It’s not South Indian Brahmin accent, either. Oh! South Indian accent
is perhaps rooted in Telugu, Tamil,
Kannada, or Malayalam. Or, is it a
The composite one that is further
nurtured by your school, teachers,
While I was growing up in South India, I was still a minority:
Because I was a Brahmin;
because I was not rich like Reddys or Kammas. While I was in New Delhi,
I was still a minority.
I sharply felt it so then.
First, my name gave out;
second, my Hindi was tinged
with a distinct South Indian accent;
third, I was a shade darker than the fair Punjabi;
fourth, I was brighter than the others in my mixed Indian circle;
fifth, I was able to speak their tongue, while they couldn’t my language;
it was exotic and foreign to them;
sixth, for that matter,
they couldn’t even pronounce my
mouthful Godly name; seventh, I was
cultured and knew Gita and
Shakespeare; watched popular
Bollywood movies and attended
discourses on metaphysics and theology;
missed no major classical concerts
or dance performances–eastern or western. Yet, I was different for being poor.
I am what I am.
Why should I be like someone else?
Even my brothers are different.
We share the same parents.
I am brown
I am different
from the white and the black.
The Upanishads say
“Tat Tvum asi.”
“That thou art.
I am an immigrant
And I am conspicuous
by being brown and
different from occidental
And I am now scared of being in a bar
though I am an American
Dravidian: of South India different from North India; considered the original natives of India.
Brahmin: The highest caste in the hierarchy of the traditional Hindu caste system.
South India: Essentially of Dravidian culture with four major languages- Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each with its own script and linguistic origins.
Hindi: The national language of independent India; also, one of the major languages of North India.
Punjabi: of North India in the state of Punjab.
Gita: Short form for Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed Lord), the great devotional classic of Hinduism; renowned as the jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom; represents the essence of Hinduism, much as the Sermon on the Mount presents the essence of Christianity.
Krishnamurti: considered one of the greatest thinkers of our age who influenced millions throughout the twentieth century.
Upanishads: a series of mystical and philosophic prose works in a dialogue form constituting the chief theological documents of ancient Hinduism – a total of 108 discourses that can be dated to about 600 BC.
Tat Tvum Asi: translated from the Sanskrit language, the ancient classical language of India, similar to Latin, means “that thou art.” Taken from Chandogya Upanishad, this famous expression identifies the relationship between the individual and the Absolute.
Satyam Sikha Moorty is a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and taught for 31 years at Southern Utah University. He has two chapbooks ready: “Who Am I? and other poems” and “Poems of Fear and Songs of Hope.” His book “Passage from India: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays” has recently been published.
A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.
– W. H. Auden
In reading 16-year-old Uma Menon’s debut collection of poetry, it is obvious that W. H. Auden was speaking about her. For that matter, the fact that the author is a teen should not make the reader shy away from her work and chalk up the 96-page volume of poetry to rhymey-rhymes or hip-hop repetition.
On the contrary, Menon’s poems are as well crafted as those written by one twice her age with an equally-impressive and diverse backlog of publication. An exploration of what it means to be a young woman of color in America,Hands for Language is a deep dive into the joys, sorrows, and challenges met by straddling the white world and the land of her birth.
Comprised of 55 tightly-crafted free verse poems,Hands for Language is presented in four parts. Finding, losing, and keeping one’s language is the common thread of the collection.
Part One: Birth primarily moves from her childhood living in India through just after immigrating to the United States. She reflects on her early life in 11 poems, including “citizenship,” “birthdays,” “origin story,” and “at the intersection of the land & sea.”
Part Two: Discovery embraces language and the search for meaning, understanding, and communication while discussing the need to juggle her native Malayalam and the English of her new land. The 14 titles that make up this section include “spoken language,” “i forget,” “the world lies between her two eyes,” and “dictionary: tanpura.”
Part Three: Becoming examines “how to become a beautiful second-language poet,” “portrait of my tongue as a battleground,” “Ode to Debate / Sometimes, After Junior Year,” and “Orphan Tongues.”
Part Four: Rebellion includes 16 poems, including titles such as “revolution in my mind,” “border violence,” “Hand in Mouth,” and “independence.”
