Musings on Multilingualism in London and Mumbai

Shortly after I posted this, a slightly earlier version of the article was (finally!) published by the online magazine Scroll here.

“When we want to be dramatic or romantic,” Sangeeta informed me, “we speak Hindi. When we want to be formal, we speak English. But when we want to respect our family culture, we speak Marathi.”

I nod, enviously conscious of the fact that for me and many of my fellow Brits, conversation, whether formal or romantic, is mostly restricted to English. Yet the everyday multilingualism described by Sangeeta, a young graduate from a Mumbai suburb, is familiar to the point of cliché across India. Take my friend Murtaza, an architect based in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. I’ve heard him conduct business calls in Gujarati, then speak to his girlfriend in Hindi before Skyping his family in Mewari, all the while maintaining an English conversation with me.

Recently, I have found myself drawing comparisons between the linguistic life of my adopted home city, London, and the city that forms the basis of my academic research, Mumbai. London is frequently claimed as one of the world’s most multilingual cities, with 300 or more languages in regular use. Even on a short stroll through the city I wouldn’t be surprised to hear snippets of conversation in English, French, Urdu, Polish and Somali alongside numerous languages I cannot identify. For some this is a sign of cosmopolitanism to be celebrated, while for others, like comedian John Cleese, it makes for a London that is “no longer English”. A similar phenomenon was described by one Captain Hall who roamed the bazaars of Bombay (as Mumbai then was) in 1812 and heard “the sounds of every language” he had ever heard elsewhere. A century later, Joseph Gerson da Cunha described the city as a “real Babel of tongues”.

London Diversity

London diversity (credit: http://www.cityam.com)

Clearly there are some similarities between the two cities, but I can’t help wondering whether sheer number of languages spoken is an appropriate yardstick to measure the multilingualism of a place. In London, according to the 2011 UK Census, nearly four fifths of the city’s residents speak English as their main language, while the next five most widely spoken languages (Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu and Punjabi) only account for 1-2% each of the population. In Mumbai, by contrast, no one language is the mother tongue of more than half the city’s population. The frontrunner, at around 45%, is Marathi, while slightly under 20% each speak Gujarati and Hindi as a first language. Other languages spoken include Tamil, Sindhi, Kannada and Konkani.

Furthermore, the British, unlike Indians, are hardly noted for their polyglot tendencies, and nearly two thirds of the country speak only English. Of course, in multicultural London there is a higher prevalence of bilingualism, but even so, the dominance of English in public life is overwhelming. With a few exceptions, such as the use of French at St Pancras International Station and Bengali street signs around Brick Lane, public signs and announcements tend to be English only. Likewise, the vast majority of London’s schools teach in English medium.

In Mumbai, conversely, the trappings of official polyglossia are everywhere. Street signs are bilingual in English and Marathi at the very least, while trilingual station signs and railway announcements include Hindi too. Schools, meanwhile, operate in each of these language media, or in others such as Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil. Does this make Mumbai the more multilingual of the two cities? My own feeling is that treating multilingualism as a scale is meaningless in this context, and that it makes more sense to think of the two cities as multilingual in very different ways.

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Trilingual station sign in Marathi (top), Hindi (middle) and English (credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Superfast1111)

In London, you can get by your entire life speaking only English, and would live a restricted life without it. Indeed, despite the populist perception that the British metropolis is overrun with foreigners who don’t speak a word of English, Census data indicate that only around 3% of Londoners can’t speak English even to a basic level. In Mumbai too, many regard English as the passport to commercial success, and the furious uptake of English-medium education has been likened to an “English storm”. I have met several Mumbaikars who went to a Marathi medium school themselves but are determined that their children be schooled in English.

