In The Jungle Of Languages

The world of languages fascinates me. Given a chance to fulfil a wish, I would jump at mastering as many languages as possible. It is one of my earnest desires. Thankfully my career as a student of Sociology and Social Anthropology does not come in the way. For having a way with languages is considered to be an added qualification in this branch of social science. The level of fascination is so high that on meeting new people, I make all direct and indirect attempts to find out the number of languages they know. People with multilingual abilities impress me so much. I must confess of a sense of envy that crops up in the subconscious.  

So far I have been a slightly decent sample of the ‘rolling stone’ variety with a little moss gathered here and there in my brain. My efforts directed towards learning languages have met a mixed fate. Some were disasters, some weren’t as disappointing.


While in college, I enrolled for a year-long part-time certificate programme in French. I passed easily. Basking in the little glories of  ‘bonjour’, ‘comment ca va?’‘je suis desolee’  and several verb-forms, I enrolled for a diploma in the following year. Things had changed by that time. My attendance at the lectures declined because of my participation in everything else that college and hostel life had to offer.The French syllabus suddenly appeared monstrous to me as the number of lessons had shot up. I remember that my examiner at the viva voce examination asked me to describe to her ‘an imaginary stay at a hotel in France’. I would definitely not like to talk about the look that dawned on her face as soon as I shook my lips. It was clear that she tried her best to find some meaning in the nonsense that I had tried faffing up. Thanks to her strict marking that the French train I rode for those two years came to a screeching hault. It still stands at the same station and waits for a green signal from my side. It has been over ten years now and I have no idea of when and how will my ‘rendezvous’ avec ‘le langue Francais’ resume?

Urdu and Arabic

The experiences of learning French kept me mum for another few years till I finished my masters. The fieldwork for my Ph.D. research

Urdu Alphabet with Devanagari and Latin transl...
Urdu Alphabet with Devanagari and Latin transliterations.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

began in 2006 where it was essential for me to learn the language that my respondents used. During the course of my interactions with the members of the Jamaat in Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh, I had to take up learning Urdu with a fresh zeal. This time I was sincere with the classes and made the best out of my year-long association with the masters. Thanks to this attentive phase as it enabled me to comfortably read, write and speak Urdu. I did a large part of my year long fieldwork at a madrasa in Azamgarh where I made many friends. One of the senior Maulanas here was extremely kind and generously helped me polish my Urdu. Satisfied with the progress I made, he gave me around a dozen intensive classes in preliminary Arabic. I could finish a primer with him in those classes. Sincere gratitude to his support and guidance. He made the subject so engaging and I was the most influenced by the method of his teaching.  He continuously worked with me to dispel the notion that the language of the holy Quran is tough to understand and learn. He did make it clear by the end of my fieldwork that Arabic could be learnt as easily as any other foreign language.

Having finished fieldwork, I came back to the university. I could now fluently read Urdu newspapers and could use the literature that I had collected for my thesis.  I got enrolled for a course in Arabic which was hugely helpful in advancing the basic knowledge I had received from the Maulana. I found Arabic to be quite like Sanskrit in its structure and syntax. The rules of person, tense and number are very similar in both the languages . There are similar verb forms and combinations to be memorised. Arabic surely isn’t that difficult a language to learn as it might initially sound.

Dreams Galore

One of the most fascinating aspects of university life is that it is a platform where people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds get a chance to intermingle. Numerous ideas, varieties of knowledge systems interact and are discussed and shared. Each time that I listen to my friends using their own language, the linguistic lust gets ignited in me. I quickly add to my kitty some of the interesting sounds from their conversation with a hope that there would be a day when this kitty shall be useful. 😛

Ritwik Ghatak, India (1925- 1976)
Ritwik Ghatak, India (1925- 1976) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another occasion that triggers the madness is when I watch a film in any of these languages. The wish to learn Bangla was at its peak when a friend gave me a DVD of Ritwik Ghatak’s classic films. While admiring his genius in films like Meghe Dhaake Taara, Naagrik, Baari Theke Paaliye and Jukti Gappo Tarko, I noticed that I was for a brief while intent on learning the Bengali language. Thankfully I did not enrol anywhere and continued paying attention to the work I was supposed to be doing. A similar week-long Marathi phase passed not so long ago. That week was all about the Lavani and Nautanki videos on Youtube.

The latest one to have smitten me is Tamil. The craving began a couple of days back when I watched Mani Ratnam‘s Iruvar once again. Iruvar is a brilliant film that presents a fictionalised account of the friendship and the political rivalry between the cine-political personalities from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu- MG Ramachandran and KM Karunanidhi. Snippets from the Dravidian movement find interesting space in the film. It bespeaks of the power that cinema and poetry can play in electoral politics. The characters of the playwright politician (played by Prakash Raj) and that of the Tamil cine star (played by Mohanlal) are amazingly portrayed.   Powerful poetry rules the film from its’ beginning till the end. This unending appreciation for Iruvar is only to slyly mention to the reader that Tamil has made it to my list too!

