Recently I had to call India and talk to an elder in my family expressing my sadness and condolence over the loss of a family member. It was a conversation full of tears and love. With this sense of loss of family, I felt another strange sense of loss, and that was the loss of language.This conversation required me to talk in unadulterated Hindi and that would usually not pose a big problem, but to express levels of deep emotion in an articulate fashion was really hard for me to do.
Growing up in Bombay I always communicated in Hinglish. HIndi and English words wove in and out of sentences to express meaning. Anyone who thinks Hinglish is just a trendy word, does not know that it’s a “real thing:” True Hinglish speakers cannot complete a sentence without using both languages. And that is really how I talk. And I’m sad about it.
When I lived in India, my usage of Hindi was always limited to watching Hindi movies, reading street signs, talking to household help and using colloquial Hindi within the family. I absolutely adored HIndi music and that helped me expand my vocabulary. Growing up, I loved reading Hindi poetry and always secured top grades in Hindi which was my second language at school. Since I attended a privately run English medium school, we were reprimanded if we talked to each other in Hindi or any other Indian language unless it was during our regular instruction time in that language. All of these formative influences surely helped sharpen my knowledge of English, but not without leaving Hindi to be the second cousin that lagged behind. This sense of what it meant to have one language lag behind the other never impinged on my consciousness, until I moved abroad. As my external Hindi stimuli were taken away, I was forced to look within, into what my inner relationship with the language was.
We Indians are a community of immigrants who live across the world; we are not only hardworking and committed, but a big feather in our caps is that we excel at speaking and writing in English. One of the many reasons we can live, work and create communities in many parts in the world is because of our English language proficiency. It was as early as 1835, under the Governor Generalship of Lord William Bentick that English was first introduced in schools. It is interesting to note that English replaced Persian as the medium of instruction. The introduction of English was intended not just to teach a new language but to inculcate a familiarity with Western culture and create and mold the intellect for taste, opinion and sensibilities of mind toward Western thought. Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy encouraged the learning of English to help procure lucrative jobs with the government during British rule. This is not the place to go into the political and colonial aspects of this subject, but to focus on the fact that the love for English and accepting it as our own has certainly trickled down through the generations. In my immigrant experience, it has only helped me to be an English language lover. I am a language purist when it comes to English, but am not equipped to be that with Hindi.
When one looks at other immigrant communities, whenever they bump into each other whether it is at airports, restaurants or workplaces, they always greet each other in their native tongue. As for us Indians we talk to each other in English wherever we go. Are we letting Hindi and other languages fade?
My family came to Bombay from Sindh during the partition. Sindhis were really immigrants within their own country that was now India. A big ripple effect of this migration was the loss of language. Growing up, I was never exposed to the language except when I overheard my grandparents speak to each other. In fact my grandmother being the product of English education spoke only English and Sindhi. She explained to me that she was never taught to read Hindi in school! Because I was never taught a native language, I can see it’s alienating repercussions . Many Sindhis in India and all over the world are waking up to not just the death of their culture but of their language.
This juxtaposition of migration and forming of new identities makes me question my love for my culture being inter-tied with my connection with Hindi. Are language and culture not mutually inclusive? Can England ever be devoid of Shakespearean English or Kabir’s dohas ever exclude the history of Indian language and culture? But just as culture grows and progresses, so does language. Is this a sense of loss then, that I should accept as a natural progression of language in my age or can I do something about it?
Preeti Hay is freelance writer. She grew up in Mumbai, India and has a Masters degree in Post Colonial Literature and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She has written for major publications in India including The Times of India, Hindustan Times and DNA India. She is passionate about creative writing and is currently working on her first novel.