Hindi Indian languages
There are 22 official languages in India (excluding English) Image Credit: Wiki Commons

A food delivery service was in the eye of a storm recently here in India when a customer care agent allegedly told an irate customer to learn Hindi. This happened in the state of Tamil Nadu which has vehemently opposed the imposition of Hindi as the national language.

I remember an experience during a short visit to Chennai in the 1980s while seeking some information from a security guard. I was taken aback by the response as I had spoken in Hindi. I was told to speak in English if I didn’t know Tamil! I was made to feel that I had made an inexcusable gaffe. I had never experienced such an intense reaction to a language having lived in several states across the country.

The lesson on language did not go down well with the public who called for a boycott of the company. What made things worse was the response by the founder of the company who accused the people of being low on tolerance and asking them to chill. He also reinstated the employee who was earlier fired by the company in a knee-jerk reaction. His words and actions only added fuel to the fire and he was forced to make an attempt to placate those who were offended by his ‘insensitivity’.

I have observed a growing intolerance in society of late towards anyone who refuses to accept the views or beliefs of others. It could be a film or even its name which can trigger a backlash, forcing the makers to change whatever has caused offence as well as publish disclaimers. Expressing an opinion can be dangerous if it does not conform to the views of others.

When we were growing up, we never thought in terms of religion or caste when making friends. We never heard our parents speak of these either, disparagingly or otherwise. We were game to celebrate all festivals.

The Supreme Court of India says that the Constitution does not permit those in authority who disagree with particular views to crush the freedom of others to believe, think or express the same. It has also stated that contemporary events have revealed a growing intolerance, which refuses to accept the rights of others to express their views and portray them in print, the theatre or in celluloid media. Organised groups and interests pose a threat to the existence of the right to free speech and expression.

It has rightly pointed out that those who are against a particular book or film or even song can simply not watch the movie, not turn the pages of the book or not listen to what is not music to one’s ears.

However, I can empathise with those who feel a sense of frustration when they are not able to communicate in the language they know. I have this running battle with my maid every single day as we try to understand what the other is trying to convey. Eventually, we rely on mime or the help of Google translate to get our point across. I have experienced something similar when I have visited countries where English is spoken by only a few and I have not had the good fortune to bump into this minority.

A short holiday in Spain made me acutely aware of my handicap. I was left to my own devices one day as my niece had to go to work. She left me in the company of two Spanish ladies who were kind enough to take me for a long drive. There were so many questions I wanted to ask on the way but our only translator was a six-year-old girl who I was told knew some English. To cut a long story short, it was a silent drive as the little girl was soon lost in translation.

Vanaja Rao is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad, India