The Decline of Gujarati? (Part I)

A strange thing happened at some point between 2006 and now. It seemed quite unremarkable for many of the people I spoke to this summer in Gujarat, some of whom said that they had not even noticed the change until I pointed it out. But it struck me as a pretty significant shift in the history of the Gujarati language.

I grew up bilingually, speaking Gujarati at home and English everywhere else. Both of my grandfathers were professors of Gujarati, and my parents insisted that we speak the language exclusively when conversing within the family. They came to the U.S. years before I was born—my father in 1973, my mother in 1982—bringing with them a version of their mother tongue that preceded many of the changes that have occurred over the past couple of decades.

The fossilized Gujarati that I continue to speak today—what I sometimes call my “time capsule Gujarati”—is a relic of an era when mass electronic media consisted overwhelmingly of vacuum tube radios, for which only a handful of stations broadcast within Gujarat. It froze in time before television, cable television, satellite television, market forces, and a large influx of people from other parts of India reshaped the language that Mohandas Gandhi standardized as part of his nonviolent struggle. As a consequence, my speech retains many words that passed out of Gujarati long ago in favor of Hindi or English replacements, prompting my relatives to draw on an old caste trope and refer to my “true Brahmin Gujarati”.

I do not possess quite the range of vocabulary in Gujarati that I do in English. But it is close. I think and dream in both languages. I have spoken Gujarati at home for two and a half decades, and I used it to full effect in 2006 when conducting research for my book No One Had a Tongue to Speak. Over the years, I have added other languages—Spanish through school, French through self-study, Hindi by watching Bollywood movies—but none has approached the position that Gujarati and English share in my mind.

It was with great consternation, then, that I found everyone addressing me in Hindi on this trip. Not just students and bureaucrats, who might well hail from other states. Not just businesspeople, who might well treat the language as the proper medium for commercial exchanges. Tea stall owners, rickshaw drivers, newspaper reporters, doctors—it seemed that everyone had switched to treating Hindi as the default starting language at some point between 2006 and 2012. The Hindi was broken, half-formed, littered with Gujarati words. It was enough to make a native speaker cringe. But it was persistently, stubbornly Hindi nonetheless.

Interactions with strangers on this trip seemed to follow a stereotyped linguistic pattern. One of us would start speaking—I in Gujarati, or my interlocutor in Hindi. We would then go through a few turns in the conversation, I in Gujarati and he or she in Hindi. It often became apparent within the first sentence—from word choice, pronunciation, or the like—that the other person was a native Gujarati speaker. Yet in spite of my continuing to speak in Gujarati, the interlocutor would almost always continue with a language in which neither of us was completely comfortable.

If the conversation lasted longer than about thirty seconds, a key event often occurred. I cried “uncle”. My Hindi is terrible. I can make myself understood, get by, get around in Delhi, no problem. But people immediately know that I am a non-native speaker. Such is the inevitable consequence of having gained most of my practice with the language solely through listening—listening to the dialogues of movies.

So I would admit as much. I would explicitly state that I was not really comfortable in Hindi and ask the other person to switch to Gujarati. The result was usually a brief look of astonishment, followed by a switch to Gujarati. (Most people of my age in Gujarati cities, having grown up with Bollywood films and satellite television, feel comfortable enough with the language that they would not have to beg out of a conversation.) But then, the strangest thing would happen—after a few turns in the conversation, the other person would switch back to Hindi. This happened so many times that I have no choice but to identify it as a pattern.

In short, Gujarat in 2012 struck me as a profoundly different place because I can no longer take it for granted that I can unthinkingly speak in Gujarati. To be fair, the past decade has seen an explosion in immigration to the state’s cities from other parts of India, such that I occasionally found myself conversing with monolingual Hindi speakers. But such cases make up the minority of my experiences; for the most part, I was a participant in conversations where two native Gujarati speakers conversed in a lingua franca.

What shocked me most about the changeover in default language was the strength of its hold in stranger-stranger interactions. When I discussed the switch with people, many attributed it to the growing population of non-Gujarati speakers, and that cosmopolitanism would be a fine explanation for why others initiated conversations in Hindi; but it cannot explain why other native Gujarati speakers persisted in speaking a second language to someone who spoke Gujarati, seemed uncomfortable with Hindi, and explicitly expressed his discomfort with it. I had somehow been pigeon-holed into a particular linguistic box, from which I could not easily break out.

Some relatives and friends with whom I discussed the issue cited my appearance as the reason for strangers’ insistence on speaking Hindi with me. They explained that my long hair—much too long for any respectable middle- or upper-class Gujarati man of my age—made people assume that I was an outsider. Moreover, as my relatives never cease to point out, my phenotype is not “typically Gujarati”, given my curly hair, “overly dark” skin, and “big nose”. Was it, then, simply a matter of strangers being unable to process the idea that someone who looked like me could speak Gujarati comfortably?

I might believe that, were it not for the interactions I observed as a third party. In stores, I time and again saw salespeople and customers address each other in Hindi—even when both had been speaking Gujarati with their associates only moments earlier. Buyer and seller would then carry on the most detailed conversation in Hindi. This was a drastic change from 2006, when it seemed to me that commercial interactions began, by default, in Gujarati. It seems as if, on certain levels, Gujarati is becoming a private language, spoken with acquaintances, while Hindi is becoming the language of stranger-stranger interaction.

To be fair, I am not suggesting anything like the death of Gujarati. The language remains alive and well in government offices, newspapers, homes, and neighborhood shops. And the trend toward default-Hindi behavior that I have identified are much more pronounced in large cities like Ahmedabad. In smaller towns and villages, Gujarati remains the starting language even between strangers. I do wonder, however, how things will change moving forward.

Umashankar Joshi, one of the towering figures of Gujarati literature, once famously admonished, “Stop Hindi at Abu [on the Rajasthan border].” He lamented the fact that standard Hindi had replaced native Rajasthani languages like Marwadi and Mewadi in public life, relegating them to a diminished position within the domestic sphere. After this summer in Gujarat, I cannot help but wonder whether the struggle he envisioned is taking place now.

– Utpal Sandesara

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