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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mind your language, we're all Indians

For someone whose fluency in the languages of the Aryavarta is fairly basic, there are few things more exasperating than being caught in the crossfire of incomprehension at social gatherings where, as a rule, you meet people of your own social strata. Delhi is ostensibly the Capital of India, the administrative centre of a country with multiple languages and cultures. Yet, there is an unstated presumption that most Indians are sufficiently multi-cultural to able to laugh at risqué jokes in Punjabi and say ‘wah-wah’ to the Urdu couplet most appropriate for the occasion.

The one occasion when, out of sheer perversity, i feebly asked for subtitles, there were twenty pairs of eyes accusing me of being a rootless Angrez.

Negotiating the linguistic clutter of India is never easy and invariably prone to social and political misunderstanding. I recall a curious encounter with a shopkeeper in Southall, the ‘Indian’ ghetto in London, in the early-1980s. Having ordered a takeaway, the man at the counter asked me politely: “Are you an Indian?” “Yes,” i replied. “Can you speak Punjabi?” he queried. “I’m afraid not,” i confessed. “Well, can you speak Gujarati?” Again, i confessed my inability. “What sort of an Indian are you?” he barked indignantly.

It’s a question that left me flummoxed. Unwilling to engage in a discourse on the linguistic complexities of India, i left the Southall desi content with the satisfaction that he had ticked off a rootless wonder—one who didn’t know the two Indian languages most prevalent in the UK.

The encounter in Southall came to mind last week on reading a report from the Jaipur Literary Festival, an event that is fast becoming the place-to-be-seen each January. In a bewildering intervention, diplomat-author Pavan Varma suggested that independent India began on the wrong culture when Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his memorable “tryst with destiny” speech in English. According to him, it was indicative of a perverse mindset and “testimony to how the roots of our own languages were weakened in 200 years of colonial rule.” Nehru, it would, seem, set the tone for the subsequent marginalization of the mother tongues in India.

Like the man from Southall, Varma seemed to be asking: “What sort of Indian was Nehru?”

Having tasted the Jaipur experience for two consecutive years, it may be presumed that Varma’s tirade against the cultural inadequacies of those Indians who see English as a status symbol went down rather well. The festival has always been marked by an undercurrent of tension between those who crave the opportunity to hear and interact with internationally-acclaimed writers and those who turn to protest against the less exalted billing to bhasha—the newspeak for what was earlier called the ‘vernacular’. The bhasha brigade tends to be somewhat assertive in flaunting their victimhood and, like Varma, invariably succeed in guilt-tripping the Angrezi-wallas. Denouncing the apparent colonization of the mind is trendy.

Bhasha may be shorthand for Indian languages but in practice it has become a euphemism for Hindi. The real grievance of the Hindi chauvinists isn’t that the language has been ignored. Hindi is the primary language of politics (but not statecraft). It dominates TV and Bollywood, and it is the language most understood throughout India. Its functional importance is undeniable. Apart from Tamil Nadu where its encroachments are fiercely resisted, a smattering of Hindi can see you through most of India.

However, there is one shortcoming Hindi hasn’t been able to overcome: its lack of respectability. It suffers from a deep, age-old inferiority vis-a-vis Urdu and an inability to cope with the disdain of more evolved languages.  Contrary to what Varma believes, colonial rule and exposure to European ideas saw a flowering of regional languages in the three presidencies. Hindi’s rise was post-1947 and dictated by political necessity.

In Bengal, a state familiar to me, the upwardly mobile, concurrently fluent in English, were never embarrassed by the presence of bhasha newspapers and books in their homes. In Hindi-dominated Delhi, material prosperity has triggered a comic Westernization, not least of which is the massacre of the English language.

India is routinely embroiled in contrived controversies over language. Periodically, nationalist assertion involves

Angrezi-bashing and shadow boxing with a colonial past. Yet, thanks to a globalization from which India has profited greatly, these outbreaks of seasonal hysteria rarely cross the bounds of a phoney war. English has continued to gain in usage but India isn’t likely to become a cultural outpost of the Anglosphere. India’s English is the language of abstraction, ideas and business; Hindi is for everyday communication.

It’s a replay of the Persian-Hindustani hierarchy in Mughal India. Perhaps Nehru anticipated this: he spoke to the nation in English and to voters in Hindi.

Sunday Times of India, January 31, 2010


G said...