Simultaneously, however, a regionalist orientation in local government has pushed the Marathi agenda into prominence in recent decades. Directives have been issued for all state schools to teach Marathi, for buildings to display nameplates in Marathi and even for multiplex cinemas to allocate a certain number of screenings each year to Marathi films. This also appears to extend to law enforcement. “All the cops here speak Marathi,” Murtaza once told me, “so if you get into trouble it pays to know some of the language.” Others have gone further, hinting at darker consequences for failure to speak Marathi. More constructive, however, are private initiatives such as Mumbai resident Kaushik Lele’s excellent Learn Marathi blog which has been a lifeline for many students of the language (including me).

Despite these moves, the language most commonly heard in public (at least outside the Marathi-dominated former cotton mill belt) is, arguably, Hindi. While the city has a sizeable population with roots in Hindi-speaking North India, the use of Hindi extends well beyond this community. Indeed, Mumbai is famous for its “Bambaiya” variety which has been celebrated as a “mongrel language” by historian Gyan Prakash and functions as a lingua franca across the city. More than one North Indian acquaintance has admitted to me that mastering the nuances of Bambaiya felt more of a priority than learning Marathi when they settled in Mumbai.

Again, speaking as a monolingually-raised Brit, the idea of London or any other British city functioning in a language other than English is hard to imagine. Equally hard to imagine is London as the centre of a world-famous French or German film industry. I therefore forgive my 18-year old self, arriving in Mumbai for the first time in 2003, for assuming that Bollywood produced Marathi films. Actually, the most accurate label for the language of Bollywood films is a matter of ongoing debate. Hindi? Hindustani? Some even suggest Urdu, and arguably the fact that Bollywood gets dragged into cross-border politics with Pakistan is an indirect consequence of the linguistic (if not cultural) unity of Hindi and Urdu.

Anarkali

Poster for Anarkali with Hindi, English and Urdu text (credit: media.vam.ac.uk)

Meanwhile, the more explicitly linguistic brand of identity politics that Mumbai continues to experience has faint parallels in London. Ethnolinguistic identity is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the wake of the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Successive British governments have demonised those immigrants not yet able to speak English, while in 2016 PM Theresa May damned cosmopolitanism everywhere by proclaiming that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.”

So far, neither city seems to be losing linguistic richness as a result. London retains the edge in terms of number and diversity of languages spoken, although in practical terms it is dominated by English. In Mumbai linguistic capital is more evenly distributed. English may be essential for getting ahead, but Marathi remains the most widely spoken mother tongue, and its importance in greasing the wheels of diplomacy is perhaps growing. And regarding Hindi, I’ll let Sangeeta have the (almost) last word: “in times of crisis and riots, Bollywood binds Mumbai together. Everybody speaks Hindi. Everybody understands Hindi songs.” Not, I suspect, entirely accurate, but nevertheless profoundly sincere.

 

 

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Delisle Road BDD Chawls

This is the first in an occasional series on Bombay/Mumbai, where I am spending 2017 conducting fieldwork as part of a PhD in linguistic anthropology. I am specifically interested in language, identity and urban change in the former cotton mill districts of the city. However, I reserve the right to write whatever and whenever I damn well please!

I first heard of the BDD chawls from an architect friend. If you’re interested in Mumbai’s changing neighbourhoods, he said, you should visit the BDD chawls. His description of the long drawn out wrangling over their proposed re-development reminded me a little of Battersea Power Station and, intrigued, I headed over to middle-class Worli neighbourhood to find them.

The chawl is a Mumbai housing archetype. The canonical chawl is a densely-packed block of tiny tenements or kholis (literally: room) accessed from external corridors. The Bombay Development Division (BDD) chawls, constructed in the 1920s to house mill workers, policemen and, for a few years at least, prisoners, deviate from this pattern with a wide internal corridor, open at both ends. The buildings immediately impress you with their heavy-set construction, a fact celebrated by their residents.

It was only after visiting the BDD chawls in Worli that I realised that there were three other BDD chawl sites in Mumbai. One of these, in Delisle Road (now N M Joshi Marg), is in Lower Parel, the heart of Mumbai’s former cotton mill district. As it happens, I had already visited this site on a previous visit last June, unaware of its history, and spent a happy hour trying to converse in Marathi with (among others) a journalist, a social worker and a kabaddi player.

