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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

4301 Military Road NW, #510, Washington, DC 20015

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

May 11 is the day well-known poet Parul Khakhar posted a poem, Shav-vahini Ganga, on her Facebook page; it spread like wildfire on social media

Bodies buried in the sand near the banks of the Ganga in Allahabad. PTI

Perhaps it is the first time since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister that a poem written in his mother tongue Gujarati has not only criticised the government but also voiced the anguish of the common man at how the second coronavirus wave has ravaged us.

May 11 is the day well-known Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar posted a poem, Shav-vahini Ganga, on her Facebook page. It spread like wildfire on social media. Gujarati literati were left numb, they knew not how to react to it.

But common Gujaratis, many of who have nothing to do with literature, found it appealing and echoing their sentiments. They shared it widely. Within a day or two, the poem got translated into English, Hindi, Marathi and a few other Indian languages. Khakhar was praised for writing such a powerful and brave poem but also bombarded with abusive messages from troll armies.

Khakhar, 51, is essentially known for her romantic poetry; political issues are not something she had earlier touched. She started her literary journey comparatively very late in life, after getting married, having had children and settled.

Soon she earned herself a place of repute in Gujarati literary circles. She remains a normal Gujarati homemaker and seldom indulges in any political discourse. I have read poetry with her at several literary events in the past.

Right-wing opinion is furious because her latest poem came like an unexpected bolt to them; Khakhar was not meant to be writing such stuff. She has never been anti-establishment.

But the devastation around her because of the mismanagement of the second Covid wave and the catastrophic failure of the government completely shook her up from inside. This is what forced her to write such a political and radical poem. She has been trolled so heavily after she uploaded it that she has had to lock her Facebook profile.

I happened to speak to her over phone on Monday morning. I congratulated her for not deleting her poem from social media despite such pressure. She replied, laughing lightly: “Why should I delete when I have said nothing wrong.” Her voice was reassuring.

Her long-time admirers have turned their backs on her and distanced themselves from her and her poetry.

I can relate to what Khakhar is going through right now. In October 2015 when I decided to write a letter to the President of India (then, the late Pranab Mukherjee) regarding the increasing culture of intolerance in the country, I had requested well-known writers and artists from Gujarat for their signatures on the appeal. Most of them morally supported the cause but refused to put their names on the appeal. Nobody was ready to take the risk of speaking the truth.

Over recent years, they have acquired the habit of speaking in hushed tones for fear of being overheard. But I did receive support from artists, writers and filmmakers from outside Gujarat. They signed the appeal. One national newspaper put it on the front page and when that happened, Gujarati literati had gone numb.

Subsequently, my name was dropped from many literary events and award nominations. We started a movement named Dakshinayan along with scholar Ganesh Devy and a few other writers and activist friends later that year.

Khakhar’s poem has now galvanised the pro-establishment machinery into action. A well-known columnist from Gujarat dedicated her newspaper column to criticise the poem and questioned Khakhar’s intention. She said that it had now become a fashion to criticise the government. A few others have raised questions against the use of words like “fiddle” and “Billa-Ranga” in her poem.

Many have become literary critics overnight and are passing judgement on the literary merits of the poem. A few turned poets too and wrote poetic replies. The intention is very clear: no other poet or writer should get motivated to follow Khakhar’s path. A bunch of pro-government writers and columnists landed on social media to argue for the government.

Major Gujarati poets are silent. I do support Parul Khakhar’s poem and wrote about it openly on social media. I am getting calls from fellow Gujarati writers to step back.

The discourse kicked off by Khakhar’s poem is unprecedented in recent times in Gujarat. I have received many calls over the past few days from the Gujarati diaspora regarding her poem and her poetic journey. Many who had never heard her name are supporting her poem. This poem has crossed boundaries of languages. Nobody can stop its journey now. Not even the poet herself.

Mehul Devkala is a Baroda-based Gujarati poet and an award-winning filmmaker

courtesy : “The Telegraph”, 19 May 2021

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features