Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Celebrating the river

Celebrating the river
The Hindu

Bangalore is home to many language streams that all flow into the same river

I'm stocking up on pre-bandh vegetables at my usual vendor when a grey-haired man appears by my side. The vendor and her teenaged children greet him with the warmth reserved for a family friend whom one hasn't seen in a while. "Lost your way?" asks the woman. "Did you reach here by mistake?" Going by the conversation, he's an old neighbour who had moved away. They exchange news of their families and there is talk of a house he has rented.

"The landlords are Malayalis, aren't they?" asks the daughter.

"No, they are Kannadigas," he insists, suggesting that they have been here long enough to earn that tag. The subject of the bandh comes up and the daughter teases "uncle" about his "different" Kannada accent.

"That is how people in my ooru speak Kannada," uncle says.

Which village is that? They want to know.

"Vaniambady," he replies.

"That's in Tamil Nadu," the vendor cries and her children laugh raucously. I wag my finger at her in a stop-being-naughty manner and leave them to their affectionate ribbing.

This is not the first time that I've heard ordinary people joke about their differences. Every time the city prepares for mass tension caused by conflict over language or community, I overhear someone from the dominant side pull the leg of a comrade who might be feeling defensive about who he is. I think it's a subtle way of including the other, of reassuring him that this is his home.

Bangalore is home to many language streams that all flow into the same river. They intermingle, and the colour of one runs into the other, so that no stream looks the same as it did when it originated. Just as there is a Bangalore Kannada (peppered with English and Urdu) which is distinct from that spoken in any other part of the State, there are Bangalore versions of other languages, Tamil included. The generation of older migrants (like the uncle in the vendor story) might have funny accents when speaking Kannada but their children, who are first generation Bangaloreans, are native speakers of the language and their accents are hilarious only when they speak their mother tongue!

Most of the time, in this city, we cannot make out the mother-tongue of the man on the street. Some years ago I overheard a young man sitting behind me in the bus excitedly describing to his friend a traffic accident he had seen. His Kannada was rapid-fire and I noticed that his speech was exploding with sharp, onomatopoeic expressions: surrrr, taka-taka-taka-taka, damarrr, zwy-yn zwy-yn, and many others that are impossible to transcribe. Well, I didn't need to be much of a linguist to figure that one out. And I didn't have to wait long for my guess to be confirmed. A few minutes later the speaker's friend spoke a couple of sentences in Tamil. Putting on my Sherlock Holmes cap, what I could deduce was this: the speaker was Tamil but spoke in Kannada because his friend was a Kannadiga. And his friend uttered a Tamil sentence or two because that's what we normally do — we try and speak to our friends in the language that comes easiest to them.

That's what we normally do. But abnormal situations provoke abnormal reactions. Politics determines what language you speak or do not. Teasing turns to taunting and a joke into a jibe. The xerox of Dr Rakjumar's picture starts appearing once again on the windows of white cabs and outside malls and mega stores. The red-and-yellow flag outside the glass-walled corporate office begs, "Don't stone me, please." A theatre stops playing a movie because although it's a Hindi film its director is Tamil. And someone automatically crosses out the word "Tamil" written on a wall in capital letters and substitutes it with the word "Kannada", which now makes no sense because the graffiti is about Tamil Eelam, and who ever heard of Kannada Eelam?

Abnormal situations provoke abnormal — and absurd — reactions. When the air is charged with hostility we become hypersensitive to our fellow citizen's social identity and judge his views accordingly. I entered into a conversation with an autodriver on the Saturday before the bandh, when people took out the first procession against the decision on the Cauvery. The driver spoke about the struggle in a balanced fashion. "People might protest," he said, "but there is no use because once the court has decided we cannot do anything about it. We must follow what the tribunal has lain down. The bandh won't make a difference except to the daily earnings of people like me." Then I stole a glance at his identity pasted on the board behind his seat. It stated that he was a Raju from Benson Town. I immediately put name and locality together and drew my own conclusions. Earlier, I had found his stand reasonable, but now I suspected he might be biased.

And that, my multi-coloured friends, is how slime enters the stream and the river gains an ugly hue. Call me an old romantic but I have faith in the river. I think it can heal itself, rid itself of transient stains. Let's celebrate its vigour and hope it remains unsullied forever.


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