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Making sense of Babel

I have always been baffled by the unique melange of languages and dialects that India is home to.



Seated in the departure lobby of the Kempegowda International Airport outside Bengaluru, I was skimming through a magazine, not really reading anything in particular. My mind was actually lost, thinking about how my new college would be. All I knew was that it was somewhere in an unknown land, very far from Bengaluru...



Soon, a woman with long, thick, plaited hair and dressed in a yellow cotton sari came and sat next to me. I looked at her and smiled. She smiled back and asked me a question. The language was unrecognisable and I had that blank look on my face as I couldn’t understand a word of what she had said. (I could make out the words ‘Kolkata’ and ‘flight’ in a while.) I looked right, then left and then looked at her again. It was pretty weird. I had absolutely no acquaintance with that language. I just nodded my head. And thus began my encounter with yet another language, Bengali this time!



During the two hours and 25 minutes-long flight, all I could hear (or rather concentrate on) was the same unfamiliar language. Initially, Bengali seemed like a foreign language, but I eventually realised it was a bit similar to Hindi. By the time I arrived in Kolkata, the strangeness of the language had started fading.



Reaching the college (which was a tough task in itself), I headed towards where everybody seemed to be going. On reaching the building where the registration of new students was taking place, I heard two security guards speaking in the same, now-familiar language. I was startled, yet again. This time not because of the unfamiliarity with the language, but because of the high speed at which words were being uttered. They asked me something, and this time the cluelessness in my expression was so clear that they could easily comprehend that I had no idea of what they had asked.



I simply went in and stood in the queue for the registration process. Surprisingly, the first language that I could hear was Marathi. Somebody was speaking on the phone, “Ho…mi itha pochle... ho, ho…mi khalle”. There was a bit of nostalgia given my past connection with that language. I completed an important phase of my schooling from Pune. In Pune, every day we met an old man, who we called Rokhade Maama. He was nearly 80 years old, and extremely sociable and zestful. His attitude towards life was awe-inspiring. He had a larger-than-life spirit. He often would ask me, “Aapan marathi seekhlath?”(Did you learn Marathi). And I invariably shook my head, to say no! (By the time we left Pune I could fairly understand Marathi).



In the queue, I then heard somebody standing in front of me speaking in Kannada over the phone, “Neevu yenu maduthidheera?” Hearing this I unknowingly chuckled, as it reminded me of Savitri, in Bengaluru.



As far as my experience in Bengaluru was concerned, it was incredible. My mother tongue is Hindi. We had shifted to Bangalore when my father had joined an institution there. Our society had people from different places. One of the most vivid memories that I have of Bangalore is of our ‘endeavour’ to communicate with Savitri, our helper... A very nice, generous woman who knew no language but Kannada! On the first day our driver, Ramesh, introduced her to my mom.



Well, I must say, Ramesh is an ideal Indian (in terms of language), who knows fairly well at least three different languages. I guess he knows at least five languages, which are Kannada, Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu.



It was when my mom and I started talking to Savitri that we realised she couldn’t understand a word of what we were saying! Neither Hindi nor English. She said, “Hindi gotthilla am’ma…”, and something else in Kannada. We did not know Kannada. So we couldn’t understand a word of what she had said either. There was mutual silence, a moment of quietude and then a burst of laughter.



Well, then what… My mom used the sign language to talk to her. And then she started following things a bit. It was then I realised that indeed actions speak louder than words.



Over time Savitri did start picking up Hindi, and so did we start picking up Kannada. Frankly, all I could learn in Kannada was, “Kannada gotthilla” (I don’t know Kannada). This is probably the one line that every non-Kannada speaking person who goes to Bengaluru learns first!



“Room nombor B-203”, said a woman on the desk, looking blankly inscrutable, after my registration was complete. I went with the suitcase to the hostel. The bustle of students in the hostel corridor made the place sound quite lively and cheerful. An amalgam of languages and dialects that could be heard all around, brought a smile to my face.



I entered the room that was allotted to me. There was nobody there. The room had pale yellow walls and three black-coloured metal cots. The atmosphere was sombre. I kept my suitcase on one of the cots and sat down. I could hear a faint, sweet laughter that grew louder. Two girls, who it turned out were my new roommates, stood in front of the door, both speaking to each other in a language that I had heard before! “Ithu njangalde puthiya muri aano?” It was Malayalam. Well, I had lived in Kerala for six years, when my father was posted there, before we shifted to Pune. Hearing their conversation, I reminisced about my school days in Kerala, about how hard my friends had tried to teach me Malayalam (they weren’t quite successful though). I looked at my new roommates and smiled. They smiled back, looking quite cheerful.



Now it is almost two years since I joined this college, which is on the outskirts of Kolkata. I haven’t managed to learn Bengali; maybe I never tried to. But I am undoubtedly fascinated by the sweetness of this language.



There are many languages I've been hearing people speak, but each time I hear a new language, initially my mind boggles in the futile effort to penetrate the abstruse complexity of the language.



Living in different parts of the country has given me an insight into how different cultures have blended beautifully with one another. Another advantage is that I can more or less understand a number of Indian languages, though I haven’t really tried to speak any of those, fearing I might mess up the intricate pronunciation.



Also, all of us in our family love excursions. So we’ve literally witnessed the rich spectrum of languages all across. What I could fathom is that each language is beautiful, not only because it represents an amazing multicultural society but also because it is free from any kind of artificiality.



findpranjal@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 6:56:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Making-sense-of-Babel/article14496006.ece

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