The most endearing fallout of the publishing of my infamous ` Open Letter to General Kayani’ in the Pakistani press, was that it put me in touch with a lot of Pakistani journalists and writers, some of whom I am now privileged to call as friends. One of them, the delightful Mohammed Hanif (author of the must read ` A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and `Our lady of Alice Bhatti’) has written a beautiful piece on mother tongues et al on Wordpress..
It got me thinking. I can read and write fluently in English and Hindi, and with a fair bit of labour in Urdu, Punjabi and Marathi. Being the youngest child in the family, with a mother who was asthmatic, and a father in his forties, I was brought up mostly by my sisters who were teenagers and studying at St Anne’s, or the maid Mathu Bai. So the first languages I was exposed to were my sisters ` Convent English’ and, to a lesser extent, my parents Punjabi and Mathu Bai’s Marathi.
At St Vincent’s, it was much as Hanif describes urban Pakistan - the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility. Marathi was frowned upon, and the Hindi we occasionally spoke was typical ` Bambaiya’ – the aayela, gayela variety.
We carried this elitist attitude into Fergusson College, where we, the ` English medium’ types, happened to be in a minority. We walked around with our noses high in the air, and frowned upon the vernacular second class citizenry. This lasted for all of two to three weeks, till we realised what an excellent lot the other guys were, and how much we had in common. There’s nothing like romancing a true blue `Marathi mulgi’ behind the Geology lab to really integrate yourself into the mainstream!
In the Army, Punjabi is the lingua fanca, and even pucca Southies like course mate Kelly Vishwanath learn to speak it fluently.
At Tezpur, I was once castigated for the terrible food at a Mess party (I was the food member). The CO, Col Jaswant Singh, as rustic a sardar as ever donned the olive greens (a true GEM of a human being), roundly denounced the koftas as having tasted like `bademey’! His BP shot up a further few notches when he saw I had no clue what the word meant. Much later, when I narrated the incident to my father, he castigated me in his own turn "Tainu bademey nahin pata??" Apparently, the term refers to the seeds/kernels of cotton plants, which are fed to cattle in rural Punjab.
To my lasting dismay, I have always been branded an outcast by both the core groups that I belong to. While my fellow Maharashtrians brand me a ` Punju’, my Punjabi brethren have always dismissed me as a `Mhratta’.
As only the great Allama Iqbal could have put it..
Zaahid-e-tang nazar ne mujhe kaafir jana
Aur kaafir yeh samajhta hai musalman hun main