Bhojpuri: An integral part of my identity

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By Roopam Mishra

I come from a Bhojpuri-speaking background. However, I was never encouraged to speak the language. Seven generations ago my paternal ancestors travelled from Madhubani (Bihar) to Deoria (Uttar Pradesh) and settled near Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh). They were agrarian people. About eighty percent of the entire expanse of the village, where my ancestral home is, was owned by the ancestor who settled seven generations ago. It is not a very big village, but it was way more than most people on the margins could ever dream to own, or even step foot on. However, over time, owing to the multiplication of children, and grandchildren, and an inherent indulgent and boastful attitude of past generations, most of the lands were sold off, and only enough was left to provide for a family of twenty until a generation ago.

Times were changing, and the boys in the family were provided with the opportunity to go to the cities to get an education, and find jobs. My father, like some of his other cousins in the village, applied for a job in the U.P. Police, and qualified. He left the village soon after, and would only visit once every two or three months, depending on the availability of leave. The village was always synonymous with difficulties, and challenges. Staying under a thatched roof for hours, staying awake all night when it rained because the roof would leak, and without electricity, no means to improve life, my father never wanted us to stay in the village, and neither did most other people in the village. The village also meant poor education, no standing among the affluent people of the big cities, and not being a part of the race to the top – essentially, any position to take us far away from the struggles of village life.

For years my father stood continuously in long queues outside a convent school to have me enrolled so that I could learn to speak in English, and not face the challenges, and discrimination he and his siblings faced while finding jobs, or in the society in general. I got the admission. The nuns would impose fines for every word uttered in the vernacular (Hindustani). At home, we were taught to call our chachas uncle, and chachis auntie. Bhojpuri was strictly discouraged as something that would pull us behind in this race which we must win at all costs – even if it meant never establishing any connections with our roots, and losing an integral part of our identities. The race was to forge new identities – one which was respected in the society, since people looked down upon the Bhojpuri-speaking populace as uncouth, and uncultured.

However, we were still taken to visit the village every summer. The roof was concrete, but the electricity supply was only limited to three to four hours each day – something we as children were unused to, and would wail and complain to return to the city. Visiting the village began to be seen as punishment because of the harsh north-Indian summers, and the non-existent roads. Since the village was punishment, everything related to it was sincerely abhorred – the lifestyle, the folksongs which my mother would sometimes hum, the rituals the family observed every now and then, and, most of all, the language they spoke. For most of my growing up years, I had this colonial hangover which made me think understanding English made me better than my cousins in the village, or anyone who couldn’t speak the language much, like my own mother.

I began to begrudge my roots and my heritage. The society added to it. Bhojpuri was always humorous to the people of T.V. Either the people speaking dialects like Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Magadhi, Braj, etc. were shown as poor, helpless, dying people, or people with crude mannerisms, and severely lacking culture. I did not want to relate to a culture so steeped in misery. Additionally, no one ever asked you to “recite uncle a poem in Bhojpuri.” But the uncle always had to be told a poem in English. A desire to do away with my cultural heritage pushed me closer to English – the language of the colonizer and the language India recognized officially. As a culture and as a society, Bhojpuri speakers and the culture were poisoned every day. For almost twenty years of my existence I chose to utter words from all kinds of languages I heard in popular culture, and television, but not one in Bhojpuri. I did so only after realizing that my language (dialect) and my heritage define my identity, and I must learn to embrace it. I gradually began to speak in Bhojpuri.

While Hindi is recognised as a language in the Constitution, Bhojpuri is called a dialect. However, for Hindi speakers, khadi boli which is the pure form of Hindi free of all dialectical encumbrances translates to a dialect, while Bhojpuri, Awadhi, etc. are referred to as bhasas, or languages.* Bhojpuri doesn’t have a literary canon, nor well-documented literature. It runs on oral traditions, which is integral to the cultural practices of people from the region. Bhojpuri literature resides in its folksongs and folklores which are devised to suit all occasions from birth unto death. Popular culture and media took quite a long time to recognize the Bhojpuri language, and people as potent story-tellers. It was not until Zeishan Quadri’s Gangs of Wasseypur, directed by Anurag Kashyap, that Bhojpuri was considered as a serious mainstream Hindi cinema material – a validation that was long sought.

English has been a benchmark for class, status, and success in the country. One must speak fluent English to clear exams, and get various government jobs. Every lane and by-lane in big cities has an “English-learning” school where aspirants from rural backgrounds come to polish their language skills. While Indian English is mocked, and mother-tongue influence looked at with derision in academia, and other elite circles, a majority of the Indian population is constantly trying to learn the language, and better their socio-economic status. As a result, cultures, traditions, and dialects which have only survived orally so far remain in constant danger. If attention is not paid to the serious conservation of narratives, tales, and numerous practices that are regional, they may soon cease to exist and be counted as history.

A few years ago when I read a paper on a particular kind of Bhojpuri folksong, I felt redeemed. This is how I reclaimed my ties with Bhojpuri by accepting, and participating in the culture. It remains to be seen what the government and the society do to promote practices where one does not need to forgo their identity to earn a decent living and status.

*For this reason alone, I have referred to Bhojpuri as a language instead of a dialect throughout the essay.

Bio:
Roopam Mishra lives in Lucknow, India. She is a Research Scholar at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow. Her areas of interest and enquiry are theatre, performing arts, and aesthetics in the new millennium. She has been writing in Hindi and in English since the age of thirteen. Her works have appeared in Borderless Journal and Rhetorica Quarterly.

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