Language is the foundation of the collection, butMenon also centers on family: her mother, grandmother, uncle, and traditions they have taught her. As an activist,Menon expresses pointed concerns about hot-button topics such as immigration, current events, gender, nature, and climate change. She is as punctilious in her language as to make the reader forget her age but not her love of language a weapon against injustice.
An accomplished young woman, her writing has twice been nominated for thePushcart Prize. This debut collection was shortlisted for the 2019 InternationalErbacce Prize. Alongside her many literary achievements,Menon is a social justice advocate, a nationally ranked debater, and the first Youth Fellow for theInternational Human Rights Art Festival. As a member of the high school Class of 2020,Menon graduated as valedictorian from Winter Park High School’s (Florida) International Baccalaureate Program, and she plans to continue her education this fall at Princeton University.
Hindus everywhere recite their prayers in Sanskrit, conduct all their ceremonial rituals in Sanskrit, and give Sanskritized names to their children. But what effort do we make to learn that language and keep it alive? In a wedding ceremony brochure, when I saw the name Vishnu distorted into Vish (meaning “poison” in Sanskrit!) and the turmeric-paste ceremony known as pithi spelt as “pity,” the outrageous neglect of our ancient, sacred language stood startlingly before me.
Language of the Gods
The significance of Sanskrit in Indian mythology, its religious and spiritual heritage, and its history cannot be overstated. It is the language of some of the most profound scriptures of the land. The spiritual knowledge it has espoused is timeless without ever being pulseless. Sanskrit (Sanskruta) is about 3,500 years old.
One reason it survived this long is its sacred status and its multifaceted enfoldments. Over centuries it has embraced many diverse components of human endeavor like religion, art, philosophy, spirituality, poetry and literature, history, complex and computable grammar, and multiple sciences. It was therefore aptly known as girvana or the language of the elite (devas).
Sanskrit has flexibility of function and openness of space to accommodate new ideas, concepts, and vocabulary. This is because it does not erect a rigid building but provides building blocks, thus rendering it always contemporary and ready for remodeling. Besides being a complex and rich language, it is also a vehicle that is capable of conveying sophisticated thoughts.
Which other language contains about 60 figures of speech (alankar) and about 600 meters (chhanda)?
Ancient India was greatly influenced by the influx of many diverse languages and cultures. In retrospect, this was not entirely detrimental to our development. Among the Mughals, Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan and brother of Aurangzeb, was a great Sanskrit scholar and an avid follower of the Upanishads, which he translated into Arabic.
Voltaire, the French philosopher, having been profoundly impressed by the Upanishads, translated these scriptures further into German, whereupon Germany became the nidus of Sanskrit language! The British also established Sanskrit schools in England, Wales, and Scotland. In fact, there are colorful stories of the penchant some of these Europeans had to learn Sanskrit.
Sir William Jones was a great English philologist who mastered 28 languages mostly on his own. He failed to find a guru who would teach him Sanskrit, because of a religio-cultural barrier. Finally, a 90 year-old shastri (“scholar” in Sanskrit) agreed to tutor him, provided Sir Jones did not enter his house but kept perched on his porch (Social Distancing of those times). He was humiliated for every mistake he made while learning the language, sometimes by the guru throwing his shoes at him. But he learned the language nevertheless and produced some innovative research by drawing parallels between Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit and connecting their roots to Gothic, Celtic, and Persian languages.
In Need of CPR
In the land of its origin, however, Sanskrit has lost steam.
During the colonial era, Lord Macaulay set in motion the introduction of English as the medium of administration, education, and a means for livelihood. Britain’s domination brought with it advances in technology and trade. India’s doors opened to the world at large, English being the global lingua franca.
And what about Sanskrit? Today, only 24,821 Indians and 1,669 Nepalese people consider Sanskrit as their mother tongue!
Historically, too, its elitism has cost some setbacks. Because of its complexity and precision that left no room for ambiguity, the language subsequently became exclusive to kings and the Brahmins. As an example, in the classics of Sanskrit literature, such as Shakuntalam, you see that King Dushyant speaks in Sanskrit, while his beloved Shakuntala, a forest raised maiden, speaks in Prakrit.
As the use of Sanskrit passed into the hands of Brahmins and concentrated there, they exploited this advantage to gain power and money. Knowledge became a privileged commodity.
