Tuesday, 17 June 2008

What is your mother tongue?

Was at a sixtieth birthday party recently. It was all very sweet since the kids organised it for their mum (who is my friend) and she was really surprised with the whole thing. Found myself at a table with people with strong opinions about religious harmony (do people still say that?) and so on. But our discussion was mainly focussed on mother tongues.

I was as usual lamenting my inability to read and write in any language other than English. These people were really shocked to hear me say that. What about Tamizh they said. Well, I can barely read it said I. What about Kannada then? I can read Kannada real well, but my vocabulary sucks, and I have tried reading novels several times and given up in ten pages. Last time this happened, I analysed it away saying that my speed of reading in English is too much higher than in Kannada so the pleasure is missing when I read so slowly. Plus there is the thing with vocabulary. Subsequently read a bunch of the more famous ones in translation, which felt very sad but at least I could do that.

Then this lady (who is a writer) reiterated that translations are not really all that. Even when she translates her own work, she strongly feels that she loses some of the original punch. I have no way of verifying this of course but tons of folks say this, maybe its true!

The worst part is, with the next generation it is probably going to be much worse. At least I would speak extensively in Kannada to my school friends. And I still speak in (our version of) Tamizh with my mum & sis (used to speak in English to dad unfortunately, hey! maybe I should blame the old man for all this stuff! Ha!). When I went to graduate school, I caught hold of a bunch of hapless guys and practised and practised what I claim as my Chennai Tamizh now. The version I speak to everyone else. I do sort of okay with Hindi. But these little ones? Start off by speaking in English it seems, with the proud parents watching from the sidelines and applauding.

You should make sure you pass on our culture to your child, the lady said. That sent me into a spiral regarding festivals and traditions and Diwali with its insane crackers and the general focus on food and excluding widows from the celebrations and a hundred other beefs I have. Oh no. I am talking about literary culture, she said. Oh yeah. That stuff I can handle. I actually like that. At least what I know about it. And am willing to learn too, as long as it involves reading. And nothing to do with food. Or crackers. Or kumkum. We should make a book club and read stuff out loud. Though I have visions of myself going

Ke Ghar
Ke Aaangan Mein...
Naariyal Ka Ped

which is from my school text book several hundred years ago.

The thing that absolutely sucks (or rocks, depending on how you look at it) is that my mum and my grandmum, both these high-energy women, can read real fluently in two languages (mum in English & Kannada, Paati in Tamizh & Kannada), and mum has translated texts from E to K. And my other grandfather has written his History books in Kannada and translated them himself to English. What have I to say for myself?

"Hi I am Kenny. I can read English and Indian English. I have read Helen Fielding and Chetan Bhagat, among other contemporary authors. I am fully ashamed of myself. But I am here today because I want to change...."


choxbox said...

hey but mebbe thats where bollywood does a great service - exposes kids to hindi! a friend was saying her son regularly reels off lyrics of film songs when he is asked to make sentences using xyz words!

kbpm said...

well that hardly counts! can they read Munshi Premchand (or whoever) & appreciate it?
anyway bollywood lyrics... gawd in heaven. hope its not Himesh Reshammiya.

choxbox said...

who's this resham guy now? someone i should know?

dipali said...

May I join you in cringing and self-flagellation? To my eternal shame,I also find reading in English much more satisfying than reading in Hindi, which is officially my mother tongue but actually my second language. And most of my post-school Hindi reading has been in English. Fortunately there are now some excellent translations available.Yes, I have mainly read Premchand (whom I love) and others in their English avataar.
I also believe that the disgustingly boring texts in school and the clumsiness of sanskritised sarkari Hindi are partly responsible.
(What I do miss is the Hindustani of my childhood, a language enriched with a good sprinkling of Urdu, with mellifluous words like gusl-khana that rolled off the tongue, which has now been replaced by the ubiquitous, unromantic 'bathroom'- I'd done a post on this a while ago.
But there's honestly no excuse for my reading contemporary Hindi literature in English. I'm only glad that I'm not alone!

kbpm said...

choxbox - if you don't know HR, consider yourself blessed.
dipali - it is really my eternal shame. i think i have a friend who in her late twenties conquered tamizh and is now quite proficient in reading and writing and has read many things in original. so, it is more shameful cause its possible to do this... and i just dont...
i think i like urdu too, i know the urdu names for mathematical operations and two-dimensional shapes. :-)