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VITASTA ANNUAL NUMBER: Volume XXXIV (2000-2001)

Preserving Our Identity : Role Of The Mother Tongue

A. N. Kaul (Sahib)*

The last decade of the 20th century was witness to many ups and downs for our country and its people. As a community, Kashmiri Pandits have had bitter memories of that turbulent decade. Lakhs and lakhs of our kinsmen were uprooted from the land of their birth, with their population badly decimated, partly as a result of barbaric killings by the local militants and foreign mercenaries and partly due to countless deaths caused by trauma, acute depression, mental tension and other diseases which were hitherto unknown to them, besides the accidents galore. All this was the direct outcome of forced separation from our roots, humiliation of living on doles of pittance and difficulties of adjusting to inhospitable climes of the hot plains of the country. For us, it has been an upheaval of an unprecedented magnitude.

Rising from the ashes

"We have wept long enough", Swami Vivekananda once said, "no more weeping, but stand on your feet and be men". Prompted perhaps by this saintly advice, our desolate brethren realised in good time that no purpose would be served by continuing to weep and lament over the loss of our precious worldly possessions, our homes and hearths and, in many cases, our nearest and dearest kith and kin. We had, after all, to survive somehow even in the midst of these adversities which were further compounded by total indifference to our plight by the Central and State governments, the media and the people of our country in general. It was this instinct of survival which helped us to rise once again from the ashes; build shelters over our heads permanent or temporary wherever and whatever one could afford, look for alternative sources of livelihood and, above all, continue to provide to our children high academic education and technical and professional training, which has always been our topmost priority, even when we could not afford two square meals a day.

Turbulence, a blessing in disguise

We have admittedly gone through what could be described as a churning process, opening up new vistas and opportunities for our youngsters for training and jobs in areas and disciplines which one couldn't conceive of, back in the Valley. That way, the turbulence of the last decade has been for us a blessing in disguise. Our young boys and girls have fanned out and settled in different parts of India with thousands of them having gone to far-off lands, across the oceans, to the Americas, England, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East and also to the Emirates. Many are said to have settled in Russia and the erstwhile constituents of what was once the Soviet Union. Wherever our talented doctors, engineers, scientists, chartered accountants, business and computer professionals have gone and settled, they have proved their mettle, and made a name, rising quite high in hierarchy. They have, in turn, brought glory to their country in general and their community, in particular. We wish them all good luck and prosperity!

Mother-tongue, a casuality

In this diaspora, however, we have lost sight of one important aspect, which gives us our distinct identity and that aspect is our mother tongue, Kashmiri. We have been lamenting, day in and day out, at numerous conferences, seminars, symposia, and various other conclaves that we have lost our identity because of our having been uprooted from our homes and hearths and forced by circumstances to reside and eke out our livelihood in unfamiliar and inhospitable environs. As a matter of fact, no one can question the logic of this statement. But have we ever tried to introspect, even for a moment, as to the primary reason of our prevailing feeling of identity crisis, apart from the discriminatory treatment meted out to us at the hands of the Central and State Governments. This undoubtedly is the wilful neglect by us of our mother tongue which in reality gave us the identity we are sorely missing today.

Crisis of our own making

The identity crisis that we find ourselves engulfed in today, is actually the crisis of our own making. Who, one would like to ask, compels us to begin communicating even with our infants, right from the moment of their birth, in a language other than the mother tongue, the language spoken by the parents themselves. This virus of speaking to our children in Hindi, Urdu or English had affected us even while residing in the Valley or outside decades before our recent exile. While most of the parents continued to converse among themselves and with other family members in Kashmiri, they would immediately switch over to Hindi or English when it came to talking to their kids. What a strange irony! They had perhaps begun to nurse a false notion that if they talked to their children in Kashmiri, the latter may not be able to get ahead in public schools or other educational institutions with confidence. Little did they realise that their own parents and grand parents who had their grooming in typical Kashmiri environs and who had Kashmiri alone as the medium of their communication inside their homes and the society outside, had attained high degree of proficiency and excellence in every other language which their interest or avocation called upon them to learn, be it English, Sanskrit, Persian or Urdu, or even foreign languages. The scholastic attainments of our ancestors are indeed legendary.

