I don’t remember the exact year. But it was early 1990s. My friend and I were going to Connaught place (New Delhi) in bus no 615 (from JNU). We were talking in Odia (the language spoken in Odisha) and just before we alighted from the bus, a co-passenger asked us. “Which language is this?” My friend without batting an eye-lid said, “Italian.” We got down from the bus and laughed to our heart’s content. It felt exhilarating to be able to speak in a language that somebody standing next to us couldn’t understand.
I have always relished the fact that I can speak another language fluently other than English and Hindi. I love languages and love collecting words in different languages and write them down in my notebook, mobile phone, mind and heart. Odia is my mother tongue and that’s the language I first learnt to speak.
I remember spending beautiful evenings under a cloudy sky listening to Chittaranjan Jena’s soul soothing song, ‘Mo priya tharu kiye addhik sundar, ediki manoi jiha se…’ (There’s no one more beautiful than my beloved… but she is so moody that only when she’s in a mood she tells me that she’s mine) and Shekhar Ghosh’s ‘Hridayara ei sunayata ku’ (When I ask the emptiness of my heart). I learnt English before I picked up Hindi. I loved English as a language and always scored well too, making my father feel very happy. I was equally good in Odia and my favourite leisure activity was reading all kind of adult literature (mostly novels and short stories) in Odia. Some of the stuff I read, I didn’t understand at all. Nevertheless I just read the books. For the sheer pleasure of travelling through the forbidden territory. My mother had kept away one such novel far away from me in one of her secret shelves. The little devil in me egged me to hungrily finish that novel when she was fast asleep in the afternoon. I think I read that novel faster than a Sukhoi 30.
As a child, I never felt attracted to Hindi as the teacher was not that exciting. He was an old man who was lost in his own world and didn’t pay much attention to our young inquisitive minds. I wish I had somebody to teach me Hindi well in school. I love the sound of Hindi, I love the beautiful, mesmerizing world of Hindustani. I deeply regret not exploring the rich textured world of Hindi literature. But I remember the first Hindi word that left an impression in my mind. The word was ‘kachchi dhup’. One of my friends had just shifted to Odisha from Bihar and she was good in Hindi. She explained the meaning of the word to me. I remember standing in our garden early in the morning and telling to myself, “Oh, this is kachchi dhup (tender sunlight) playing with me.”
For three years in school, I flirted warmly with Sanskrit and enjoyed listening to the Sanskrit news bulletin on All India Radio (AIR). It was a highly pleasurable activity for me even though I didn’t understand much. The other day in the newsroom at work, we were talking about our childhood memories and then I started, “Eyam Akashvani. Samparti bartah suniryatam. Prabachika Deepika.(as they used to start the Sanskrit news bulletin on AIR). Everybody burst into laughing. The three language formula in school gave me enough joy to fleet in from one world of language to another.
Now my fourth language is Gujarati. For this, I owe a lot to Taraben, my cook. She didn’t understand Hindi when she became a part of my home and world. So, I had to make an effort to learn Gujarati and now I can speak Gujarati and manage to read it if it’s written in bold letters. I hope, one day I will be able to read a Gujarati newspaper completely. I want to push myself. I want to do it.
Language feels like a trusted companion in my personal and professional world. I feel lost without language. We need to embrace each other for my own sanity. Language is the lover I love spending time with. I need to hold language in my heart. I need an effortless relationship with languages. Languages are not just about words. Languages are about emotions. Languages have a feel of warmth in them. Sometimes, I feel the salty breeze of Bay of Bengal in my mouth as I speak to my childhood friend of 30 odd years in Odiya. Sometimes I feel the taste of a lightly spiced fish curry and mashed potato with a dash of mustard oil, finely sliced onion and green chili, when I go through old letters of my mother written some twenty odd years ago. Sometimes it gives me a strange of comfort while sitting in my apartment in Ahmedabad, only I can relish the content of the letters written in Devnagari script. It feels very intimate and special.
As I flaunt my grey hair with gay abandon, I now look at languages with a kind of warmth and fondness. I remember my maternal grandmother who always carried a basket of Odiya proverbs with her. She was a tough lady who believed in dishing out a proverb or two at the right moment. She never missed a chance. She had mastered the art of firing proverbs with missile like perfection.
Even as India surges ahead on the path of globalization, we need to protect our languages. It still amuses me when I see upwardly mobile Odia parents speaking to their children in English or Hindi at home but not in Odia. Years ago, a young man asked me “So you speak Odissi at home?” He was then studying in a prestigious college in New Delhi. I looked at him and said, “I speak at home. I don’t dance.” (For the uninitiated, Odissi is a form of Indian classical dance.)
As I indulge myself in English literature, conversations and music, I feel I need to move a bit closer to my mother tongue now. I can no longer write a poem in Odia. The language is in the process of distancing from me as I am not nurturing it with tenderness and dedication. I have been an inconsistent lover. The touch of ‘sahitya’ is missing in my mother tongue. I am losing a slice of my love. I can’t remember when did I write a letter in my mother-tongue? May be a decade ago. But I now feel the desire to do so..
Now I listen to Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosale, Mohit Chauhan, Elton John, Cat Stevens, Mariah Carey, and Adele. I no longer listen to Akshaya Mohanty, Chittaranjan Jena and Prafulla Kar. They are childhood memories carefully tucked away in some corners of my heart. Their songs are on a pause mode for me. Their voices no longer waft through my home.
Most importantly, I express love in English. On rare occasions, I do it in Hindi. My love has a language that was never in my blood. Never in my vein. I express love in a language that has been far more global than mine actually. A language that has a limited vocabulary for fire, water, earth and sky. Leave alone love. English makes it easier for me to write a love letter. It enables me to shed my inhibitions. To create a different world than the world I am familiar with.
In strange ways, I now stay connected to the language I first spoke. I speak in Odia to the visiting pigeons who come and happily sit on my balcony wall and sometimes wander aimlessly in my living room. I ask them in Odia, “Are you paying the rent? Why are you going and banging yourself against the glass window? When will you have some intelligence?” I make a mental note of my ‘TO DO’ lists in Odia. When I am desperate, .I talk to my late mother in my mother tongue asking her to make things easy for me. I tell her, “Why did you go up there when I want you to be here? If you are not here, then at least make life easy for me.” I feel a sense of peace and resonance when I talk to her in the language she taught me to speak and encouraged me immensely to explore. And unknowingly, she gave me a chance to discover adult literature when I was very young, She gave me an entry ticket to the wonderful La La Land called ‘Imagination.’ I will be eternally grateful to my mother for introducing me to Dr Kunjabihari Das, the doyen of Odiya language and his seminal works on proverbs, Lok katha.
Right now, I am feeling a lot more closer to the language that runs in my blood. Even though I am writing this piece in a language that is not mine. Some emotions or memories always stay true and authentic even though you express in a language that is not actually yours.