The other tongue

Updated: Jul 12, 2020, 07:47 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

Three home-bound months facilitate my learning of Gujarati, a language present in my consciousness, but waiting to emerge from the epiglottis

Illustration by Uday Mohite
Illustration by Uday Mohite

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreChhasma maakhan jaaye, ane vau phuvad kevaaye.' I learnt the Gujarati adage at the age of nine from my dad who had picked it as a child in Rajkot in the 1940s. For a native Marathi speaker, he was amused by the wisdom packed in the one-liner. A hostess lovingly-intentionally serving butter (along with the buttermilk) to the guest is labelled inattentive. An apt example of well-meaning actions running the risk of being misread.

Over the years, I have applied the idiom to domestic and public settings where the actions of do-gooders have been misconstrued. I haven't so far located its Marathi equivalent, though 'Jyache karave bhale, toh mhanto mazhech khare' (A favour to someone begets an arrogant reaction) comes closest. The last three home-bound months have facilitated my learning of Marathi-Gujarati adages, which advocate the same gyan. For instance, 'Naa bolwa maa nav gun' and 'Zakli mooth savalakhachi' both advocate strategic silence at delicate junctures. They would have proven useful in the current pandemic, which seems to have untied a million tongues; too many people are contributing at cross purposes, when they could have easily held back.

When it is made compulsory, language learning can lead to social animosity; but when learning is a choice, it is empowering and uplifting, in the best tradition of a cultural exchange. My brother-in-law's command over the Agri-Koli dialects helped him gain confidence as a young medical practitioner in the Bhandup village in the 1980s. Hindi-speaking thespian Satyadev Dubey became a force to reckon with in Mumbai's theatre world because of the Marathi and Gujarati texts he staged; as the lore goes, he surprised fellow theatre performers by pinpointing the flawed diction of native speakers. First Edition Arts (performing arts promotion company) founder-writer Devina Dutt, a Patiala-born Punjabi raised in the Shyamnagar township on the outskirts of Kolkata, speaks fluent Bengali, even after moving to Mumbai in the nineties. Her current lockdown project is to learn Marathi. "Before the end of this wretched 2020 I will have my Marathi bhaasha," she has resolved.

Like Dutt, I can also sense that Gujarati—I enjoy its textures —exists in my epiglottis region and would begin to flow out if I get a bit of regular practice. The online initiation into the alphabetical-numerical aspect is easy. Similarly, the digital reservoir of Gujarati phrases has also come in handy. In fact, Dr Urvashi Pandya, head in the Gujarati department of University of Mumbai, advises me to approach the language through its quirky database of adages. Dr Pandya, who has translated Bhalchandra Nemade's works in Gujarati and rendered Ravji Patel in Marathi, feels the clever turn of phrase and humour highlighting universal human traits rope in the new learner.

Gujarati theatre has played a constructive role in my understanding of and feel for the language. In 2006, I enjoyed director Manoj Shah's Gujarati musical Master Phoolmani, beautifully adapted by Chandrakant Shah from Satish Alekar's original play Begum Barve. Not for a moment did I feel any strangeness while watching what was quintessentially a Marathi play. It was set in the yesteryear Bhangwadi stylistic tradition, in which male actors played women leads. The sheer experience of watching the Gujarati equivalent of the saree-clad Marathi Barve was somehow liberating. The play captured the universal tragedy of unrecognised backstage actors/helpers; the small-timers who live in abject poverty while doing bit roles in the mainstream for years, be it in Maharashtra or Gujarat. Shah's Phoolmani was received with warmth because it spoke the potent language of theatre, which goes beyond a geographic region.

I have experienced the same universality in Gujarati litterateur Dhiruben Patel's Kitchen Poems—she wrote them in English before Gujarati—which speak of a woman's ambivalent status despite being the main driver. One poem rings particularly true for all Indian kitchens in which she says that men take over cooking only when the activity is to be done on a larger, grander scale, as if women aren't good enough for that transition.

Another commercial Gujarati play Baa Retire Thaaeche, based on late Ashok Patole's Aai Retire Hotey, was my earliest introduction to Gujarati on stage. Impressed by Bhakti Barve's Aai in 1989, I decided to catch Padma Rani's Baa and Jaya Bachchan's Maa in later decades. Whatever one thought about the tear-jerking manipulative sentimentalism of the play, the three leading ladies were convincing. When I shared my impressions of the three stage mothers, who shock their families by declaring their retirement from household responsibilities, Patole added with a chuckle: "Mothers speak the same emotions, in Gujarati or Marathi; they are similarly undervalued in all parts of India."

There are ways and ways in which people absorb new aural experiences. Dr Mitra Mukherjee Parikh, 63, offers a unique example of learning Gujarati on her own. A Bengali raised in Mumbai, her connect with Gujarati speakers dates back to her years as a student at Mithibai College in the 1970s. Her marriage to academic-filmmaker Prabodh Parikh brought her in touch with a Gujarati family and poetry-theatre circles, which articulated life truths in a vibrant Gujarati. "Prabodh and I spoke in English, we weren't insistent on speaking our mother tongues for the sake of learning. But, since there was a deep abiding belief in getting to know as many languages as possible, I picked up Gujarati instantly." Reading of Gujarati newspapers taught her the script, which gradually paved the way for making the language and its literature her own.

Dr Parikh is the recipient of the Katha Prize for a Gujarati translation. While her doctorate is in Marathi-Bangla comparative literature, she has conducted workshops on translations of Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali texts, without using English as a link language. "A new language opens up possibilities, it adds dimensions that one didn't know of." After marriage, she often heard the word 'sukhi' in the context of people and families. "I was happy that Gujaratis rated human happiness so high, somewhat like the Bhutanese do. But later realised that Gujju 'sukhi' meant economically well-to-do," jokes the former English department head at SNDT university.

At this point, my relationship with Gujarati is what Prabodh Parikh calls "half way there." He says any learning implies a readiness to accept another way of experiencing the world. He enumerates members of the Gujarati intelligentsia who made conscious efforts to learn Bengali just so as to better understand the ethos that gave birth to Satyajit Ray's films.

For Ahmedabad-based poet Dr Hemang Desai, who has recently translated Arun Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda poems into Gujarati, I also need to ask myself which Gujarati I aim to pick up (or I am likely to pick up): the one spoken by the bhadralok or the lingo of the grocery guy. Both are valid in their own ways. In this context, one has to consider oneself fortunate to have been exposed to multihued exchanges. In fact, Dr Desai is interested in Kolatkar's verse because it catches the spoken cadence of garbage cleaners and hashish sellers; it is rooted in tradition, and yet relates to a global audience. "Kolatkar did not vie for a narrow provincial Marathi identity. His language, English and Marathi, was genuinely cosmopolitan; and at the same time seeking beauty in the subaltern marginalised voices. I felt this rare combination will enrich contemporary Gujarati readers."

At a time when the Indian head-of-the-state is Gujarati, the language gains political weight. But my relationship with Gujarati is apolitical; it has a personal agenda. For me, the language is symbolised in Adya Kavi Narsinh Mehta's bhajan Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye... I have been enamoured by the emotional power packed in the bhajan, as rightly caught in journalist Mayank Chhaya's documentary Gandhi's Song. I am specially drawn to Sakal Tirath Jena Tan Maa Re (pilgrim spots embodied in a human being) as a rich provoking construct; it denotes a vast expansive definition of Vaishnav. It has urged me to delve deeper, broader, wider.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at

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