jani na? You don’t know BENGALI??” in much the same tone that Father Coutinho at St Vincents used to reserve for his more mentally challenged students.

Bengali is a soft, almost sibilant language, with the `hard’ consonants totally absent.  Marathi is just the opposite – the focus is on all the hard syllables – T (ट), Th (ठ), d(ड), dh (ढ), and na (ण).. They’ve even come up with their own `hard’ version of the sublimely soft `L (ल)’ – with the more gruttal `ळ’!  The true test of a pucca Marathi is the ability to correctly pronounce this alphabet (Try saying `Chitale Bandhu’ or `Golibar Maidan’, for example) – just as you can only be a true blue Punjabi if you can correctly pronounce their word for tummy - `tidd’!

As for Punjabi, I challenge anyone to name a language anywhere in the world so well suited for and so effective at swearing! I remember on a route march at IMA, on one of the breaks, we had a competition between an African cadet and a typical Dilli-wala (the inimitable Krishan Murari Tandon) on who could out-swear the other – Swahili or Punjabi. The gems that Tandon came up with were rip roaring and innovative as only a Delhi-ite Punjabi can be. How I would love to reproduce some of them here, but I’m told this blog is even read by ladies, so maybe over a couple of stiff drinks (and I mean REALLY stiff) sometime..                    

My mother hailed from a village in Punjab called Amargarh. Even the Hindi she spoke was heavily laced with Punjabi. The sabzi and fruit walis who enlivened Pudumjee Park, on the other hand, spoke a hybrid lingo that was almost totally rustic Marathi. And yet the way my mom bargained so animatedly – and successfully - with these ladies, it was a treat to watch.

“Theek theek dus” my mom would rebuke

“Aho theek ach saangti, bai!” Saru bai would implore

“Nai-nai, sanoo nai parwad-da” was my mom’s closing argument.

Mind you, my mother was haggling over eight annas – at a time when both her sons were Lt Cols in the Army!  But woe betide any of us if we ever tried to intervene. Like all mothers, she was convinced that her sons, howsoever `exalted’ in rank and stature, were naive ignoramuses, totally divorced from the ways of the world. In her words, “Thwanu kuch vi nai pata!”

My mother, God bless her soul, has long since departed. But Saru bai is still around, older and more wizened. She still does her rounds of Pudumjee Park, and cheerfully continues to rip us off – it must be sweet revenge for her for all those `annas and pice’ my mom successfully shaved off her rate list. I don’t have the patience to indulge in those verbal duels with her - and more so, she carries so many memories of a better, gentler era.. Oh, what the hell, I AM a soft touch anyway...


  1. I suppose you've been lucky with the Maharashtrans that you've met. Maybe it's Pune that is slightly more tolerant to the non-Marathi speaking population. My experience in Loni was something quite different, especially when it came to the external examiners that came down to our college for vivas and lab exams. The first question we faced usually was "Marathi yete ka?". The poor souls who didn't know Marathi would end up getting grilled with the toughest questions. By Year 2, I could at least conjure up a "thoda faar, sir". But, us 'north-Indians' usually had it tougher than the average Pushkar or Patil. That's one of the main reasons I did so badly through engineering. That I didn't study enough might just be a close second :)
    Also, let's leave the MNS and their anti north Indian campaign aside for another day!
    But I feel the language issue is present across all of India. It's just that people in some parts are slightly more anal about the whole thing. I'm told Chennai is a place where the rickshaw guys will eat your head off if you call them bhaiyya! The rest of South India is far more easy-going and receptive to the new guys.
    What i've noticed is that the best people in any place are the ones who's roots belong elsewhere. Most of my friends are of this breed. Be it Dutta (a Bong raised in Delhi) or Sowmya (a Manglorean brought up in Pune) or Sukh (a Sardar brought up in Bombay). And I'm not even counting the fauji kids because they are an uprooted lot by design!

    1. When I was at Fergusson, about 80% of the students were from a Marathi medium background. Brilliant, but `English-challenged' as it were. So it was quite natural that the instructors would lapse into Marathi - something we English medium guys would vociferously protest against!

      But Maharashtrians, to their credit, are basically an INCLUSIVE lot - idiots like Raj Thackeray notwithstanding.

      But you're right in claiming that the `displaced' lot are true citizens of India - the vanguard of that lot, of course, being the fauji brats!