Mark his word
PASSING BY English is swamping Indian languages, muses journalist-writer Mark Tully
PHOTO: K.V. SRINIVASAN
Fascination for Indian languages Mark Tully
Sir Mark Tully’s love for Indian languages stretches back to his childhood, but he hasn’t really had much luck learning them.
Growing up in Kolkata, he was under strict instructions not to speak any desi languages (you’ve probably read his story about being hit on the head by his British nanny for counting in Hindi with his driver). And later, during his 22-year stint as BBC’s chief of bureau in New Delhi, he found that most people in that cosmopolitan city were more intent on speaking English rather than Hindi or Punjabi.
“If I had lived in a place where the language spoken was predominantly Hindi, my Hindi would have become much better,” he says regretfully.
That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why preserving Indian languages is a cause that has become close to the heart of this veteran journalist.
“I’m interested in how English can be stopped from swamping Indian languages,” says Sir Mark over a cup of tea at New Woodlands hotel. Tempering his statement in his gentle way, he adds, “English has become an Indian language and that’s very valuable, but it’s equally important that all Indian languages are cherished.”
This interest will partly form the subject of his next book, he reveals, and it’s also the reason for his recent two-day visit to Chennai.
“I’m writing a book on how India has changed since economic liberalisation and one of the aspects I’m looking at is linguistic,” says the soft-spoken writer. “Obviously, the demand for English is going up, and I’m trying to find people who’re working on enabling Indian languages to grow and modernise.”
That led him to meet with S. Ramakrishnan of Cre-A Publishing House in Chennai, who has put together a contemporary dictionary of Tamil, and who first met Sir Mark when the latter was working on No Full Stops in India back in the late 80s.
“He cares deeply about Tamil and the need to make it a language that keeps up-to-date and allows people to acquire modern knowledge,” says Sir Mark. “He’s an enchanting person — on fire with enthusiasm for what he does, unlike us jaded journalists.”
If Sir Mark is referring to himself, then one would have to say he’s rather off the mark (pardon the pun). There’s nothing jaded about this friendly, down-to-earth man or his passion for commentary on the Indian sub-continent.
Role of language
“I believe that language is the preserver of culture and that one’s mother tongue is precious,” he says. “If you are educated entirely in an English-medium school, the chances are you’ll never learn your mother tongue properly.”
Which is not at all to say he’s ‘anti-English’, as some have been quick to brand him. “That’s rubbish,” he says. “There should be a balance — you can’t tell me that having a primary school education in Tamil means you can’t become very fluent in English later. Indians are very good at languages due to their linguistic diversity, unlike us poor British Islanders who’re hardly ever exposed to more than one.”
Of course, taking this stance isn’t going to make him very popular among some people in both India and in the U.K. “If you try and take the middle road, you will tend to get hit from both the left and the right,” he says with a rueful smile, “but that’s okay – I’m used to getting hit.”
The book will also tackle issues such as consumerism, television and business culture, and has a tentative deadline of 2010. “I don’t like writing in a hurry,” he says. “And I am still doing programmes for the BBC.”
That’s okay, Sir Mark. We don’t mind the wait.
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