The Monolingual Indian

In a land with 18 official languages enshrined by the Constitution, 1652 natively different mother-tongues and over 30,000 dialects, it should be odd to find a monolingual citizen. But far from being an oddity, people like me are becoming the norm of today.

I must clarify upfront that I am not monolingual in the way an American is with English. No, I can speak Tamil fluently and Hindi passably. I can understand enough Malayalam and Kannada to find my way around. If multilingualism related solely with the functional usage of a language, then I plead guilty to the count of a misleading blogpost-title. 

However, I refuse to accept this inferior definition for multilingualism. In an excellent essay on Bilingual Intellectuals, Ramachandra Guha defines a language as a bridge or a wormhole into an entirely new universe of values, ideas, conventions and cultures. By imbibing these natively, a bilingual intellectual can connect them with readers of a different tongue. That is a powerful thought and I have borrowed liberally from it in this post. 

Pluralism is the only word that can define India and ergo, define an Indian. There is no 'One' India and there is definitely no 'One' Indian. One of the facets of the Plural Indian is his linguistic identity. Personally, I am a Tamilian. But the Tamil I speak at home is greatly different from the Tamil spoken on the market streets of Madras. My Tamil could then be classified as Brahmin Tamil. However, it would still be different from the Tamil spoken by Iyers. The words, pronunciations and phrases will be quite different. So I can finally say that my mother tongue is Iyengar Brahmin Tamil. 

But I still consider myself as a Monolingual Indian for neither can I think effortlessly nor can I communicate complex thought processes in Tamil or Hindi, half as well as I can do so in English. English is, in the broadest sense, my 'mother tongue'. 

An important aspect of knowing a language is one's literary contributions to it. Many people might be satisfied with just using a language as a functional tool for purchasing bus tickets or for ordering dinner. If everyone had such a commonplace relationship with languages, the world would be a very dull place indeed. I like to consider a language as a malleable sheet of gold. One really must try bending it back and forth to express more than just 'Two burgers and a Coke'. But literary outputs in any language requires a greater depth of understanding and an intrinsic ability to 'connect' with the language on a sub-conscious level. Of course, many writers first output their work in their native or first language and then translate it into their second language. But if the translation is to retain the spark and vigour of the first, the 'connection' with the language becomes paramount. 

I cannot 'connect' with Tamil the way I can with English. As a Tamilian, if not as a Tamil Brahmin, I can claim inheritance to the extensive literary outputs of the Sangam Age, the Self-Respect Movement, the Dravidian Pride Movement and the Bhakti Movement. Sadly, I cannot and certainly could not do justice to such an inheritance. I can pay lip-service to my heritage but it is a dead artefact to me for all practical purposes.

I do not have the luxury of repining as I was not denied in any manner from learning Tamil, Bengali or Sanskrit well. I certainly had the opportunities but not the inclination. In a misplaced childish sensibility, I used to regard English as a symbol of status and power. The vernaculars seemed to be the pointless exercises of a nation that got subjugated by an island for 300 years. To rephrase in a less odious manner, English appeared like the express to the future, while vernaculars seemed to be bridges to a broken past. 

I regret those convictions today. The past, broken or otherwise, carries powerful totems for the future and it's imperative that we carry forth its heritage. My inability to connect with my own linguistic heritage and thereby influence my literary outputs, in English or otherwise, renders me handicapped. I can connect easier with the British peerage of the 19th century than with the Thanjavur Marathas who ruled my native town. 

A sanguine commentator would advise me to plunge right-away into learning Tamil from first principles.  He would ask me to understand the grammatical underpinnings of the language and over many years, achieve the level of comfort required to comprehend the great works. That is certainly a plan. I could definitely learn the grammar and hope to reach a level of comfort with the language that I currently enjoy with English, but I fear that it will always be the effort of an 'English speaker attempting to learn Tamil'. My thought process will always kick start in English and then hopefully switch to Tamil. But I suppose it is better to try and fail than to not try at all.

Here is to hoping I can someday write a rant in Tamil about having missed the opportunity to connect with Bengali! 


  1. Amazing! I related to every word of it, and am pretty much going through the same! This post is going to come to my mind every time I hear any of my friends snidely comment "Peter!", as they often do :) That being despite the fact that I have picked up so much Tamil out of interest! Like you said - "But I suppose it is better to try and fail than to not try at all." :)

  2. Hey! Thanks :) I was sure a lot of people from Chennai will be able to relate with me!

  3. Really interesting read. Nice one!


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