I am at a theatre workshop. There are three girls talking opposite me. A guy next to them jumps into the conversation. He asks one of the girls – “What is your first language?”. She is friendly and answers that her first language is English. His next question is – “Where are you coming from?” . She says that she comes from Bombay but has spent all her life in Chennai. He asks her if she speaks Tamil. She replies, “Yes, but not often and when I speak the language I speak a local accent”. His questioning on her language skills continues. Soon the girl goes into the defensive and starts to say that since she has lived all her life in Chennai, it would be surprising if she did not know the local language.
I am mildly irritated by this conversation but I didn’t want to contribute to it. I had heard the same lines too many times. I had also not once succeeded in getting across that not all english speakers are elitist. And not all english speakers are pretending they do not know tamil while being secret virtuosos.
If first language is defined as the language one is most comfortable in and thinks in, then there are many people who speak English as the first language in India. Some are even born to parents who might consider Tamil to be their language of comfort. But this does not mean that language is inherited like the nose or hair. Language is a choice, it is schooling and it is socialisation. In a country with apparently 1652 languages it is silly to ask – “What is your mother tongue ?” and try to draw conclusions from that.
English is contested territory. English is the new Sanskrit. The language of the ruling class that had oppressed the denizens. English is the also the language of pretense. Try to switch to tamil to speak to someone over the sales counter and they are offended that you do not credit their english. Try to speak english to the tamil intellectuals and they are offended that you do not try to speak tamil in tamil land. Any conversations around language gets emotional and awkward to say the least. And the personal questions start.
It turned out that although the poster for the theatre workshop was in English, the language spoken was tamil in fineprint. When I asked the organisers to have it bilingual, they asked me “where are you from?”. I said “Neelankarai”, my suburb’s name and left.
Another such incident was when I wanted to attend a lecture on the influence of the tamil culture on south east asia. The talk in Chennai was by an american curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. I went around the university campus where it was supposed to be but was unable to find the exact place. Right when I was about to give up, I found it. The reason for my being lost was that the sign board of welcome was in tamil only. And I do not read tamil.
Talking about this later one activist pointed out to me that this incident could make me understand how people who speak tamil as first language sometimes feel in the city. I was shocked at the lack of empathy for me. I am noticing that the local state buses carry only tamil signs and even the names of the streets are starting to change language. I support tri-lingual boards. Lets have at least three languages on all the boards: english, tamil and hindi. Lets include everyone instead of giving in to local pride and reverse exclusion.
It’s bad enough that the Indian english is questioned abroad. In the United States I was asked to take language lessons at university. The americans seem to think that the english spoken in any other accent than the american accent, is another language. My confidence took a real beating. I never did manage to learn the american accent since I dislike all attempts to teach me language. So I remained the alien and was happy to leave that country for good. It is just really sad that my language is also question back at home.
I don’t think that we need to worry so much about Tamil, it is the majority language after all. There has always been a parallel discourse and artistic output in that language, whatever the language of the ruling class was. Lets not forget that the current language of the ruling class in the state is Tamil and hold that power gently. I think we can forget about the British, decades have gone past and they do not determine our policies. Nothing we do not can erase that past, including changing the names of our cities. If I am talking with respect to Tamil here, you can replace that word by Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, whatever makes more sense to you. This is a pan-India problem, the issue of english.
We need to take from the ravages of colonialism lessons for our behaviour and resources to grow stronger. English is such a resource. It is a valuable currency in the globalised world. It is not an alien language to some of us Indians, that has to be respected. An even better post-colonial response would be to own the language as our own. The space in the english language that is Indian, is ours to hold and carry.