Thursday, February 28, 2008

Universal Language

Something I’m very ashamed of is, though I’ve spent a little over three years here now, I don’t know the language at all. It’s very strange -- usually you can’t avoid picking up a few bits and pieces here and there. After living in Hyderabad for two years I could roughly gauge what people were saying to me, and could nod my head sagely and say “wonkay” (aubergine.)

But over here, it almost seems like I’ve formed a mental block because of all the people telling me what scum I am for not knowing the language.

Three months into my stay here, I went to a doctor near my house and as I walked into the room, he asked me something in Kannada. I said “excuse me?” and “I beg your pardon” two or three times before I realized that he was speaking to me in Kannada so I explained to him that I’m Bengali and don’t know the language. To which he demanded to know how long I’d been here, why I had come to Bangalore, and why my husband had come. By then it was already 10-15 minutes into my sitting with the doctor and he had yet to ask what ailed me. (Not too much to expect from a doctor methinks -- I presume even people from Bangalore don’t make appointments with doctors to discuss the erosion of local culture.) He concluded the little interview with “you should learn Kannada if you want to stay here. It’s not nice to talk to people in another language if you want their help.” Or something to that effect. I was a hair’s breadth from walking out, but felt too ill and had waited too long so I stayed put and took it quietly. I felt a great urge to ask him if I should give him the consultation charge in rupees or Kannada money, but again, I was too sick to care about anything much.

On some level, I quite agree with some of what this guy was saying, though expecting someone to speak fluent Kannada after living here for 3 months is ridiculous, it IS true that there’s no excuse for not knowing it three YEARS down the line. In the last three years I’ve been lectured by autodrivers and a few others that I should learn if I want to stay here. I feel too sometimes, that since we’ve all but settled here and might eventually bring up little thingies here as well, it would be nice if we could communicate with people better and understand the lyrics of the songs apart from the part where it goes:
“Oh daarrrrlling, please-a come-u/I lou you maximum-u!”(I’m not kidding.)

People here feel very aggrieved about talking in Hindi and dismiss the national language argument as a lot of twaddle. I only wish to make them understand that Hindi is not my mother tongue either, and in fact is a language I don’t speak very well, and only use it to make myself understood. So it’s not like I’m any less uncomfortable than the delivery boy who I say “Ekdom bhul-bhal jinish laata hai” to. Now if I had spoken to them in Bengali, arrogantly assuming they’d understand…THAT would be obnoxious and deserving of a full lecture.

Anyhow, I hope the xenophobes here will forgive me for making one last observation from MY point of view. I lived most of my life in Calcutta and wasn’t too put out when I had to converse with people in Hindi and English when they didn’t know Bengali.(In fact I have a relative back in Cal who insists on conversing in the most outlandish Hindi if she realizes a shop-assistant or such like is non-Bengali. So it happens that often the man will talk to her in faintly accented Bengali and she'll battle on in the most excruciating Hindi). It didn’t occur to me (because that’s how it is in Cal) to feel hostile towards them because of it, or imply that they should learn Bengali (and make it snappy) if they wanted to be treated decently there. If the non-Bengalis spoke Bengali it pleased us enormously, but that’s as far as it went.
But anyway, in Rome do as the Romans. This is not Calcutta. I shall now switch on Sun TV and try to emulate the hefty heroine doing complicated gyrations in the rain. Then maybe I can reach out to my Bangalore brethren with the universal language of dance! (dramatic stamp of the foot and snap of the fingers.)


shreyasi said...

I've always found this debate a complicated one, in theory we should be able to speak the language of the city or country we have setlled in but the minute you get a whiff of double standards it puts your back up. I agree with the British that immigrants to the UK should be able to speak English or show interest in doing so but when have the British ever bothered to learn the language of the people they've 'settled with' (am being polite here)?? Worse than their arrogant assumption that everyone should know English is their blind belief that a person is not speaking in English if it's not in an accent they recognise. Never mind that 90% of them can't spell or string a grammatical sentence together in their own language, they are still somehow superior to those who write flawless English ( very often a 2nd or 3rd language for those who do!) but forget to drop all of their H's and then stick a 'Ducky' at the end of every sentence!

Debjeet said...

TV is the only language..thank god our cable TV is back..hehe!

Ushasi said...

Hehehe, Rimky...'sticks a ducky at the end of each sentence'...a comment from the heart if ever I've had one on my blog! And actually that's an interesting angle to the language debate...however much you master their language they'll never consider it good enough because you're different.
And Jeet...sigh....thank you for your profound comments as well.:)

Suchismita said...

It is not only that way in Karnataka, Ushasi. In my one-and-a-half years in Goa I have been told off by loads of people because I do not speak any Konkani. My grocer behaved pretty much like your doctor the other day. At least in Karnataka, Kannada is the dominant language so perhaps they are a tad justified. In Goa more people speak English than Konkani, and still I feel strange when people deliberately reply to my English in very rapidly spoken Konkani. And all I feel like telling them is "fodya", the only Konkani F-word I know. Try that in Kannada might help. Not to the autowallahs though !!

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