"We should learn Kannada. No Kannada, no respect" says one white cab driver to another. This is a scene from the recent Kannada blockbuster Super. The movie is set in 2030 with Bangalore as a ultra modern city populated with men wearing Mysore petas and where all the cab drivers are white.
According to Chandan Gowda, social scientist and professor at Azim Premji University, the scene is one of the many attempts by a section of Kannadigas to create a fantasy Bangalore where knowing Kannada is essential for survival.
Out in the real world, most non-Kannadigas in Namma Bengaluru feel they can get by knowing little or no Kannada at all. In fact according to IT professional Gaurav Agarwal who first moved to Bangalore in 2000, life has only got easier for non-Kannadigas.
"When I first came to Bangalore, it was much more local. Occasionally I would run into people who did not know or pretended not to know any other language. Many people, especially middle age to elders, that time, had a strong feeling that if you are not from here then you have no business being here."
That he feels has changed to a very large extent now, with few people feeling that they need to be watchful of the non-local people. "You even have buses now which have numbers/destinations written in English!" he says.
This new found comfort along with job and business opportunities are probably the reason for the rapid rise in the city’s population. According to the provisional data released by the Directorate of Census, the city’s population is now at 95,88,910 and rising. The city’s population has increased by 46.68 percent between 2001 and 2011, up by nearly 12 percentage points over the growth rate in the previous decade.
According to Gowda, the absolute numbers of Kannadigas in Bangalore has remained comparatively large apart from that there is a large population of Bangaloreans who are bilingual. Real estate developer Rohith Reddy says he as comfortable speaking Kannada as he is speaking his native language of Telugu. "My mother and her siblings converse mostly in Kannada and in our house also conversations end up bi- or even tri-lingual".
According to Reddy, this ability to converse in Kannada fluently apart from helping him interact with construction labourers working in his site has other benefits as well. "Shopkeepers tend to warm up to you when you start speaking to them in Kannada and sometimes you get good bargains because of this" he says.
Economic Researcher, Manaswini Rao, feels the reason for the local resentment towards North Indians in particular is not so much to do with language but rather a culture issue, "Bangalore has always been an accommodating city but people tend to get defensive when they sense that new comers are trying to impose their culture on the the city".
Manaswini, a Kannadiga who has spent much of her childhood outside Karnataka says her family whole heartedly embraced the cultures of the cities that they lived in and were enriched by the experience. "We are all comfortable speaking in Hindi and Tamil. The food that we cook at home is a mix of all the cities that we have live in", she says.
IT professional Santosh G Hegde feels that very few North Indian IT folk really make the effort to know the real Bangalore, "For most of them, Bangalore consist of few shopping areas and malls. They don’t venture into old Bangalore areas like Malleswaram or Basavanagudi". He also feels that despite living in city for years, some of them still still look at South Indians in stereotypical terms.
According to Chandan, while discussions of preserving Kannada language and culture from the onslaught of globalisation happen in rarefied intellectual circles, the Kannada movement has been hijacked by organisations like the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike which demand respect for Kannada under the threat of violence.
"With the informal economy booming, it’s no surprise that there has been emergence of number of such organisations. We must be careful not to reduce the concerns of Kannadigas into a law and order problem. These organisations are only parasitic on a legitimate problem", he says.
He says that neighbourhood politics has taken over by such organisations and they have thrived by offering protection to those who are unable to run legal businesses. "These are no longer fringe outfits. Leaders of various political parties attend functions organised by them." He says that these outfits feel a new sense of legitimacy that never felt before.
Parallel to this, and according to Chandan independent of it, recent Kannada films have embraced this intolerant Kannada identity. In the film ‘Dasa’, the character played by ‘Challenging star’ Darshan, fights off a Rajasthani seth, who is trying to buy an orphanage. Darshan kills him after saying this dialogue – "If someone from a god-forsaken place like you can act big, how must I, who was born here and grew up drinking Kaveri water, act? If I let you alone, all of Karnataka will be insulted."
Thankfully not all Kannadigas are as belligerent. H S Mahesha, who moved to Bangalore from Pandavapura in Mandya district four years ago, says that most of the labourers from North India working in Bangalore are nice people. "All of them are hard working and very few them cause any trouble" he says. According to Agarwal, "There is no general hostility towards people not knowing Kannada. However, when you are involved in some incidents like an argument with someone on road or at some government office, people generally tend to side with the person who is speaking Kannada. Only in those situation you are looked upon as an outsider who is making some trouble."
According to theatre director and actor, Prakash Belawadi, not knowing the language even in as cosmopolitan city like Bangalore restricts access to the many cultural aspects of the city. "In Bangalore, culture has been appropriated by Kannada. Most of the theater, literature and poetry in the city overwhelmingly happens in Kannada."
According to Belawadi, young people trying to be actors or artists will find Bangalore a terribly alienating place if don’t know Kannada and that it’s only a matter of time before other things follow culture.
Suridh Karthik a long time resident of Malleswaram now studying in the UK, says that though he finds it annoying that North Indians, even after living in Bangalore of many years still can’t pronounce even ‘dosa’ or ‘sambhar’ right; he understands it is not realistic to expect everyone moving Bangalore to learn Kannada. "The question boils down to an individual’s inclination and I do not think it is a reflection of where he or she is from".
Agarwal feels that talking to people in their native tongue brings a feeling of familiarity. However other than negotiations in public spaces and government offices, he feels, "there is not much need to learn Kannada. College friends didn’t mind speaking English and apart from some very infrequent situations, everyone understands English or even Hindi these days", he says.
This can be tackled if Kannadigas introduce the language to others without forcing it on them. Invariably when someone tries to promote language it gets politicised.We should try to generate interest in the language. There are many who are willing to learn – even in tech circles where I work. – Hariprasad Nadig, Tech professional and founder of Sampada.net
For financial analyst, Priya Nadakarni, who moved to the city a year ago, one of the reasons she wants to learn Kannada is that she can give it back to all the auto drivers who irritate her in their own language, "You feel at home only when you can abuse in the local language".
She also hopes that when gets done with her "Conversational Kannada" book she’ll be able make friends with the nice aunties in her apartment building. "Maybe they’ll invite me over for a sumptuous Karnataka lunch" she says.⊕
*Chandan Gowda and Prakash Belwadi were speaking at a seminar organised during the Rangashankara Theatre festival.