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The gift of our tongues: How a Madras posting opened for us the frontiers of our rich Southern heritage - Part I
While at Birla Engineering College (BITS Pilani), some of us acquired a nodding acquaintance with German and French at the free evening classes. The teacher was a Dutch Buddhist, who earned his keep from our college, by taking these classes.

So when my very first job took me to Germany, I did not have the apprehension that I was going to have linguistic problems in Europe. My various postings during 45 years of association with my company and the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, taught me one thing ? Picking up even a wee bit of the language of the host State or the host country, exposes one to a world far richer than one can imagine.

In the late 50s, sooner or later the Europeans invariably asked us; 'Religion has already partitioned your country. Now that the British have left, how can a country with so many languages keep itself intact?  India must be a Tower of Babel!' Luckily, a German who had been in India had provided me a graphic, on which the map of India was superimposed on a map of Continental Europe. They were the same size! 

With a flourish of this map I would respond: 'with the same land area, if Europe has so many languages, then why not India! Switzerland, a country as big or small as the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh, has four national languages - French, German, Italian and Romansh. I do not remember the Swiss ever having had linguistic tensions.

Belgium just as big as one of our districts has French, Dutch and German as national languages! And they are always on the verge of falling apart! One cannot generalise.' This would stop the interrogation, though I am not sure if my analogy holds good.

Another recent map of India (see inset) shows each Indian state, being the size of one country or another. Certainly, we must be a very complex nation to govern. Or as Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, one time US ambassador put it: 'India is a functioning anarchy'. 

In 1970, when I was transferred from Bombay to Hyderabad I had no apprehensions, as we would manage with Hindustani. There we came across a local flavour, which sounded funny to our ears. When we would speak just normal Hindustani, our landlady, the Begum Sahiba would approvingly exclaim, 'Wah, wah, Saksena Sahib, aap bhi kya Urdooan hitch bataan karte ho!'Her husband, Waheed Saheb would nod, 'Sahiiiiii!' Hilarious videos of this Hyderabadi lingo are doing the rounds. I am not sure, if that was Dakhani Urdu. 

After three years, when I was suddenly transferred to Madras I felt inadequate. I neither knew Tamil language nor its script. Linguistically, one can feel at home in most European countries, as they used Roman alphabets. At least, we could read all the signs and put two and two together! Greek and Russian could be read by anyone who has studied Maths or Physics. They all use Greek alphabets as symbols ? right from Alpha to Omega! The present Russian script is a modification of Greek, designed by the priests associated with the Greek Orthodox Church, who at the behest of the Czar worked out a phonetic script, to suit spoken Russian. Any student of Physics or Maths, at Delhi airport can effortlessly read the name of the Russian carrier, 'AEROFLOAT'. 

Arriving in Madras, we settled in a house on St Mary's Road, which came complete with papaya, coconut and lemon trees, a huge lawn, a kitchen garden and a cottage for the driver and a cowshed. Not to mention the morning plucking of bela, chameli and kanakambaram flowers. After knocking it all down, now stands the Raintree Hotel. 

Very often from the neighbour's radio we would hear Vani Jayaram singing 'Malligai', a lilting song in Tamil. She had already endeared herself, with her Hindi song 'Bol re papihara' in Jaya Bhaduri's movie Guddi. In the meanwhile, both of us were taking morning tuitions in Tamil reading and writing. I challenged my wife to sing 'Malligai' at our annual staff function, which was just round the corner. With our neighbour's help, she transcribed the words in Hindi and their meaning. What was at stake was a 2000 rupee Kanjeevaram sari, which was more than my month's salary. 

Soon the anticipated evening came.  As the skits proceeded, out of courtesy the organisers came requesting my wife to sing. It was not in the programme. So when her name was announced, the entire office was taken aback. They were more than surprised, when she went up and sang 'Malligai' in Tamil. Possibly, no one at least in the audience had ever seen a North Indian singing a popular Tamil song, not to speak of classical Carnatic music. There was a sudden burst of excitement and warmth towards us. Intense relationships at all levels which last till today, even though we left Madras in 1983! 

That evening, erased all my memories of the anti-Hindi riots, most recent ones being of 1965. By the time we left Madras after 11 years, my wife and children spoke and sang in Tamil. While I can still read and write Tamil, somewhere down the line I lost that fluency, as during the day most of my business conversations were in English. But I do join in singing, even now. Back in Bombay, we still participate in Thyagaraja Aradhana. Our daughter, studying then at Churchpark convent, sang in a school choir along with the legendary Jesudas, for a Malayalam movie. 

A friend practically forced us to see a Tamil movie, 'Aval Appadithan' (She is like that only) starring Rajnikanth, Kamal Hassan and Sripriya. According to CNN ? News18, it is one the '100 greatest Indian films ever'! Great art transcends all barriers, for we fully understood the import of that great movie ? 'What do you think of women's liberation?' 'I do not know', replied the new bride.' 'That is why you are happy!'

This movie was an introduction to great films of the South, so often lifted by Bollywood. A film club membership brought to us all the award winning regional movies and also excellent foreign movies, which are not screened in commercial circuit. It was here that we saw the first full length Sanskrit film, 'Adi Shankaracharya'.

A few years back we went back to Chennai to attend a wedding. After the wedding, all our colleagues and friends gathered at a conference room. For old time's sake, we sang in Hindi, Tamil and English. And recalled the musical evenings, and the New Year parties we had at my place. Nostalgia was tinted with sadness, for the place where we were meeting after decades, was now Raintree Hotel. Once our abode!

In Part II, I will try to condense what the South taught me.

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