Oh, Malayali aano? Let’s speak in English

G B Pant Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education & Research (GIPMER) in Delhi got a lot of flak on Sunday for a circular by the nursing superintendent that banned speaking in Malayalam at the workplace. The circular said nursing personnel should use only Hindi and English for communication, “otherwise serious action will be taken”. After an uproar from many including Thiruvananthapuram MP Sasi Tharoor (no, he didn’t call it a cretinous injunction and a truculent commandment against linguistic freedom) the medical superintendent of the hospital withdrew the circular, which he said was issued by the nursing superintendent without the instruction or knowledge of the hospital administration.

Illustration credit: Shinod Akkaraparambil

That got me wondering what would have happened if English media organisations in the country banned speaking in Malayalam – or for that matter Bengali – in the newsrooms a couple of decades ago. Well, the easy answer is you would have heard very little conversation. I refer to the past because today’s newsrooms have mostly adopted English as the language of communication, though Malayalis and Bengalis continue to populate (others call it ‘infest’) most of them. A non-Malayali administration head of a media organisation once said walking through the editorial department was like moving through the aisles of a Kerala Express train.

Also read: Oh, Malayali aano? Let’s speak in English

When living away from one’s home state, getting someone to talk in one’s mother tongue may be soothing, but it can irritate others in the group who don’t follow the language. At my first desk job in Hyderabad, my role model in using conversational language at the workplace was a news editor called Vincent (his second name escapes me), a Malayali. He would ask Anil, our office boy, for water in Telugu (“Naaku koncham manchi neeru ivvandi”), converse with Vittal, our bromide page-maker in Hindi (“Ise chaar column banao”), and scolded sub-editors, in English (“That’s a crappy headline”).

Only once did he speak to me in Malayalam, and that was when he saw me reading a Malayalam book in the office canteen. “Oh Malayali aano? Evida veedu? (Are you a Malayali? Where’s your house?), he said. Murthy, another senior colleague, insisted on talking to me in Tamil, which I gladly accepted as a challenge which was to keep me in good stead when I married a Tamil and shifted to Chennai five years later.

Trying to emulate Vincent, I have been reasonably successful in talking in English to even Malayalis in the newsroom, especially when a person of another language is around. Ideally a workplace should use a neutral language, with the exception of conversing in the local language if it is more effective in communicating to the other person. Modern English newsrooms, however, are biased towards the language of the city where it is located, even if a majority of people on the floor are not speakers of the local language. In a Chennai workplace, it is cool to speak to a Tamil in Tamil (which I often do), but two Bengalis or two Malayalis speaking to each other in their language can invite playful smirks.

The Delhi hospital nursing superintendent seems to have reacted with more than a smirk when she wrote out that circular. More mindless was her presumption that the hospital being in Delhi entitles the staff to speak in Hindi, the local language, but not in another Indian language. These incidents should serve as reminders for us to move faster towards a neutral working language, and English seems to be the natural choice. And, when you meet your compatriot in the canteen, you can always ask: Oh, Malayali aano? Evida Veedu?



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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