Leaving Home Meant Losing My Mother Tongue

As I spoke more English and less Hindi, I worried I was displacing my roots

Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash

I was in the first grade, age five, when I was awarded a hamper for being the “Best English Language” student. During the subsequent parents’ meeting my class teacher complimented my parents for their hard work on my language skills. Ever so proud my parents beamed, “We talk in English at home.”

Born in a small north Indian town, Kanpur, Hindi was the language in which I conducted everyday domestic life. English was the lingua franca of my school life and, by extension, my social life. The third was not so much a language but a rural dialect of my mother’s native tongue, Hindi, called Dehati. My parents were obviously lying, like any proud parents. 

Hindi was the language in which I conducted everyday domestic life. English was the lingua franca of my school life and, by extension, my social life.

Discombobulated as I was by the shift in languages between home and school, I was never alert to Dehati being spoken around. As a language, Dehati had a way of coming and going from my life; the constant tug and pull of Hindi and English were sufficient to take my mind from anything that fell outside their ambit. That I started school at the age of three wasn’t of much help either. School always meant the pressure of thrusting English upon me, first thing in the morning until I returned home in the afternoon. Home meant the relative ease of functioning in Hindi. After a while, though, I began sliding between the two seamlessly.

My mother and I traveled regularly to her place of birth, a village forty kilometers from Kanpur, Amaur. These sojourns were short enough for me to not skip school, but long enough for my language skills to flit from one dwelling to the other. For these weekend getaways I would borrow a book from the school library, reading it in the car to the village, often squeezing in a few pages while lingering in a post-lunch state of nothingness. In retrospect, I realize that those Goosebumps, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drews were a way for me to find anchor in a language I was hoping to learn the insides of. What I didn’t realize then was that it came at a cost. I was so afraid of being unlanguaged, that I couldn’t bear the thought of not being in the physical company of English. Hence kept carrying the books along. 

This directly reflects on the known fact that one of India’s most incredible aspects is its wealth of languages. Academic Peggy Mohan’s new book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Language delves into the early history of South Asia, revealing how migration—both external and internal—has shaped both Indians and Indian languages from ancient times. In it Mohan hints at various divergences in the Indian languages, writing about the emergence of Hindi and Urdu. She takes us through history and how the dawn of the Mughals and the rise of the British gave rise to the divide and rule policy even with language.

I was so afraid of being unlanguaged, that I couldn’t bear the thought of not being in the physical company of English.

From a very young age, these three languages subliminally became a metaphor for different parts of my life. Dehati became my past and everything from those times that was dear to me. Hindi represents my family and the connection to my emotional and moral side. In deeply emotional times, I often find myself mentally referring to Hindi. However, English is the “now” in my life, my connection to the world around me in Delhi, the world I have created away from home, from Hindi, from Dehati, in and around English. English is my life source, my life its function. I work—read, write, and edit—in English, I converse with my partner in English, and I spend my time thinking only in English.

In 2008 I left my parents’ home—first to study, then to work, both in various parts of India and then for a brief time in Cardiff, Wales. And unlike my mother who created a semblance of her parents’ house in her in-law’s home, I had little patience for anything old. The structure of my life had already been shifting, steadily if invisibly, even when I lived with my parents. And now that I was away, I was fully different. This bled into my eating habits, my approach to culture, to languages, and to the world at large. Not only did I lose immediate touch with Dehati: I also slowly started forgetting Hindi words, spellings, pronunciations.  

The transition from operating mainly in Hindi to operating in English was made for pressing economic reasons—the best job opportunities were English-based. My mother spoke little English at first; my father relied on the meager word base he had accumulated during his office hours, and he mixed up tenses, pronunciations, grammar, seemingly all of it.

The intonation, aural feel, and written texture of my Hindi now stands forever altered in the face of all the English words.

Nonetheless, neither of my parents lamented the fact that thrusting a new, foreign language on a child from that young an age meant that child would drift away from their native tongue. In this way, this shift was also a marker of intellectual growth, for me. My English was a way for my parents to intermittently show the leisure and lightheartedness of my new language surroundings. I could recite poetry about strange flowers (daffodils) written by “cultured English men” (William Wordsworth). This was what educating their children was for. In a section in Wanderers, Kings, Merchants, Mohan cites a study where researchers ask a group of “Hinglish” speakers to talk only in Hindi. When none of the speakers (who claimed to be “bilingual”) could talk in Hindi without using English language words, she cites it as the basic difference between “bilingualism and diglossia.” In the former, a person is comfortable in both languages, while in the latter, there is a hierarchy, with one language being dominant—something that is increasingly happening with some upwardly mobile north Indians like me.

