(This post was sent to us by Tanmoy Goswami. Tanmoy is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. He also teaches a course on reading nonfiction and storytelling at the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women. He tweets at @toymango and you can follow him on LinkedIn)
Early last year YourStory organised Bhasha
, a unique festival to celebrate non-English Indian languages in the digital age, in New Delhi yesterday. The idea was to bring to the centre concerns about the well-being of India’s many languages at a time when the Internet continues to be dominated by English, and the State’s language policy continues to be dominated by Hindi.
Some of the key questions raised at the event: Will our languages be able to withstand the onslaught of a thoroughly Anglicised Web? (Answer: The chips are loaded against non-English tongues, but technology and the Web also give them the best chance of survival.) Are we doing enough to create content in non-English scripts, and help users easily discover that content? (Answer: Content producers say there’s a already a lot of content out there, and it is mainly a problem of discovery. Tech companies understand more needs to be done to help discovery, but they seem to believe the language content available out there is still minuscule.) Are startups working on these problems generating traction fast enough? (Answer: Yes.) Are advertisers signing cheques in enough numbers to make language content viable? (Answer: No.)
These are not new questions, but by bringing together language activists, academics, and policymakers with tech behemoths like Google, Xiaomi, and Micromax, Bhasha made a strong bid at making these questions relevant to the digital native — India’s massive millennial population that can compel content creators, tech players, and advertisers to prioritise non-English languages by the sheer force of their collective user behaviour.
For me, the event held several lessons, not all related to technology. The most powerful story came from Kaushal Inamdar, a well-known Marathi musician. Inamdar told us the incredible tale of how a leading private FM station in Mumbai would refuse to play Marathi songs as its “official policy” till as late as February 2010, because Marathi was considered “downmarket”. In response, Inamdar went on to compose and produce the “biggest Marathi song ever”, featuring 450 singers (including Suresh Wadkar, Shankar Mahadevan, and Hariharan) and recorded using the best technology. The song created enough buzz that the station simply could not ignore it. And that’s how in late February 2010, the Marathi Abhiman Geet
became the first Marathi song to hit the private FM airwaves in Mumbai.
Inamdar’s story reminded me of something that I had long forgotten: Language is a deeply emotional subject for me (as I suspect it is for many of you, though you too may have forgotten that). When I was in school in a small West Bengal town, I couldn’t think or properly communicate in any language except Bangla. Although I went to an “English-medium” school, the teachers taught everything, including English, in Bangla. I had a home full of Bangla books and Bangla music. I wrote juvenile poetry in Bangla. Bangla was the language in which I loved and loathed my parents. It was the language in which I rebelled, manipulated elders, apologised, made barter deals with covetous friends who envied my collection of Bangla teen magazines. I had an intense love for Bangla, the like of which I have never experienced for any other abstract entity in my life.
I wanted to study Bangla in college — but my lower middle-class family convinced me that would mean a lifetime of penury in the Communist-run wasteland that was West Bengal. Hence I defected to English, and Delhi. In fact I came to a college that was known as the Cambridge of India, and my entry there was seen as salvation for my parents and relatives — who thought, rightly as it turned out, that English is the only portal to “success”. My drift farfaraway from my beloved Bangla had begun.
But I didn’t realise this in the early days of college. In school I had done enough to convince myself that my commitment to Bangla was everlasting. You see when I was 14, I had joined my uncle — a Bangla poet and the most liberal person in my family — in the Bangla Bhasha Chetana Samiti, which fought to reverse Bangla’s rapid slide in its own state. It was affiliated to a larger body led by the famous Bangla author Sunil Ganguly. One of the Samiti’s major wins was convincing the government to make Bangla an accepted language for vehicle number plates, and make it mandatory for street signs etc. to have Bangla lines. I was part of many a public demonstration, and the Samiti would often put me up on stage, my voice still unbroken, during rallies to attract attention. Local television channels would cover my speeches, making me a minor celebrity. I don’t know how much of the politics of it all I understood, but it was heady, being part of such an adult endeavour, and doing something for the one thing in the world I loved the most — my mother language.
