Friday, July 24, 2009

A case for Kashmiri

Language is the spiritual exhalation of the nation.
~Wilhelm von Humboldt
Influential 18th century philosopher, academic, linguist and a great friend to Goethe

Pardon me for being a little indelicate here but I must confess that one of the worst things to happen to us in the last two decades is a steady erosion of our identity. We are losing our ability to converse in our mother tongue without actually feeling a modicum of guilt about it. Everywhere one looks -- in private schools and government offices -- Urdu has gained ascendancy. Doctors speak in Urdu, interspersed with bits of English. Journalists love to chatter in Urdu. The chief minister too is at home in Urdu, having stayed out of Kashmir for most of his adult life. Leave alone Srinagar, people in even small towns have started to encourage their children to converse in Urdu, insecure like the elite, who have long banished Kashmiri from their lives. Now we have Kashmiri columnists writing in the local dailies, pontificating the importance of Urdu.

Let’s get it straight here. Most Kashmiris speak a very Kashmiri variant of Urdu. We simply translate Kashmiri – our cradle tongue – into Urdu – our official language -- without caring two hoots about syntax or idiom. Native speakers of Urdu would scoff at our Urdu diction. The truth be told, but for notable exceptions, our Urdu is mostly mediocre. Our English being generically flawed, we seem to be taking a certain strange pride in not bringing up our future generations in Kashmiri. In reality it is wacky had it not been so tragic.

There is a beautiful York County maxim: As a hawk flieth not high with one wing, even so a man reacheth not to excellence with one tongue. We perhaps need the toasted Urdu we so love to talk in. We also can’t do without English to comprehend sciences and computers and art. However it can’t be at the expense of Kashmiri. I don’t know how many Kashmiris know that 148 languages in the world have lesser number of speakers than Kashmiri. It is such a pity that we belittle our heritage, our very roots. Emerson got it right when he said that we infer the spirit of the nation in great measure from the language, which is a sort of monument to which each forcible individual in a course if many hundred years has contributed a stone. Kashmiri is our intellectual wealth. We simply can’t afford to squander it.

I fail to understand why Geelani gives most of his fiery speeches in Urdu? I am at loss to fathom why the Tabligis ambush people and drown them in their Urdu jargon? Why does the Mirwaiz suddenly switch over to Urdu, lording over his followers from downtown Srinagar? None of the aforesaid is official. The mainstream may hide behind the official language façade, when they talk in Urdu. But why can we not have two official languages like Bihar [Hindi, Urdu], like Assam [Assamese, Bengali], like Himachal [Hindi, Pahari], like UP [Hindi, Urdu]. We are such a crooked pile.

Outside the English speaking world -- in Europe and elsewhere -- mother tongue is afforded the highest status. In fact in Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other advanced economies like China, Japan [including Russia] as well as smaller countries in Asia, the medium of instruction is their respective mother tongue while children have the option of learning English language as well. In Kashmir, we are not asking for such concessions. It is time that we seriously introduce Kashmiri as a compulsory language in our school curricula [government, public and private schools].

Kashmiri children need to learn their language, the literature of which dates back to the 14th century. In simple terms we are as old as the English literature. Surely we shouldn’t feel shame reading it. And our children need not squirm at the thought of having to look at a Kashmiri textbook. UNESCO in its global monitoring paper on education concludes that the importance of mother tongue-based schooling for educational quality is key. In developing nations mother tongue-based bilingual education not only increases access to skills, the report suggests, but also raises the quality of basic education by facilitating classroom interaction and integration of prior knowledge and experiences with new learning.

In essence a language helps us express ideas and thoughts. When it comes to the mother tongue, thoughts often come straight from the heart. We dream in Kashmiri, we understand its humor, our laughter and tears have Kashmiri hints, when we are in pain we moan in Kashmiri. We express our best and the deepest feelings in Kashmiri -- because it is our real cradle tongue.

No culture is complete without its language. Kashmir needs to revive Kashmiri. We can perhaps take cue from Israel. One of the most spectacular feats of that country after its formation [illegal/legal – that’s another debate] was its miraculous resurrection of the dying Hebrew language. A pragmatic educational policy can be a great beginning to set the skew right here. Also we need to perhaps lessen our fixation to converse with family and friends in non-Kashmiri funny accents. There is no pride in it. It only makes us linguistically silly. And our expressions poor. Kashmiri is rich enough.