We will, if we have to. We won’t, if we don’t.

ALOK PRASANNA writes from Hyderabad: I walked out of the cool air-conditioned environs of the fast food joint, and looked around to see if there was an autorickshaw that I could catch.

In the split-second before I made my decision, a woman, bearing a clipboard and a printed notepad, stopped and started talking to me about an NGO she was representing.

She started talking about the merits of the NGO and such, handing out the inevitable donation form cum receipt slip, and as I scanned the brochure (out of sheer boredom if nothing else), I realized that somewhere along the line, she had slipped into Telugu, her native tongue.

I barely heard her as I pretended to be reading the documents, hoping that she would notice my disinterest, when she suddenly switched back into English and asked if I was ready to make a donation. It was evident that she had asked me the same in Telugu, and when she noticed the obvious blank look on my face, asked if I knew Telugu.

I replied that I did not.

“You don’t?!” A pause and a look which preceded the obvious question, “How could you not?”

I pre-empted that question, mumbled that I was from Bangalore and I was in Hyderabad only to study, and hastily made my exit.

Later, I cast my mind back to a discussion a few of us had in a class. It was a small group, and we were discussing how to make our National Law University more relevant to our immediate surroundings, i.e. the nearby villages, the local farmers, the women in the villages, and others.

It wasn’t long before we hit upon the most obvious stumbling block. None of us, in the group, knew Telugu. And all of us had been on this campus, located near Hyderabad for close to five years. Why hadn’t we learnt more than the odd phrase?

At first we blamed Hindi. That, really, one did not need to know Telugu in Hyderabad since Hindi will do just as well. But that only meant that we wanted the locals to adjust to us, and not vice versa.

Then we remembered what one of our professors (a Telugu speaker himself, who had studied and worked in Madras, as it was then) had told us in class about his experience. In four years at the Presidency College, he had learnt barely a smattering of Tamil, but in three months that he was employed in Madras, he picked up enough to converse freely with anyone.

He gave us a simple reason: He had to.

With the number of local people he had to meet and deal with on a daily basis, he had no choice but to use Tamil in his conversations with them.

It was then we realized that we had never been put in a situation where we had to learn Telugu. Within our campus, the people who knew Telugu, everyone from the sweeper to the tenured professor, were in a minority. They had to adjust to us. Because our actual interaction with the city of Hyderabad itself was so limited, none of us had ever bothered to try and pick up enough Telugu.

Not even those of us South Indians whose knowledge of Hindi was at best a crude smattering.

In our discussion, as any group of wannabe lawyers are wont, our instant remedy was to impose the requirement of learning the local language through compulsory classes. As our professor pointed out, it had been tried. It was a spectacular failure.

It is, of course, easy to dismiss the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike and Raj Thackeray’s mobs as a bunch of illiterate and vicious goons, but what makes them find resonance with what their “leaders” say. Doesn’t the feeling of being made to feel like a foreigner in one’s own country matter?

The “language issue” does not have anything to do with culture or classics, but something as basic as respect for the local language. It is silly to divert the matter into a “who has read more Kannada classics, or seen more Marathi drama to be eligible to raise the language issue.”

Ignoring the demagoguery on both sides, this, I think, is what explains some of the emotions that have been raised by this matter. It is a pity that the rabble rousers and screamers have been able to tap into this feeling and turn into violence, rather than seek proper dialogue to remedy it.

While the resentment against the “outsider” may also have economic angles to it, the emotional aspect linked to language cannot be forgotten or ignored.