A few weeks ago, in a pocket of India remembered only by scuba-diving tourists, Boa Sr spoke her last words. With her passing, the Great Andamanese of India’s far-flung Andaman islands lost more than a member of their tribe. They lost – we lost – the last living speaker of Bo, their native tongue and – what should have been for the rest of us – a national treasure.
Besides a few stray newspaper articles, little was said about this unspeakable loss. Maybe no words remain to describe it. Had it been Sanskrit that died, it would have been felicitated with a mausoleum of eulogies.
There are some that do not mourn the death of languages; instead they choose to celebrate such demises claiming that they serve to unite the world. And there are some who are at seemingly endless war over languages – over the right to speak them and the right to prevent them from being spoken.
India has 26 official languages among a total of 452 listed by The Ethnologue, along with thousands of dialects. Our northern states were not divided on the basis of language but in southern India, language was the factor that drew the tenuous borders between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, and set Tamil Nadu apart from Kerala, and Orissa from Andhra. While all of these states have a good mix of speakers of all languages and immigrant communities that have lived there and integrated into the society and economy far longer and far deeper than some of the locals, the officialdom associated with language draws a sharp wedge between people. As we read this, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are bowing to these divisive forces.
In Bangalore, for instance, Tamil-speaking labourers have consistently been targeted while the largest population of non-Kannada speakers – those who speak Telugu – carry on un-maligned. With the recent migration of people from the north Indian states into Karnataka, auto-rickshaw drivers have started to speak Hindi even before they utter a phrase in Kannada. Yet, their resentment of them is unmasked. On the other hand, pro-Kannada groups are pressing demands for reservation and fuelling anti-English agitations.
Our languages, considered by the awestruck outside world as a testimonial to our diversity, are today the fault-lines along which our society is being divided. Who are the real instigators of this divide – the passive people or the hyperactive political mafia?
In the trained tongues of scholars, language becomes a sharp tool for enlightenment and social integration. In the loose tongues of knaves, it degenerates into a blunt weapon.
At the One Small Love concert on February 14, Saswati Chakravarty, former senior editor of The Economic Times and an ardent Bangalorean, examined the question of language as a tool of cultural assimilation.
Saswati arrived 25 years ago in Bangalore from Kolkata (then Calcutta). Though she did not feel like an outsider in the city that “accepted differences”, she learned Kannada and explored theatre, film and music in the native language of her adopted city.
But did her learning Kannada make her an insider? Does knowing to speak Kannada give her a feeling of empowerment? Through this process of assimilation, what happened to the Bengali in her? Can the notions of language and culture be used interchangeably as they often are today?
Where do we draw the line? And who will draw it?
Watch the video for an enlightening perspective from this acclimated Bangalorean.
Discuss the issue of language here.