Lingo bingo

I was amused to notice, as the night wore on and spirits ascended, that much of the talk at our table was punctuated by warm and free exchanges of typically ‘Madrasi’ appellations such as ‘machaa’ and ‘poda’.

When in college, these friends had picked up such Tamil words from southies like me who had, in turn, immigrated to Bangalore from Chennai, Kerala and elsewhere. When I pointed out this welcome curiosity of madras bashai having infiltrated the capital, one friend retorted that I too had been saying “no, yaar” and “chalo, let’s go” and “bas, enough” an awful lot. “Whatay fellow!” he admonished, and then grinned placatingly. “But it’s all cool, da.” Ya. Coolness. He’d correctaa adichified the aani on the thalai.

In a TED conference some years ago, Wade Davis, an eminent anthropologist of the National Geographic Society, began his talk on the necessity for cultural pluralism by reminding his predominantly western audience that “the world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality.” A considerably less subtle counterpoint to this argument — touted, audaciously, as an extension of it — can be seen in the politics of some of our right-wing regional(ist?) parties. These people are driven by a hard-line cultural nationalism, threatened by the invasion of their capital cities by opportunistic literates from other states.

Their ideologies and campaign policies are centered on the perceived superiority of the local language and culture. To that end, they elevate a few carefully chosen, suitably conservative artefacts – appropriate pieces of literature, music, architecture, history and art — as a representation of that culture and language, ignoring more inclusive others, resulting in an insecure and incomplete concoction that is naively force-fed to people as if an ailing collective consciousness were being medicated.

Frighteningly, they sometimes succeed. In my own early days in Bangalore, before I had figured out the basics of Kannada, I’ve gotten into several unpleasant confrontations with auto drivers out to practice their store-bought chauvinism on hapless newcomers. I’ve been yelled at and even attacked by the odd traffic cop or rash driver who dislikes my insufficient English, Hindi or Tamil. Most uncool.

The point, however, is that popular culture cannot be curated by anyone. While it is true that language loss contributes to a proportionate loss of variety in the world, it is also true that the preservation of one’s own culture cannot be achieved via the destruction of another’s. If people are to latch onto a good thing, it needs to be treated like a good thing.

Language cannot be caged and bound within the narrow confines of a singular vision. It is a fluid, plasmatic, growing animal, at the heart of which is the simple need to communicate and entertain, whatever means such communication might take.

And so it is that the way of accomplishing anything, of making cultures persuasive, and the way the world is constantly being changed — as lingo-neutral younger generations, as well as my Delhi friends, will testify — is by making the local more global, by turning the patriarchal into patois, and by weaving a good story around it. Languages keep growing or receding or seeding, spreading like a virus or dying like flies in the summer heat. And if they are to sustain cultures and stay strong, we must on the one hand stop resisting their metamorphosis and become intrepid polyglots, while, on the other, create exciting vehicles for their propagation. We must embrace diversity and — not to put too fine a point on it — solpa adjust maadi.
VINAYAK VARMA

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