O Phul, O phul, Nuphulonu kio? Goruye je aag khai, moi nu phulim kio? (O dear flower, O dear flower, Why don’t you bloom? The cow eats me up each time I bloom so why shall I bloom?),” sings Rajashree Kalita, a third year student of Delhi University, who recalls how her parents would sing this rhyme to her when she was a child. Amisha Chopra, a Pitampura resident, mentions that it was the Hindi rhyme Dhobi Aaya (Dhobi aaya, dhobi aaya, Kitne kapde laaya; Ek, Do, Teen) that helped her learn to count with ease. “My mother tells me that she would make me recite this rhyme to practise lessons,” Chopra mentions.
Rhymes, stories, and poetry, in native languages is usually the first tryst one has with the world of learning. However, as time passed, many people have lost a sense of connection with their first languages owing to a variety of reasons. Recognising this loss, Mohini Gupta (30) from Mandi House, started Mother Tongue Twisters (MTT), a digital platform (@mothertonguetwisters on Instagram and Facebook, @mttandmore on Twitter) that seeks to document poetry in native languages for children all while focusing on translation as a branch of literature.
The power of translation
It was while working at a publishing house in 2015 that Gupta felt an inclination towards translating poetry in Hindi for children. Gupta—who is currently a DPhil candidate at University of Oxford—even translated Beastly Tales, a 1991 collection of fables in poetry by Vikram Seth, for the organisation. Later, as a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in 2017, she started writing original children’s poetry in her mother tongue (Hindi). This is when she was first struck by the idea to set up a platform such as MTT. “In school, the English poems are always made fun for us. When we read Hindi poems in the curriculum, they are either patriotic or moralistic, and as a result we never really engage with the language in school the way we do with English. I realised there was an opportunity to create poems in Hindi about contemporary experiences, about things children would relate to,” explains Gupta who finally launched MTT on World Poetry Day (March 21) in 2020.
Through MTT, Gupta is creating a repository of three specific types of content: Original poetry written in first languages; poetry translated into one’s mother tongue; and self-documented poetry, rhymes, and sayings that have dominated our oral history but haven’t been archived. Gupta also organises ‘Translation Thursdays’, which are regular meet-ups to bring together people who are interested in language and translation. Over the last two years, MTT has invited a number of eminent littérateurs—Indian writers Mamta Sagar, Sampurna Chattarji, L Somi Roy, Jerry Pinto, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, among others—to discuss the many aspects of translation.
In 1835, British politician Lord Macaulay remarked, “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” This false belief has somehow trickled down over the years, explains Gupta. “There is a sense of ‘your language not being cool enough’. There is this desire to speak English and it is not considered cool to read and learn your language,” shares Gupta. With MTT, Gupta aims to “encourage students to enjoy their native language”.
Promoting the idea of multilingualism, she concludes, “There is no doubt that English is the global [linguistic] currency at the moment and if you want better opportunities, English is often the way out. For many, it is a tool of empowerment as well… But, I think, we need to start looking at it [knowledge of English] as a skill that you need to know and not a sign of intelligence or social superiority, it is just another language that one needs to know.”