Mind your language

‘Taatung Tatung and Other Amazing Stories of India’s Diverse Languages’, a new book by Vaishali Shroff, is a call for action to preserve our linguistic diversity


Having published over 250 stories, both fiction and non-fiction, in books, textbooks, magazines, newspapers, and digital media, across Indian and international publishing houses, Vaishali Shroff’s recent release, ‘Taatung Tatung and Other Amazing Stories of India’s Diverse Languages’, is an eye-opening and fascinating account of our dying languages and scripts. It also seeks to mobilise people to preserve our linguistic diversity.

Published by Penguin, India, the seeds for this book, says Shroff, were sown in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh. “I realised that, as humans, we have always had the power and ability to create our own languages. At the same time, we also use the same power and intellect to destroy languages. This in turn, leads to the death of identities, cultures, traditions, and precious indigenous knowledge that one loses forever,” says the award-winning author, scriptwriter, and columnist.

Thus, it became a personal quest for Shroff to understand our linguistic diversity, the evolution of languages, their connection with our identities, and how we as a community, can help to revitalise languages. “It became an important journey for me, one I’m glad I took.”

The book is divided into four sections that follow the life cycle of any language: birth, evolution, death, revitalisation, and rebirth. She says, “I speak about Konkani in the chapter on the reorganisation of Indian states (evolution) based on linguistic lines. I also speak about Portuguese creoles in the chapter where I talk about how French is the official language of Puducherry and also address language adoption in European colonies (again, evolution).”

The reason behind choosing this particular subject, she says, is the fear that one morning we will wake up to a world that only speaks one language – English. “With one language dying every two weeks, it’s not an impossible future. It’s imminent. But it’s not too late. Preserving our languages is in our hands and it’s possible.”

Research for this book was multi-pronged. From reading books to scavenging the internet to reaching out to linguists, historians, adivasis, language activists, archaeologists, and other experts, to doing a course on Indian languages, Shroff did the best she could as a non-expert on languages to ensure that she not only presented accurate information to the readers but also made it palatable across ages.

However, the book, she says, doesn’t merely carry facts about languages. “Each language that has been included in this book has a powerful narrative around which the facts have been carefully woven, thus making the subject easier and enjoyable to read and less heavy to digest,” she says, adding that the book can be considered to be a late middle grade or young adult book but is meant for anyone between 12 and 99 years.

The Mumbai-based author has also tried to create an aura of mystery around the title. Without giving away too much, she shares that ‘Taatung Tatung’ are words that belong to an extinct Indian language, one of the oldest in the world! “Every time someone says ‘Taatung Tatung’, they are inadvertently speaking that extinct language and I feel content for I’ve, in my little way, brought that language back to life.”

Shroff, who has come up with unusual non-fiction subjects that fill a gaping void in children’s literature, further says that our history books are usually pretty bland in how they address various historical events, and more importantly, they have conveniently left out uncomfortable truths and histories, which are important for readers, both young and old. “While my previous book, ‘Batata, Pao and All Things Portuguese’ talks about a neglected colonised past that lasted for nearly five centuries, ‘Taatung Tatung…’ draws the reader’s attention to our dying linguistic diversity and my future titles also stand in solidarity with such issues, giving agency to these voiceless non-humans,” she says.

The author is now working on biographies of eminent Indian artists, one of which titled ‘Meera Mukherjee: Breaking Moulds’ was recently launched. “I am also working on the second book after ‘Taatung Tatung…’. This book talks about another cultural aspect of our country that needs a voice and immediate attention. I hope I can do that book justice as well,” she says.