The third language of compromise

I have been extremely fortunate to have worked in three of the awesome-est cities- Mumbai, Bengaluru and now Hyderabad.

Mumbai is truly a cosmopolitan city that has benefited greatly by the hardworking Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, South Indians, etc. and of course by that invaluable British gift- the local trains.

B’luru and H’bad too are getting there…probably in a decade, they will match Mumbai in cosmopolitanism.

Born in a Kannadiga family and brought up in Mumbai gives you a unique benefit of learning more languages. I understand Marathi and Kannada in addition to Hindi and English pretty well (these days a bit of Telugu too).

So, as a multilingual, I never faced any problem in either Mumbai or Bengaluru or Hyderabad in communication.

There is one thing that’s common in these cities as I am sure is the case across India- the love for the local language.

Once travelling far distance in an auto in Mumbai, I engaged with the driver, like I always do, in a general tete-a-tete. I always feel if you want to get the pulse of a city, try travelling in the autos, cabs and buses as much as possible. The drivers and the co-commuters don’t hesitate to speak their minds.

The driver was amazed to know that I am a Kannadiga by birth yet could speak Marathi well. He actually thanked me for speaking in Marathi! Thank me? But for what? According to him, by speaking in Marathi, I have shown respect for the Marathi manus and the local culture.

It was then I realised that such things matter a lot, especially in a country like ours. The infrastructure may not have gotten better in this country but we have never let the foundations of our languages crumble.

The point is simple. We can argue till cows come home on how the languages should be prioritised in public spaces or the official communications of a state. The crux of the matter is respect. The locals, be it in Mumbai or Bengaluru, expect the migrant to show a modicum of respect to them, their language, their state, etc.

I felt déjà vu a year later in Bengaluru when a cab driver told me not many outsiders take the effort of learning the local language.

I was shocked when the Bengaluru driver told me how certain commuters have even abused him in Hindi. Those commuters might have abused a driver even in their own state. This is not to say they are rude or offensive people. Perhaps it’s a habit for some of us. All of us at some point or the other might have rebuked a cab driver or an auto wallah. Nothing to do with the language, of course.

But for a second, try entering in that driver’s shoes. For him when someone speaking in a language incomprehensible to him abuses, he will take it as a slight. The feeling would be that the commuter is doing so deliberately in a patronising manner even if that was not the intention. At times, a driver may even retort, or he may just remain stoic.

Such unfortunate incidents surely lead to an unwarranted stereotyping both ways. The angry commuter paints a picture in his mind about the local drivers while the cabbie would always think ill of people from different regions.

The word spreads. People rant among themselves about the ‘others’. A completely unpalatable situation arises. And a movement thus begins. Us versus them, our language versus their language, tolerance versus intolerance.

I was not surprised when the recent news of a HR executive racially abusing a delivery executive in Bengaluru garnered wide attention. Such incidents will further spark anger and deepen the divide.

We don’t need this right now. There are already lots of fissures in our society.

The local movements in K’taka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have certain validity. The state language must take prominence. Any additional language must be included only based on statistics.

In Bengaluru, there are more people speaking Tamil and Telugu than Hindi. Wouldn’t they feel isolated or offended if Hindi takes prominence over their languages in a city where they outnumber the latter?

Moreover, what if people from the South start making demands of wanting Tamil or Kannada sign-boards in the North? We may one day become the first-ever country in the world to have civil wars over signposts.

Also, a curious thing about local pro-local language movements in different states is why don’t the local governments take measures to promote their beloved languages? Hire tourist-friendly guides at popular public destinations, introduce tax-free language courses for the migrants to help them learn the state language quicker, have more electronic sign-boards at public places like the metros which will accommodate more languages on display, etc.

Similarly, the northern state governments can take the initiative of introducing one mandatory southern language in school curriculum in public schools. Such enterprises across the country can in fact further the integration process.

We as migrants wherever we go can be more courteous and respectful. If not master the language, at least take the initiative of learning, doesn’t matter if we sound stupid. The locals appreciate the effort (speaking from personal experience). Least thing to be done is not to be condescending towards the locals.

Many Indians learn foreign languages like German, French, Spanish, etc. either to get job opportunities abroad or just out of interest. Then why not learn our own brethren’s language, spoken in the same country? This logic extends to all Indians- north, south, etc.

Solutions are plenty for both sides of the argument. But even in a multilingual country like ours, the alphabet of compromise is lost.