Characters like Shambuk in the Ramayana and Ekalavya in Mahabharata illustrate this discrimination. Brahmins, for their own benefit, imparted a religious hue to the language. This worked successfully in their favor in the effort to dominate the poorly educated masses of India. Subsequently, even Brahmins could not long retain the power and sophistication of this sacred language, which now was bereft of all its multiple facets.
The tragic outcome of this degradation is evident in the prevalent belief of even educated Indians that only Brahmins can perform religious rituals and the medium of their expression should be restricted to Sanskrit—even if they do not understand it and have no way to know if the performing priest is sufficiently equipped with the required knowledge!
Sanskrit grammar is extremely sophisticated, necessitating years of dedicated study. Lay people do not have that sort of time available nowadays. Does that mean we throw away the baby with the bathwater?
Sushma Swaraj, the late Minister of External Affairs of India, delivered a stunningly erudite and penetratingly convincing lecture on the need to preserve Sanskrit as part of our valued heritage. Her lecture on the importance of Sanskrit language is a gold standard on the subject.
While I do not see a possibility of Sanskrit reviving as a common colloquial language in the foreseeable future for reasons of its own, I do believe its other salient aspects should be preserved and revitalized. The language connects us not only to our own cultural heritage but also to the Mid-Eastern and far-Western components of human civilizations. The resuscitation team for this noble but gigantic enterprise should, therefore, be composed not only of grammarians but also historians, anthropologists, humanists, artists, linguists, philanthropists, and many others both from India and other countries, working as a team. It is an idea whose time has come.
It is said of the Yiddish language that there will be an extended period between its dying and death. Of Sanskrit, I would say that it will never die because it is deeply seeded in almost all 16-plus regional languages of India. A plant that has sprouted conceals its seeds, rendering them apparently invisible, but the seeds themselves will reappear in its fruits.
Sanskrit needs to be rejuvenated by a process of CPR—Consistent Persistent Revival.
My hope is that the Sanskrit word ajaramar—never aging and never dying—perhaps best describes its timeless quality.
For Indian/non-Indian children:
Simplified translations of stories curated from Panchatantram and Hitopadesham, enlivened with attractive illustrations, along with interactive discussions that link these animal tales with contemporary situations may be helpful. These ancient stories can also be choreographed as Indian dance items for performing and viewing by children. Learning Sanskrit can also be a good lingual exercise for children. Many European children have been known to master the difficult phonetics of Sanskrit with great accuracy.
Adult education in Sanskrit through evening/ weekend classes should be made available. Many Indians could be persuaded to learn the language so as to understand the meaning of the daily prayers they recite unmindfully. Sanskrit also contains a vast store of timeless truths—Subhashitani—or practical aphorisms to inform our daily lives. In an interactive setting, such nuggets of wisdom can generate lively and profitable discussions. Temples and religious institutions can open their doors to initiate and stimulate this vital core of our culture.
Sanskrit offers a gold mine to a variety of subjects in science and liberal arts. We should invite, encourage, and fund scholars from various disciplines to dig our ancient well and excavate the rich treasure hidden underneath.
Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Chandni Bhatia’s debut, My First Hindi Book, teaches the basics of India’s beloved national language in a fun, approachable way. The book covers concepts ranging from colors, animals, and numbers in Hindi and English — a perfect way to introduce our ‘maatrabhasha’ to young people all over the world. Chandni’s own experiences of living between two cultures influenced her approach to this book. Though she was born and raised in Delhi, she emigrated to the United States in 2013. Chandni wanted her daughter to appreciate the same language and culture that she had grown up with — but where to start?
“As a fairly recent immigrant to USA, and the only Hindi speaker in my family, I wanted to teach my daughter Hindi. I started working on this book after giving birth, and realizing that there weren’t many books on the market to help provide young children an early introduction to Hindi.”
The desi diaspora that has characterized generations of immigration is less about leaving India behind; rather, it’s much more about carrying pieces of India with us, no matter where we go. And Chandni Bhatia’s book is a fond reminder of this idea. Her bilingual work offers a simple introduction to a wonderful language, bringing hope to every multicultural household. To find out more about My First Hindi Book, this book is now available on Amazon.com, Amazon worldwide, and Barnesandnoble.com.