When English Is Mother Tongue, But Hindi is the Aunty Having Fun!
English was the virtuous main lead, Hindi was the coquettish item number.
(This piece was first published on 14 August 2018 and is being republished in light of recent calls for ‘One Nation, One Language’.)
My mother tongue is Hindi. Or rather, my mother’s tongue literally is Hindi. She grew up in Allahabad and she thinks primarily in Hindi. Years spent in anglicised Shillong haven’t changed that – except she has made it completely gender neutral and uses her ki and ka interchangeably. (Aside – does that make her a grammar feminazi?) The first words I spoke then presumably would have been in Hindi. We don’t know – my parents have no recollection of it.
I have a lot to say about the tardy parenting skills of that generation, just by the way – no effort to chronicle every waking moment of the growing up of their kids. Why were they treating it as something regular when it was potentially life-altering and momentous? How did they let their kids just grow up in this matter-of-fact, routine way when it could have been the stuff of legend or at least a million Facebook status updates? Anyway, we digress.
I don’t remember my first words in Hindi, but I do remember my first complete sentence in English. I was five years old and spoke chaste Hindi after nursery school in Delhi. But after a transfer back to my father’s hometown Shillong, I was beginning to feel slightly out of sorts. Everyone spoke English – in perfect accents left behind by the British who fondly called Shillong, ‘The Scotland of the East’. In my class, I was the only Hindi-speaking child. Desperate times needed desperate measures – so a diktat was put in place. Only English would be spoken at home and in school. My first faltering sentence was, ‘My toffee is getting smaller in my mouth’. Again, nobody has documented this utterance either and at that time, everyone ignored the import of my words – but fortunately, I have a memory for defining moments. After that fumbling beginning, there was no looking back. I took to the Queen’s language like ducks take to selfies, and soon out-spoke and out-wrote the entire class when it came to English.
A year later, I declared to my proud father that it would be very difficult for me to communicate with my relatives in Delhi as, “I have forgotten that silly Hindi”. This moment, unlike the others before it, was tucked away for posterity and is often narrated fondly by my dad even today.
I didn’t know it then, but I was living out the upper-middle class Indian mandate for success – fluency and proficiency in English.
The love affair with English continued – it was the language that I would think in, write in and dream in. Since I showed no such aptitude for any other language, I suppose we were meant to be.
Or it could just be what University of Oregon psychologist Benjamin Levy calls an ‘adaptive strategy to learn a second language’ or ‘first language attrition’. You suppress your first language as it distracts you from learning a new language. Of course, if you have a flair for the languages, you could get over that hurdle – but I didn’t and had cast my lot with English. I didn’t live to regret that decision – and while English was now the mother tongue, Hindi never really went away either. It wasn’t the mother tongue, but it was beginning to feel like the hottie aunt down the street who always had more fun than your mum. Thanks to Bollywood, Hindi had a pleasurable association with entertainment.
If English was the lingo of formal communication, Hindi was the language of liberation. English was uptight and stuffy, Hindi was a guilty pleasure. English was the virtuous main lead, Hindi was the coquettish item number.
Hindi freed you from restraint and inhibition – nobody judged you for mispronunciation and incorrect grammar when it came to Hindi. There was snobbery in speaking it falteringly – it meant you had done a good job of learning English.
But ‘silly Hindi’ was waiting to strike back – and it did in style.
Nineties kids grew up discovering that Hindi was the language of coolth as music channels made the national language kitschy. Suddenly, it was cool to be like this only!
When I joined a music channel a decade back, I realised my coolness quotient was directly proportional to how many Hindi cuss words I could belt out. I maintained a stiff upper lip and consequently never became a creative maverick. But while I don’t regret that, I do regret not being completely bilingual. I am comfortable in Hindi, I write in Hindi but I would be truly bilingual if I could think in Hindi as well as I do in English.
So finally, what then is my mother tongue? I would say both Hindi and English. One is the biological mother, and the other the foster mother who did all the hard work of bringing me up.
And now on our 71st Independence Day, both my mums are now equally Indian and wish you a happy I-Day.
(Naomi Datta tweets in English at nowme_datta)
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