The observation about Hindi's deep rooted inferiority is very apt. I noticed that Hindi folks walk away from any discussion on reviving our native languages - anything that is generic and applies to all our regional languages. That is why their obsession with Rashtra Bhasha.

Having said this, let us not forget that India's future lies in revival of its Bhashas (without having to abandon English). Sankrant Sanu's article, The English Class System, is the most convincing to date. There is also Madhu Kishwar's The Dominance of Angreziyat in Our Education.

Truth be said, no one argued for the vernacular more than Mahatma Gandhi:

"Education through a foreign Language entails a certain degree of strain, and our boys have to pay dearly for it. To a large extent, they lose the capacity of shouldering any other burden afterwards., for they become a useless lot who are weak of body, without any zest for work and imitators of the West. They have little interest in original research or deep thinking, and the qualities of courage, perseverance. bravery and fearlessness are lacking. That is why we are unable to make new plans or carry our projects to meet our problems."

rohit said...

sir i read your blog its really very nice now i regularly read.

Anonymous said...

G, as a Hindiwalla, I can tell you, the reason they walk away from Englishwallas is that, it is equivalent to talking
to a Jihadi or a Talibani, you cannot use rational and commonsense arguments with them. They are full of hypocricy,obduracy and fundamentalism.
Like jihadis, while they insist on using pure and Victorian English but if the other person insists on using his pure mothertongue that is a sign of orthodoxy and regressiveness.
While knowing all the inconsistancies or outright idiocies in English grammar and vocabulary is a sign of your intellect and sophistication, same drawbacks in Indian languages are a matter of derision and unsophistication.

This analogy can go on and on, but I think the point is clear.

Anonymous said...

Why not ensure English of the same good standard is taught to all the children right from childhood along with their respective mother tongue & Sanskrit ?

Sanskrit being the root language & most computer friendly would only aid in making one's intellect sharp. All our classics can be read in unabridged form.

In a globalized world one ought to be able to communicate effectively in English also.

Adult education is another sphere totally neglected.

I like Swapan Dasgupta's ( along with certain others) English very much. With so much care & consideration he chooses just the right word.

sharat said...

Hi Swapan,
Your argument is a reflection of your "Inability" learn and speak Hindi. Don't forget that Hindi is a formal adopted for almost 80% of Indians.
You know the shape of hindi which is spoken and writen is not in use in same format ANYWHERE in India. ( not even in UP). And for all indian's hindi is a adopted and not LOCAL language.
I agree that for other it wud be little more difficult then the so called hindi heartland people.
Why are you putting blame and undesired comment on hindi. You are also trying to minimise the stature of Hindi by saying that its just a popular spoken language.
Gentleman, pls brushup your GK and see that it has a vast and very rich literature.

Ok, now can you tell me "IS THERE ANY OTHER INDIAN LANGUAGE WHICH YOU THINK CAN BE A COMMON MEDIEUM OF COMMUNICATION OTHER THEN HINDI"....AND PLS DONT SAY THAT ENGLISH CAN DO....its a bloody imported language in which no indian expression can be done..( for eg..can you say 'bhabhi' in english...what will you say sis-in-law...and for 'nanad', are..another pseudo..intellectual..who doesnt have a pulse of people of india..sitting in your AC room...just writing some bluff....
stop doing all are indirectly helping divisive forces like shiv sena..etc...

regret those harsh word..but ths what the facts are..

Sharath Kumar k

Venkatesh said...


I think we have reached a wierd situation in urban India. We have stopped conversing in the mother/native tongues and prefer to speak in English.

This is just a reflection of our lack of respect for our culture and who we stand as a people.

The glory of India will only come if we go back to using our mother tongues and sanskrit and stop the colonising of the miniority of english speakers.


dear swapan

i seldom find your opinions chiming with mine, but they entirely do in this very fine short piece in the TOI. And 'bhasha brigade' is a memorable coinage, as memorable as 'tenured cretins' (describing indian academics in your review of partha chatterjee's 'princely impostor'). you, mukul kesavan, and sunanda datta ray are to my mind the only three indian journalists worth reading for the elegance of their english. maybe at heart you're a closet nehruvian, or are Kiplingly seeing the BJP as The Light That Failed as the years pass.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

How about English chauvinists? I am from a small place in Rajasthan and did not know spoken Englsih (though excellent academic credentials). I went to Mumbai in 1976 for CA - the only avenue open to those Desis who were not flunet in Angrezi - and was advised (a) not to waste my time (3 yrs) and (b) money. Reason: I could not speak one full sentence in Eng. Another CA (a biggie in Calcutta and an ex-Jansangh MP) asked me if I got high marks in Eng paper by "nakal" (as I was not proficient in spoken Eng). That is the attitude of many esp in big cities towards those who can not speak well in English. The protest is not, as explained by LKA among many, towards Angrezi but but this Angreziat.
Ps. Luckily for me, I did not heed the "sage" advice of either CA and was among 103 who passed all then three groups in first attempt.

