Language versus Culture?

6th June, Ishaan’s first day back to school nearly didn’t happen because of the Goa ‘Bandh’. A ‘Bandh’ (for the uninitiated), is local lingo for a call to close shop, a Shutdown. Businesses, schools, transport and private enterprises that support the issue at hand remain closed voluntarily; those that don’t do so out of fear of violence (stone-throwing and tire-burning incidents are extremely common), usually for a day. The aim is to disrupt normal routine, cause inconvenience to the public (most of whom don’t give a damn about the issue!), and generally create a nuisance, in the hopes of attracting publicity and on the rare occasion surprising positive results from inept Governments.

This one, was organized by a group of people who claim to protect local Goan culture and language. As I understand it, they were opposing the State Government’s decision to grant aid to primary schools where English is the medium of instruction. They feel this will cause an exodus of students from primary schools that use the local language Konkani and Marathi as the medium of instruction (which also receive Government aid), and this in turn will lead to an erosion of what they term ‘Goan Culture’. They claim they have the right to protest, and certainly they do, this is a democracy after all, but I fail to see how shutting down the State will help their cause! In this case, moreover, the Government for once, is being inclusive rather than divisive. It isn’t doing anything other than granting aid to schools that didn’t previously get any, and it’s not withdrawing aid from any local language schools to do this! I would have thought that was a win-win situation all around. And still, they protest! But Hey! What do I know?

Other than cause a headache for all concerned, it’s difficult to see what they achieved, except I suppose, newspaper headlines (although I don’t recall seeing too many of those either!). Once they receive aid, English schools will be no doubt become more attractive and affordable to certain parents, who couldn’t afford them before, and if they choose to send their children there, shouldn’t that be their choice? Isn’t that what democracy is all about? A freedom of choice, including the choice to get educated in any language you want? How is this a bad thing? All this tom-tomming about democracy seems rather rich coming from people who are protesting this basic freedom in the name of Culture-preservation! From those who are looking to foist their own narrow-mindedness on the rest of us more open-minded citizens. Where does it say that Culture is something that must be forcibly foisted on a community? Isn’t society in general an amalgamation of Cultures? Isn’t that what makes for this wonderfully textured fabric we call Life? But again, what do I know?

I’m no historian nor any expert on Goan politics, but I do know that language has always been a contentious issue in the Goan context. We have a history of language agitation and when all else fails, politicians can always rely on the ‘Language’ issue to stir public passions and win votes. I find the whole issue silly, but then that’s me and I’m only Goan by the accident of birth 😛 When Goa became a State in 1987, there was a huge agitation to declare the local language Konkani, the official State language. Until then, all official Government business was conducted exclusively in English (still is). Now people wanted Konkani to be used too as opposed to Marathi (the State language of neighboring Maharashtra). Unfortunately, Konkani is more of a dialect, a spoken language rather than a written one. It is heavily influenced by both Portuguese and Marathi and changes in the way it’s spoken and the words used as you travel the length and breadth of our tiny State. We don’t have our own word for ‘Thank You’! We use ‘Dev Bare Karu’ which means ‘God Bless You’ or ‘Obrigad’ which means ‘Thank You’ in Portuguese! Similarly window can be ‘zanel’ (derived from the Portuguese ‘janela’) or ‘khidki’ (derived from Marathi). What you call it depends on what version you were brought up speaking. For me, therein lies its inherent charm 🙂 Hubby who was raised in South Goa speaks a Konkani that is heavily influenced by Portuguese. My family, speaks a version that is heavily influenced by Marathi because we are from North Goa and also because we’ve lived a large part of our lives in Bombay. Hubby studied in Marathi until 5th Grade (very common at the time), when the medium switched to English. It was terribly hard for him and he had to repeat the grade, because English was so unfamiliar. I, on the other hand, have studied in English all my life. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we both became doctors, we are both multi-lingual and we share the same values and principles in Life. Culture or otherwise, I don’t see that the language we studied in has made that much of a difference in the grand scheme of Life!

Perhaps that’s why I have difficulty understanding why parents nowadays expect schools to teach ‘Culture’, and how Goans are increasingly equating Language with Culture. It seems regressive and is scary. I do not consider myself any less ‘Cultured’ or ‘Goan’ just because I choose or prefer to speak English most of the time! The one has nothing to do with the other! Schools are for education. ‘Culture’ is something you learn and absorb from the environment you live in at home, in society and yes in school too I suppose. I’ve always thought of it though, as an ongoing process – part active learning and part osmosis, and I expect Ishaan’s school not so much to teach him ‘Culture’ as to teach him about ‘Culture’. For our part, we will do our best to raise Ishaan to respect and value life, love, integrity, equality and hard work, both in himself and in others, and honestly, if that isn’t enough, I don’t know what is! What is this ‘Culture’ that these people are so afraid to lose? Most of the time, they use the term to exclusively represent their religious beliefs and rituals, which are necessarily a part of Culture, but not its be all and end all. And again I say, this is something that is taught in family, handed down through generations, evolving along the way. I find it hard to imagine a static Culture. To me that would mean something is terribly wrong. I think any Culture that is not ‘dynamic’ and able to evolve with the times we live in, will find it extremely hard to survive.

But as always, with an issue that’s close to my heart, I digress 😛 No one with half a brain is deceived by these self-proclaimed upholders of ‘Goan Culture’ (their version of it), for a minute! For one, most of their children have either studied or are studying in the very schools they now say are ‘Culture-Killers’. For another, most of us recognize this for what it really is, a vote-getting stunt backed by unscrupulous politicians as elections approach. But politicians posture, organizations lecture and gullible members of the public get swept away by the rhetoric! The local papers have been full of nothing else this last week, presenting the issue from every conceivable angle complete with expert opinions and comments. Is it just me or does this seem like a silly waste of time? A Brouhaha over a complete non-issue!

There are more, much more important issues that one can choose to protest. Issues that mean the difference between Life and death – female infanticide, the state of healthcare, the sorry state of our infrastructure, corruption, unemployment, rampant tourism and resultant environmental abuse…the list is endless. But no! Lets choose instead to agitate over an issue that will only give more people the chance to learn a new language if they wish. That will make learning that language more affordable. That will significantly brighten their job prospects! Oh no! That will never do! Coz if we progress as a society and evolve rationally, where does that leave corrupt politicians and their hired stooges? With s*#$% on their face, is where 😉

So no indeed. Let’s protest! Long Live Goan Culture! Hip Hip Hurrah 😛

* The views expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone. I reserve the right to change them without explanation whenever I choose 😉 If you agree, welcome to the land of the sane 🙂 If you don’t…get well soon 😛