Since my father was in the Air Force, my school years were spread in different parts of the country. Every transfer meant different syllabi and sometimes new languages. Hindi, of course, was compulsory. My early school years were in places like Bombay and Hyderabad so the Hindi syllabus was pretty basic. In the seventh standard, I went to a Kendriya Vidyalaya and was met with the shocking news that not only would I have to grapple with a pakka Doordarshan news type Hindi — I would have to study Sanskrit!
What’s more, other students had, in fact, been studying Sanskrit for two years already, so I had to catch up.
Miraculously, the school principal agreed that I might get very demoralised if I did so badly out of my handicap and excused me from Sanskrit. The Sanskrit teacher mounted a counter offensive and was willing to suffer to make me suffer — or be noble in order to uplift me, depends how you’re looking at it. A desk and chair were placed on the assembly podium and while other kids played, Mrs J gave me a crash course in Sanskrit. As you can imagine I was an abject figure and this did not exactly create a love of Sanskrit and all that Ramam Ramau Ramaaha in me. Nor did it help that everyone kept telling me “But Sanskrit is simple, it’s just like Maths!” Really? That’s supposed to make me feel better?
Anyway, miracles happen and the day finally came when I got 99 per cent in a Sanskrit test much to everyone’s — especially my own — shock and Mrs J’s pride.
None of this is to agree with Mr Rajnath Singh who feels English has destroyed us and we should all learn Sanskrit. His idea that our entire culture resides in Sanskrit seems strange. All languages are a repository of culture. Culture resides as deeply in the slang which mixes languages and is created by everyone from auto-rickshaw drivers to film lyricists to great writers.
I got something important from my Sanskrit lessons — a strong grasp of the underpinnings of language. It taught me to understand grammar and equipped me with a linguistic flexibility that has stood me in good stead, with relationship to all languages.
I do wish everyone could have that. For it does seem that our relationship with language has become complicated. Many younger people don’t know any language well enough to express themselves with clarity or beauty. But that opportunity itself is linked to an educational system everyone cannot access — and a long time may go by before it becomes possible.
In the meantime, people learn English for functional reasons. They know English the way we know computers — enough to use a ubiquitous medium, not enough to make software. No one mocks us for not knowing computers beyond that shallow surface so what’s the big deal about not speaking perfect English? The characters Amitabh Bachchan, once working-class hero, now middle class icon, played had a similar journey with English. In Amar Akbar Anthony he jumped out of an egg to rattle off several long words. By Namak Halal he declared that English is a very phunny language.
No phunnier and no better than any other. The elitism around English has got to fade, and will — which should not replace the idea that language is beautiful and the better we know it, the happier we may be (maybe). The idea should be to erase those elitisms, not counter them with another elitism of Sanskrit, no, Mr Rajnath Singh?
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.