Anonymous said...

Apropos sharat's comments , in the midst of such aggressive people the best thing to do is smile & nod like Sanjeev Kumar the Pleasant in 'Koshish'.

Language is just a vehicle for conveying one's thoughts , concepts whatever. Why handle it in such inflammatory tones ?

The more one tries to arm twist & impose hindi the more pronounced becomes the anti hindi reaction.

RK Narayan writing in English is so readable & will remain so for ever.

Wordsworth's poems , Tennyson's Letters & Shakespeare have also been read out before Bhagavan Ramana. Who was so moved to say "what a wonder...the same feelings have been expressed..."

Never for once did Bhagavan say only one language allowed- that is patriotism- nationalism- or that the West purloined everything from us.

Anonymous said...

Who should we believe about a medium of education - Mr Swapan Dasgupta or Jayatn Narlikar (who has advocated use of mother tounge for studying even sciences).
If someone wants to learn a foreign language such as English, Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, French, etc. it should be their choice and right.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 12:25PM ,

My primary level education was in my mother tongue Tamil. We conversed in tamil at home. Yet , what was being taught was so archaic & alien.Plus the converted pentacostal keralite headmistress & the torture unleashed by her simply left me paralyzed & petrified with fear.

Suddenly I was exposed to advanced level English in Secondary level. It was traumatic. The amount of ridicule I faced spurred me into learning English all by myself.

I passed out of school in I division , a State rank holder.

Hence when my child x was born my mind was made up . I am not going to put x through the same ordeal... with a vengeance taught only English.

When you know English well , you get to avail yourself of a lot more opportunities in this world.

Proficiency in more languages is ofcourse a blessing.

Swapan Dasgupta is clearly being misunderstood here.

Indian Nationalist said...

I understand Sanskrit is one language difficult to understand but is also the most clear, efficient and powerful language in the world.

I do not understand why India is not promoting Sanskrit as a national language when Israel could implement Hebrew on its citizens?.

Sanskrit is a unifying language acceptable to even Tamils who agree it is older than Tamil.

Indian Nationalist said...

I think that the idea which says that promoting ENGLISH gives us an opportunity for International exposure is totally false and wrong.

English is an important language of the world but it is not the ONLY Important language.

The Chinese do not run after English. The Chinese are more developed than India without promoting English.
The Chinese people are happy with Mandarin and they are proud of it !.

The Germans are proud of the German Language and see no reason to promote English.

Same with the Japanese, The Japanese see no reason to study English !.

Surely the Japanese and Germans are in any way behind in Technology and Science than USA or UK?. In fact they are more advanced ....

Just because they have do not know English hasn't hindered their progress..

I think it is only the Colonial thinking and mindset that still lingers in the hearts and minds of the Indian people which makes them go Ga-Ga over English.

The Indian people will only develop in originality and Creative thinking only if they adopt THEIR OWN language be it their mother tongue, Hindi or Urdu and not in Colonial languages!.

People including Swapan forget that the Concept of SHUNYA(Zero) was in Sanskrit which introduced to the world the number system.

Vigyaan (Science) was invented in Sanskrit.

Yes, Today English is important..But for HOW LONG?.......UK is as good as a dead nation and USA will meet its inevitable collapse either in 2010 or a few years from now.......
Then will ENGLISH continue to be the dominant language of the world?.

I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Indian Nationalist ,

Language has got nothing much to do with India's progress as is being projected. It is outrageous & all pervading corruption in India that needs to be addressed. Instaed of fumigation of the unwanted we are forced to suffer their continued presence & enormous clout.

A lie by repeated assertion does not become the Truth. That we all have colonial mindset & that we are filled with self hate...Rajiv Malhotras & his sycophants might feel so.They are not the representatives of all Indians.

Aurobindo rightly called Gandhi the most " violent pacifist ". Has also sensibly pointed out the waste of one's energy & time in spinning charka.

"The old order changeth yielding place to new". Those who calibrate & adapt don't complain.

