It is possible to speak any language peppered with some broken English or Hindi-like words to get one’s way around in Mumbai. It is possible to live, work and play here without knowing Marathi, the language spoken by the largest number of Mumbaiites. Some would call it the mother language of the city. It is also fairly commonplace for a person switch from her mother tongue to Marathi to Gujarati to Hindi to English all in the space of a day, perhaps multiple times a day, each tongue a marker of the person’s multi-lingual identity. That’s why union home minister Amit Shah’s idea last week that “it is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language…the most spoken language of Hindi” cut little ice in Mumbai.
It raised hackles in the southern states, as expected, and brought out the uglier aspects of linguistic sub-nationalism right out in the open. Shah’s ally Uddhav Thackeray whose politics is built on linguistic sub-nationalism did not take much offence. In fact, a political poster in Gujarati in Pune enraged social media users more than the Thackerays. Shah’s political ideology was shaped by the European and unitary concept of one nation-one language-one religion-one leader. But there’s more to India.
The raging debate perhaps pushed Shah to clarify on Wednesday that he “never asked for imposing Hindi over other regional languages”. He would do well to revisit India’s reorganisation of states on linguistic lines, and learn how linguistic diversity and autonomy helped knit the nation together. A person could be a Gujarati speaker and Indian without there being dissonance between the two, another could be a Bengali speaker and Indian, and so on. We did not need one language to be Indian.
Mumbai typifies this idea of India. Here in slums and chawls, middle class housing complexes and gated communities, in suburban trains and at traffic signals on potholed roads, in factories and markets, hospitals and schools, languages co-exist, interweave, enmesh, and jostle for space. This must have been a feature of the old Bombay too, inspiring Joseph Gerson da Cunha, a physician and a historian, linguist and author, to describe the city as a “real Babel of tongues” back in 1912.
Read more: Hindustan Times