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“Among others, a journalist, a social worker and a kabaddi player”

Since returning to Mumbai I have been visiting the Delisle Road chawls on a regular basis. The 32 chawls are situated within a small grid of streets off Delisle Rd, directly next to Mumbai’s second biggest mosque, the Bawla Masjid and close to the former Mafatlal Mills site, now the glassy blue Marathon Futurex office complex. Within the grid of streets itself, there are various temples, shops and a police station in addition to the chawl buildings and a newer, six-storey residential compound called Shivaji Nagar.

So much about the area appeals to the aspiring linguistic anthropologist in me. The streets resound with Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra. In fact I am constantly overwhelmed by the extent to which I hear Marathi across the whole of this part of the city. This is at odds with the somewhat sneering comments made by friends of mine from the “metropolitan elite” – many who speak no Marathi at all – that Mumbai’s public life functions entirely in Hindi and English and (according to one Delhiite who, on moving here 13 years ago, toyed with a Marathi grammar book before mislaying it and abandoning the language acquisition project entirely) that “even Maharashtrians don’t like speaking Marathi outside the home.”

Despite the predominantly Maharashtrian demographic, these chawls are no monoculture. Various people have told me that the families living in Shivaji Nagar are mostly Gujarati and Marwari, and writer G K Ainapure (in Neera Adarkar’s superb edited volume The Chawls of Mumbai) reminisces about the Christian couples he used to gawp at making out on the building’s balconies. Given the proximity to the Bawla Masjid, one might expect a large Muslim community, but I have only encountered a handful of individuals. This includes a barber’s assistant from Uttar Pradesh who speaks only Hindi. I have watched his boss switch from Marathi, the language in which he banters with his customers, to Hindi, when he wants to instruct the assistant or include him in gossip in which case the entire group switches over.

Most of the Maharashtrians here are Hindu, and Electoral Ward 198 (within which the Delisle Road chawls fall) is regarded in the press as a sure-fire win for the Shiv Sena candidate in the recent municipal elections. Having emerged in the 1960s on a “Mumbai for the Maharashtrians” manifesto, the Shiv Sena has since embraced the broader Hindu nationalist agenda and their flag is an uncompromising splash of saffron. The “Shiv” in their name refers not to the Hindu deity, but to the 17th century Maratha warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji. In homage to Shivaji’s birthday a few days back, a friend showed me a clip on YouTube from a series celebrating the Chhatrapati’s life. I couldn’t help wondering why the specific episode he chose was that in which Shivaji (who spoke in Marathi in the clip) killed the Muslim overlord Afzal Khan (who only spoke in Hindi). My friend told me it was a “very historical moment for Maharashtra”, and that Shivaji was his “ideal person”, but I also couldn’t help remembering how emphatically he had told me the day before that there were no Muslims living in his chawl…

Most of my time, however, has been spent with another community, the Dalit [“untouchable”] Buddhist followers of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, anti-caste ideologue and chief architect of India’s constitution. A chance re-encounter with my friends from the June visit, led to me being invited to join their Republic Day celebrations on January 26th. Any hope of being a wallflower on this occasion was quickly banished when I was invited to help hoist the Indian flag, to fumblingly garland a photograph of Ambedkar and to say “don shabda” (two words) in Marathi to the assembled company. Being an attention seeking show-off I was (fairly) happy to oblige, telling myself that from a methodological viewpoint this was a great way to make inroads into my research site.

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“Fumblingly garlanding a photograph of Dr Ambedkar”

Since then I have spent many happy hours sitting and chatting in the seating area outside the two Dalit-dominated chawls. I have met with incredible generosity and warmth and have been invited into various homes and have even attended a condolence ceremony for a new friend’s grandmother. Conscious of wanting to give as well as take (the problematic relationship of the researcher and the researched Continue reading