15 August 2008

Independence Day

Today India celebrates 61 years of independence. Indians are very proud of their country, and I think they have lots of reasons to be. I don't know any other country as culturally and linguistically rich as India. This is what fascinates me about this country.

This week in The Times of India, Shashi Tharoor made some interesting reflections on India's linguistic diversity. He described how 12 years ago when India was celebrating its 49th year of independence, the then Prime Minister, HD Deve Gowda, made a speech in Hindi. This was nothing remarkable, as such a speech happens every year, but what was unusual was that this Prime Minister, coming from Karnataka and having Kannada as his mother tongue, didn't actually know how to speak Hindi. So how did he do it then? The Hindi script was transcribed for him in the Kannada alphabet which he then read out to the nation. "...which of course made no sense," Tharoor concludes.

Tharoor reflects that such an incident "represents the best of the oddities that help make India India. Only in India could a country be ruled by a man who does not understand its 'national language'. Only in India, for that matter, is there a 'national language' that half the population does not understand. And only in India could this particular solution be found to enable the prime minister to address his people."

He describes Hindi as "the language which we have all learned to refer to (though the term has no constitutional basis) as India's 'national language'," and confirms that "No language enjoys majority status in India, though Hindi is coming perilously close." He then describes his linguistic reality which may be the reality for many Indians: "... I was a typically Indian child: I spoke Malayalam to my mother, English to my father, Hindi to our driver, Bengali to our domestic help and Sanskrit to God."

Indians seem to learn languages by some strange process of osmosis. Many people speak 3, 4, 5 languages. When I ask "How did you learn Tamil?" I get the response: "Oh, I had a Tamil neighbour." Or "How come you speak Telugu?" "I had a Telugu friend at school who taught me." In the west, a person who speaks many languages is held in awe and considered to be highly intelligent. In India this is commonplace. The lady who comes to wash my floors told me she has never been to school but she speaks four languages: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. English is not in that list, so how do we communicate? Between my six words of Kannada, eight words of Tamil and numbers in Hindi up to five, and her ten words of English and some sign language we manage to understand each other!

Tharoor concludes his column by 'singing the virtues of pluralism': "It is a reality that pluralism emerges from the very nature of our country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography, reaffirmed by its history and reflected in its ethnography. Let us celebrate our Independence on August 15 in a multitude of languages, so long as we can say in all of them how proud we are to be Indian."

Above photo © The Times of India.

Listen to the Indian National Anthem performed by some of India's best-known classical musicians:

No comments :