I first ran into Manoj Kumar Bhola, the best man behind the bar at Arbor Brewing Company, three years ago. As is my wont with small talk in Bangalore, I talked to him in Kannada first. He responded with the fluency of a native, so we fell to talking in Kannada each time we met. Then, one time, I heard him talk to someone else in Bengali, and all my assumptions about where Manoj was from spontaneously combusted.
I asked him about his native tongue that day, and the answer turned out to be neither Kannada nor Bengali, but Oriya. So he spoke the language he had learned in the Odisha village of his birth. Bengali, because it is the language of business where he hailed from. Hindi, for who does not know Hindi north of Hebbal flyover?! English, because his job needed him to speak it well. Then came the languages he knows thanks only to Bangalore: Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu.
Last week, a typical Bangalorean shower that starts, keeps threatening to stop, but never actually does, meant that I, along with two friends of mine, had to take an auto for a distance we would have otherwise walked. It was late, and we got into the auto of the only guy of the dozen hanging around outside Garuda Mall like pariah kites outside a meat market who was willing to give us a ride at a price worthy of an auto and not a Lamborghini.
The conversation in the auto was in a hodgepodge of English, Tamil, and Kannada and we were collectively laughing at how bad our Hindi was and why. At the end of the ride, the driver, chuckling through a luxurious beard, collected his dues and told us he too could speak many languages. We got live demonstrations his English, Tamil, and Kannada, although I will take his claims of being able to speak “France” and “Germany” at face value.
Both its history and its geography contributed to Bangalore’s multilingualism Fifty kilometers to the northeast from Bangalore, and you are in Andhra Pradesh. Fifty kilometers to the southeast instead, and you are in Tamil Nadu.
The ancestors of Kempegowda, founder of the city, originated from near Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and eventually made their way to Yelahanka via Telugu country. The tigalas, some of the earliest settlers of the modern city of Bangalore spoke Tamil and Telugu. The karaga festival that happens every year in the city, helmed by the tigalas, continues to have rituals carried out in both these languages. The inscription stones have been found in and around the region of Bangalore bear Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu being represented.
Then there’s the other stuff: For a brief period, Bangalore was the jagir of Maratha overlords, who injected a bit of Marathi as well into the body linguistic. Post-independence, Bangalore became a hub for PSUs and employees from across the country staffed them. And brought a whole new set of languages to Bangalore. And then with the IT boom, something similar happened at a much larger scale.
Outside the city, Bangalore’s home-grown nativists may have conveyed the impression that there’s something irreducible about the city’s attachment to Kannada, and to-dos in recent years over stuff like Metro signage may make it seem as though #StopHindiImposition is a fundamentally anti-Hindi idea. Neither is true. Instead, Bangalore has only grown more multilingual as years pass.
Manoj and I tried to figure out if there’s something other than all these considerations of time and space that keeps it so. We’ve found that in most other cities, people's response to a new language is to reject it and replace it with a dominant language they are familiar with. This is usually the case with Hindi, as Manoj observed during his time working in Pune, where he spent years but never picked up any Marathi. In a place like Chennai, by contrast, the home language often fulfils this function.
But in Bangalore -- well, the Bangalore I know -- people tend to enjoy attempting the outsider's language, and with each attempt, get better and better. This inevitably rubs off on many new arrivals, as it did with Manoj, who in turn absorb the languages of older residents. As for Hindi speakers, well. There’s no denying that there’s a certain entitled class of residents to whom this does not apply, but for now we will just give you all dirty side-eye looks (and a hint). Someone like Manoj, who now has spent a decade in Bangalore, was always going to be a local rather than an outsider. And what truly makes him a local is his polyglottism.
Thejaswi Udupa is a tech entrepreneur, writer, and very Bangalorean. He's currently working on a book about the city.
Photo Credit: Prinz Photography
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