I am effectively unable to compose a sentence in Hindi, or Dehati, without interspersing English words into it. As a kid, we were taught to learn English in such a way as to be able to do exactly this—be unable to construct a sentence without it. But now I could feel the pang. I felt left behind, outnumbered, and out of touch. During weekly calls with my mother, as much as I try not to use English words, and to talk only in Hindi, it feels more and more impossible. In moving away from home 13 years ago, and then with the gradual decline in the number of visits I made home, I had already lost touch with Dehati. And it was almost as if it was happening all over again with Hindi. During my childhood, English was for showing off, for use outside the house. Now, it had percolated down to the daily exigencies of life. I couldn’t go a single hour in a day without thinking, speaking, or writing in it. Even while texting with my mother, I typed Hindi words using the English alphabet.

In the book Mohan finds resemblance between linguistics and genetics. She writes how over time, a language mutates when populations split up and move around. Without continuous interaction, dialects spoken by these people end up splitting to the point of no return. New languages with no way of tracing them back to their roots take birth, leaving mystifying trails behind. That’s how Latin mutated to French, Spanish, and Italian. A bhasha (language), Mohan says, will borrow words from other languages, but the base language will remain the same. Thus, English remains a Germanic language, despite the French and Latin words that perforate it. Similarly, Sanskrit transforms to Hindi, Bengali, and (almost) all the languages of the northern part of the subcontinent, even as Sanskrit common words continue to perfume each one of them. 

As language has always been a stand-in for people, there is also the threat that they tend to impose onto one another. My own languages, including Hindi and its rural dialect Dehati, face this threat first from English, then Hinglish. This happens as I write, speak, even think. Mohan said in an interview, “A language dies because it gets replaced by another one that brings more benefits for the next generation.” The intonation, aural feel, and written texture of my Hindi now stands forever altered in the face of all the English words I keep peppering it with. It is freighted then, that all this conversation and thinking I’ve been doing and having with myself has been in English.

The English language endeared itself to me in its poetry and prose. I started reading it when I was hardly three and started writing soon after. Hindi poetry was rigid, it felt distant, while English was more accessible, even from a younger age. In my twenties, I did come to love Hindi-language prose and poetry, but never quite in the same way. The Hindi language that appeared in the newspapers, magazines, and advertisements, was quite aloof both from the tongue we spoke at home, and which appeared in the books I read. It was hard, and cold, and implied resistance and mythology. It felt antiquated and out of touch as I was unable to express what I felt, saw or read, in archaic Hindi words. Reading, writing in English signified a major shift generationally, while Hindi meant that I was not advancing with my age. 

I was born to a reasonably middle-class family, where even in extended family English was a far-reaching afterthought. Thus learning it, belaboring through it, and eventually mastering it became my way of transcending class lines. While English was a language I heard spouted from the mouths of the more urban and well-connected people I knew even as a kid, Hindi meant a homely way of being, which in turn meant that I could take it for granted. Two degrees removed from this was Dehati. I knew no one outside of my mother’s village who spoke it—even my mother didn’t.  

During weekly calls with my mother, as much as I try not to use English words, and to talk only in Hindi, it feels more and more impossible.

Mohan adds, “by the time the look of the language is affected, it is essentially dead, with very few old people still speaking it.” English has come to occupy an exalted space in the space of our culture, often given more importance than the regional languages because of the access it brings, its cultural as well as sociopolitical capital, codes, and acceptability. This has invariably resulted in a stultification of all local languages that are simply getting taken over. This is especially so in North India. Mohan explains why: “…the first languages spoken by children include large chunks from another language — Hinglish, for example. English enters the lexicon way before children have learnt their first language.” Mohan goes on to say that this kind of constant language perforation, overlapping, co-existing should not be mistaken for bilingualism.

In college I stopped writing, or even reading, English language prose and poetry. I was obviously doubtful of my talent (still am) and also found it redundant as my bachelor’s was in law. Curiously enough then, I turned my attention to mathematics, nursing it as a passion I never really had the time to delve into. It was toward the end of law school when a friend shared an audio clip of Jim Morrison’s 1978 American Prayer, when something shifted.

In my twenties, I did come to love Hindi-language prose and poetry, but never quite in the same way.

In it Morrison writes, “I touched her thigh and death smiled,” and it exemplified for me the simplicity of the English language. “The moths and atheists are doubly divine and dying / We live, we die, and death not ends it,” recites a besotted Morrison. The poem almost screamed at me like a reachable form of literature. It was laconic, plain, unadorned speech, resolutely flat. And it contained a whole landscape of meanings: of life, the medias, and existential angst. In his verité-defying style, Morrison was calling for a larger societal change, but in that he also awoke in me a lost love for the English language. 

In Wanderers, Kings, Merchants, Mohan, a linguist, novelist, academic, and teacher, writes about how certain characteristics of a language can tell us about the history of its speakers. She parses languages to uncover the imprints of historical migration patterns. In that she also displays how power shifts as populations mingle. In doing so, Mohan also lays bare the astounding argument that all Indians are of mixed origins. It made me realize how my own identity, then—rooted in these three languages—is a composite, and that I am not entirely an Indian without these three.

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