She speaks 5 languages fluently.
That was why, she’d been mistaken to be somebody from North India, from Tamil Nadu and from Andhra Pradesh, from time to time, though she is from none of these regions.
Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood – she loved watching movies that represented each of the five languages she knew – languages she learned with effort when she kept shifting schools because her daddy worked with a paramilitary force and was transferred to a new region every three years.
When she hops into an auto or a cab, or walks into a shop, or speaks with somebody new, she keeps rotating languages till she finds one the person who she communicates with is the most comfortable and then continues conversing accordingly.
Two days ago, after exiting the train station, she was getting late for office and waved at a passing auto-rickshaw. Her office is just about a kilometre from the train station but she would be late if she walked that day.
When the driver stopped, she asked the driver for the fare in Hindi, because most drivers knew the most widely spoken language in the country and she had not picked the local tongue yet.
He stared at her for a second and then sensing the hurry asked twice the regular rate. She hesitated and remarked “Kya Bhaiya. Aap itna zyaada kyun mangta?” (Why so much?) but hopped on because there was no other ‘auto’ in sight and reaching office on time was of paramount importance.
En-route, he questioned her why she didn’t speak the local language…
She blinked and a reply with a smile and replied, addressing him has ‘Bhaiya’ (Elder brother in Hindi – for those who unfamiliar with the language).”Brother, you anyway understand what I said then why does it matter as long as we can communicate”
“You are here so you must learn the local language” he replied in Hindi
“There are so many people who go abroad and work, they don’t all learn the local language always. Do they? Look at our fellow Indians who work in the Middle East – how many of them can speak Arabic? Either way we are still in India only not another country. Are we?” she remarked rhetorically with a laugh.
“I don’t go to work there. You are the one who came here. You must learn” he replied gruffly.
“But my work isn’t in the local language and therefore I don’t need to. I can speak in Hindi or English like you do too, if it’s just for communication” she replied innocently in defence.
His tone changed and she sensed his vexation.She kept quiet when his voice started rising.
In his broken though understandable Hindi, he complained about people not learning the local language but who don’t mind coming to work in the city. His voice was had a continous tone of aggression and he spoke non-stop.
She kept quiet and listened – it was futile to argue.
She thought to herself – here she was in her OWN country, not a different one and yet she was made to feel like an alien who just committed a crime because she couldn’t speak a language that was spoken in one particular state of the country’s 29 states.
Her work required no knowledge of the local language (official work was always in English) and it was just not practical to learn a local language in a country which has a new language every 300 kilometres – especially not when she was working 9 hours day, after spending 2 hours in traffic daily for 6 days a week and certainly not when she wasn’t sure how long she’d be working there before shifting again.
The last time she learned a new language, she was still in school. Her linguistic ability was far more than that of an average Indian, and yet it was not the first time she was discriminated and targeted because she didn’t know a particular regional language.
It wasn’t new phenomenon in this city either.
She’s heard of the times when somebody from outside the state got into a confrontation with a local and was abused when it was evident the person didn’t speak the local language.
She’s heard stories from her friends who’d been targeted by police, rickshaw drivers, and the average street ruffian for not knowing their language.
She was careful like most others to not get into a tussle with locals – irrespective of whether she was right.
India is an example of unity in diversity – that’s what she was taught all those years in school….
It was diverse undoubtedly; but unity in diversity? That was another point altogether. Had there been such unity, crossing the state border wouldn’t have felt like crossing into a different country altogether…
Actually, she’s seen this problem in other cities and in other states too – but for a city that considered vibrant and cosmopolitan, it was ironic how these artificial barriers were so pronounced.
When the short ride came to an end, she got off and handed over the money he had asked for earlier.
He grabbed it thanklessly.
He knew she won’t argue for overcharging her unlike the locals who wouldn’t put up with him for charging unjustifiable fare.
He saw on her face that she was annoyed by his talk. He smirked, without being the least bit perturbed.
He remarked something in his native tongue, gestured with his hand – in full awareness of the fact that she wouldn’t understand what he said and then rode away…
She stared for a second, anger rising and wanted to argue. But then let it go.
How she wished language would just remain what it is supposed to be – a tool for communication, rather than what it’s become – a tool for harassment, and a tool for creating invisible barriers among people of the same country.
She sighed, and rushed into office. She has bigger things to worry about in the strenuous day ahead. Maybe if she lived here long enough, she would attempt to learn the language once her hectic pace of life slowed down. Till then, she couldn’t do much.
This woman is the face of the average hard working citizen in the city.
She may not speak the local language, but brings in value to the community she becomes part of. She gives more than she takes and is the heart and soul of a thriving economy that sustains itself because of millions like her – honest working-class, tax payers. And are they any less citizens because they speak one language too less? Not really..
Sometimes societies need to learn to simply live and let live…