Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lessons my mother learned me - Parts 2, 3

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Many of you, and even some relatives, were taken aback by the exclusive and fierce passion with which, according to my description in Part-1 of this memoir, my mother loved and lived the Konkani language.

A few words of background about my mother tongue may put her love for Konkani into perspective for you. Konkani used to be one of the “persecuted” languages. The Portuguese, who ruled Goa ruthlessly for nearly five centuries, proscribed and banned Konkani; they hounded the Konkani-speaking peoples mercilessly.

Soon the sweet and mellifluous language with its song-song intonations and gentle lexicon (recall the great dance and song from the Raj Kapoor film “Bobby”) was driven into hiding, degraded into being uttered by maid-servants, cooks, farmers, labourers and lowly, humble menial folk.

A few wise and learned Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, both Christian and Hindu, who were aware of Konkani’s ancient linguistic heritage, nursed the language in the private secrecy of their personal homes.

Severe persecution (Goans were skinned and flayed alive) and conversions also forced the Konkani-speaking peoples to flee and migrate on a mass scale. This is the beginning of the Konkani Diaspora; still going on, though for entirely different reasons now.

With her sensitive heart, perceptive mind and vast reading, my mother inherited this Konkani legacy and was determined to preserve Konkani, even if it was only in her own family and home.

Our family, the D’cruzes and the Pintos, knows that my mother’s ancestors, mostly with the Rodrigues surname, moved away from the taluka of Pernem, in Bardez, northern Goa, and found refuge and asylum in Mangalore more than two hundred years ago.

The Goan origins on my father’s side are unclear, though there are various unconfirmed hearsays that trace the Pinto line to the region of Cuncoliem, in Salcette, southern Goa.

The Konkani-speaking peoples, scattered throughout the world, were overjoyed when Goa was liberated from the cruel Portuguese colonialists in 1961. Goa became a state in 1987. After a long struggle, Konkani was declared the official language of Goa.

The sweet sing-song Konkani ‘bhas’ could now raise her shy head and walk, freed from official persecution; and out of the suppressive shadow of its sister languages, the dominant and arrogant Marathi, as well as the tolerant and protective Kannada, and come into her own.

*****

This background of persecution, dear reader, is necessary to appreciate why my mother, a teacher who spoke fluent English and an ardent student of history, barred us her children from speaking English at home. She knew that only under her own care, supervision, protection and vigilance; within the four walls of her own home where she reigned supreme with the consent of our father; completely out of reach and insulated from the cruel persecution of the State and the other dominant languages, her own tongue could be nurtured and survive – among her children.

During 1956-63, the lovely and quiet years I spent as a little boy in the railway towns of Jabalpur, Amla, Nagpur, Solapur and Manmad, my mother was able to imbibe in me love for and intimacy with Konkani. She is gone forty years, snatched from us. But ‘her’ Konkani voice abides with me like a holy picture, which even Death cannot steal like a thief in daylight.

I speak Konkani comfortably and with ease even today, because of her diligent ‘home schooling’ till I was 18 years old, and the occasional practice during langourous visits to our relatives in Mangalore. My mother was not, nor can I be, a fanatic supporter of Konkani, come what may.

Like her and my father, I am aware of the innate weaknesses, even among those who claim to be her protectors, for sometimes even ‘the fence may eat the crop’. But I can defend ‘amchi bhas’ from those who seek to confine and arrest her as a dialect of Marathi; or others who look down upon her, because she does not have one unique script.

How come then, you may ask, we studied in English medium schools? Sheer expediency. There were no Konkani medium schools in Mangalore, so my father and mother studied in Kannada medium schools, only later going to English medium colleges, my mother to St Agnes and my father to St Aloysius, both in Mangalore.

My father was working in the Signals & Telecommunication (S & T) Department of the Central Railways. So we were put in English medium schools, initially railway schools and then Jesuit or Convent schools, so that we did not ‘suffer’ when my father got transferred, which could be anywhere and without prior intimation, to a region where the medium of instruction in schools was Marathi or Hindi.

