It was 2015. I had finished my PhD in France and returned home to Bengaluru to join a prestigious national institution that had employees and students from across India. A senior colleague, then on the verge of retirement, overheard me speak in Kannada (the language of my childhood) to someone else, and expressed her pleasure that more of “our” people were coming in. “Why are they hiring so many Bengalis, I will never understand!” she said in anguish.
I was both offended and amused.
I had entered the city as an eight-year-old Bengali immigrant in 1992 – my mother, sister and I had come to this city after the tragic death of my father in Mumbai. Everything was new and alien, especially the local language whose rich literature I was expected to master in my state board school.
Lived experience narratives are always tricky, for everyone has had their own unique version of reality. For every incident that colours my perspective, the exact opposite could tint someone else’s lenses. This is especially true in India, where socio-economics, geography, caste and language all interact in non-obvious ways.
For example, my socio-economic and caste privileges shielded me from the outright xenophobia that working-class Bengali immigrants routinely face when they look for work outside their state. Yet, I did not have the privileges of some of the other Bengali children whose parents worked in public sector institutions and attended either Kendriya Vidyalayas or some of the more posh schools that were autonomous or came under the Indian School Certificate Examinations Board – ICSE – in Bengaluru, where English and Hindi were sufficient to get by.
I was fortunate enough to have had two compassionate Kannada teachers in my state board school: they were empathetic to my struggles, yet firm that I learn the language. While I did not realise it back then, their kindness, along with a few friends who refused to speak English to me ever (they did confer on me the wickedly juvenile nickname “Tikarjee”, a pun on my surname “Mukherjee” with “tika” being the Kannada word for “butt”) was how I achieved near-native spoken fluency in Kannada.
Much later, it was heartening for me to know that they too did not understand a word of Soolpadeyalappudu, an old Kannada poem we had to memorise in class 10. They were, however, sometimes counterbalanced by outright xenophobia. My high school English teacher, for example, chose to humiliate me in class because of her workplace politics with another teacher who was Bengali: “You Bengalis think too much of yourselves and think you can lord over us?”
Fluency in Kannada, however, was a double-edged sword. It greatly impressed a professor at the National Institute of Technology at Surathkal in Dakshina Kannada, whose only complaint was that I should switch from my “KR Market” argot to the more-sophisticated variant spoken around Mangaluru and Udupi.
A Bengaluru autorickshaw driver was pleasantly surprised that I spoke his language and revised the initial Rs 100 fare to just Rs 10 above the metre rate. Yet, a shopkeeper from whom I regularly bought vegetables for almost eight years, would ask me every time how I spoke his language “just like our people” – this continued until I moved out of the city last year. A group of non-resident Indian Kannada enthusiasts from California’s Bay Area and New York City on the social media audio application Clubhouse would regularly praise me as the “model immigrant in our land”.
Kannada is a beautiful language. It has contributed the ಠ ಠ emoticon – derived from the Kannada alphabet – to internet chatrooms and social media. Poems by the 12th century social reformer and poet Basavanna are among the most evocative I have read in any language.
The legacies of Kannada writers and poets Kuvempu, Nisar Ahmed, Girish Karnad and Ambikatanayadatta are timeless. Reformer and activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, actor Arundhati Nag, director MS Sathyu, actor Prasanna and a host of other visionaries have fostered a theatre scene that is unmatched anywhere else in India. Kannada director and actor Shankar Nag, actor SP Muthuraj – better known by his stage name Dr Rajkumar – director Girish Kasaravalli, director Prem and actor, producer Upendra have given a memorable smorgasbord of Sandalwood films ranging from kitsch to high art.
Kannada is not the only language of the state. Millions of people who have called Karnataka home for generations also speak Dakhni, Coorg, Tulu, Beary, Konkani, Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil and Marathi, apart from many lesser-known provincial languages. Speakers of some of these languages have also been targeted in thinly-veiled xenophobic attacks by fringe chauvinists. More recently, it is the Hindi-speaking working-class immigrants who are attacked, presumably because of their inability to speak Kannada.
My most unpleasant encounter with a chauvinist was in 2016. My mother and I were in a local bank to exchange currency notes, whose teller happened to be Bengali (she was fluent in Kannada). She saw our names on the passbook and exchanged a few pleasantries in Bengali. A man in the queue did not like that and made a few xenophobic comments about us. I snapped that day and abused him in the choicest Kannada abuses I could muster.
The entire bank branch was stunned, but nobody, including the armed guard, stopped me. Some probably even enjoyed the fracas. The memory of this incident still makes me angry. I do not know about the man though – was he elated that I had dunked on him in his mother tongue, or was he upset? Who can tell?
Languages must be preserved, but not at the cost of human dignity. Immigrants have enriched the great cities of the world – Mumbai, New York, London, Singapore and many more. Many of these cities have largely discovered the virtues of tolerance and linguistic diversity.
Bengaluru, at the cusp of global greatness, has largely eschewed its xenophobic fringes in its growth journey. However, that fringe still persists. It persists in the form of viral videos of men abusing bank tellers, of autorickshaw drivers resisting Hindi-speaking passengers and of racists raising the bogey of illegal immigration against Bengali-speaking labourers.
Hindi imposition by New Delhi is a contentious issue in South India. But protecting Kannada from Hindi imposition cannot be achieved by attacking Hindi speakers. Kannada speakers should promote their language and its rich work the way Koreans promote Hallyu – the Chinese term for the Korean popular culture.
The ubiquitous wave of K-dramas and K-pop that has taken over the world is no accident, but a result of years of collaboration of South Korea’s artist community with its culture ministry. I envision a future where songs by composer Hamsalekha and music director Gurukiran rule Spotify instead of BTS and Psy, and the works of Akash Srivatsa and Suneel Raghavendra displace Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-hoo from the top 10 lists of Netflix.
I envision a future where the next Money Heist is made in Kannada. Which of us Kannadaphiles would not love to see actors Rashmika Mandanna and Aindrita Ray assume the code names of Hubli and Manipal, and gang up with Kichcha Sudeep as the genius, mysteryman “Professor” to execute a daring heist on the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai?
I envision a future where people scramble to learn Kannada, simply because it provides the unique experience that an English or Hindi may not. This will happen only with carrots, not sticks.
Prithwiraj Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Marketing at the Amrut Mody School of Management, Ahmedabad University. Opinions expressed here are personal, and do not reflect those of his employer.