by Krishna Rao
Home to thousands of languages, India was a fascinating place to visit when I was a child. On a trip to my grandparents’ estate in the rural south, I enjoyed the experience of crossing a linguistic boundary.
The journey started upon our arrival to Mumbai, the administrative capital of the State of Maharashtra. From there, my family took a bus headed southwest to the Dharwad region of Karnataka State where my grandparents lived.
The bustle of the city dissipated as we passed mile after mile of rice paddy. Slowly, the bus departed the coastal plain and began to scale the treacherous switchback roads of the Western Ghat Mountains.
At some point along the journey, we neared the Karnataka border. My father reminded me to proudly speak Kannada, for we were approaching our homeland. He had developed a strong sense of pride in Kannada as a child, having faced occasional prejudice for being a Dravidian language speaker while growing up in Mumbai. During his day, Mumbai was not the diverse metropolis it is now.
Local Marathis had grown concerned when migrant South Indians began to threaten their jobs. They rallied behind their common language, and formed pro-Marathi political parties.
The Marathi Language, spoken in Maharashtra, belongs to the Indo-European family, while Kannada, spoken in Karnataka, is Dravidian. (I was always stupefied that Marathi belongs to a language family that reaches Europe, yet it is unrelated to its next- door neighbor, Kannada).
When the bus stopped at the border towns, I saw the gradual transition from one language to the other. Pure Marathi became interspersed with Kannada, slowly becoming more corrupted before finally fading away. Dudh, the Marathi word for milk, (related to the word Dairy) changed to the Kannada Hal. Characteristic Indo-European numerals, eka, don, tin, (one, two, three) were replaced by ondu, eradu, muru. The tongue-twisting sounds of agglutinative Kannada ousted the quick Marathi words.
Kannada script became more visible in road signs and billboards. The letters of Kannada are derived from the ancient Brahmi script. It has a very distinct curved appearance, which was well-suited for carving on traditional banana-leaf paper. Marathi’s Devanagari script is also derived from Brahmi, although it developed a more angular appearance suited for writing on cut tree-bark paper.
As the bus travelled from town to town, I could almost see the southernmost Devanagari grow dull and the northernmost Kannada sharpen.
Kolhapur, the last outpost in Indo- European territory, sported a bilingual welcome sign. The next stop on the road was Bellary, Karnataka. By the time we reached my grandparents’ house in Dharwad, even the bus driver’s radio had switched to a Kannada broadcast.
The most interesting part of the journey is that the transition was extremely subtle. The culture remained uniform. The change from one language to the other was gradual and fluid.
Mass migrations caused by the recent economic boom have changed the demographic on both sides of the linguistic barrier. Nowadays, Mumbai is a cultural melting pot. In some parts, the population is majority South Indian. But in the distant borderlands, one village still looks exactly like the next, and the rhythm of daily life is unchanged.
Krishna Rao lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey, enjoys traveling, and has an interest in historical linguistics.