But it got me thinking. Several years ago, I started using ‘Namaskar’ as my greeting. Admittedly, it is not the most common greeting in the business world, but is it such a strange event in India that it should evoke amused surprise? Would a local saying ‘hola’ in Lisbon cause similar merriment?
But in India, English is the badge that says upper class. Indeed, mispronouncing Bhatavdekar or Kanimozhi is evidence of one’s elite status, but mispronouncing Sarkozy as Surrkoji is unpardonable. Badly spoken English is an invitation to purgatory.
Some will find supportive evidence that all is well in vernacular country, in things such as the findings of media surveys. In 2009 the IRS found that Dainik Jagran alone had almost 1.5 times the combined readership of the top TEN English dailies. And that Lokmat and Daily Thanthi each had more readers than the combined readership of the TOI and HT. However, these data are misleading.
Though just 10% of Indians are estimated to know it, English is the language of disproportionate influence. Taleb in ‘The black swan’ calls it ‘preferential attachment’ (emphasis mine): “A great illustration of preferential attachment can be seen in the mushrooming use of English as a lingua franca ... because people need to use one single language...when they are having a conversation... whatever language appears to have the upper hand ... will spread like an epidemic, and other languages will be rapidly dislodged.”
The desire to join the elite via the English classroom existed in the British Raj, but after the BPO and ITeS boom fluency in English moved up from being a social entry ticket to also becoming an economic gate pass.
Local languages in urban India become increasingly unnecessary - except for dealing with domestic help. No wonder the driver and maid want children to go to English-medium schools to escape from their social ghetto.
Reminders of this preferential attachment sit on our shop shelves. Most products in India have the brand names only or predominantly in English. Even Vandevi hing (asafoetida to you) and Everest kasuri methi have the name in English on the pack front!
Similar step-motherly treatment of Indian languages is observable in the terrible construction of language in TV commercials crudely translated and dubbed in say, Marathi and South Indian languages.
Moreover, vernacular dailies are increasingly incorporating English words into their content.
The cultural tipping point
However, it’s about more than pack labels and bad translations. The truth is that when a language dies, a culture dies. With the dwindling use of a language, we lose the universe of associations linked to it. Witness the state of Sanskrit, currently being kept barely alive on Government-sponsored linguistic dialysis machines.
Would our culture not be irredeemably poorer if one never again heard these verses from the Bhagvad Gita:
Yadaa yadaa hi dharmasya glaanirbhavati bhaarata/ Abhyutthaanam.h/ adharmasya tadaatmaanM sRRijaamyaham.h/ ParitrANAya sAdhUnA.n vinAshAya cha duShkRRitAm.h/ dharmasa.nsthApanArthAya sa.nbhavAmi yuge yuge
Consider Ghalib’s immortal sher: Kahaan maikhaane ka daravaazaa ‘Ghalib’ aur kahaan vaaiz/ par itanaa jaanate hain kal vo jaataa thaa ke ham nikale
So much of the soul of the ‘maikhaana’ and ‘vaaiiz’ has been lost in its translation: “The Sheikh hovers by the tavern door, but believe me, Ghalib, I am sure I saw him slip in, As I departed.”
Some will say I am getting unnecessarily emotional. After all, the Pali language died and humanity has chugged along cheerfully without it. Scientists believe that up to 20 percent of all living populations could become extinct by 2028. Why should language be immune to the laws of natural selection?
Maybe, as Bashir Badr wrote, all well be left with are memories: Ujaale apani yaadon ke hamaare saath rahane do/ Na jaane kis gali mein zindagi ki shaam ho jaaye
And no, I’m not going to translate it.