Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, June 13, 2010

Have you noticed that telemarketers are now talking to you in Hindi or Marathi? That is the first assumption, and only then do they switch to English. Have you noticed that when you call a bank or a mobile company, you are asked to make a language preference? English is not the only choice, and often not the first choice.

The fact is that less than 20% of India speaks in English, the rest speak some regional language. Until recent times, the rest of India mattered only to the government and politicians, not to the corporate world. Now, as markets in Europe and America are shrinking and the West is moving in to harvest Indian markets, suddenly the 80% non-English speaking mass of India has started to matter, for everything from loans to cell phones.

Language is power. In ancient India, Sanskrit was spoken by the elite, the rest spoke Prakrit. Ancient dramatists gave Sanskrit dialogues to the kings but Prakrit dialogues to servants and women. The word Prakrit comes from Prakriti, or nature, suggesting Prakrit is a more organic language rooted to the earth.Sanskrit, a highly polished and highly structured language, was believed to be the language of the gods in the safekeeping of priests and kings.

English is the new Sanskrit. If you are elite, you speak English; the rest speak other Indian languages. So, if you want to show that you are moving up in life, you make sure you speak English. But if you want votes, or market share, you speak in a regional language. To reach out to the masses, you abandon English and speak in Hindi or Marathi or Telugu or Tamil or Bengali. Language is no longer just a means to communicate; it is a way to acquire power. Even MTV surrendered to Hindi so that it reaches small town India.

In the Bible, we are told that initially all humans spoke the same language. They came together to build a tower that would reach up to the heavens. This Tower of Babel was built as an expression of self-aggrandizement.  To humble them, God twisted tongues and got everyone to speak a different language. Different language resulted in creation of different nations scattered across the world. Different nations meant conflicts, in-fighting, and disunity.

The desire to unite people with a single language has its benefits. Israel resurrected the ancient Hebrew language to prop up the Zionist nationalism. But it also prevents celebration of diversity. Most North Indians, for example, do not know that there is a Ramayana in almost every Indian language. There may be Tulsi Ramayana in Hindi but there is Kamban Ramayana in Tamil and Toda Ramayana in Telugu and Krittivasa Ramayana in Bengali and Bhavarta Ramayana in Marathi and Giridhar Ramayana in Gujarati. Not only is the language different but with different languages come different nuances, unique to that language.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, for example, there is no Laxman Rekha. This idea came from regional Ramayanas. English translators of the Mahabharata were so embarrassed by the explicit sexual descriptions in Sanskrit that some verses were translated in Latin. Our understanding of culture will always be restricted by the number of languages we know.