Later, when I got married to Kalpana, a Pune girl whose mother tongue is Marathi, it was natural for me that our daughter Pallavi, like my wife, studied in a Marathi medium school, with ‘semi-English’ for the science subjects. The school is called His Highness Chintamanrao Patwardhan (HHCP) High School for Girls, better known as ‘Huzurpaga’ (‘paga’, a stable, for the horses of ‘huzur’, his highness) located on Laxmi Road, Pune.

*****

Besides an abiding love for Konkani, my mother’s affair with that ancient language (with so many words of its corpus taken directly from Sanskrit) also learned me another lesson: the strong and mighty should protect the weak and meek. Throughout my career as a working journalist and a working editor, I have single-mindedly, openly and proudly championed minority issues. Let me take one example.

Encouraged and supported by my veteran seniors – S.D Wagh, Nalini Gera, Harry David, Taher Shaikh and Y.V. Krishnamurthy – as well as my warm colleagues – Vijay Lele, D. Sanjay, Ashok Gopal, Gouri Agtey-Athale, Usha Somayaji, Huned Contractor, Babu Kalyanpur and Mohan Sinha – in the thriving (till the late 90s) but now defunct Maharashtra Herald, I used to write, edit and rewrite stories as part of our ‘community’ beat, revealing the non-Maharashtrian, non-Marathi-speaking face of Pune.

Since 1983, we unearthed the Malayalis, Kannadigas, Tulus, Telugus, Tamils of south India in the bylanes of Rasta and Somwar Peth; the Bengalis and Oriyas in Khadki; the Gujaratis and Rajasthanis spread across the old city peths; the Hindi-speaking uttar bharatiya ‘biradari’ of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; the Punjabis and Sindhis (to whom the Sangtanis and Geras belong).

On this journey of discovering Pune, the spirit of my mother accompanied me, urging me to record the cultural silhouettes of the migrant communities, dig up their early history, their joys and sorrows as various communities arrived, struck roots and settled down … in a foreign land.

Aided by my mother’s love for Konkani culture, I could gain insights into the stirring motivations and driving forces that gave birth to and sustained the various community organisations, associations and clubs, which enrich the ancient city of Pune, providing an opportunity for the majority of Marathi-speaking people an opportunity to learn that India is, in reality, a throbbing and pulsating “unity in diversity”.

I soon realised that, try as they might and would, no religious fanatic or language chauvinist or opportunist manipulator, intoxicated by political ambition and poisoned by the resurgent ideology of a mythical golden past, could dare threaten the strong bonds laid down deep and watered daily by the lively communities, who rightfully and justly may call Pune – their very own.

*****

Yes, my mother loved Konkani ‘exclusively’ when she sensed concrete threats to her existence. But she also loved all the other languages of India and the world ‘inclusively’, when she tasted their sweet literature.

I repeat what I wrote in Part-1 of this memoir. “I see my mother in a kimono dress, sitting by a lighted window with the soft light falling across her face in profile. A book or magazine is in her hands and she is reading, head bent and often glancing around to keep an eye on us, her children. At other times, she is in the kitchen cooking, softly humming to herself some Konkani “cantara” (songs). But mostly she is reading, and sometimes, writing letters.”

So she recognised that her eldest son was, like her, also a passionate lover of the written and printed word and introduced me to the world of the universal imagination.

From among the hundreds of writers, I cite a few:
Russian: Dostevesky, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Pushkin;
Hindi: Munshi Premchand, Bhishma Sahni, Amrita Pritam;
French: Balzac, Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Voltaire;
Bengali: Rabindranath Tagore;
Americans: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman;
Malayali: Vaikom Mohammed Bashir;
. . . and hundreds of other obsessed creatures like herself, story-tellers and weavers of books.

If you scrutinise this partial list, you may spot the defiance and rebellion in the names, their secular and universal feeling for all humans, the longing for peace and compassion for the poor and suffering.

These authors and their writings remain my companions, long after my mother passed away suddenly 40 years ago; but not before placing me gently into their safe laps and clasping their hands.

*****

That’s all for my weekly column, this Sunday. Parts 4 and 5 of this memoir on my mother, Amy Pinto (nee Mary Therese D’Cruz) of Mangalore, Karnataka, will appear on the coming Sundays, 17 and 24 May.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, Sunday, 10 May 2009.

