I moved to Deoghar, Jharkhand from rural Begusarai in Bihar at the age of four. The mother tongue of most of the girls in my new school in Deoghar was Hindi. There was an assumed superiority in not knowing any other regional language, disparagingly called “dehati bhashas”, village languages. Anyone who spoke these bhashas at home was seen as “uncivilised”.
Unlike my Hindi-speaking friends, my mother tongue was Angika, a Magadhan language spoken in eastern Bihar. However, as a child, I lied to everyone in school that my mother tongue was Hindi. I didn’t want my friends judging me for speaking a “dehati bhasha”.
What I could not avoid, though, was the terrible discomfort that my fabrication caused. I didn’t want to lie about something as fundamental as my mother tongue. But so great was the fear of judgement that rather than simply tell my friends the truth, I decided to change my mother tongue itself: At the age of 8, I decided to unlearn Angika.
I went to the extent of asking my parents to talk to me in Hindi at home – but they rejected my request outright. Instead, they began to talk about the importance of not losing one’s connection with her roots and how mother tongue is vital for that. It was a wise argument and I wish I had listened to it. But at that point in time, I felt disappointed with them instead.
I did manage to go through with my terrible decision to shed my mother tongue. From the age of 8 to 16, for around eight years, I did not speak in Angika. I was content with this switch and had no plans to go back to Angika in the future.
However, the thing about mother tongues is that it’s in your bones. It’s difficult to ever eject it out of your system completely. My resolve broke at the age of sixteen, when a friend of my mother called me to speak about something.
I can’t recall what the conversation was about but what I can recall well is that he continued to speak to me in Angika even though I had begun by addressing him in Hindi. I began to feel uncomfortable and felt that my continuing in Hindi would embarrass my mother. My resolve to shed Angika broke and I continued the rest of my conversation in Angika.
Between two stools
Strangely, Angika did not come naturally to me and I struggled to speak fluently. My brainwashed self celebrated this event because it meant that it was no longer a lie that I did not know any language except Hindi.
However, paradoxically, even as I felt relieved I was now a Hindi speaker, I also envied my cousins, who lived in and around Begusarai and could speak freely in Angika. My cousin, Chhotu Bhaiya would converse confidently with his school friends in Angika and I would feel pity for myself.
I wanted to shed Angika and adopt Hindi given what the world had told me about language prestige – but deep down, I was still attached to my mother tongue.
It was when I went to college in IIT Kanpur that my view about language started to change. I now had more social capital to overcome any shame in being judged – shame that had prompted me to drop Angika as a little girl in Deogarh. I was also helped by a close friend and senior, who would often talk about the importance of preserving regional languages. In my third year, I finally realised the extent of my loss in letting go of my mother tongue in order to appear “civilised”.
A sense of deprivation hit me – a feeling I haven’t been able to get over even now two years later. I gave up my resolve to unlearn Angika. In fact, I have made it a rule now to speak to everyone in the family in Angika. But it’s not easy to reverse this language loss. I still speak to my mother in Hindi – it is difficult to change the manner in which we have interacted for more than a decade now.
I live in Gurgaon now and randomly keep coming across Biharis who speak Angika – mostly working class migrants. When I hear Angika, Bihar comes flooding back to me, Begusarai comes back to me – and I feel at home. In this lockdown period, living alone in a big four bedroom flat, I wait eagerly for fragments of Angika from a construction site close to my house that float across whenever a worker raises his voice in excitement.
Last night, I found myself listening to Kahan Se Chali Ailai he Radhika, an Angika folk song that my mother would sing, along with other women, at weddings. I would dance to the song as a child, unaware that I would want to shed this beautiful language in the future. But inspite of my best efforts, Angika never left me.