For this mega project of mine (clearly I haven’t done enough for it) inspiration isn’t lacking. The Indian Prime Minister Mr P V Narasimharao’s mother tongue was Telugu and he had an excellent grasp on Marathi. In addition to eight other Indian languages, he spoke English, German, Persian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Greek and Latin. Thinking of him and the others of his stature thrills me no end!

This is to end by saying that dreams and aspirations are integral life processes. They lead mostly into the domain of the impossible. They at times stand for the best and the worst in us. It can be fruitful to ponder over the dreams that recur. And yes! dreams alone do not and cannot mean much until and unless intelligently pursued!



Missed Opportunity

The newly formed Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh holds new promises for the people of the country’s politically most significant state. In Akhilesh Yadav, the state has its youngest Chief Minister who so far has appeared promising. Mulayam Singh Yadav, the grand old man from Indian politics was successful in installing his son on the chair of the chief minister. The real performance of the new man on the job is yet to be evaluated as it has not been more than a month that he took the reigns of the state in his hands. Some actions like asking for a feasibility report about the introduction of metro rail tracks in some of the cities like Lucknow, Kanpur and Varanasi, efficient use of the social media for governance and a few other key decisions in favor of the hitherto marginalized groups sounds like a good early start.

In this post however, I wish to point to the opportunity of a lifetime that the Samajwadi party missed when it overlooked the candidature of the prominent Muslim leader of the state Mr. Azam Khan for the coveted post. It is clear from Mulayam Singh’s decision (which was covered under the garb of the decision taken at the meeting of the MLAs) that he failed in not getting rid of the compulsions of dynastic politics and nepotism- an accusation whose most ancient receiver has been the ruling party of the country-the Indian National Congress.

The current composition of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly is striking on many grounds. It is for the first time for instance that the assembly has welcomed the largest number of Muslim members. Out of the 63 Muslim MLAs 40 belong to the Samajwadi party alone. 14 Muslims from the Bahujan Samaj Party, three from the Congress, three from the relatively new political player- the Peace Party, two from the Quaumi Ekta Dal (Mukhtar Ansari being one of them) and another independent have made it to the assembly this time. Coming to the case of the Muslim legislators from the SP alone, it is interesting to see that they have flown in to Lucknow from all corners of the state. The previous assembly had 56 Muslim MLAs and the lowest ever number has been 25 in 1993 when the Ram Janbhoomi Mandir agitation was at its peak.A report in one of the national dailies says:

“The results in the 122 constituencies in the state in which Muslims play a crucial to decisive role show that half (61) went to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party. The Muslim population in these 122 seats ranges from 20% to 50%”.

If politics in India is about effective manipulation of the religious and the caste equations in one’s favor, it is also at times about making the right moves, however melodramatic they might seem to be. A decision taken by Sonia Gandhi to not become the Prime Minister of India after the win of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance in 2004 has already gone down in Indian political history as a memorable and a defining moment. That remarkable decision not only established her as the tallest political leader but also gave a fitting reply to the adversaries who had entered into a phase of delirious clamor about her foreign origin. That to my mind was a political masterstroke that shot so many birds with the same stone. It was also a decision that shaped and continues to shape the future of the Congress in the country.

A very similar opportunity knocked on the doors of Mulayam Singh Yadav after the results of the assembly elections were announced on the 6th of March this year. It took the party about a week to finalize and make a formal announcement about who the next Chief Minister of the state would be. This delay was somewhere a signal of the strength of the candidature of Azam Khan. Hectic efforts at convincing him to accept the post of the Speaker of the assembly were reported. In choosing his son for taking oath as the CM, Mulayam Singh definitely missed an opportunity of winning over the hearts of the Muslim voters residing not just in the state but throughout the nation. It was a decision which if taken would have redefined Indian politics. I can only guess about the possible fears about Akhilesh’s political future which might have forced Mulayam Singh to settle with his name. At the outset, his decision only hints at the central role that dynasty has come to play in Indian politics. I don’t wish to write off Akhilesh’s splendid performance as the star campaigner. This is only to express a sense of bewilderment about the fact that the political acumen of someone as experienced as Mulayam Singh Yadav was not able to make the most of this ripe opportunity.

A respectable leader who is widely hailed as “Maulana Mulayam” would have succeeded in putting a range of Muslim identity politics in the region to a pause and such a decision would have ensured the support of all and sundry for his larger political programmes in the future. In the larger public domain too this ‘sacrifice’ on his part would definitely have sent a very positive signal. The prevailing attitude against nepotism and dynastic politics would certainly have stood addressed.After all democracy is so much about impressions and impression management.

A decision however has already been taken and the state has entered a new phase under the young Chief Minister. I am hopeful that Akhilesh will rise to the challenges that his new position will carry with it. Wishing him all the best!