I remember being ecstatic when UNESCO declared February 21 the International Mother Language Day, to commemorate the police killings of two University of Dhaka students in 1952. The students were demanding that Bangla be recognised as an official language of the erstwhile East Pakistan. The Antorjatik Maatri Bhasha Dibas became the year’s biggest festival for us. We sang songs, read poetry, and placed bouquets at a memorial we had constructed to honour the martyrs from Dhaka. It was 1999. I was 16.
Then college happened. Within months, my militant love for Bangla landed me in trouble. Some seniors got wind that I was loudly proclaiming that Hindi was not really the “national language” as per our Constitution. It is just another official language, like Bangla or Tamil. They were deeply uneasy that I was also organising fellow Bangla lovers to revive the college’s ancient Bengali Literary Society, which had apocryphal connections with Tagore and had been dormant for years. I wanted to digitise the large Bangla section of the library, where rare books were rotting simply because they were not catalogued properly. The seniors cornered me in the main corridor of the college after dinner one evening and ragged me for hours. The leader was a star member of the college’s Debating Society, and he kept abusing me for not knowing my facts. As punishment, they made me introduce myself to a dog, in Bangla. They were all Bengalis themselves.
I later realised that they took it upon themselves to make sure the college’s large Bengali community — which had assimilated beautifully with the Cambridge ethos and the hegemony of Hindi, as we Bengalis tend to do in spite of our image of being incorrigible Bangla speakers — wouldn’t attract unwanted attention on account of this sudden provincial outburst by a country bumpkin. They were protecting their reputation of being first-class, tradition-abiding citizens of this hallowed Commonwealth where we were to get a first-class education.
I decided to temper my ways somewhat. I thought if they are worried I am going to create communal disharmony in college, let me show them that I respect everyone’s right to love and be proud of their own language. So I started a Regional Languages Awareness Cell and recruited a Tamilian History Hons. student as secretary. We signed up a few dozen members from multiple linguistic backgrounds, hosted a few talks by notable Indian language playwrights. We had no money because the Cell wasn’t formally recognised. We somehow scraped through on donations. I thought now people would start seeing my real motive — not Bangla jingoism but the right to celebrate and be comfortable with one’s own language.
We needed a notice board to put up our agenda and upcoming events, but the college’s walls were already occupied save a little sliver next to the Dean’s office. The estate officer, a Bengali gentleman, donated a notice board to us, and there we were — etched on the college’s real estate, legit, and raring to change the world. I remember feeling giddy with excitement the night we painted “Bengali Literary Society” and “Regional Languages Awareness Cell” on the notice board in white paint. It was my first startup, if you will.
Next morning, I woke up to discover that the board had been vandalised — never mind that it was right next to the office of one of the College’s most powerful functionaries. Someone had changed “Bengali Literary Society” to “Bengali Illiteracy Society”.
When I came back to my room in the hostel after classes, I found that it had been flooded with dirty water. There were a few pamphlets floating in the water which said “Go Swami! Go Swami!”, riffing on my surname.
I was broken. They won. I gave up.
Now, years later, as an English-language professional working for an American magazine, I get regular compliments on my English skills. I anchor events where I engage in effortless banter in posh English with the top business leaders in the country, which are aired on an English channel, which my parents religiously tune in to, beaming with satisfaction though they understand little. I am writing a book in English. I watch English shows on Netflix, sometimes even without subtitles. When I mispronounce a word in a public gathering, I feel guilty and beat myself up over it. My accent, I am told, has no trace of my once-thick Bangla drawl.
Along the way, my love of Bangla never died. I still find time to watch Bangla movies on YouTube. I love it that my wife, a Kannadiga, has made the effort to learn Bangla so that my parents can have the satisfaction of talking to her in their language. I still buy the odd Bangla magazine.
But the pride, the pride died long ago.
And I am deeply ashamed of it.
But that thing technology — it is giving me a chance to reclaim what I have lost. I bought my father a smartphone, and he has become addicted to WhatsApp. He often sends me long messages in Bangla, Bangla motivational quotes, music clips. He is making it impossible for me to use the excuse of inaccessibility to shun Bangla. At 33, I am learning my language from my father all over again.
My uncle from the Samiti recently quit his day job as a senior postal services executive to focus on his poetry. Next year on February 21 I want to be with him again, maybe read a few lines from his works. And I want to act on Kaushal Inamdar’s words: “The thing about power is, it gets depleted if you use it too much. But the thing about language is, you need to use it more and more to keep it alive.”