For the past 10 years, I have earned a living by speaking before a camera and holding a microphone. So, it's not natural for me to get goosebumps when asked to speak before a live audience. I was invited by the National Book Trust to be part of a panel discussion at a book fair in Nazira, an oil township of Upper Assam. The topic was the role of mass media in promoting reading habit. The subject was not daunting but the challenge was to express myself in Assamese!
Wait a minute. Isn't Assamese the language I first learnt to describe the world around me? Isn't it the language that my mother would have instructed me in to help me take the first few baby steps? Yet, I wasn't equipped enough to speak in Assamese at a public forum. I was rather annoyed at my failing. But I was left wondering if the flaw was an individual one or systemic!
True that I went to a school where the medium of instruction was English. But here is the irony: many of us would hesitate to have a long conversation with our teachers because we had to speak in English. Our skills were limited to monosyllables. Yes, no, may I go to toilet usually circumscribed the limits of my conversation until fifth or sixth standard. I had no such problems though in writing perfectly comprehensible sentences or reading Hardy Boys or the Famous Five.
Now, 25 years later, the language of my preference has swapped places. So, when and how did this metamorphosis happen? English is an aspirational language and if you have a reasonably good command, it opens up many a door and a few windows perhaps! At any post-match awards ceremony, if a cricketer can't speak in English with Shaz and Waz (Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram), you think of them as "uncool". In our homes, a cousin who can speak in English is taken more seriously if not looked at in awe!
Middle class India represents aspiration and the choice seems to be a clear one: master English if you want doors and windows opened up for you. In my case, what this meant is that I focused on learning Assamese only to the extent of passing my 10th standard exam.
Thereafter, it would always be a case of opting what middle class India aspires for, English. I have not mastered the language yet but as I moved from Guwahati to Delhi, changed my academic course from Economics to Sociology, switched professions - from publishing to journalism - the distance between me and Assamese kept growing.
I would speak in Assamese with my family and friends but in an anglicised way. My learning in school and the curriculum never gave me the confidence or knowledge to be able to deliver a talk in my language two decades after I left school. No doubt, the failure was individual but it reflects the emphasis of our system!
English, like French, Spanish, German or Portuguese, was a language that "natives" needed to learn to be able to communicate with their colonial masters. It was also linked to the economic strength and political clout of these colonial powers. But in the 21st century world, hierarchies have been overturned. Make no mistake, the principle remains the same: Importance of your language depends on how developed your economy is and your political clout.
China exemplifies this change. Given the size of the Chinese economy, purchasing power and a huge consuming market, China has simply reversed the order. Mandarin is widely spoken not just because China is the most populous country but because the global economy simply can't do without it! Made in China is a label that none of us can ignore and knowing Chinese culture, language and the political system is a necessity.
But my immediate problem at the Nazira Book Fair was neither the global economy nor China. It was an existential problem of being able to speak to your own people in your own language. I decided that honesty is the best policy and shared my thoughts in a mix of English and conversational Assamese. But I knew what I had to do once the discussion, "Talking Books Linking Minds", was over. Once again, I had to buy books to rediscover my own language and keep my links intact back home.
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