At a business conference in Srinagar last month, I felt ashamed to have been calling myself a bilingual writer. In our country being bilingual is something to be proud of. Yet in the presence of businessmen like our host Bharat Shah who could address the gathering in English, Hindi, Marati, and a little of Bengali and even Kashmiri, all in one breath, I was really humbled.
Shah is not a linguist, nor a writer, but a businessman with a Masters in Pharmacology. He is not from the metropolitan Mumbai, but from a town named Akola. When I first visited Akola way back in 1998, most Indians in Mumbai or Delhi had not even heard of such a town, and I had to explain that it is in Maharashtra, several hours drive from Aurangabad or Nagpur airports. Access was by train, an overnight journey. I still use the term 'Akola in Maharashtra', at Immigration counters or hotel registrations, to explain where the place is found.
Even the Indian-African businessmen and their families who were with us could speak their mother tongue, Marati, Gujarati or Bengali, in addition to Hindi, English and the native language of their country of residence.
Many of the SAARC writers I had met at Literary festivals are multilingual, able to talk to each other in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and their own mother tongue, in addition to English. They would not have learned all these languages at school, but in the university of social life. This is what makes me doubly ashamed, because I had the opportunity to learn Tamil in my childhood, as we had so many Muslim friends speaking in Tamil, in my hometown Galle, and a greater opportunity during my two years in Jaffna in the late 60s.
In our country, when we consider ourselves bilingual, we mean we can read and write in our mother tongue and in English. In reality our bilingualism should be the ability to use our mother tongue and the mother tongue of the other community, be bilingual in Sinhala and Tamil.
We learn, we adopt and we ape many things from India, but this is a very important lesson for us to learn, a practice we must adopt. We have to learn, and we have to encourage our children to learn, the tongue of our neighbour. It is only then that we would be able to understand him, his culture, his creative arts and his feelings.
We take pride in the fact that most popular and interesting world literature is getting translated and published in Sinhala, while we do not have any opportunity to read and enjoy the writings of our brothers living next door. We never get an opportunity to read the fiction and poetry of the new and young writers from Jaffna. We have not even heard of most of them. The young people in Jaffna would not have heard of most of the young Sinhala writers, except a bold few who had ventured out to get their works translated into Tamil, and who have been trying to contact the writers from the north.
We have the doors open for ethnic harmony, when we have learned each other's languages, when we have learned to read the Baghavat Gita and the Tirukural and the Thera Theri Gatha in their original forms. Then we can travel anywhere in the country and communicate with the people in their own language, in the north, the south, the east or the central hills. Then we can sit and enjoy a drama in Sinhala or Tamil, watch a film without seeking sub-titles.
Translating from Sinhala to Tamil or Tamil to Sinhala should not be difficult. Other than the difference in the two languages of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan origins, we share all other cultural and religious values, and we have so much in common. Such translations also would help us further in learning each other's languages, by reading the translation and the original.
Being multilingual is how India is still united, and the people identify themselves as Indians wherever they go, instead of by their language group. That is why there are no communication gaps or misunderstandings among people who speak different languages. Only 41% of Indians speak Hindi and only 0.027% or 226,449 speak English according to the 2001 census. There are only 10 languages spoken by more than 3% of the population, while there are 447 living languages and that is why people have to be multilingual.
India is not perfect. There are many people who believe that Hindi should be learned and spoken by all Indians. Some of them are intentionally monolingual, while others try to pretend they speak only Hindi or Tamil. But the numbers of such people have been gradually decreasing. We cannot expect to be like the United States or Britain, where everyone has to use English, whatever their mother tongue or ethnicity is.
Man has the ability to learn, speak and write in many languages, if he is really interested. Our schools should first teach the second mother tongue before trying to teach French, German, Korean, Chinese or Japanese. If all of us can make use of this ability, and encourage our children to learn as many languages as they get exposure to, then we can still hope for a more peaceful world.
43 years ago on April 14th 1970, Martin Wickramasinghe proposed that the Sinhala New year should be made a National Festival to be celebrated by the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher people of our country.
People make resolutions on January 1st. In the same manner we could make resolutions on this day of the National New Year on April 14th, to learn each other's languages and be truly bilingual.