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The Politics of Language

April 5, 2014

More than a decade ago, when it was proposed that every bus in Karnataka had to have the bus number in Kannada as well, I thought it was ridiculous. Buses are for the public and there are plenty of people in the state who cannot read Kannada. Hell, even people who read Kannada take a minute to decipher the numbers as we are so used to the English numbers. It was then proposed that it be made mandatory for everyone living in Bangalore to learn Kannada. I thought this was a little silly too. Then they said let every kid in school learn Kannada and I merely shrugged. Kids can learn more languages easily and one more language is always good.

But when I heard that Nandan Nilekani, the former chief of Infosys and current Congress candidate from South Bangalore, tried to give an election speech in English and was booed out of the auditorium, I strangely understood.

English is a language I use more than Kannada. I write in English. I talk more in English. Yet, it was somehow blasphemous that a potential political candidate would use English in his speech.

There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, South Bangalore is one of the oldest parts of Bangalore. Though there is a mix of people from other cultures – Tamilians, Telugites etc, Kannada is the predominant language in this reason. Most people know and use this language to interact with neighbours, regardless of what they speak indoors.

Secondly, Kannada has been struggling against the massive influx of other languages. The Kannada pride, as that may be, is much lesser than seen in other languages. We do not insist on parading the language, or insist on being fanatical like some neighbouring states. The dialects in this language are also quite varied. For instance, a person from South Karnataka can barely understand the Kannada spoken in the northern regions of the state, though they are both technically speaking the same language.

The cultural support that exists for the language hurts it more than it would have perhaps if there was none. Most people who are locals shudder at the thought of watching a Kannada movie, particularly in the theater. The film community, in an attempt to ‘safeguard’ the language, have various restrictions that include no dubbing of other movies into Kannada, no taxes for Kannada movies and reserving a certain percentage of movie screens across Bangalore for Kannada movies alone.

Despite these moves, much of the upper middle class rarely watches a Kannada movie in the theatres. The reason? The movies have bad storylines, worse acting, over-the-top sequences and are made by a monopolistic family. New talent in the field has to have the approval of the ‘first family’ of the industry.

Movies increasingly are the one way to sustain and show cultural changes, and Kannada movies seem to be a couple of decades behind. (Okay… slight exaggeration).

For most people in Bangalore, knowing Kannada is an afterthought and not a requirement. The basic respect for the language and the locals is being trampled by stronger outer influences. Which makes the locals quite nervous about their cultural identity, hence antagonistic about these outside influences.

Bangaloreans, by nature, are easy going to the point of laziness.

But this unspoken and subtle threat against the identity is causing a subtle shift in the easy going nature and making way for impatience and frustration. The easygoing nature, as one person said, is often mistaken for stupidity.

Naturally, when the person who is supposed to represent you, thereby your identity, to the nation, tries to speak in an absolute foreign language, you would get booed out. It does not matter if you think that half your audience is made of “other” people. While you do have a responsibility to them, you also hold an equally important responsibility towards the identity of the state, its culture, heritage and language. You cannot completely alienate that by talking about ‘issues’ to a global audience. This is not Infosys, which is an Bangalore-borne Indian company, supported by several identities.

The sheer lack of respect for the locals has been grating for a while. The slight wrinkling of the nose when one talks about “Bangaloreans” or the locals is quite pissing off. The slight pause in conversation when I claim to be a Kannnadiga to someone who is talking about all the ‘modern’ things of clubbing, partying etc. Bangalore would not have been known as the pub city if its residents were truly orthodox. They’ve definitely grown orthodox, perhaps as a reaction to the crazy invasion of other cultures. The invasion of rudeness. The invasion of jugaad. The invasion of ‘it is okay to hit you car and then beat you up’. The invasion of people who think that the locals are slow and stupid because they were polite to you.

I’ve heard often enough that it is easier to get an auto if you speak the local language. That isn’t really true. But yes, sometimes it helps us to establish our ‘localness’ and knowledge of the place and the fact that we aren’t going to bargain for a ride. It helps us to tell the driver to put the meter on and not hop into it agreeing to whatever price is quoted and fight for it later. The autos do overcharge, but they do it because someone brought in the culture of bargaining here. Because someone discounted the price of fair and hard work. I grew up in the city where an auto driver would ferry a woman and her kids home without any extra charge or fuss because it was raining cats and dogs. I grew up in the city where people would stop and help you figure out what was wrong with your vehicle if you were stranded in the middle of the road.

I grew up in a place where the neighours would happily feed your kids if you were late from work. I don’t know when that niceness was interpreted as “stupid”.

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