Many Indians, like me, born on the cusp of the internet revolution and globalisation in urban India, grapple with a confusing sense of cultural identity. This manifests not only in terms of value and belief systems but also on a more peripheral level such as food, clothing, and language.
I was born in an upper-middle class Telugu family based out in Hyderabad. I lived in a fairly homogenous community where everyone predominantly interacted in Telugu. My parents opted for Telugu instead of Hindi as my second language in primary school — hoping that I’d learn my mother tongue better.
By the time I reached middle school, I read and wrote in Telugu with great ardour. In class, I studied several facets of Telugu literature — starting from the times of Krishnadevaraya to the more contemporary Sri Sri. My Telugu teacher encouraged me to deliver speeches in school assembly and took me for poetry recitals on aakashvani (radio). Those few early years, as I recall, marked a glorious period of my journey with language.
However, somewhere along the way, the life and language I knew changed slowly. I cannot pinpoint the precise moment where my journey got rerouted — but I knew that everyone around me aspired to be proficient in English. I knew I had to know the language well to secure a place in the ‘cool’ posse. As a pre-teen, my priorities changed. I began to learn a foreign language more actively, as opposed to previous years when English received a second-grade treatment.
My courtship with English was not easy. The school I studied in followed the ISCE syllabus, which meant the standard was at the Shakespearean level. This made me feel small and irrelevant. However, I powered through to a point where I could read and write with ease, conveniently ignoring the nitty-gritties of grammar. At that time, I did not have the capacity to make sense of my situation. But as I look back today, I realise that my English was a building without a foundation and my Telugu was a foundation without a building.
Also read: Confessions of an Almost Bilingual
When my English teacher asked me to construct active and passive sentences, I used words such as ‘irreverence’, ‘abolished’, and ‘oblivious’, which were a mouthful for a 12-year-old. Obviously, it impressed her and fetched me golden stars every single time — but I didn’t internalise the language till I graduated high school and was thrown into a multicultural environment with a mix of urban, neo-liberal adolescents. My teen years solidified English’s position as a dominant language. I read, wrote, spoke, and thought in English, participating in a multitude of cultural activities, flaunting my newly acquired proficiency.
Well, in retrospect, I used language as a tool to fit in but in the process of doing so — I abandoned the language of my forefathers. I was unable to protect my Telugu. I forgot the order of my letters. I read rather slowly and my spellings went downhill. I focused my energies on honing this adopted language — after all, English was the future, full of myriad possibilities.
A few weeks ago, in the midst of a conversation with my father, I realised that I could not articulate my thoughts in Telugu and English inadvertently seeped in. This led me to another realisation — that I often lost arguments with my parents because of my inadequate vocabulary. While I do have a colloquial fluency in Telugu, English has taken over a more dominating role. For me, it was a gateway to a bigger world, where my aspirations could reach a larger perimeter.
Though I am deeply saddened and heartbroken by the state of my Telugu, I don’t feel any remorse for choosing another language. English is a de facto voice of India and the rest of the world we currently live in. From signposts and bus routes to press releases and official announcements — everything in India is written in English. In today’s fast-moving, ever-changing, technologically-driven world, one cannot deny the significance of the colonial hand-me-down.
Having said that, I do want to preserve my sweet Telugu, the Italian of the east and the symbol of my kin. When practicality wears off, one is left with nothing but the stamping ground. So maybe one day, after I am done climbing the career ladder and traipsing the propitious world, I’ll probably come back to the voice that I left at home, where my roots lay, where I truly belong.
Medha Mogili is a budding writer, pop culture enthusiast, and caffeine addict who’s on a quest to find her voice and her place in the world.