Thursday, April 23, 2009

LANGUAGE: BRIDGE OR BARRIER?

In this election, I have a new role. Like thousands of other ‘gormint’ servants, I have been given ‘election duty’. We are attending training sessions organized by the Election Commission to prepare ourselves for V-day (voting day). These sessions (two so far, more to come) are exhaustive. And exhausting. Our instructors have been lecturing us about our duties, and demonstrating how to successfully operate that Extremely Very-confusing Machine (a.k.a the Electronic Voting Machine).

Only, there’s a snag. The whole training exercise is being done in Marathi. And there are a substantial number of hapless would-be presiding/assistant/polling officers who are looking more and more goggle-eyed, unable to understand most of what is going on.

Including me. On the first day, I tried earnestly to follow the lecture, grasping at a word here and there, asking my colleague (who is a daughter of this soil) to explain the I-M-P (studentspeak for ‘important points’). Today, faced with an instructor who rattled off instructions from a written sheet at breakneck speed in chaste Marathi, I gave up the struggle.

Repeated requests to the instructors to either explain in both Hindi and Marathi or arrange for alternative training for us unfortunate non-Marathi types were met with refusal, either point-blank or polite. One instructor asked the Maharashtrians in the class to raise their hands. Satisfied that at least 70% were ‘from here only’, he smugly said that lectures would continue in Marathi. Some of the Maharashtrian trainees seconded them vociferously. Nobody bothered to apply the reverse logic: since everybody, even the Maharashtrians, understands Hindi/English, why not ALSO explain in Hindi/English, along with Marathi? One brilliant person turned on me and asked: “If this was in YOUR Kolkata, wouldn’t the training be in Bengali?”

Maybe it would. Maybe over there, too, boorish guardians of Bengali would speak only in their mother tongue, ignoring requests for co-operation from non-Bengali attendees. But that would have been wrong, too. And two wrongs can never make a right. And excuse me, why are you pushing me to a corner of the country? I am an Indian, free to live in any part of the nation. Learning the local language and respecting the local culture will obviously help me to assimilate better. But since I (and many of the others) haven’t grasped all the technical fine points of the language yet, wouldn’t co-operation been a more generous and sensible thing to offer than refusal? After all, the purpose of these sessions is to train all of us adequately for the job-at-hand? Will that purpose be served if the language is Marathi-only?


The questions remain un-discussed owing to the language barrier. And the barrier left us floundering, till somebody threw us lifelines in the shape of thick yellow handbooks in English. There was also a young instructor, our linguistic saviour, who finally came and explained the intricacies of the EVM in Marathi, Hindi and English. Dexterously alternating between the three ‘tongues’, he used language as it should be: to communicate, to build bridges and to bring smiles of comprehension in the faces of his listeners.

11 comments:

Mina Jade said...

Very true - two wrongs do not make one right.
Languages are so interesting to learn (although I would not mind if I could had learnt English before at the age of 3, that way I could speak it perfectly).

Happy Earth Day to you!

Sumandebray said...

Loving own Mother tongue is totally acceptable to me. But here they are wasting resourses due to their dumbness. If one is spending taxpayers' money and your time to provide training for a purpose then the goal should be to get the best out of it. But here they are trying to be territorial. More than 60 years after the formation of this great Republic we sill have to face such roadblocks

SGD said...

How very true!
Confusion between love for the motherland/mother tongue with forcing 'outsiders' to imbibe that love has become rampant all over the country.
Our inherent characteristic of tolerance is fast being replaced by aggressive intolerance...either conform or leave-seems to be order of the day.
It is a dangerous phenomenon in a nation like India.. which is a conglomeration of a multitude of cultures, languages, people and that is what renders it its unique flavour!
What a shame!

Lazyani said...

This problem of muscle flexing through language discrimination is an old evil and it has reappeared with a vehemence in the recent past.

I guess this disease is so rampant that I see no end to this in the future.

Lazyani said...

This problem of muscle flexing through language discrimination is an old evil and it has reappeared with a vehemence in the recent past.

I guess this disease is so rampant that I see no end to this in the future.

Pinku said...

Ur post made me so very sad but then the young guy gave a ray of hope...thank God.

The Scatterbrain said...

It's the same in Tamil Nadu too, where there was a time when no one dared to speak in Hindi!

Why do we forget that we are the "uniquest" of countries, having the most number of languages and cultures than any other country?

Imagine if we Indians thought of ourselves as Indians first and then as being from whichever state or religion we belong to!

Koel said...

well, that was a shocking revelation for me, especially coming from the most "progressive" city of the country....but then it is also the city of some typical political affiliations, who preach this culture of division, and looks like they have considerable support as well....there are heartwarming exceptions as well, as your last instructor, due to whom we still believe in our country.....that tolerance overpowers the intelorance many times over.......
It is great to learn a new language,but we still need to accept either hindi or english as the common language of communication across the country...

Sucharita Sarkar said...

@Mina,

I, too, wish I mad multi-lingual skills.

@ Suman,

U R right. Love for one's mother-tongue is fine, as long as it does not obstruct practical work.

@ SGD,

Indians are generally a confused lot - this leads to the impression of xenophobia that 'outsiders' often feel.

@ Lazyani,

The language barrier is a real problem in many places, but, to be fair, my Mumbai experience has been a very good one in this respect, except for this one shock.

@ Pinku and Koel,

Thank god for some people for understanding the need to communicate over and above the bias for one's personal preferences.

@ Scatterbrain,

I sympathise with you in the Chennai-situation. But, overall, my Mumbai experience has been much better.

Double-Dolphin said...

YOUR Kolkata? What a bunch of sectarian twirps! Idiots!

And no, in Kolkata, we don't do useless things like talk to a person in a language that he/she obviously can't understand.

I really feel like slapping this person!

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Double-D,
I, too, felt very angry at that biased comment. But it was more of irritation at the thick-headedness of these chaps, rather than indignation at the snide parochial reference.