Have tongue, will talk

  A new show opens. An old memory stirs...What could one of the country’s foremost artists have to do with bringing up kids?

A fair bit, as it happens. I dwell on this right now with reason. Twin reasons actually. The Raza exhibition just up in a city gallery displays a dozen of the nonagenarian’s recent canvases.

Earlier that week I’ve received the message: ‘Celebrate World Mother Language Day. Sing, read poetry, chat with your children in their mother tongue.’

My mind links the two in a flash. After all, this is the painter who once paternally told me, “You’re a journalist from the English press but when you have children talk to them in your language. It’s fun. We should stay connected to who we are.”

Why do I remember this? Besides being great advice, ‘we should stay connected to who we are’ was the last line I tapped out on my Olivetti typewriter (before slowly keying in an interview with AFS Talyarkhan as my first story on a boxy office computer)!

Cut to the chilly 1980s evening a very artsy editor assigned me an article on Raza. We met in Bal Chhabda’s midtown apartment which he put up at whenever visiting from Paris. Close friends, they were contemporaries of the Progressive Artists Group. Incredibly, the man who made the Bindu iconic was as interested in me and my job as I was in him and his. Seeing me duck into my dupatta to quell a sneeze and wheeze bout which suddenly sprang up, he was even kinder. Cups of chai were brewed, draughty bay windows were shut and a packet of homeopathy pills — “best remedy for flu, dear” — pressed in my palm to take home.

Warmed by the encounter, between sniffles and eyes streaming with cold, that night I still happily hammered out text in a start to stop whoosh of words well within deadline. Waking next day to think a tad over what else my interviewee said, I realised he had gently nudged a young writer to take pride in the verve and versatility of any mother tongue. To discover it is clever in cadence, awash in alliteration, with a ring and zing, a rhyme and chime of its own.

If languages were people, mine would be a polyglot. Gujarati rises delightfully differently to the lips of many Mumbai communities. Bridging together Parsis, Gujaratis, Bohris, Khojas, Memons, it beautifully twists, twirls, tweaks and turns phrases to suit each one’s roots and history. It anchors feelings, heightens experiences, communicates crisp and clear. It delves into our ethnic core, coming up with speech soaked in idiom, catching the lovely tinkle tune of life itself.

I confess my kids follow their mother tongue better than they speak it. But they try. And they love hearing how I had a sweet deal. Growing up in a joint family with a bevy of spirited aunts, my brother and I would giggle to hear wickedly picturesque talk trip from their mouths. Call it corny, call it cool, we were gifted this bond of crazy chatter and loud laughter over zany bawa-isms. Guffaws guaranteed too as our then TV-less household huddled around an old Bush set blaring mad gags in
radio plays.

A mother tongue moulds us magically, rewards us richly. Neglecting it does no good, welcoming it works wonders. So here’s to every lilting regional lingo. Yours.

Mine. Ours.

Thank you, Mr Syed Hyder Raza. For making me mull on a question we need never give up asking. If we don’t know where we come from how will we know where to go?

Meher Marfatia loves Mumbai. And adores Bombay.

Reach her on: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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