While settling in different parts of the country or in foreign lands, our children, including the grown-up ones, take not only delight but also deep interest in learning new languages, Indian and foreign, but overlook the fact that by neglecting their own mother-tongue, they are fast losing their identity as Kashmiri Pandits which now remains confined only to their surnames so long as they choose to keep them intact. No other community in India Bengalis, Tamilians, Kannadigas, Telugus, Oriyas, Maharashtrians, Malayalees, Sindhis, Punjabis and others has become a victim of this craze. They in fact take legitimate pride in talking with each other, in public and private, in their own mother-tongue. While learning and attaining proficiency in other languages, they ensure that their children do not lose touch with their mother tongue, in which they speak not only in their homes but with their friends and colleagues outside. Contrary, however, is the case with us. What to speak of children and youth, even elderly people of the community, who were born, grew up and lived most of the time in the valley, have also given up speaking in Kashmiri. It irritates to listen to such thorough bred Kashmiri Pandits talking to each other in a language and dialect other than their own mother tongue.

Mother-tongue is the strongest link which helps us and our progeny down the line to communicate intimately with each other and also to establish instant rapport with our kinsmen wherever we happen to meet them, in different parts of India or in foreign lands. It gives us a sense of belonging to our land of birth, Kashmir, and to our common social and cultural heritage. Once you come to know that the person you have met in a far off land, sports a surname belonging to your community but is unable to speak in the mother-tongue, a sense of disappointment and distancing begins to set in and all hopes of conversing on the same wave length are dashed to ground.

Alienation from the Kashmiri ethos

The direct fall-out of this apathy and willful neglect of our mother tongue has been the gradual alienation of most of our children and grand children from the mainstream of the Kashmiri ethos. They not only lack in the basic grounding of their mother-tongue, spoken as well as written, but they are also drifting away by and by from all other facets associated with this language the music, the literature, the art, the essential rituals and even insofar as their culinary tastes are concerned. It is indeed painful to watch our young boys and girls and small children gradually withdrawing from or avoiding our community get-togethers or family functions because they find the surroundings uncomfortable owing to their unfamiliarity with their mother-tongue.

For bringing ourselves to such a sorry pass, we have no one to blame but ourselves. As pointed out earlier, we are perhaps the only community in India which fights shy of communicating with our children and, of late, even between the adults, in our mother-tongue. By doing so, we are doing an incalculable harm to our identity as a homogeneous ethnic group. It must not be forgotten that Kashmiri Pandits who had left the Valley centuries ago due to circumstances prevailing at that time and settled in other parts of the country, also committed the same mistake and are now rueing over it. In total disregard of the consequences, we are compounding the mistake committed by them.

It is no comfort to hear from some of our community members that even if their children are unable to speak and converse in Kashmiri, they do understand the purport of what we talk at home. That is not enough. Unless we constantly encourage our kids and teenage children to talk, without inhibitions, in their own mother-tongue, we cannot promote and preserve the language. Young parents have a much greater responsibility in this regard. They have to begin this experiment from the cradle itself and watch the wonderful results as their children grow up. It is high time that we listen to the wail of our sadly neglected mother tongue and take a solemn pledge that from now on, we shall converse with our children at home only in Kashmiri and no other language. You will find that in no time will they pick up the nuances of the language and begin to talk to you in sweet broken syllables. Enjoy it and encourage them to the language and begin to talk to you in sweet broken syllables. Enjoy it and encourage them to open up further and make it a point to speak only in their mother tongue with their Kashmiri friends and classmates as well. In due course, you will find that they will feel at home with the language.

Access to Kashmiri Literature and Music

Our mother tongue, Kashmiri, is as sweet and rich in vocabulary as any other language of our country. It has a vast literature, rich and interesting folklore and poetry, as also enchanting music, which unfortunately is now alien to our children. It is our foremost duty, as responsible parents, to remedy the situation even now and expose our children to this wonderful heritage of ours and bring them back into the mainstream of true Kashmiriat.

For this, it is very important that we cultivate their interest and taste for Kashmiri music and poetry by frequently playing recorded cassettes at home and invariably taking them out to Kashmiri musical evenings and concerts, which should be organised by our various Samitis and Sabhas at more frequent intervals. This could more easily be done in residential areas having the largest concentration of Kashmiri populace. Steps also need to be taken to organise debates, elocution and poetry recitation contests in Kashmiri for children and publicly acknowledge and reward their excellence. An experiment on these lines has been started by the J&K Vichar Manch in Delhi for the last two years. Staging of dramas and plays in Kashmiri language should be encouraged by harnessing new talents, with adequate financial back up, to revive interest in our mother-tongue. Musical nites need to be organised more frequently by inviting top Kashmiri singers from Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of the country to perform in Delhi and other major cities and towns. We are fortunate to have talented artistes like Kailash Mehra, Neerja Pandit, Bhajan Sopori, Vijay Malla, Archana Jalali, Vijay Kaul, Rajender Kachroo and scores of other budding young boys and girls who could be invited to give performances. These artistes must be suitably honoured with Awards and distinctions.

