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Language and identity at an Indian orphanage

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 15, 2008 No Comment

Two days ago, on a windy, foggy Saturday evening near New Delhi, I accompanied my mother to an orphanage where she volunteers. The orphanage is run by an Ashram, and takes in mostly orphans, and some children who have impoverished single parents (generally mothers). The children (all Bengali boys) hail from desperately poor backgrounds, and are mostly between the ages of 6 and 8. There are about 26 children who live at the orphanage at this time, and this number changes frequently because many of the single parents want the children to return home and start contributing to the family’s finances (child labor, as is widely reported, continues to be a menace to Indian society, regardless of the laws that prohibit it). The Ashram administrators counsel parents extensively, trying to convince them that education will ensure the best future for their children; however, these measures don’t always succeed, and so the numbers at the orphanage tend to fluctuate quite a bit.

My experience there was humbling and exhilarating at the same time; when we first walked in, we heard joyous shouts of “Happy New Year!” The boys were sitting in front of the Kali temple, dressed in traditional Bengali garb of white dhotis and cotton shawls which were somewhat tattered and dirty. Their unwashed, scruffy faces lit up with joy as they scrambled to find their notebooks. They then settled down and sang devotional songs in Sankrit for the next hour, their voices loud and strong, their Bengali accents just slightly tingeing their Sanskrit, and they occasionally cast curious glances in my direction. Next, my mother introduced me, and then the boys spoke to me about their lives, speaking in Hindi and Bengali, and also proceeded to show off their skills in English. When I asked them what languages they knew apart from Bengali and Hindi, a few said they spoke Bhojpuri or Rajasthani as well, and some children volunteered that they had developed a language to speak in amongst themselves, and they then proceeded to speak very rapidly in this invented language.

When I left that day, my heart was full and my mind caught in a tempest of questions…(for a picture, click here.)

Yesterday, when I returned there, a multilingual chorus of voices greeted me: “Didi eshe geche!” (Elder sister is here!-Bengali), “Aa gayee na didi!” (She has come, no!-Hindi), and “Good evening!” They finished their evening prayers in Sanskrit, then sat around and talked to me for a while. At one point, they demanded my mother tell them a story, and I said, why don’t you tell us a story? And then one child, Sanjeev, volunteered the following story:

In a village, a little Bengali boy’s mother sends him to the city to learn English. Many years later, the boy learns English and comes back to the village. Then, his mother serves him food. As the boy is eating, he starts choking, and starts screaming ‘Water! Water!” in English. Not understanding, his mother doesn’t bring him water, and the son dies.

This story was greeted with loud guffaws by the other kids, who had obviously heard the story before. I was amazed by the story, thinking, wow, this is such a personal story for these kids…this story speaks to their own-and others’-uneasiness with English, to the fears of mothers about their children losing their own linguistic identities and paying a high price for learning English (a language that must, in this story, be learnt at the cost of one’s own), and the of urban India/rural India divide that seems to cut through the lives of these children…As I walked away that day, this story stayed with me…the relationship multilingual India has to English is a complex one, one well worth researching…I can’t wait to come back and do that some day.

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