One of the traits that I was known for was the ease that I could speak many tongues. I was fortunate to be born in a city with a mini community within in for this stroke of luck. Although in a Bengali speaking West Bengal, Calcutta was known to have mini communities within it. I was in South Calcutta amidst a South Indian community of Tamil Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers and an occasional Andhra speaker. As I grew up I was exposed to English, Hindi and Bengali in equal proportion and a good number of my friends were Tamil speakers so that was picked up easily to, thanks to my Malayalam at home.
Now, Malayalam is a derivative of Tamil and hence more advanced than the oldest living language of the world. This meant the syllables and tongue movement was more complex in my mother tongue and hence was adept in picking up tongues. So when I tell people that I picked up my Tamil in a Bengali speaking land, it makes people sit up and take notice.
To this was my interaction with a friend who was with me from nursery to graduation, Sanjay Mehta, who was a Gujarati. Constant visit to his house was enough for me to understand the basics of that language.
The classes attended for German under the tutelage of a toothy Herr Basu at the Sekhar’s Commercial Institute around the corner from my house, and the subsequent certificate meant that I would put it in my resume subsequently and managed two job interviews. But when I landed up in Bangalore and was in the final round of the personal interview, the Technical Director, who happened to know German, put forward a question –
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” meaning “Do you speak German?”
Now it was quite some time since I had had the opportunity to practise German, but I had memorized a sentence for a possible situation like this.
So without any hesitation, I replied “Ich spreche kein gutes Deutsch. Es ist einige Jahre her, seit ich zum Unterricht gegangen bin, ich habe es vergessen” meaning “I do not speak good German. It has been several years since i went to class, I have forgotten.”
This did two things: one, it told the boss that I spoke German, and two, it prevented him from asking any more stuff in German!!
I was exposed to French for two years at the HM college, thanks to Mr. Pinto. Mr. Pinto was a quaint man with a deliberate walk. His checked shirt would be tucked in high trousers kept in place with a belt, exposing his socks. His leather briefcase would swing keeping time with his walk and he would peer behind his steel frames with a smile underneath his salt pepper moustache. During the class he would move his chalky hands about, and his little fingers would bend more than normal. Strange thing to remember, but there you are.
After this episode, I corrected my resume to read “basic knowledge of German and culinary French” in my resume.
My first job in Maharashtra among Parsi colleagues gave me some insight into these languages and now several years in Bangalore has given me exposure to Kannada. By this time, it was too late to teach an old dog new tricks so speaking is what I do, while I encouraged my children to learn to read, write and speak Kannada even if they only speak their mother tongue, Malayalam.
My mother ensured that I learn to read and write Malayalam by sending me to summer school at National High School, because she would write to me in it while I replied in English, improving both our language skills.
Once I began to teach, one exercise that I would undertake in my first class with the freshers is to tell them all to stand and make them sit down based on their mother tongue — Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada, and add a few more for effect Gujarati, Marathi, Assamese and Odiya, which would ensure most of them were seated. Then I would pronounce that I speak the languages of those seated and I better not hear any swearing in these, otherwise “Somebody gonna get hurt!!” in Russell Peters style!
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