Problem of the script

Insofar as the written language and its literature goes, it must be admitted that after the decline of the original Kashmiri script, the Sharada, common Kashmiris, apart from conversing in their mother-tongue, had not been using the language for any written communications among themselves. Even the State of Jammu and Kashmir did not bother to adopt Kashmiri as the official language and instead promoted the use of Urdu, and alien language. Later, under the Constitutional compulsions, the Persian script was adopted as the official script for the Kashmiri language, to be taught in schools. Though most of our famed writers and poets wrote volumes in this very script, majority of the Kashmiri Pandits, particularly during the post-independence period, could not have access to this vast literature because of their total unfamiliarity with the Persian script.

Realising the gravity of the situation, it was Koshur Samachar in Delhi which made a bold attempt to present this vast Kashmiri literature, in prose and poetry, in Devnagri script, for the benefit of Kashmiri Pandits residing in India and abroad. Doing this involves painful efforts of the Editors in rewriting the matter in Devnagari script from the Persian script, but is being done regularly for the last over four decades, as a labour of love.

Our young boys and girls, even men and women of the older generation, would do well to spend some time every month in browsing through the pages of the Kashmiri section of Koshur Samachar to enjoy the fascinating prose and poetry not only of the bygone days but also the literary compositions of contemporary writers and poets, young and old, who regularly contribute to this journal. The promotion of our mother-tongue in the Devanagri script, with minimal adaptations and transliteration signs, and the words and expressions with which we are more familiar, has been widely acknowledged. We feel genuinely proud of having made our humble contribution to this endeavour. The only regret is that while many of our non-Kashmiri friends and patrons are getting interested in learning our language through Koshur Samachar and other publications in Devanagri script, our own community members are not taking full advantage of these efforts.

It is a matter of joy to know that Kashmiri Pandit Association, Mumbai and lately, Kashmir Sabha, Calcutta, have taken steps to organise Kashmiri language classes for their children in which even non-Kashmiri speaking children and adults are reportedly taking interest. May be, similar steps are being taken or are on the anvil, at other places also. If not, it should be done without delay. Care has, however, to be taken that the script used for such teaching is uniform and widely understood and acceptable. Kashmiri Pandits settled overseas, we understand, are more alive to this problem than us here in India and are doing their bit to ensure that their progeny do not lose their moorings. It is interesting to know that several Kashmiri Pandit children abroad can understand and speak in fluent Kashmiri and English but do not have the same proficiency in Hindi.

Of late, greeting cards on occasions like the New Year Day, Navreh, and Deepawali have been making occasional appearances in Kashmiri language. Some enthusiastic and concerned members of the community have also come out with diglot versions of the wedding invitation cards in Kashmiri and English/Hindi. This is a happy trend and must catch on faster, not only in India but worldwide whereever our community members reside. If vegetable vendors in Jammu, Delhi and other places can offer you sotsal, haak, monji, nadur and vostahaak correctly pronouncing their original names, why can't we and our children sustain our interest in Kashmiri and thus retain our true identity.

Apart from continuing our on-going struggle for our political survival as a distinct ethnic group, and reinforcing our claim to return to our beloved Valley with honour and dignity one day, it is important that we do not lose touch with our social, cultural and linguistic heritage, if we really mean to preserve our identity as an enlightened community and go back to Kashmir, as Kashmiris and not as aliens. Let us be warned that we have no identity sans our mother tongue, our dear Kashmiri language. A sustained and concerted movement shall have to be launched on a major scale by all our organisations in the country and abroad to achieve this objective.

* The author is the Editor-in-Chief, Koshur Samachar, a leading monthly published from Delhi. The article is a slightly modified version of the paper presented at the Seminar on "Kashmiri Pandits Looking Ahead", held in New Delhi on March 12, 2000.

Mailing address : Sahib Kutir, C-267, S.F.S, Triveni Aparts. Sheikh Sarani, Phase I, New Delhi - 110017
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Views expressed by authors in Vitasta Annual Number are not necessarily of Kashmir Sabha, Kolkata.

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