Languages can be windows into cultures as well as tools of influencing belief and behaviour. Shazia Yousuf takes a look at who is attracted by the Kashmiri language.

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Every language, however, obscure it may be, has its lovers who devote their entire time to it, painstakingly learning its grammar and vowels, its nuance and possibilities. Different people are drawn to learning different languages both to understand and influence the cultures a particular language represents.

This reporter came across two such ‘lovers’ of the Kashmiri language a year and a half ago. Though they are foreigners, their zest for the Kashmiri language is much more than its native speakers. After days and days of looking at the impenetrable script, they finally began making sense of the language, and walk towards the promised possibilities.

It was almost 6 pm and Young Wook Song and his wife Young Mi Kang, a Korean Christian couple, walk into Suraya’s house. For the last three years, Suraya, a Postgraduate in Kashmiri, after initial refusal has taught them Kashmiri when they showed unflinching interest in learning the language, starting with alphabets and numerical and then Kashmiri exercise books.

Suraya had finally started teaching them their first Kashmiri book, which the couple brought along one day insisting that they wanted to read it first. It was a Kashmiri translation of the Bible, and the couple and Suraya all had reached the chapter ‘John’. All read it by turns, and it is Suraya who is the beginner now as the couple know it well in their own language.

“It is me now who is learning what is written in the book, they know all of it by heart,” said Suraya Rasool, who taught Kashmiri at Delhi Public School.

When the Korean couple first approached Suraya, they said they wanted to live all their life in Kashmir and needed to learn to speak and write Kashmiri. “They did not know much English and carried an electronic Korean-English dictionary for translating things. I was reluctant at first but then I saw they were enthusiastic about learning this language and almost desperate, so I agreed later,” said Suraya. “They have been good students though.”

Song, 40 and his 38-year-old wife Kang, after Suraya’s approval, shifted to a rented accommodation adjacent to Suraya’s house in Vicharnag Srinagar. When the couple started coming religiously to Suraya, who called them David and Zainab for her inability to pronounce their names well, she started teaching them letters and sounds followed by the vocabulary, tenses verbs and sentence structure. With the Kashmiri language’s entirely different set of vowels, it took Suraya many months to make them pronounce the sounds correctly. For teaching sentence structure, Suraya used her own children’s short storybook.

“Now they can read and talk and when it was time for the first book, they came with Injeel – a Kashmiri translation of Bible,” she says.

Sometimes, though, the couple wouldn’t come for days together and when Suraya asked her students the reasons for their absence, their answer, she felt, never revealed much. Even after teaching them for three years, Suraya did not know much about them – only that they do some other work during the day and prefer to visit her place in the morning and evenings – that David doesn’t come regularly and often visits other parts of India and that they made sure not to reveal the purpose of their learning.

“He once told me that he works as a tourist guide for Koreans and has to go to Delhi every week for a couple of days. I, many times tried to know the purpose but they do not say why they are here and what do they do for the whole day. They often get angry and suspicious and I have stopped asking now,” said Suraya.

“What makes youngsters learn English and Urdu when they can manage with Kashmiri. We want to spend our entire life here, we need to learn it,” David would tell her. “I surprise people in busses when I say lotuipaham or tariw path. Vegetable sellers get entertained when I bargain in Kashmiri. They help me by saying twenty instead of wuh but I surprise them by saying pandah dimai ( I will give you fifteen).”

The Korean couples are two of the myriad foreigners, mostly Korean Christians, who have been coming to the valley in the last few years and showing a keen interest in the Kashmiri language. Suraya had to refuse other friends of her Korean students for the hard work teaching Kashmiri involves, but succeeded in finding other teachers.

“I have taught the Kashmiri language to many foreigners till now. Two years back there was a group of five Korean girls. I trained them for six months. When they left they were able to understand and speak Kashmiri. Besides, there were many American people whom I have taught. These people usually remain tight-lipped about their purpose of coming here,” Said Shafi Shauq, Professor in the Kashmiri department at the University of Kashmir. “There may be CID or intelligence people, people working with various agencies, they need to learn this language for carrying out their work. Who knows who has come with what purpose.”

Northern Regional Language Centre in Patiala research centre is the only institute in India that offers a Kashmiri language course to non-Kashmiris since its establishment in 1971.

“There are four such paid language courses including Kashmiri that were introduced for government teachers. The aim was to propagate national integration by breaking language barriers as the teachers were supposed to teach the same language to their students on a voluntary basis,” said Khateeb Mustafa, a professor at the centre.

Practically it didn’t serve that purpose and a few years back due to poor response from the state governments the course was thrown open to all non-Kashmiris so that various translation activities could be carried out. “It is for anyone who is a non-Kashmiri and knows nothing about the language,” said Mustafa.

Sangarmaal, the only Kashmiri newspaper here published two letters written by non-Kashmiris who learnt the language from the Regional Language Institute, “one of them was Russian and another from Assam. They had written as good as any Kashmiri expert can,” said an editor of the newspaper.

Experts put the uniqueness of the Kashmiri language as the reason that generates its interest among foreigners. The contradictory views about the origin of Kashmiri languages makes it debatable across the world pulling many linguistic students to Kashmiri for carrying out various projects. “One version says that Kashmiri is an Indo-Aryan language with its origin in Sanskrit and its derivatives called Prakrit like Hindi Bengali etc. Another version says it belongs to a remote language family called the Dardic group. These varied versions make it debatable and it is these debates that attract foreigners,” says Shafi Shauq.

After 1947 Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did the first-ever experiment in India by introducing mother tongue as a separate subject in school. Till his arrest in 1953, it was not only a separate subject but a medium of instructions too.

“But I think that is not necessary. It should be taught for general knowledge not treated as a technical language. There is no fun in learning what you already know. Medium of instruction should still be English as it has universal acceptance,” said an expert. “And this language won’t die. It doesn’t belong to today’s children alone but to common masses like labourers and artisans who do not have an alternative to the mother tongue. At one point in time, there was a domination of Persian and the elite class would speak in Persian only. It was taken over by Sanskrit but the Kashmiri language bore every onslaught.”

The role of missionaries came under the scanner in the state in 2005 after the detention of some Christian missionaries claiming to be the members of the Bible Society of India who allegedly were trying to convert earthquake hit people of Madian village of Uri under the garb of relief measures.

Reacting to the complaints of local people and warnings by the police the missionaries had to shut their shops in the area. Missionaries were seen distributing audio cassettes and a copy of the New Testament in Urdu to 230 families of the village along with the relief material.

“We have sent so many foreigners back to their countries who were doing things not mentioned in their purpose of visit. So many students were sent back for making documentaries and shooting protests. Spreading religion is not also in their mandate, we can send the person back if their is any,” an official said.

South Korea is the second-largest source of Christian missionaries after the United States. The Korea World Missions Association says there are about 19,000 Koreans doing missionary work across the world with many of them working in volatile regions like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran Jordan, Yemen and many Muslims and Communist countries.

Of total of 23,043 foreigners in the year 2008, 33 South Koreans registered themselves in FRO. For the year 2009, the number is 51 in the total of 27914 foreigners.

“Most of the foreigners prefer staying for less than 6 months to avoid this registration part. This way they can spend years here without getting themselves registered. There number is much more than the registered foreigners. And they are not under any scanner, they come, stay for 4-5 months, then spend a couple of months outside Kashmir and come back,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

According to reports, 17000 South Korean missionaries are working in 173 countries. According to a report by the New York Times, many of these South Korean Christian missionaries come on student and tourist visa or set up their small businesses. It was also reported that South Korean missionaries do not proselytize in their own language but in the language of the place they operate in.


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