Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Konkani Only: And the options for polyphonic public debate

Standing up at the start of the open house of a panel discussion some weeks ago, the editor of a local language newspaper in Goa began a narrative that should be well-known to those familiar with Goan politics. ‘All you fancy cats speak in English’ he charged, ‘and as a result no one speaks in Konkani, and the common man who does not understand English is left out of these discussions’.

This Konkani position that we hear being articulated today stems from the ideological posture that Konkani is THE mother-tongue of all Goans. This position conflates being Goan with speaking Konkani, and this assertion is deeply troubling. It is troubling because it cuts out of the equation those groups living in Goa for whom Konkani is the language of commerce, that is to say, the language of the market, and not the language of the home. It also complicates the relationship of those people who continue to assert that their mother-tongue is Marathi even though they speak Konkani at home, and their earlier generations have always lived within the political boundaries of Goa. To assert that Konkani is equal to Goan-ness is to not respect the peculiarities that result in these situations. This is a deeply troubling position, since Konkani is but one of the legitimately Goan languages within which we can count Portuguese, English, Marathi, Hindustani; Gujarati even. Each of these languages holds a portion of Goan history and to erase these from the public sphere is to do injustice, not just to those who speak that language, but to Goan society itself, given that our history is intimately (if invisibly) tied to these languages.

This whole idea of a single language for communication stems from the now outdated notion of European nationalism. European powers before they began their overseas colonization began an internal colonization. This internal colonization involved the suppression of multiple identities and the cultivation of one language that was then labeled ‘mother tongue’. In truth, the idea of a ‘mother tongue’ does not fit the experience of most peoples across the world, including those in South Asia. They are able to easily converse in one or more tongue, switching between languages based on the context they are in. Rather than trying to impoverish our socio-political lives therefore by imposing uniformity, it would pay to cultivate plurality, especially with regard to languages.

One route toward cultivating plurality would be to gain some familiarity with the languages mentioned above. In South Asia, genuine illiteracy comes about when one is unfamiliar with the languages that are spoken around oneself. Thus it is incumbent on us that we at the very least understand these other languages. We may not be able to fluently express ourselves in these other languages, but if everyone is familiar with the other’s language, we would have made a move towards understanding each other. Can we therefore contemplate a situation where people speak in the language of their choice, are understood by their audience, who then respond in diverse and multiple languages? Can we contemplate a situation where in a public discussion A speaks in Marathi, B responds in Konkani and the whole discussion is moderated by C in English? This is not an unfathomable situation since this is a reality of life, in Goa at least. To allow for such a situation would be to allow the possibility for a richer discussion in our public sphere.

If there is a challenge to this situation coming into being, then it is the intolerant ideology that discussions must happen in one language alone, and to speak in the language other than the one dominating the discussion is shameful. To be fair, this shame is felt largely by those speaking a language other than English. There is without doubt a certain arrogance that the English speaker brings to the public sphere. However, most of the time the complaints that discussions are conducted primarily in English are made by those familiar with English, and speaking in English. The burden of creating this polyphonic public sphere therefore falls first on those Konkani activists capable of articulating in Konkani. To them the advice would be, speak in Konkani even if the debate is being conducted in English. While there is no obligation to speak in Konkani, there should be an obligation to at least understand Konkani, Marathi and Hindustani. Once the stalwarts of the Konkani language movement make this move to make public discussions in Konkani, one assumes that the common man, that these stalwarts are so concerned about, will themselves begin to speak and debate in their tongue of choice, regardless of whether the debate is in English or not.

It seems to me though, that the problem lies with these stalwarts, who need to display, in English language dominated settings that they are capable of speaking in English as well. In such a case, what are we to do?

(First published in the Gomantak Times 26 May 2010)

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