Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's only words, but words are all we have

There is an Akbar-Birbal story about mother tongues. A polyglot from a distant land came to Emperor Akbar’s court one day and challenged the courtiers to guess his mother tongue. He added that numerous courts throughout the land had tried but none had succeeded in solving the mystery, and he didn’t think Emperor Akbar’s court would be any different. Bristling at the taunt that coloured the challenge, Akbar announced that any courtier who made the right guess would receive a 1000 gold coins as a reward.

The courtiers immediately got to work. Cries of “Bengali,” “Marathi,” “Tamil” “Bhojpuri”, “Farsi,” “Pali” and scores of others filled the air. The polyglot did not deign to reply, but merely smiled at the wrong answers.

Akbar looked to his trusted Birbal for help, but there was no answer to be had there either. Birbal remained silent throughout the proceedings, remaining content to act as an observer.

The smug polyglot, secure in his victory, announced that he would bide there for the night and that courtiers could try their luck the following day. The courtiers hung down their heads in despair, ashamed to meet the eyes of the emperor.

The polyglot was led away to a luxurious chamber, where he prepared to rest in delicious anticipation of the moral victory that would be his on the morrow. Turning off the torch in the room, he settled down to sleep but not for long.

The swish of the curtains awoke him and a hand, dismembered it seemed to his half-dazed mind, gripped his neck. Frightened out of his wits, the man screamed and called out to his mother. At the sound of his cry, the hand disappeared.

The next morning, the polyglot took his place in the court, rather disturbed for lack of sleep but in no doubt about his triumph. The court was silent. Only Birbal stepped forward — with the right answer.

Birbal, truly a wise man, knew that a man’s mother tongue calls out to something instinctive and primitive in his makeup. That it exerts a powerful hold over him, the kind of hold that the sun and the moon and the wind exerted over our ancestors. That it is the sound that we turn to when we are hurt and depressed and miserable.

These languages, in which we speak, hear and dream our first human sounds, carry their own textures and flavours. They colour our whole upbringing and seep into our innermost being. They infuse us with an identity and a sense of our cultural diversity.

The beauty of hearing one’s own language is the beauty of hearing something that was said at mother’s knee, and whispered while we were still in our mothers’ laps.

Our earthy mother tongues are the backdrop against which our stories, myths and legends become more real. They conjure up images that are strong enough to imbue our whole life’s experiences. They are the repositories of our truths, our lies and our histories. That is why when you talk to people in their mother tongues, you touch their hearts.

As a Goan Catholic married to a Maharashtrian Hindu, my nearly four-year-old daughter and nearly twelve-month-old son are anyway growing up in a multilingual household. Even as a baby, my daughter was talked to in Marathi by her paternal grandparents, Marathi with a huge smattering of Malwani by her father, and, brace yourself for this, English, Konkani and Spanish by her mother. And to liven things up a little bit more, Hindi came through the TV.

I had learned Spanish some years ago, but my language skills had become rusty for want of a conversation partner, and I thought to myself, nothing like a captive audience to practice my Spanish language skills with.

The amazing part was that she responded instinctively to all the languages, acting as if she understood, and acting as we told her to, or not (whenever the toddler in her wished to assert herself).

None of us thought we would be burdening the poor child. I had heard or read somewhere that until the age of five, children are genetically engineered to learn any number of languages with fluency and ease. But more than that, it was the natural desire to pass on to our little darling that which was the most intrinsic and intimate part of us — our mother tongues.

The advantages of this multilingual training were apparent as soon as she began to speak. She began spouting random words from all the languages that she had been exposed to. A little later, when her language skills evolved to encompass sentences, she stitched words from different languages together. When one language failed to respond to her call, she would quickly, unthinkingly, unconsciously even, summon another to supply the deficiency, a thing she continues to do.

Sometimes, I would say something to her in English or Konkani or Spanish and my husband would ask her in Marathi, what did Mamma say? And she would translate my words into broken Marathi for his benefit.

In the days that followed, she began to sometimes speak in English with her paternal grandparents and in Marathi with my side of the family. It made for some pleasant and hilarious conversations.

Unfortunately, my Spanish had begun to falter over time. I had begun to mix up my verbs and tenses. Before long, I began to consciously avoid speaking in Spanish to her, afraid that I might inadvertently teach her bad grammar. Big mistake!

Luckily, I now have the opportunity to undo some of that damage and start saying random Spanish words to my son. It would be interesting to see how our household language evolves as he grows older.

Growing up as one of only two Catholic families in a predominantly Maharashtrian colony, Marathi was a language that we learned very early in life, even before English. My parents were very firm about speaking Konkani at home, believing that we needed a sound grounding in the language of our roots. Proficiency in English came later, when we started school.

My maternal grandmother, who spoke only Konkanni and Portuguese, both fluently, would often visit us from Goa. Our neighbour, Rane ajji (Marathi for grandmother), who spoke only Marathi and a little Hindi, would make it a point to drop by for a chat. It was on one such occasion that I was privileged to witness a conversation carried out entirely in Konkanni by the party of the first part and in Marathi by the party of the second part, and yet understood perfectly by both.

Fascinated, I told my mother about what I had just heard. How on earth did they understand each other, I asked her. She replied, it’s easy, they aren’t listening to each other’s words anyway. It was only much later that I understood what that meant.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with language.

I have always marveled over how one language allows you to sink your teeth into a concept, the way you would dig into a mango, how it could allow you to devour its soft, ripe, pulpy goodness and suck on the pit, until there was nothing left there while another language could do no more than give you a whiff of an aroma. If at all.

To give you an example, the Marathi phrase, oti bharne, and the Hindi phrase, god bharai, and possibly their counterparts in other Indian languages, create word imagery of filling a lap with abundance, as a precursor to the wealth, in the shape of a child, that would soon fill it. The English baby shower simply pales into insignificance in comparison.

Some languages have short, sharp words to describe ideas that would elude other languages even if they were to ramble on for hours.

Language is instrumental in helping us to define things, place them into a context that forms the prism through which we view the world. When you acquire a second language, you acquire the astounding ability to look at that same world through another perspective, to reset the limits of your world. It helps you to draw parallels with another person, to understand things without the aid of translation, to take certain truths for granted and perceive certain realities as the bedrock upon which the world stands.

Another facet about language that never ceases to amaze me is its aliveness, its fluidity, its ability to allow itself to be enriched by our individual experiences. As RW Emerson said, “Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone.”

Look at how English has evolved, borrowing freely from languages all over the world and getting richer in the process. A language that refuses to let itself be shaped by other languages dies a fast death. A language that disregards you and me and what we say and do in our homes and on the street suffocates itself.

I am the only person I know who feels sad at the thought of a language getting extinct. I believe that when a language dies, it takes away the history, culture and collective memory of a whole race of people. The world is the poorer for it.

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