9 comments:

feddabonn said...

thanks, joe, i think i understand better now. while i am still very uncomfortable with it, i see where the desire to preserve one's culture and language come from. an eternal taijitu, isn't it.

i have only lately begun to understand the preciousness of language, and how it creates and plays with and in culture. thanks for being willing to bring up this rather sensitive topic, and showing that not all who love a language hate others.

Gauri Gharpure said...

that image of her by the lamp, her face in profile is simple and moving.

you have drawn our attention to an important issue by using the term 'language chauvinist' .. i feel journalists specially should remind themselves from time to time to avoid being so.. many people have beautiful thoughts but fail to make them heard only because they can't market themselves well enough in english.. nurturing a respect and pride for our mother tongue, and all local languages may help us here.

the word degraded in the third paragraph ('soon the sweet and mellifluous ... was degraded into being uttered by maid servants...')seem a little harsh though..

thanks for another honest piece..

Joe Pinto said...

feddabonn - with your deeply spiritual and personal experience of Mizo, aided by your grandfather, I would have thought it would be easier for you to empathise with the smaller languages that struggle for survival in the shadow of their older brothers and sisters.

Gauri - the truth is harsh. But the historical fact is that Konkani had got "degraded" during its long journey and was being spoken only by the poorest in the Goan community.

It took the efforts of a giant like Shenoi Goembab to rescue the language from a kind of oblivion.

Sometime later, when I am done with the current phase of "mummy-gazalee" (stories about my mother), I shall revert in full to the trials and tribulations of Konkani.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

feddabonn said...

@joe: here's some of why i distrust language based movements.

from what i've heard, the assamese language was for a long time treated as a insignificant lesser cousin of the bengali language. there was an independence movement, of sorts, and the assamese broke away. assamese was then the 'official' language. so far so good. the assamese language then promptly imposed the same hegemony it was victim to on *other languages in the north east, trying to make assamese a compulsory subject in all schools in its territory, which, at that that time, included remote outposts like the lushai hills. the bodo issues in assam are also linked to this hegemony of the assamese language over that of the bodo-kachari people.

even mizo is a composite language. in the interest of increasing numbers and strength, the various zo tribes decided to follow the lead of the lusei tribe in language, creating the mizo (literally, the zo people) tribe. most of the languages of the smaller groups were wiped out of memory. my grandad, for instance, was a hmar, but no longer knew anything about the culture of being a hmar-he was completely integrated into the mizo culture.

the points i am trying to make are:

1) if not careful, the oppressed very easily become oppressors once they have won their freedom.

2) i understand and empathise with the smaller languages struggle for survival-but qualified and coloured by the perspective of point 1.

in all of this, i mean no disrespect to your mother or her memory, and hope no offense has been taken. i strongly disagreed with my grandad, but still love him very much.

Snehith said...

Sir,
It is like listening to a story at bedtime, so wonderful to read about your childhood and your years with MH.

Looking forward for more.

Nifriz said...

Dear Joe,

It has been an extremely gratifying experience reading what you have written and revisiting the authors I have studied as a student of literature.

You have rightly pointed out in the Ist part that it is in the mothers heart that her children live, whether they far or near, accessible or otherwise. To every mother, it is her children who are the most beautiful and most lvoing little creatures God gives for her to love and nurture. Her entire being revolves around her kids and let me vouch for the fact that its the most fulfilling experience of life!! CHEERS!

Nifriz said...

Dear Joe,

It has been an extremely gratifying experience reading what you have written and revisiting the authors I have studied as a student of literature.

You have rightly pointed out in the Ist part that it is in the mothers heart that her children live, whether they are far or near, accessible or otherwise. To every mother, it is her children who are the most beautiful and most loving little creatures God gives for her to love and nurture. Her entire being revolves around her kids and let me vouch for the fact that its the most fulfilling experience of life!! CHEERS!

Indian Home Maker said...

I am glad you brought up Language Chauvinism in this post and also the beauty of Unity in Diversity that is the culture of Pune, a city that belongs to all those who have enriched it by living and making their homes here.

Pat said...

I am sitting quietly in the corner trying to absorb it all.
What a shame your mother didn't live to see Konkani accepted in 1987.
A small point - no British writers in your list?