Spanish is Cool, Gujarati is Cooler

Social Commentary

Spanish is Cool, Gujarati is Cooler

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Afew weeks ago, a post went viral, labelling a new breed of young Indians whose lingua franca was English, even at home, the country’s fastest-growing “caste”. The article drew a psychographic profile of these young people, “Indo-Anglians”, who might have grown up in bilingual homes, where the parents made an effort to speak in their mother tongues, but where English continued to dominate.

Drawing from his own life, the writer said that Indo-Anglians are concentrated around the country’s metros. “Within these cities,” he writes, “they are clustered in certain pockets: Gurgaon, and parts of South Delhi, South Bombay and Western Suburbs from Bandra to Andheri, Indiranagar, Koramangala and gated communities in Bangalore’s Outer Ring Road… They fall well within the top one per cent of India economically, and have a consumption basket that is comparable to their middle class counterparts abroad. Their kids go to international schools and have ‘first-world yoga names’ such as Aryan, Kabir, Kyra, Shanaya, Tia etc.”

I don’t have a First-World name, but I belong firmly to this demographic.

Every parent tries their damndest to make their English-speaking kids learn their mother tongue, and my mother was no different. I hated Sundays for the struggle that I knew would inevitably follow. The routine would be something like this: After breakfast, when other kids were allowed to laze in front of the TV or play, I was supposed to learn “proper” Gujarati by reading the language newspaper out loud to her. Why was this exercise necessary, I would argue, given that I will not be using Gujarati elsewhere? Why do we insist on teaching our children languages that are not going to serve them in life or work or love? Shouldn’t one language be enough for everyone?

My mother was sick of my arguments. My dadi on the other hand, was a little more patient with my rants. One summer she asked me to read out a letter written in Gujarati by her friend, who was supposed to pick her up from a point near “Chandan lab”. I misread it, and sent her outside another shop called “Chandan Bhel”. In those days, without a phone to reach her friend, my poor grandma came back home after a couple of hours in the sun, without having seen her friend.

That day, I deserved her anger, but what I wasn’t prepared for was sadness. It was clear that my indifference toward a language that defined our heritage, had hurt her deeply.

She took up where my mother left off. She began to fill in this culture deficit by exposing me to more and more Gujarati folk songs and tales and taking me along to watch Gujarati plays. Somehow, with her, I didn’t resent it – it was far more enjoyable than having to read the newspaper. I even enjoyed our time together and every Navratri when I mouth the lyrics to dandiya songs, I remember her.

Her cultural references are even more divergent than mine were. Gujarati has no place in her world.

My grandma had taught me a valuable lesson. I realised how much of a role a language can play in sustaining not just culture but in fostering relationships. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to millennials today, and of course, one can communicate no matter what words they speak.

But the familiarity of a shared language has something very comforting about it. It can immediately change the rapport you share with someone. It can bridge unbreachable divides. Like the time you are caught with pot by a policewala in Mumbai. You know you are in the wrong, but you also know that throwing in a beseeching “sahib” or a “jaaun dya na bhau” to try to be in his good books.

My niece was recently asked to choose between Spanish and Hindi at school. She immediately chose Spanish. I asked her who she plans to speak Spanish with. My friends, she tells me, with a toss of her hair. She’s a girl raised on English videos and Japanese animated series centered around a lazy egg yolk, and Roald Dahl books. Her cultural references are even more divergent than mine were. Gujarati has no place in her world.

My grandmother does not know how to relate to her. The language, which ought to bring them closer, is a wedge between their worlds.

I doubt my niece will persevere with Spanish. It will be dropped like many other things have been dropped – guitar lessons and t’ai chi classes. She will grow up to speak only English, just like an Indo-Anglian. I know it’s a bit rich for me to think about this, but we might become just another English-speaking country, with a moderately different accent. We will be unlike those European countries like the Norway, Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, or Asian nations like China and Japan that have learnt to hold their mother tongues dear, because we don’t have a single regional language that unites us.

Besides, Hindi and Gujarati are not as sexy as Spanish and French and it doesn’t help that regressive fringe outfits routinely turn language into a battleground. It almost makes you want to renounce this “cultural pride” bullshit and become part of the English-speaking world, that is supposedly free of hyper-nationalism and bigotry.

If we look past the politics though, we might realise we stand to lose something critical.

My grandmother’s friend, the one she was to meet at Chandan lab, passed away two years after that misreading episode. They never got to meet again. Gujarati might be a  small entrant on the world stage, I may not get any jobs because I speak the language, and it will not help me get laid (quite the opposite in fact).

But our identities, our people, and our pasts are tied up in our mother tongue. My niece is too young to understand that. Thankfully, I’m not.