“Amele banni” (come later) I said to the sweeper woman with certain aplomb; seeing her shake the head agreeably I was assured I had conveyed the message loud and clear. But soon it struck me I had made a lingual slip up. I wanted to say “Nale banni” (come tomorrow). But she was gone already, all set to show up again in a while.
I confess- I am neither fluent nor accurate in Kannada and this incompetence, a source of absolute shame on some occasions, is due to my limited socialization and interaction, that too mostly with people who are skillful in Urdu, Hindi or English- apart from the local languages. Living in Karnataka for years now, I have gained just enough language proficiency that enables me to guide auto wallas or briefly converse with shopkeepers, if they are reluctant to switch to Hindi. My Kannada lexicon comprising some sentences and words falls short to meet the level where I could proudly add it to the language skills section in my CV. Weaving words into sentences is a task, that leaves me perplexed as I put myself out to come up with a plausible line to impress the listener with the perfect specimen of the language, however I always stumble.
Many years ago, I took an auto which carried a strong message that undeniably was aimed at people like me who had made Karnataka their home but still were unenthusiastic about embracing the local language. ”If you have adopted our food and clothes, then learn the language too- you can’t be a visitor on a visa forever”, this is what I can recall from the days when I was actually staying on a visit visa. I have been sensitive to the people’s emotions regarding their attachment to the mother tongue however, my inability to speak Kannada does not stem out of any grudge or bias. As any language requires practice, mingling and conversing with speakers of the language, I found myself at a disadvantage as my circle provided little scope for me to expand my familiarity with Kannada. Once at a steel ware shop in the famous Gandhi Bazaar, the shop keeper, a proud Kannadiga, urged me to strike a conversation rather the deal in Kannada, although I had just a few words in my arsenal of Kannada words. That was the briefest negotiation or haggling I ever have had, nevertheless it brought certain happiness to the shopkeeper and encouragement to me.
Looking at how people adhere to the local language here and take pride in speaking it- while raising an eyebrow at those who don’t- I marvel at their multilingualism. I live amidst people, speakers of Dravidian languages- Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam- who are adept at shifting linguistic gears and additionally at home with Hindi and English. I now understand it was not mere self-praise or boastfulness when my cousins said they knew six languages. Taking a cue from people here, I have revived and refreshed my Punjabi and Sindhi language skills; though inadequate however, it does console me in some way that I too can join the echelon of multi-linguals, moving away from the category of bilinguals limited to Urdu and English only.
While I admire peoples’ love for their mother tongue, I feel perturbed when sentiments are flaunted as a tool for language jingoism- for creating divide and dissent. Any move which creates estrangement or antagonism among people elicits disinclination leading to withdrawal. I know a shop which clearly displays a sign saying, “Speak Kannada only”. For non-speakers of Kannada, like me, this spells out discouragement, a statement from the shop owner’s end asking us to explore some other place to shop. However, what puzzles me is the fact the shop is known for merchandise, high in demand mostly by women from North India. Either the customers have seriously taken a note of the sign or the shop owner tweaked it a bit in the interest of the better business.
The best learning opportunity however, came by when I took up a job at a school and found myself surrounded with people who spoke an array of Indian languages. The vast exposure I needed to acquaint myself to the language, its phonetics was finally there big time and thus my journey to properly learn the language started. I am still learning the ropes but now have some confidence to utter words or phrases, with the positive attitude of a learner, unabashed about mistakes I might make whatsoever.
(21st February is International Mother Language Day)
Views expressed above are the author’s own.