Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Light Hearted Cultural Shocks Someone from Manipur Travelling Across Multi-Lingual, Multi-Cultural India is Likely to Face

The recent Cabinet approval to the National Education Policy was to a large degree met with a positive response from especially the academia but not before an inadvertent press release from the Press Information Bureau was cause for some amount of consternation and alarm. Advocates of English as medium for teaching thought English medium teaching was to be overhauled and replaced by regional languages. However, the confusion was cleared in the media especially that English was not to take a back seat as believed initially. There are many vocal demands for teaching of students in the vernacular in India and these persistent pockets all over the country are seen as chauvinistic and regionally biased groups by the larger section of educated Indians who do not however undermine the importance of the various mother tongue languages in the states, hence their support to teaching of kids up to fifth standard in the vernacular wherever called for.
While the debate will carry on in future also over the matter of English education versus the regional and vernacular approach one cannot miss out some hilarious moments that arise when different languages and cultures in the county are pitted against each other when communities or individuals from the country’s wide landscape come across each other. India allows a rich diversity of cultures and language, and especially in the previous generation people from different communities were not so reactionary, as in some pockets like Manipur these days, and it was outright funny when they were face to face and tried to gauge each other’s moods and behaviour over simple day to day matters.
A Manipuri gentleman touring a rural north Indian region asked the milkman at a small eatery for a metre of milk as the milkman was pouring out the contents of a tumbler held a metre of so above a large pan full of simmering hot milk that was being thickened to make it tastier. As the milk was being poured from a height he thought it was sold in metres. The gentleman thought the hot milk would be tasty but didn’t know how to ask for it as he had not come across anything like that before. Later the incident became a joke and was related among Manipuris who travel every time the topic came to food and travel. This used to be the way cultural exposition used to come earlier – it never pricked the soul.
Manipuris have a big appetite and they eat every meal to the heart’s content. And that’s maybe the reason why most jokes then were about how they never felt satisfied eating food when away from home in foreign lands. There was a performing artistes’ troupe that came to New Delhi decades back in the 70’s and they had to eat at a dhaba in an uptown conservative locality. Since rice, which Manipuris take, is not available at these dhabas the stoutly built artistes took 40 rotis apiece and calling out for water couldn’t sleep the whole night as the dry rotis started soaking more than their stomachs could hold. In the morning everyone had a hearty laugh as they came to know the secret behind eating rotis.
Then there was the elegant Congress Member of Parliament N Tombi Singh who used to crack a joke every time he met us as kids at various places in the city. As everybody visiting New Delhi at that time used to stay with a chosen few Manipuri families during those days when the present well managed Manipur Bhavans were not there the MP’s house was one popular place where they stayed over. One time someone who was at the MP’s place told in Hindi some guests who had arrived to take their meal properly and not to be shy. But his Hindi being not so good in effect he embarrassed everyone by telling the guests to take any quantity of food as they were shameless (khao khao sharam bhi nahi hai). It was a treat to listen to this joke from N Tombi himself and we as children laughed like anything over it.
These instances of cultural and language differences used to be experienced sometimes outside the country too as when a young Manipuri merchant navy officer sailed to Japan around those times and was greeted by the Japanese men and women at the port in their language ‘ali gato bakra nai’ which terms sounded like Hindi and the young officer was wondering if they knew Hindi and why they were telling him there are no goats allowed. All these jokes used to be repeated in personal Manipuri circles at gatherings which were far and many at those times. The children of course used to enjoy them the most and laugh till their guts ached.
While English and Hindi languages, especially English, are the mainstay as far as getting quality education and high profile jobs the onus for giving education in the vernacular lies mainly with the parents and elders as noticed in early days. Morality, good behaviour and manners are generally picked up at home. These homely qualities go a long way in paving the path for discipline and decency at work places where the regional divide does figure, but in a positive way, if one prefers to look at it that way. School education is more inclined, more so today, towards polishing our arts and sciences acumen. If we feel more homely on the strength of what we learned in private circles and otherwise feel highly accomplished in the public sphere with what we learn from our teachers and work places maybe that’s the way it was meant to be. It’s not a duality but an oneness in different spheres of living that most people in India adapt to since it’s a multilingual and multicultural society in this country. The English-vernacular divide would be fruitful as long as English retains its prime spot and if we have trained teachers imparting education in that language even in the context of the new education policy. Otherwise the state would only exclude itself from the emerging global job market and also well researched education which are inseparable from English language learning.

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