Well, okay– I have read exactly one book in my mother-tongue Maithili. That is not something I am proud of, but I take heart from the fact that most people of my generation in the community have probably read none at all. The book I read was a collection of recipes from the Mithila, written by an elderly acquaintance cum distant relative who is now no more. It was a decent cookbook in terms of the number of recipes contained but had no pictures– and cookbooks, to my mind, are incomplete without pictures. It still finds space on my bookshelf and acts as a valuable reference guide on festivals and special occasions.
The reason why I have not read more books in Maithili is simple–there just aren’t too many books to be read. Those that are there are mostly scholarly tomes which are difficult to make sense of or to find an interest in. If there were to appear a list of endangered languages, Maithili would probably be there amongst the top entries. Not only is the number of native speakers small, it is rapidly dwindling, with fewer and fewer younger members of the community being able to speak it well. The reasons are many and beyond the scope of this post–but a major reason, according to me, is that it is difficult to ‘write’ this language. Not unlike French and German, or English for that matter, the words are not spelt exactly as they are spoken. Such languages are properly and widely mastered only if they are taught in school, and since there were always relatively few speakers to begin with, it never ever got around to being taught in school.
Maithili was and still is the only language we ever spoke at home. I don’t remember being taught to read or write Maithili–I guess my brother and I just picked it up reading the letters that our grandparents and parents wrote to each other. Gradually we began to write to the grandparents in the language too.
My daughters speak the language very well, which is a matter of some joy for me–though they cannot read or write due to no exposure to the written form of it. I am aware that my children’s might be the last generation of active Maithili speakers. It is something that must be shrugged off, I suppose, because it cannot be helped much.