I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Jawaharlal Nehru
The 3-day Vishwa Kannada Samelana ended yesterday in Belgaum. I’m always cynical and suspicious about events like this because most of the time, they are badly-organised disasters, where the real agenda is mainly self-aggrandizement and money-making.
Having said that, I was curious to know what the stated purpose of the Samelana was. And I found one, in the Hindu, according to which, the organizers were promoting this “rare and historical” event as a “celebration of 55 years of Kannada language and literature.”
But, as rousing a line as that may be and one that would probably make the heart of your average Kannada-Nadu-Makkala (and I count myself as one amongst those) burst with pride, I am a tad puzzled about that “55 years”.
Because even a few minutes of Googling and Wikipedia-ing will reveal that Kannada has existed as a language at least for the last 2000 years. (The Ashoka rock edict at Brahmagiri caves in Chitradurga suggests that Kannada may have existed even earlier - the 2nd or 3rd century BC).
Maybe the organizers of the aforementioned “rare and historical event” have never heard of Google or Wikipedia or the Internet.
Or, since that’s all “pre-old-Kannada” or Purva HaleKannada that probably is probably understood only about 4.36 musty scholars sitting in some moth-eaten library, perhaps it doesn’t really count as Kannada.
Let’s then fast forward 700-800 years to a period when the massive body of medieval Kannada literature nurtured by the patronage by the great Rashtrakuta, Chalukya and Hoysala dynasties came into existence. And includes the works of Adiakavi Pampa, the Vachana literature of Akka Mahadevi, Basavanna and Allama Prabhu. And so on and so forth.
No? Can’t be counted as Kannada literature?
May I then suggest that two hundred years or so of the dasa literature (starting from around the14th century) including the work of the likes of Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa and Vadirajathirta?
I know - nah.
But – and I know I’m one of those irritating people who just don’t get it and bugger off – here’s the thing.
Even if we were to ignore the roughly 1000 years of Kannada literature and stick to the literature of what is called “modern Kannada”, this itself is almost a100 years old.
K V Puttapa or “Kuvempu” as he is known, started writing poetry in the late 1920’s, by which time Shivaram Karanth had already written his first book and D.R Bendre his first collection of poems.
And by 1956, the year when, according to the organizers of namma Samelana, the glorious age of “55 years of Kananda literature and language” supposedly began, the Kannada language had been in existence for at least 1500 years and Kannada literature for a1000 of those years.
Maths has never been the strong point of us artsy-fartsy folk, so an error of a few1000 years “this-way-that-way” is understandable.
But there is something else that I want to say.
When Yeddyurappa invited the Infosys Chief Mentor, Narayana Murthy was to inaugurate the Samelana, there was a wave of protests and outrage among the Kannada activists and such-other-like because Mr. Murthy had recently made a statement that there should be more English-medium schools in Karnataka. (I’d like to add that the outrage is also because it’s now fashionable among politicians in Karnataka to regularly pepper their public appearances regularly demands for Kannada to be the medium of education, never mind if their own children are Delicately Bred Convent Maidens/Lads.)
Actually, all that Mr. Murthy was doing was merely reflecting the desperation of millions of Indians who see an education in English as a passport to Nirvana.
On July 16, 2004, 90 children in Kumbakonam were burnt to death when the thatched roof of the school caught fire and collapsed on them. Many of the children were students of the “English Medium” section of the school. Their parents were too poor to send them to better schools, but nevertheless dreamed of an “English educated” future for these children; prime pickings for the unscrupulous “schools” an like this one and thousands of others like it.
The horrific irony is that these children had been herded to the “Tamil Medium” section because the school inspectors were due and would sanction grant funds only for the “Tamil Medium” section, based on student strength.
So, “English-medium” schools are like the boy child. Everyone wants to have one.
And vernacular-medium schools are like the girl child. Everyone wants one – but only for other people.
But my question is this.
Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too? Why should it be either Mr. Murthy’s way or the way of the Kannada-only activists? Why should our children be forced to choose a language?
Let me explain.Travel through India, especially South India and around state borders and among the urban poor and you will find people who can’t even sign their name who fluently speak at least two languages. One their mother tongue, the other as far away from it as Outer Mongolia.
So why can’t there be two languages of instruction in our education system?
Why is it not possible for the primary medium of instruction in our schools to be the mother tongue, but along with it, why can we not also teach our children English?
Narayana Murthy said that Kannada was the language of his emotions and that how it should be. We call it “mother tongue’ because its words are the very first words that we hear. It is the sound of our mother’s voice as we feed on her breast. It is how we first communicate pain and hunger and thirst and sleep. Imprinted in it is our identity, as much as it is in our DNA.
Look at almost every “developed” economy in Asia. The people first learn to speak, read and write in their own native tongue. And then, because they have to do business with the English speaking world, they also learn English. When the Japanese automotive giants started doing business with the Americans, they didn’t learn English, they went with English translators.
Many of these countries are cultural and ethnic melting pots - though perhaps not as complex as India-and so accommodating more than one language has never been a problem. Singapore has six official languages.
But why look at our neighbours? India’s greatest minds that shaped not only modern India but also the world were people who had their primary education in their mother tongue and later learnt English. Out of that long list, just one name is enough as an example.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. So, why can’t we be Kannada-speaking (or Tamil speaking or Marathi speaking or any-one-of-the 14-official-languages-2000-dialects-speaking) people who are also fluent in English? Kuvempu wrote his first poem in English. R.K Narayan was brought up by his grandmother who taught him, among other things Sanskrit literature. Tagore founded Shantiniketan, (Amartya Sen and Satayjit are among its alumni) and it is said that the great physicist, S. N. Bose fought for the introduction of Bengali as the medium of instruction and as Professor in Calcutta University in 1945, taught physics to the postgraduate students in Bengali. I am sure for each of these examples, there are hundreds more.
So, make our children bilingual.
But when I say that, it includes one important clause and that is how we define the word “language”.
In my penultimate year in school, I received one of the most precious gift of my life. And the woman who gave it to me was my English Literature teacher. Because she made me fall madly, deeply and irrevocably in love with the English language, a love has not faded to this day. She did this by making me taste its great literature and poetry, a taste that had me hooked forever. She made me understand that language is not just alphabets and a conglomeration of words but a living, breathing thing that through which we individually and collectively exist.
I wish I had such a teacher of Kannada Literature. Because that is how language should be taught – any language. Along with its history and literature and song and theatre and folklore. Sadly, today, language is the first causality of our education system. A tiny minority of us have access to “quality education” but in the process, we become the Engilliterate elite; linguistic exiles, disconnected from our roots. (And I am one of them.) Watch the average Hindi film award function and you will know what I mean.
For the rest, many will never have access to an “English medium” school. And thank God for that. Because the hundreds of thousands of “English-medium” institutions that have sprouted up all over our country will make sure that their children will be illiterate in two languages – English and their mother tongue. The local newspaper recently had ad from a top HR firm asking for people with fluency in the English language to conduct training workshops. One of them was to improve the quality of spoken and written English. The participants? New recruits to software companies – including Infosys – who came from “vernacular” backgrounds. The length of the workshop? 3 days!