Mother of all tongues?

RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE

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One sultry afternoon, a lilting tune soothed the oppressive heat and wafted like a cool breeze into my drawing-room. It belonged to no particular genre of music but was compelling enough to draw me to the porch in search of the singer.

I spotted a little girl, barely nine or ten years old, sitting on the pavement and entertaining her two siblings — a toddler and her little brother. Their parents— both contract labourers— were helping in the construction of an underpass nearby. I beckoned to the girl and she readily came up to me, hoisting the toddler on her hip with her brother in tow. They made a joyful trio and seemed to have no care in the world. The sun-baked hot pavement did not seem to scorch their tender bare feet or the eagerness on their faces.

I complimented the little singer and asked her who taught her the tune. She smiled shyly but gave me no reply. I prodded her further but got no answer except the smile. Wondering if she had understood my query in Kannada, I enquired what she spoke. The ice was broken at last and pat came the reply. “English”, said the little singer, leaving me speechless this time.

Just then I noticed her little brother climbing the gate. In mock censure, I cautioned him, unwittingly in English, to get down or he would fall. Instantly, the sister-brother duo’s faces lit up on hearing the alien tongue, nay, their ‘mother tongue’!

How I wished the little ones could study in their ‘mother tongue’, just as most parents want their children to go to English-medium schools. It struck me that Independence had not freed us from our colonial hangover even 72 years down the line.

By now, curious as well as amused, I sought to test my English-speaking guests’ felicity in the language. “How do you do?” I questioned. “You do,” came the confident reply, followed by peals of laughter. “Are you not hungry,” was my next query, making the eating gesture. “Mummy, daddy pani (at work),” the little ones responded. Offering some eatables, I said, “Eat”. “Thank you, Aunty,” came the reply in chaste English. Amen! They had indeed passed their ‘mother tongue’ test.

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