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Kanan Dhru Headshot

Killing Them Softly

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One of the biggest insecurities I faced as a child was not knowing English. I felt inadequate when I met people who were very fluent in conversing in English. I tried my level best to master the language.

'Think in English' my English teachers used to say - but it seemed that my mother tongue Gujarati was not leaving me easily. Almost always, I saw myself translating my thoughts from Gujarati to English. Going to a vernacular medium school was a handicap when it came to 'catching up' with the rest of the world.

Over time, I got hold of the language - like every other person who deeply aspires to learn something new. And as the years passed and as my exposure to the English language increased, I started to notice that I was automatically processing my thoughts in English! I remember being pleasantly surprised at this transition but by then even my circumstances had changed. The subconscious transition came at a point when I did not even feel any excitement about it as English had just become a way of life and I needed the language as an obvious necessity.

It was then that I discovered that in fact, I genuinely liked Gujarati: to write in it, to converse in it or just experience the joy of listening to good Gujarati being spoken.

I felt lost because slowly I was losing touch with Gujarati - my thoughts had already made a choice of the language they needed to express themselves in. There came a time when I couldn't think of the synonyms of certain words in Gujarati, and even when I tried to speak in Gujarati, I could not communicate a few sentences in it without mixing them with English. My original medium of expression, so close to my heart, was going away from me. I wondered if the over-exposure to a certain way of life was acting as both a cause and an effect in losing the grasp over my own mother tongue.

I was afraid. Gujarati is just not a language for me - it is my entire childhood jumbled up into infinite expressions - that I can never communicate in any other language. It is an articulation that has given me a voice from as long as I remember - the force with which I developed my first understandings of the world.

I felt lost for a reply every time someone 'complimented' me, saying 'you don't look like you are from a vernacular medium'. What was that supposed to mean, anyway?

In the tussle between the head and the heart, I felt as if I had lost a grip over where my heart belonged.

I recently realized that my choice of a medium of communication was not only about me! At a session that I attended at the Jaipur Literature Festival, it was discussed that the older societies have a lot to offer to the world through their traditional literature and cultivated thought processes across centuries. It is saddening, as someone said, that the students of philosophy in India are busy mugging up thoughts of the western thinkers, when they should also be cherishing their own heritage and presenting it confidently to the world.

One of the participating friends later opined: 'Unless we take pride in our local languages; understand and speak them fluently, how will be able to crystallize the thoughts from our traditions?' 'Because a bad interpretation is most dangerous', he concluded. While I agreed in harmony, I also felt a pang of shame in compromising my own mother tongue.

The way I choose to communicate also has an impact on the history of my language and the ideas expressed through generations. I felt responsible - for my choices, for living with my eyes blindfolded and for putting a wall against my heart.

Having spent the most formative years of my life growing up around a language and then moving away from it - consciously or unconsciously - is a painful fact to live in. That helpless pain - the pain of trying to hold on to a particular set of values against a strong wind with a tacit understanding that you will have to let go somehow, make some changes to your beliefs.

Even my choices bear a strong influence of the societal trends. How long could I have stayed under the inferiority complex of not being good enough just because I didn't speak a particular language?

It is sad that it has become a journey of choosing one over the other. What saddens me is the reverse incentive of losing the local language that has developed in our society - the lesser you speak the local language, the more modern you appear to be!

Of course, there are efforts being made to repackage Gujarati so that people can take pride in it. And still, there are millions of speakers of the language, which will make it difficult for the language to disappear, at least in my lifetime. But then again, there are thousands of victims - victims like me - of the changing times.

Indeed, the pressures of modernity have resulted in many casualties. In this battle between the head and the heart, the language with international acceptability, the language of future and opportunities and the language required for basic survival in today's world is likely to win hands down.

I know that I will make efforts to let the Gujarati language in me survive and survive thriving! I hope the language gets nurtured further in my identity - positively - such that it never gets associated with the feeling of an inferiority complex.

But... for the time being... I lament at the irony that even the sadness of losing my voice has been expressed through this article, not in a language to which I feel so deeply connected. The English teachers may have won their battles, but an expression has lost a deeply regrettable fight.