Vantage point

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Advantages of Knowing Marathi

A few weeks back I had a fun debate/discussion/argument with a friend of mine whom I burden with the "post-modernist" label, much to his chagrin and dislike for labels. He was trying to convince me that the dying of languages other than english was a tragedy of catastrophic nature. He argued passionately that unless "we"/the state/media/society/flying spaghetti monster do something about it, more and more Indian children will grow up without being able to speak their mother tongue. And that would be a travesty. I didn't buy his prediction, much less his evaluation of the consequences.

But this weekend, I learnt the immense value in knowing marathi, and the unlikely location was Union Square. Now most of Manhattan is refreshing because it is so different from the standard template of urban layout, cultural make-up, fashion sense, and etiquette that one gets to see all over the United States. In the rest of the country, each of us is a single cell in the great body of the American nation, purged of parasites. Manhattan is one of the exceptions. But Union Square is even more uniquely kitschy.

And there aren't many ways to have more fun than just sit on the stairs in Union Square with a friend and pass comments behind people's back right to their face. It is possible only because I know a language that no one within earshot could likely know. Whether it was the disinterested and clearly stoned chinese girl dressed like a fairy with a stack of promotional pamphlets, distributing them at the frequency of 1 every 10 minutes. Whether it was the black guy so insecure about his blackness that he was wearing black clothes, black bandana, black wrist band, black shades, black shoes... almost ensuring that not a single photon emanated from him. Or whether it was the scraggly looking men hustling others in, of all the possible games, chess. The joy that their mere kitschy presence bought was multiplied by the ability to offer a running commentary about all of them, thanks to both me and my friend speaking marathi.

Successive generations, which know only English, will be robbed of such a joy. And that indeed is a gargantuan travesty.