Opinion and Editorial

Language that unites and bridges borders

Kajari Biswas (TALKING POINT)
Filed on September 14, 2012

WHEN YOU deplane at Dubai one is dazzled by the glittering precision of one of the world’s finest airports.

Also greeting you is the harmonious cacophony of languages in a city that symbolises cosmopolitanism. Apart from the many foreign languages spoken here, Indian languages like Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Sindhi, Guajarati, Marathi and Bengali will float in from many corners. Indians are arguably the world’s top polyglots. Most Indians speak at least two languages, many are comfortable in three. But Hindi has emerged as a means of communication in the 1.8 million strong Indian community in the UAE.

A million Indian tourists visited Dubai alone in 2011 to see the Burj Khalifa or to simply indulge in retail therapy. In most Arab countries a smattering of Arabic from the Lonely Planet would be a de rigueur to get about. At the more touristy destinations (like Egypt) a visitor could make do with English. In the UAE Hindi does the trick more often than not. There are close to 200 nationalities residing in the UAE, but there is little persuasion or need to pick up Arabic. Such arrangement works in the UAE because the visionary rulers long ago understood the logic of the free market and free communication which facilitates optimisation of human resources and national wealth. It does not matter what language the cat speaks, as long as it catches the mice.

The people of India and the UAE have been in dialogue for centuries. Today, more than 50,000 Emiratis visit India every year for business or pleasure and most of them understand basic Hindustani, even if speaking it is some challenge. Quite a few of the older generation of Emiratis can, on the other hand, give you a lesson in Hindi grammar or explain the nuances that separate accents. Then there are Emiratis with wives from the Indian subcontinent, who have a deep understanding of Indian culture. This growing acknowledgement of Indian culture in recent years has also coincided with the success of the Indian economy and the rising profile of the country in global affairs.

There is widespread acceptance of Hindi or Hindustani as the lingua franca by the Indian expatriates here — despite the fact that majority of them are not Hindi speakers. Hindustani, which at its liberal best includes Urdu, is a common thread that also makes sense to other nationals from the subcontinent. This Hindustani may not exactly delight the requirements of the Central Hindi Directorate, it works! Most of the taxi drivers in Dubai from the north-western provinces of Waziristan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa speak Hindustani with an acute lilt. Shops attendants from southern India bear nuanced Hindi accents that only people from the Indian peninsula India can distinguish. Even amongst Emiratis the occasional Bollywood fan has a minimum Hindustani word count tutored by their favourite movies.

There was a time when the Indian state enthusiastically promoted Hindi with very mixed results. Once that approach was given up, the serendipitous role of Hindi cinema emerged. Your average Hindi film has become the engine that spreads familiarity with Hindustani in the otherwise many Hindi-sceptic regions of the country. The same phenomenon is repeated in the Gulf and in many other areas of the world. The magic of Indian stories with their love for romance and drama finds a resonance not only in Bollywood, but also increasingly in Indian tele-serials such as Rani Padmini on MBC Drama or the recently launched Zee Awlan, which is dedicated to Indian and Arabic soaps. Not to forget the ubiquitous Hindi film songs which outlive many otherwise mediocre films.

This Hindi swell does not care for quality or purity of the language. A new Hindi has emerged from the streets. Rudimentary communication trumps grammar or convention. It is a classic case of the common speaker, the vulgar demos, usurping the role of the grammarian and molding new idioms of expression from cultures alien to anything the Hindi language has ever know. Challenged, the language like a living being has adapted expressions native to Malayalam, Marathi, Sindhi and so on and embraced words like karega and apun with great alacrity.

While purists shudder and hotly deny such illegitimacy, the reality is ever-evident on the streets of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm al Quwwain, Ajman and Fujairah. As the song Life in the Emirates by the Irish band The Establishment so aptly puts it:

It’s tough in the Gulf when the AC’s not working

And the desert is burning in the hot noonday sun

But I’ve learnt how to cope, take the smooth with the rough

Coz like every expat I’m a long way from home.

I think that the language of Hindi would agree heartily.

Kajari Biswas is an Arabic knowing, native Bengali and Hindustani speaking Consul (Press and Culture) at the Indian Consulate in Dubai. This article was written to celebrate Hindi Day which falls on September 14

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