The title of this article conveys the opposite of numerous articles that I found online through google search including ‘8 benefits of learning English’, ‘Why English is necessary?’, ‘Learn English in 5 easy steps’, and even ‘How English language can change your life?’ I was born and raised in a middle-class family in a tier 2 city in Punjab. I consider myself privileged because I was born to reasonably educated and learned parents with affordability and access to a Convent school where after having spent more than ten years, speaking in English came naturally to most of us; I am extremely thankful to my teachers for their contribution. For that matter, I still cringe if I hear someone say ‘aech’ instead of ‘eich’ for pronouncing ‘H’ or ‘roberts’ while talking about ‘robots’. But this was not the case in the beginning. I clearly remember standing red faced in my class pronouncing NaCl as ‘Saa-lt’ and the laughter that followed; that kind of laughter at that stage in life is killing. As luck would have it, I ended up being married in Uttarakhand where for almost everyone ‘School’ is ‘Ischool’ and ‘Start’ is ‘Istart’. On a lighter note, life gave it to me in my face.
Apart from creating a good impression about me amongst people because I knew the right sounds and pronunciation, the skill to speak and write English fluently helped me in my career because I joined academia. However, in this note, I am sharing what I lost and what I regret because I was never close enough to my mother tongue all throughout my childhood. I did not know that it would be amazing to make an effort to know in-depth about it. My mother tongue is Punjabi. I can read and write in Gurmukhi script, and I learnt a bit about Punjabi literature till VIII standard. Most of us chose Hindi as the second language in standard IX, not out of interest, but because the popular belief was that it will help in bagging a government job. That’s how middle class families in India operate. We used to speak Punjabi at home, Hindi amongst friends at school, and English during formal classroom sessions.
Back in my childhood, speaking only Punjabi was considered marginally ‘LS’ and speaking English during informal conversations was a mark of ‘elitism’. My best friend, coming from a Sikh family, could not speak in Punjabi and that, for some, was a matter of pride. I might not be speaking for all the people from Punjab, but I distinctly remember this feeling of pride in all my classmates associated with learning English rather than Punjabi, and childhood nostalgia is a very strong emotion. To our surprise, NRI kids coming back to Punjab then would either speak very sophisticated English or very rural style Punjabi. Their parents would talk about their longing to come back to Punjab and attachment with their roots. We used to laugh at them; but today, sitting far away from Punjab, I resonate with their sentiments. Whenever I go back to my hometown, it is a celebration of feeling rooted again.
Very recently I came to know that Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan (a famous Hindi poet and Amitabh Bachchan’s father) and Dr Raghupati Sahay (who wrote under the pen name Firaq Gorakhpuri and was a noted Urdu poet) were Professors of English literature at the Allahabad University. I am not sure why they chose to write in Hindi and Urdu. There must be a reason, but I have a few important realizations to share.
Had I known that English is not the most important language, I would have read more of illustrious Punjabi literature. I recently read these lines by Paash “Sab ton khatarnak hunda hai, Na hona tadap da, Sabh kujh sehan kar jaana, Ghar ton niklana kamm, te kamm to ghar aana …supneyan da mar jana” (translated as The most dangerous is the non-existence of passion, to bear it all, to get trapped in the daily routine of going to office and coming back….and to let the dreams die). Had I known that I come from the land of Avtar Singh Sandhu, also known as Paash, I would have felt far more confident and prepared for the battle called life.
Had I read the letters written by Bhagat Singh and owned a copy of ‘Why am I an atheist?‘ and other books that he wrote before his death at the age of twenty-three, an age when youngsters are mostly sulking about attention and branded clothes, I would have never felt fearful in making my life decisions. We were told in school that he was an extremist; nothing more.
Had I known that the song ‘Ik Kudi Jida Naam Mohabbat’, an instant hit with the current generation was written way back by Shiv Kumar Batalvi – the most loved poet from Punjab and the youngest recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, I could have explored more of his beautiful work; I remained deprived of this joy.
I knew about Jagjit Singh, Yash Chopra, Dharmendra, Dev Anand, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ghulam Ali and so many others from Punjab. But had I known about the role of Sufism and Sufi saints in the history of Punjab and the contribution of Hazrat Baba Bulle Shah, whose work resonates with thousands till date without realizing who he was, I would have already known the biggest life lesson hidden in his creation- “Padh Padh Ilm Hazaar Kitaaban, Kade Apne Aap Nu Padheya Nahi. Ja Ja Vadhde Mandir Maseeti, Kade Mann Apne Ch Vaddeya Nahi” (translated as You have read thousands of books, yet you fail to read your heart, you have visited so many temples but you have never dared to enter your heart).
Had I known that the first woman recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award was a self-reliant, charismatic, and a beautiful Punjabi woman named Amrita Pritam who wrote one of the most brave and sad poems on the partition of India titled “Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nu” (translated as A Call to Waris Shah), I would have raised my voice against any discrimination with much more determination.
Further, I would have known that most of the love story writers and filmmakers are still using the same plots that exist in the romance of Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal and Sahiba-Mirza. I would have realized that the history of pre and post-independence Punjab can help me in understanding the economic, social and political development of the country and its current state. For that matter, the ideals of nothingness, mindfulness and peace – that the society longs for today, have been omnipresent in many creations in Punjabi language. I feel a little disappointed when someone asks me about the rivers or the dialects or the heroes of Punjab – both from the Punjab of India and Pakistan, and I do not have much information but I know so much about the world and its wonders. The ‘context’ was never there when we were being educated; it was always global over local and that made us all similar and victims of standardization.
English has given me a lot, a bit too much, so much so that I feel uprooted at times. I have seen in my classes; many students have great imagination power and ideas, but somehow English is still a problem. The moment they are given the freedom to cross the language barrier, their personalities change. Why? My intention is clear here, I have nothing against English. In fact, it gives me my bread and butter. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I express myself better in English than in my mother-tongue and ironically, this article is also in English.
But I feel deprived and a bit cheated, because I never knew that there is so much joy that I missed, there are so many more ideas that I could have nurtured. I feel elated and unapologetically arrogant about stating that our four and a half years old daughter doesn’t yet speak English. She speaks Hindi, and a bit of funny Punjabi which she refers to as ‘Pajami’ (translated as Pajamas for women). I believe that our next generation is much smarter, it always is! Learning English will be a cakewalk for her. She will learn it because it is the language of business, not because it makes her elite. But we will definitely tell her about our mother tongue so that it enriches her life with much more ideas and thoughts to stand for, to rise, shine and fly high. Interestingly, February 21 is celebrated as the International Mother Language Day. So folks, Happy International Mother Language Day!
Featured photo: Harmandir Sahib on Unsplash
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