This is a story about how inferiority seeps deep inside those born in Sanatan Dharma regarding their traditions, attire, language and spirituality has not happened in some natural and organic way but has been systematically cultivated. Not only that, this is done in ways that are so subtle, that they can be easily missed and the phenomenon of people losing their roots can be wrongly attributed to globalization, technological progress and conveniently called a natural evolution of a society.
It is a personal story. Its personal nature guarantees its precision but the incidents narrated are just a means towards an end and should not be taken as a generalization for any type of school or people and it definitely must not be assumed that every person in the similar situation goes through the same.
A child of 5 years was presented before a panel of two Christian nuns, a Father and a male teacher. A strenuous conversation took place in the English language. My English was mostly a word to word translation of Hindi with little regard for English grammar. This, at one point in the interview, evoked extreme laughter from the panel.
It might have been a harmless enjoyment of a child’s stupidity from their perspective, but I still remember it as my first embarrassment of a certain kind, the kind I still feel when my friend corrects my pronunciation. Like with all other schools, I was certain that I would not be admitted there and that I was done with that place for good. However, it wasn’t so and somehow I was admitted.
For more than a year I struggled and begged my parents repeatedly to send me to some ‘Hindi School’. The answer was always an emphatic no and that I needed ‘hardwork’ and ‘discipline’. In the subsequent years, every day in the morning I got to know how great Jesus was, had memorized at least a dozen hymns and a number of Christmas carols, and begged ‘our Father in heaven’ for my daily bread and thanked him for the ones I was given.
I read as much English literature as I could lay my hands on, in order to make sure that no one could embarrass me for improper English. If this was all the effective promotion of English in various ways had had on me, it would have been great. But, this obsession went even further; scoring well in all other subjects and badly in Hindi and other Indian languages became a status symbol. Listening to Punjabi songs made one ‘Pendu’ (from the village or pind) and those who could sing one line of an English song were held in awe. There was no formal impetus for this, but somehow those reciting Tennyson won competitions and class monitor’s primary duty was to list names of students who spoke in Hindi between classes.
Some years later, in 5th standard, due to compulsions of law, to which now I am extremely grateful, the school authorities had to offer Panjabi too. Once, I was made to read aloud a passage from a book in a class of 50 students and I fumbled repeatedly. This time not four, but more than 50 people laughed at me and all I felt was a mild amusement and not a tinge of embarrassment.
Was the type of laughter different? Why was I comfortable, if not proud, of my inability to read simple sentences of my mother tongue? How does a society raise a child such that by the age of 10 he is ashamed of his own language and proud of not knowing it? Why did the parents not see a problem when students were charged a fine for not speaking in English? Why did the parents not retaliate? Are the laws which enable such language chauvinist institutions justified? In how many other non-English speaking countries is the phrase ‘English Medium’ worshipped?
A decade after the first incident, in 12th standard, the first lesson of my English book was ‘The Last Lesson’ by the French novelist Alphonse Daudet. The story is about a teacher delivering his last French lesson when the Prussians have taken over their territory. The author narrates the classroom incidents from the character of a student – “Then, from one thing to another, M. Hamel (the teacher) went on to talk of the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world – the clearest, the most logical; that we must regard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison”. The chapter had made me slightly uneasy, but a student of the 12th standard does not have the luxury to dwell too much on feelings since he/she is made to believe that it is the last lap of the rat race (obviously, wrongly so!).
Almost a decade has passed since then. Recently, because of the universe’s inclination towards completing full circles, I found my copy of the English book with the Last Lesson, while looking for an elementary Samskritam book in old books. Rereading the chapter made me realize the essence of it and this time I could empathize with the author.
Not only that, as I turned the pages and reached the exercise section of the chapter, I see a peculiar question “Is it possible to carry pride in one’s language too far? Do you know what linguistic chauvinism means?” Scribbled alongside it are the following words ‘Marathi’, ‘Punjabi on buses and government offices’ and ‘south Indians in north India’. That question is where the system puts itself to test, and my scribblings are the testimony to its victory. The training was successful and the metamorphosis of a Hindu into a Hindu ‘liberal’ was complete, the moment those words were scribbled (and were probably elaborated in the exams that would have followed).
The harder I think, the more I realize that not knowing Samskritam, locking ourselves out of our culture is the most harmful thing that we have done to ourselves. The misinterpretations of our texts, intentional or otherwise, us consuming those misinterpretations and all the problems that follow can be tackled to a great extent by just knowing the language.
Quoting Daudet again, “..because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language, it is as if they had the key to their prison”.
I implore you all to just pick up the key to your prison. While I am thoroughly colonized in my mind and have deep-seated inferiority complexes about my civilizational values, I still harbour some pride for Sanskrit. All that needs to be done, is to actually know the language and be able to justify that pride.