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The blurring of lines between Indian languages

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-09-2017 Shashi Shekhar

Recently, when an attempt was made to create a controversy over the use of Hindi on a signboard at a station of the Bengaluru Metro, I was reminded of an old Hindi adage: Baasi kadhi mein ubaal (Trying to boil stale curry). Those who wanted to make political capital by stoking the fires of linguistic differences have not succeeded.

Bengaluru is a bustling metropolis. A large mass of people settled in a particular geography assume the character of a city only when there is a common feeling of coexistence. Bengaluru has always followed this principle. Even this time round, the citizens of Bengaluru have scored cent percent as far as mutual respect for fellow citizens was concerned. The selfish tactics of politicians can affect society only when the society allows itself to be influenced.

On 14 September, India is preparing to celebrate Hindi Diwas. Although it is true that Hindi has the status of being India’s official language and is the common heritage of a large geography of the country, each and every citizen of the nation is still not at ease understanding or speaking the language. Some people may term it as a failure of our national character, but by habit, if you indulge me, I would like to discuss a few positive points. The issue is not just about Hindi, but the development of all Indian languages and discovering common linkages between them.

A few years ago, my wife and I were in south India for winter vacation. We were headed for a picturesque village near the sea-shore located next to our resort in Puducherry. An adorable girl clad in local attire came bounding towards us and began asking my wife something in Tamil. There was a language barrier between them but if a person makes an honest effort, every hurdle can be overcome. Initially she could catch just one word: ‘Punjabi.’ We didn’t take long to realise that just like everybody in the north calls everybody in the south a ‘Madrasi’, similarly people in the south consider all north Indians as ‘Punjabis’. Using a mix of some Hindi, a little English and gestures, my wife conveyed to her that we had arrived from Delhi. I left them trying to strike a dialogue and moved ahead.

Later, my wife told me that a group of women had joined the conversation. Despite the language barrier, they told her names of bird species and local trees. They also told her Tamil names for the articles of clothing that they were wearing. As a reciprocal, they sought other information. Along with watching Tamil movies, the women said they liked to watch Hindi films on television. Bollywood movies, songs and dialogues have found a significant audience in the south. They love Hindi movie stars as much as Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Mohan Babu, Rekha, Sridevi and Hema Malini are adored in the north. There was a time when Hindi-speaking people were viewed with suspicion, but those circumstances have now changed. 

Another big reason behind this change is the economic liberalization of 1991 which encouraged the corporatization of India. The advent of technology led to the emergence of tech hubs such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Gurugram. Like large American and European cities, these cities are populated more by talented migrants than the native population. The task of national integration which social reformers such as Shankaracharya carried out through religion has been completed by economic liberalization. Today a young person belonging to any region or speaking any language has little difficulty migrating to these cities to earn a living. Every migrant brings with him some basic elements of his culture and sows his seeds there.

If you’ve noticed, of late, Hindi has incorporated words from other languages. The case is similar with other Indian languages. Now we just need to catalyse the process because language has the potential to overcome all obstacles created by linguistic divisions. The long conversation between my wife and the women from rural Puducherry is an example of this. 

What is perceptible here is that in recent years, technology has opened the doors to many new possibilities. Two years ago, Google India said that the consumption of Hindi content was growing at the rate of 94% every year. Compared to this, the rate of growth for consumption of English content is just 19%. A Microsoft survey says those searching for information in local languages on the internet is growing rapidly. The rise of local tongues on the internet will clear the misconceptions that are proving to become obstacles in the course of finding common linkages between Indian languages. 

Isn’t this a signal for a positive change?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.

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