My Language, Your Language

My father had a deep relationship with language. He could speak multiple dialects of Haryanvi and Punjabi, in addition to Urdu and English. He could talk to a rustic in the rustic’s dialect of Punjabi or Haryanvi, and with equal ease recite a couplet of Faiz in impeccable Urdu at a poetry meet. In his youth he was a news reader for the All India Radio, which might account for his refined Hindi, but it was in his childhood in Lahore that he studied Urdu, and also picked up the multiple flavors of Punjabi spoken in Lahore: Manji, Pothohari, and Lahnda. He must have picked up Haryanvi when he arrived in India as a “displaced person” (not a “refugee”, a term he abhorred) from Lahore after India’s partition in 1947; and he would have learnt English when he studied for his MA in English in Delhi.

With his knack of languages, he was a son on the soil; he could bond with local people, snap, just like that. He could walk into a bureaucratic Indian office, easily bypassing the official protocols, and talk to the babu in charge, in the babu’s own dialect of Hindi, Punjabi or Haryanvi: the babu’s impassive, indifferent and haughty face would break out into a smile. Tea would be ordered, my father would be offered a seat, his files would be attended to, while a lively conversation, laced with jokes and witticisms, in the babu’s local tongue, would ensue.

My father was a very handsome man, tall and well built. He was often mistaken for the actor Guru Dutt. In his later years, he reverted to wearing the Pathani Salwar Kameez he used to wear as a youth in Lahore. This started a minor fashion trend in the small town we lived in. My father engaged a small time local tailor to stitch his Salwar Kameez, for which he gave him detailed instructions: the ghera (pleats) of the Salwar must flow like this, the Kameez should be this long, the naala (chord) to hold the Salwar up should be this long . This was his dress till his death at the age of 78.

We imbibed culture from my father by osmosis. With his Lahori dress that he proudly wore; with the Hindustani music that he played on his tape recorder: Begum Akthar, Bhimsen Joshi, Bada Gulam Ali Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismilla Khan, Pandit Chaurasia; with his recitation of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi poets: Faiz, Iqbal, Bacchan, Batalvi; he proudly lived the integration, the melting pot that is Hindustani culture. On his death bed, when he was in coma, I played his favorite Bhimsen Joshi’s Krishna bhajans, which he had listened to all his life, even though he was an atheist.

Growing up, the languages Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi all belonged to us. The thought that Hindi is for Hindus, Punjabi for Punjabis, or Urdu for Pakistanis was never in our mind. This was because of my father’s influence who was the living role model of the inclusiveness of the Hindustani culture, a culture where Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi are intricately blended, like the masalas, the ingredients of an exquisite cuisine.

In an interview, the poet Javad Akhtar talks about people who want purity of language. “It’s like peeling an onion and finding that the real onion is the peels itself”. Language is not script. For example Punjabi is written in three scripts, Urdu, Devanagari and Gurmukhi, but it remains Punjabi. Language is not vocabulary. If I say “Yeh hall air-conditioned hai,” I am not speaking English even though the two words that convey information (hall, air-conditioned) are English words, nested between two trifling Hindi words. Language belongs to a region and cannot belong to a religion. The language of Punjab is Punjabi, the language of Bengal is Bengali, the language of Sindh is Sindhi; Germans speak German and French speak French. So it is illogical to say that Hindi is for Hindus and Urdu is for Muslims.

Language is syntax, it is grammar. Till we have the syntax right, till the time we do not say,”Ham ja raha hoon,” all is well. Hence we should not be scared of bringing new words from foreign languages.

Consider this simple dialogue in Hindi:

एक माकन के एक कमरे में एक गोरा चिट्टा आदमी और एक नन्हा मुन्ना बच्चा नाश्ता करने के लिया बैठा | बावर्ची नाश्ता लाया | नाश्ता में उरद की दाल लाया | नाश्ता करने से पहला नाहा लिया – एक बाल्टी पानी से | नाश्ता करने के बाद वह उठा, चिक हाटई, उस में से एक पिस्तोल निकाली, दीवार पे टंगी बन्दूक ली, और चला गया | बच्चा बेबस देखता रहा |

The words used in this simple dialogue are derived from the following languages:

Makan: Arabic

Kamra: Italian (Le Camera = room)

Balti: Portuguese (balde = bucket)

Nanha: Gujrati

Munna: Persian

Urad: Tamil

Chic: Turkish

Sandook: Turkish

Pistol: English

Devar: Persian

Bandook: Turkish

Ba-baas: Sanskrit

Try removing “foreign influences” from our languages and what you will have is George Orwell’s , “Newspeak”, a language characterized by a continually diminishing vocabulary: complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning.