Whenever I put my thinking cap on, I use my mother tongue, it comes naturally to me. In our formative years, developing this habit was something so natural for traditionalists like us that it was like a fundamental truth which didn't warrant any further discussion. But, there is a catch here: my vocabulary and choice of words were a bit different from what used to be common expressions of my grandparents. That is to be expected in the evolution of a language, of course.
But, over the years, a lot of words have been incorporated into our day-to-day use, most of them borrowed from English language due to the advent of modern technology in our daily lives and partly due to globalization trends.
In sharp contrast, let us consider the situation in "those days" of civil unrest and the identity crisis associated with it: the general consensus was that my mother tongue is Chiraochenehi, the most beloved one. It was every person's duty to love, use and work for the protection and uplift of our mother tongue. Somehow, that idea was ingrained into our thought process and for many of us, it has remained so till today.
But times are changing fast and with it, the perceptions and attitudes towards all things.
Each one of us is affected by these cruel changes to some extent, but think of the challenges faced by minor languages across the globe in this regard. As per a UNESCO report, there are about six thousand spoken languages still surviving, but by the end of this century, half of them will vanish forever. In fact, one small language is becoming extinct every fortnight. And that's not all: With the language is lost a heritage, a culture, a history and an identity.
Take the example of my mother tongue, Assamese. By no means is it a small language any more. It is being spoken by more than a billion people. Every year, thousands of books in the vernacular language get released. It is recognized as a Modern Indian Language with its own grammar, style and history. All in all, a rosy picture: do we presume therefore that all is well with my mother tongue?
I don't think so. The reason?
Let us delve into the matter a little more deeply.
It is true that thousands of books in Assamese are being published, and that is a good thing, but what about the sales? Are the books doing good business? Can any person who writes in Assamese, or any vernacular medium for that matter, safely say that he/she can earn his/her living by writing alone? What is nearer to the truth is that in many cases, the writer doesn't get a penny from the sales of the books he/she has written. Many of them end up spending a fortune as investment into publishing their books in search of fame and money, something which never actually materializes in most cases. As a majority of educated Assamese cannot read and write in their own mother tongue, neither do they follow nor appreciate the critical situation vis-à-vis their language. Similar is the case with many vernacular languages not only in India, but across the entire world.
Forget about literature, let us talk about the status of spoken languages with respect to my mother tongue. In schools, homes and streets, children and youngsters use terms like roses, parrots, bananas, Sundays and Mondays; we knew and used vernacular terms for flowers, fruits, days, months back in our "time". This is just an example of the extent of "corruption" that my mother tongue is being subjected to every day. And I dread to think that these young turks are the future of the State of Assam.
Leave aside their literature, how long can a language survive blows like this?
On a contrasting note, my mother tongue (which, as I have explained, is facing an identity crisis), is itself blamed for annihilating small ethnic languages of the region. Many a time, these accusations have an element of truth in them. So, without acknowledging the root cause and the greater problem, a constant denial of each other's existence is adding fuel to the multi-layered volcano we are sitting upon. Language is only one of the variable in this multilayered dynamics –religion, ethnicity, cast and what not to add to the list.
To solve the above mentioned problem, there is the government to look up to, as well as premier organizations and institutes which exist to promote small languages. But, in reality, all of them are busy facing some other problems of their own that have nothing to do with reviving the language in which we, the "modern traditionalists" process our thoughts.
As I mentioned earlier, most Indian languages and their literature are facing a similar crisis. But is there any dearth of talent in our regional languages?
Mr. Rushdie might think so, but his statement is a colossal mistake that we can all appreciate. While writing the obituary of modern Indian languages, he might be referring to the problems I am discussing here. But despite all these problems, many small languages have managed to survive against all odds.
If you compare the contemporary bestselling authors' works in English and those of any upcoming writers in any vernacular language, it is not uncommon to see that the quality and taste of the latter category turns out to be of better grade. But, within a year of production, more often than not, the regional language work will go into oblivion, whereas the writer of the English literary piece will mint money with a bestselling tag before his name. Having said that, it is still too early to push the panic button, given that readers, writers and publishers of modern Indian languages still exist.
But what worries me is the apathy, whether to call it refusal or ignorance is immaterial; there is a lack of understanding the gravity of the main problem which I had mentioned earlier. Our very dear mother tongue is on the verge of extinction despite its versatility and no one is bothered about it. Even if such discussions are taking place, it is going on in closed forums in vernacular languages among the concerned few. That is not the target group. It is the educated elite, those who are enjoying a sense of abundance conferred by the knowledge and use of the English language with its attendant material benefits. They are the ones who have to be awakened to the situation.
It's a David versus Goliath story, isn't it? The English language has its own place, we cannot ignore its role and I am not suggesting a ban on it, unlike what some political parties advocate.
Just because we are too immersed in the world of plenty, granted by our knowledge of English, should we let it take the place of our mother (tongue)? Are we so indifferent? Is it not possible to leverage the strength of the English language in promoting our own vernacular languages? Can't we envisage a Nobel laureate amidst the regional language literature scene? Are we still jealous and suspicious of each other's existence that we cannot think along those lines? Is it mere wishful thinking that such a scenario might unfold where vernacular languages fight for their survival on a common platform, not among themselves, but by cooperation and raising awareness among their own "unenlightened" regional elite educated class?
Can't our youth, the future generation, take pride in our mother tongue, participate in strengthening its roots and propagate it, using their knowledge and expertise of modern technology, without any jingoism at national or regional levels, without any hatred of the "other" languages?
We have the potential to do all that and more; all we have to do is to ignite the spark, the awareness, the intention that has long been ignored.
(The author is a creative writer in Assamese and a clinical microbiologist by profession)