A Bridge too Far?--The Preservation of Gujarati Culture without the Language

Natwar Gandhi
10-07-2021

A question often raised among Gujarati NRIs at parties and elsewhere is:  How to preserve the Gujrati culture if children don’t learn the language of their parents and grandparents?  The obvious reason children don’t speak Gujrati, much less read or write, is that adults don’t speak the language at home.  Sadly, this is true among the well educated families in India as well.  It is the same everywhere: in colleges and universities, at public gatherings, as well as in conversations with friends and acauaitances. Pick up any issue of Chitralekha, a widely circulated Gujarati magazine and you will see in it a language that is an easy mixture of Gujarati and English with English words sprinkled almost every other sentence. There is even a name for this new language--Gujlish. It is prevalent all over TV and radio programs and in print media.  Listen, for example, the popular Gujarati radio show by RJ Devaki just for a few minutes and you will hear conversations that are in half Gujarati and half English and sometimes mostly in English while her audience consists mostly of Gujaratis.

We have a country in which English still predominates in our professional lives long after the British left India some seventy five years ago.  Our constitution is written in English.  We do most of our work at the Federal level in English.  High court lawyers as well as our parliamentarians exhort each other in English.  Our best newspapers are printed in English.  Our best professional books are written in English. Most of our higher education is in English.  Our major corporations do their business in English.  It is imperative that a candidate be fluent in English to secure a high paying corporate job. The same would be true of any of the senior civil service jobs.  All this English predominance necessitates that parents send their children to English medium schools to improve their employment prospects and social standing.  Gujarati medium schools are surely there in villages and small towns, but they are almost non-existent in major cities like Mumbai that was once a bustling center of Gujarati education, language and literature. Now, it is not that uncommon to find Gujarati children in major cities who would be unable to read or write Gujarati because they have had their education in English medium schools.

If Gujarati language has eroded in Gujarat itself, why should it be any different in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia where Gujaratis have migrated over the past half century or more?  In these countries, children are surrounded by English which has become their first language.  It is what they hear when they watch their TV shows or play in the neighborhoods and what they are taught in schools and colleges.  English is what they read, write and speak as they move into a world beyond their homes.  It is unrealistic to expect them to be conversant with  Gujarati which for all practical purposes is a foreign language to them much like French or Italian.  Any forced attempt to impose Gujarati on them would be counterproductive. Even if they were to speak Gujarati at home imitating their elders, their rudimentary familiarity of the language will surely evoperate once they leave home and start their own families.

That is not to say that they should not learn Gujarati, a language of their parents and grandparents, if they do so voluntarily.  Indeed, a few selected American universities do teach Gujarati as a foreign language and a limited number of Gujarati students enroll in them.  Similarly, Gujarati Literary Academy of North America and Gujarati Sahitya Academy in the UK are doing admirable work to preserve Gujarati language and literature.  Gujrarati journals such as Opinion in the UK and Gurjari in the U.S. heroically provide a platform for Diaspora Gujarati writing.  Further, several radio and TV channels broadcast their programs in Gujarati in these countries as well as in Australia that work hard to keep the language alive thousands of miles away from home.  These and other valiant efforts, however, are limited in their scope.  They cater primarily to the first generation immigrants and should not be viewed as a panacea for the preservation of Gujarati culture and way of life abroad.

What’s Gujarati culture anyway?  What makes us Gujaratis?  We are Gujaratis because we behave in certain ways.  Our social mores, norms, attitudes, likes and dislikes, family values, religion and rituals; in short, the way we behave both at home and outside is what defines us as Gujaratis. This Gujarati way of life is passed on from generation to generation.  Children learn from their elders.  They see how adults beahve and learn from them. They observe and imitate.  If adults behave badly routinely in a household, it is quite likely that the children would behave accordingly.  This is independent of language.  Bad behavior spoken in Gujarati or English is still the same bad behavior.  Thus we should not be excessively worried about the erosion of Gujarati language as we should be worried about bad bahavior.

A few examples would suffice to assure us how Gujarati way of life--culture, if you like--is likely to survive even in the Western countries such as the USA. Nothing signifies Gujarati culture more than the traditonal annual Navratri Raas Garba.  If we were to visit any large American ciy during the Navaratri days, we would find hundreds of festively dressed young Gujaratis joyously dancing to the tune of Gujrati raases.  This annual ritual in urban America could rival any such event held in Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad or any other Gujarati city.  Yet, it should be noted that youngsters in America would hardly know the words or the meaning of the raas they are exhuberenlty dancing.

These youngsters go to Hindu places of worship in America, at the urging of their parents.  However, they would not know the words or significance of aarati they would sing with their parents and other worshippers.  Most Gujarati youths would prefer an Indian wedding ceremony with all its glitter and gold.   Though it is highly unlikely that either the bride or the groom would understand a word of what the officiating priest is chanting as he pronounces them man and wife.

More than the rituals in which the young American Gujaratis enthusiastically participate, their adoption of Gujarati values is more instructive.  A cherished Gujarati family value is how we take care of our elders.  In my fifty years of living in the U.S. I have yet to come across a single Gujrati man or woman who would warehouse their elders in a nursing home.  On the contrary, they would go to a great length to provide loving care to their elders at home. That is not to say that there are no Gujarati elders in nursing homes.  Elders might go there voluntarily to relieve children of the extreme burden of incurable diseases.  But in general adult Gujarati American children behave admirably toward their elders and often speak gratefully how their immigrant parents have sacrificed to raise and educate them.

The extraordinary economic success achieved by successive generations of Gujaratis in America shows how well they have preserved their trademark social capital and traditional heritage.  They possess much of the same entreprenuerial genius, industriousness and economic dexterity that their immigrant parents brought with them from home. This remarkable feat was achieved without any strong familiarity with the language.

In the final analysis, we should accept the continuation of Gujarati culture in the U.S. and elsewhere without an inevitable linkage with the language.  Indeed, this has been the story of all immigrant groups in the U.S. who brought with them their native languages.  Gujaratis will not be able to defy the American melting pot that has assimilated and absorbed a hundred other nationalities and their languages.  However, that does not mean that their social Gujarati capital will be washed away.  It is quite likely to survive the way the American Jews among others have preserved their unique culture and way of life but without the language. 

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July 9, 2021

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Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features