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Mind your english vinglish

‘Can I have some jalapenos on the side please,’ I request the server at a popular south Delhi restaurant, as I always do while having Italian. But instead of the ‘Yes, mam’ I was expecting, I am faced with a question, ‘Which side, mam?’ I look up quickly, ready to rebuke him for his cheekiness, but am stopped by the polite look on his young face. I realise he really hasn’t understood what I had said and I couldn’t begin to fathom what he had made of my request. ‘Ummm… just get me some extra jalapenos’, I clarify, hardly able to keep a straight face till he turns and leaves.

I am out for lunch with my friends to celebrate their Independence Day holiday (before I make my way to office. And no, I wasn’t overly depressed about it. Ten years spent as a journalist makes you immune to people having fun, while you slog. But that is hardly the focus here!). As soon as our server is out of earshot I dissolve into giggles, joined by two of my friends. But if you have friends, you will know that in a situation like this there will always be one attempting the moral high-ground.
‘Oh! Stop it. So the poor guy doesn’t know proper English. Why is that so funny? You are as bad as Sridevi’s insensitive family in English Vinglish,’ says the friend taking the moral high-ground, referring to a recent Bollywood film, Sri Devi’s comeback venture where the actress’ screen family makes fun of her and feels embarrassed by her lack of prowess in spoken English.

My friend ‘tsked tsked’ disapprovingly, reducing the rest of us to guilty silences. ‘That too on Independence Day,’ she continues. ‘Making fun of a fellow Indian for not knowing a foreign language properly… Do you people have no sense of nationalism,’ questions my morally upright friend, while the rest of us fume in silence.

It was only later, while going through some badly-written news copies in office that I could put my finger on the inherent flaw in the argument of my morally-upright friend – which is, what has learning a language got to do with one’s pride in one’s national identity. I have seen English Vinglish and been disturbed by Sri Devi’s screen daughter’s behaviour towards her. While I am pretty confident that I can never sink as low as to want to keep my mother away from a parent-teacher meeting for not knowing the language, I had inwardly cheered when sick of not being able to order even a cup of capuchino for herself in USA, she decides to face her demons and enrols herself for spoken English classes.

Plus, the restaurant we had gone to claims to offer a certain kind of service. Its servers have been trained to cater to global customers. In which case they better be comfortable with the global language of communication which, whether one likes it or not, is English. I wouldn’t expect that kind of service at a dhaba or udipi or a small Bengali cuisine eatery. There, if the server knows English it’s a plus, if they don’t you just have to find a way of making them understand your order even if you don’t speak their language. But in a posh restaurant, that offers you a selection of wines to pair with your choice of pasta, knowledge of English is expected.

I confess I can be conservative with the language. I don’t particularly support the use of pre-pone, even though it has made its way to the Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t expect everyone to share my fuss over the tongue. I can even accept that local inflections might enrich the language. But at a time when foreign brands are making their presence felt in the Indian market and Indians are dreaming of earning in dollars, a decent knowledge of English is necessary. At least, till the time we don’t make our own economy so strong that we can ignore jobs outsourced from the West.

As long as we can’t shut the rest of the world out, however, isn’t it stupid to talk of depriving school children of English lessons in their formative years from a misplaced sense of nationalism (as some regional political parties have over the years). And even if we set aside the economic benefits, why must one’s knowledge of one’s mother-tongue come at the expense of knowing English, a language that has been globally accepted and imbibed. Is it so difficult to learn to say hello and namaste simultaneously?

Knowledge of any subject or language is good and a truly strong individual balances a strong sense of one’s own identity with the ability to imbibe all that is good in another.  Let every Indian be that individual.

After so many years of Independence, it is time to lose the colonial baggage. And by that I don’t mean stopping the use of English or British names for cities or streets, but quite the opposite. It’s times to stop cowering from the Boogeyman called ‘Western Influence’ that some ill-informed individuals would like us to blame for all our societal ills. It’s time to cut out the age-old crap on why Indian women shouldn’t wear jeans, or Indian youths not celebrate Valentine’s Day or spend time on Facebook.  It’s time to make constructive changes to society, to stand up and take responsibility for all that’s good and all that’s going wrong here. And let our nationalism reflect not in our speech or attire, but every act undertaken to help India progress.
Poulomi Banerjee is senior assistant editor at Millennium Post

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