There are two vivid images in my mind from my years in Pondicherry. I must have been seven or eight years old then.
The first image is of glass from the windows of our classroom shattering noisily, as stones were flung at them. In the melee that followed, all the school children were quickly shifted to the rear end of the school. We huddled in two classrooms— the doors securely closed, with our teachers telling us to keep quiet and calm. Outside we could hear loud slogan shouting. Thankfully we did not hear any more glass breaking sounds after that first noise. Things stayed that way for a few hours. Until all the children were safely escorted home by their parents that evening.
Later that home, I would hear my parents talking about how protestors of the anti-Hindi movement had surrounded the school. The Kendriya Vidyalaya in JIPMER campus was then probably the only school in Pondicherry which taught Hindi. And so our school was targeted. Since most children of parents with transferable Central government jobs studied here, parents included most of the IAS and IPS officials in that small Union Territory. A few phone calls to them had ensured that gun wielding CRPF personnel came in quickly to protect the children. Nothing untoward happened, except for the broken window panes.
The other image is from the next evening at around 8 pm. I remember my Dad struggling to remove the bilingual name plate in front of our house. His name was written in both English and Hindi. The board had been hammered in so well, that he couldn’t dismantle it. I could see panic on his face as the sound of demonstrators neared our house. Would our house be identified and targetted because of that board? Thankfully nothing of the sort happened as the board was not visible in the dark.
If these visuals make you conclude that I would grow up feeling alienated as a north Indian in Pondicherry, you are completely mistaken. I loved the place and its people. Learning Tamil was never a task imposed on me. It is what I picked up at the playground from my friends. I learnt the language while I enjoyed watching all the Kamalahasan and Rajinikanth movies. (It is another story that Sivaji Ganesan’s pure Tamil dialogues always went over my head!). I learnt to read Tamil from the film posters. These two incidents merely taught me to understand how emotional people are about their identities and language. And how meddling with these aspects can inflame passions and fuel unrest.
This is a country where more than half of the population has a mother tongue which is not Hindi. And so when I see people arguing about thrusting a national language down the throats of a multilingual country, I find the notion ridiculous.
Having lived on both sides of the Vindhyas, I see the point my Tamil friends make. How many of us have made an effort to consciously learn a South Indian or East-Indian language? And if you find that tough, why expect them to learn Hindi? What about the poor kid in school who has to struggle with three languages? Because one certainly can’t not know one’s own mother tongue. Why should some people be at a disadvantage with jobs simply because they can’t speak a language which is imposed on to them?
Are regional languages given equal opportunities to flourish and grow? There are volumes and volumes of rich literature in every language in this country, which need to be translated to reach people. This is important because ignorance dominates the scenario. We tend to stereotype people and communities we know nothing about. Among my own clan, I cringe when I see people unable to even name the four Dravidian languages which are spoken in the southern states correctly. Similarly, every dark-skinned cousin of mine was stared at by my Tamil neighbours, because the conventional notion was that all north Indians are fair-skinned! Hopefully reading about each other will erase the ignorance. Or maybe travelling, watching films and sharing food will diminish the divide.
People learn languages anyway. For their convenience, and as it makes communication easy. Or maybe simply to catch up with the latest blockbuster on celluloid. Or to watch the teary soap opera on television that everyone is raving about. Given how the world is shrinking it isn’t too unusual to earn a living in places far removed from one’s native cities. And if you are someone with a transferable job, you perhaps begin to look forward to being in an exciting new place every five years.
It is one thing to encourage people to share and learn from each other, but to expect a nation of India’s diversity to road-roller integration through a single language is far-fetched. India cannot be homogenized into a bland single language speaking republic. Until we learn to respect each other’s culture and tradition, do not expect communities different from yours to be coerced into submission. It simply doesn’t work that way.