Does Delhi have a language?

Do we think in languages? If so, does a sudden change in the environment, which requires one to learn and speak a new language, induce a change in the way one thinks? Does it cause an identity crisis? Patriot reached out to people whose first language was different from those spoken in the Capital, which has been a melting pot of so many cultures over the past millennium, in order to understand their perspectives.

Does Delhi have a language?

Photo: Unsplash

Delhi is a cluster of different linguistic ethnicities — a perfect example of a cosmopolitan city. The capital speaks three major languages – Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. They often become a mode of communication, even for those whose first language is neither of them. The involvement with these languages does not remain limited to work-life survival; a linguistic confusion finds its way into their most intimate experiences.

When Izza Ahsan, a 20-year-old student came to Delhi to study English literature, she was already struggling to adjust between two languages – Kannada and Malayalam – when she came to a city of an alien lingua franca: Hindi. 

Ahsan usually finds herself thinking in English and would often call herself ‘linguistically handicapped.’ The sense of rootlessness worsened when she had to learn Hindi, a language she had started to hate for political reasons. 

“I would feel alienated even among the people I loved the most when they spoke in Hindi”, she tells Patriot, “English was the language of our communication, but it was never a language of our inner worlds. I would always feel like my friends were not being real when they spoke with me”, she adds.

Izza Ahsan

To Sindhuri Aparna, a 26-year-old art historian born into a Telugu family, it always seemed as if a foreign person was speaking Telugu whenever she spoke the language herself.

Aparna was born and raised in Delhi and received her primary education in Hindi and English. An ardent reader, Aparna is more comfortable reading Hindi, English, and Urdu literature than Telugu literature, except for “some short story books like Panchatantra.” 

Although she wishes to explore Telugu literature, she is often drawn to other languages – learning Persian and Urdu because she loves the poetry of these languages – and her mother tongue always takes a backseat. 

Speaking about her literary knowledge, Aparna says it feels incomplete as she does not know much about Telugu literature. “Honestly, I sometimes feel bad about this”, she confesses. She has mixed feelings about her linguistic identity even as she claims her mother tongue to be Telugu. 

But does our mother tongue have to be the ‘language of our inner world’? For Aparna, this is not so. She is more comfortable expressing herself in languages other than Telugu, often facing difficulties in “writing a simple message” in it.

Growing up, she felt alienated in both places: In Delhi, because she was a Teluguite living in Hindi belt; in her hometown in Andhra Pradesh, for not knowing the language of her homeland better enough.

Isha Polson celebrates her multilingualism and calls herself Dilliwali at heart. A Malayali born and brought up in Delhi, she only speaks Malayalam to communicate with her nearest family members but never feels connected to the Malayali culture.

Although she identifies more with north Indian culture, she makes an interesting point about how she visits churches where only Malayalis go on Sundays and during Christmas. “The way I celebrate Christmas will be different from the way a north Indian celebrates because my traditions are different”, she says. 

She gives examples of the diaspora in the US to explain her situation in Delhi. “Just like Indian-Americans, I am neither Delhiwala nor Malayali enough for people”, she says. 

This initially led to an identity crisis, but now she accepts that she will “always carry two cultures in her heart”, often becoming defensive about the ‘faults’ in her accent.

Isha Paulson

When asked in what language she thinks in, she remarks “I think in Hindi and English” – but – “There are times when I struggle to find words in Hindi but I find them in Malayalam… and if I am hurt, the language that surprisingly comes out of my mouth is Malayalam. This is also that language I switch to whenever I am having a soul-to-soul talk with my mother.” 

She indicates how Hindi words are casually making their way in the interview that is taken in English. “See this”, she laughs.

This might not be the case with Riya Biswas, a Bengali woman from Delhi, who learnt Hindi mostly in school. People around Biswas at home spoke predominantly in Bengali and there were a lot of difficulties adapting to a new language  when she had to learn Hindi for her social life. 

Sharing her relationship with her first language, she says, “Whenever I am speaking Bengali, I feel the language, which is not the case with Hindi or English that I use to communicate outside.”

Riya Biswas

She believes that a language carries a culture with it. Whenever someone speaks the same language as her, there are layers of understanding between them. “If a person is speaking Bengali, a lot of cultural identity and the experiences the person holds is similar to mine”, she explains. 

Although Biswas lived her entire life in Delhi, there is some sort of disconnection she feels with the place. “I say that I live in Delhi, but I am not completely from Delhi. I carry Bengal with me.” This often leads to an explanation of her identity — a Delhiite from Bengal — whenever someone asks her where she comes from.

Almost every person Patriot interviewed felt some kind of otherness in a Hindi-speaking environment. They often felt judged and under pressure to speak the language ‘properly.’ Then there was casual regionalism that found its way into such episodes. 

Maria Khandeker, however, shares that although she was asked to correct her “r” sound in the city, she never felt any sort of alienation. But Maria lived in Delhi only for a year for her education, and the only thing that she had to say about Hindi-speakers in Delhi is that it is a ‘bit on the harsher side.’

Maria Khandeker

“People in Delhi will probably roast you to become friends with you”, she laughs as she explains the attitude of Delhiwalahs. Khandeker comes from Bengal and did her Masters from Jamia Millia Islamia.

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Mohd Shehwaaz Khan
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Shehwaaz covers community, sexuality, gender, and other social issues for Patriot.