Gajendra said...

In all its entirety you never addressed to any of our own languages as 'mother tongue' languages in this article.

Context of Business & polity is fine, but what about emotions, sensitivity, thinking, pride?

G said...

These words of Swami Vivekananda rhyme with Gandhiji's:

The old orthodox man may be ignorant, he may be crude, but he is a man, he has a faith, he has strength, he stands on his own feet; while the Europeanised man has no backbone, he is a mass of heterogeneous ideas picked up at random from every source — and these ideas are unassimilated, undigested, unharmonised. He does not stand on his own feet, and his head is turning round and round. Where is the motive power of his work? — in a few patronizing pats from the English people. His schemes of reforms, his vehement vituperations against the evils of certain social customs, have, as the mainspring, some European patronage. Why are some of our customs called evils? Because the Europeans say so. That is about the reason he gives. I would not submit to that. Stand and die in your own strength, if there is any sin in the world, it is weakness; avoid all weakness, for weakness is sin, weakness is death. These unbalanced creatures are not yet formed into distinct personalities; what are we to call them - men, women, or animals?

-- @Anonymous, Feb 2: 2:10 PM
Do you want me to quote Sri Aurobindo in favor of Indian languages and Indian culture? Or should we quote him selectively in a negative context?

Anonymous said...

G ,

What I wanted to convey is , in contemporary world a lot of Indians go abroad for various reasons. Hence knowledge of English is an asset.

I don't understand how knowing English would turn an Indian into a self hating person or relinquish his culture.

As long as one is firmly anchored in good principles , ethics having internalised what Hinduism means I see no problem.

The world has changed so much since Swami Vivekananda's time. Thanks to Him & Bhagavan a lot more Europeans , Westerners have translated their works & no longer look askance at us hindus.

Based on my personal observations , a Westerner's quest for truth enshrined in our Vedas is more earnest & intensely focussed. Whereas a lot of our own people have passionate fetish for symbols than the spirit behind them.

Anonymous said...

G ,

In 1947 a Seer strongly advised Gandhi to make Sanskrit compulsory (link language) for all in addition to one's own mother tongue & English.

But Gandhi spurned His counsel supporting hindi for only political reasons.

Let me give an example.I don't know if your mother tongue is Tamil. In the kitschy kollywood , an AP Nagarajan contributed so significantly by adhering to Scriptural texts & bringing them to the masses.

G said...

-- @ Anonymous - Feb 3 1:09 PM
The only language the can be made compulsory is the regional language (language of the community). And no language should be banned either. Sankrant Sanu's example of Switzerland will be a good start. We need Common Schooling with regional language as the medium in primary schools and for Social Sciences; English medium can remain for Math and Sciences and in higher education until a viable alternative is found.

Unlike in India, education in the west hasn't cut off children from their society. Overwhelimg majority in the US send their children to public schools. We have a serious problem of Education Divide - education that divides the society and perpetuates a class system.

Anonymous said...

I guess that you are (Mr Dasgupta) living in Delhi from long time.Shame on you that you dont understand hindi properly. It just shows your instinctive haughtiness, contempt and arrogant nature. I watched you in Jaipur literary fest last year, even when all Pakistani and Indian authors ending their talk in hindustani couplet, you proudly declared that you dont want to understand because you dont know hindi language, I was sure that even angrez wouldnt have spoken like that because atleast they respect local culture and language. I would suggest you to migrate to Australia or UK, anyway here with your english skill you can get job at gas station.....

Sid said...

Nice article and nicely articulated view. But, as usual, Hindi chauvinism is beating you hard. The problem is that, it appears to be difficult to convince people that if you want your culture/language to be respected, give respect to other's culture/language and accept other's right to use them.

Anonymous said...

Dear Swapanda,
Chanced upon this article and could not resist the temptation of writing a comment.
Jawaharlal may have delivered 'tryst with destiny' in English but just a few years ago an equally illustrious Indian had delivered a speech --that was to remain etched in Indian memory and imagination forever ---from Ajad Hind Radio, which I must remind all of you was delivered in Hindi. Bhagat Singh wrote an essay favoring Hindi and Mahatma Gandhi remained an advocate of Hindi all his life. None of these were from Hindi-speaking states, but favored Hindi because they believed that Nationhood requires a shared language and Hindi was well-placed to play this role. Today their assumptions seem naive and simplistic: sheer success of Indian democracy and possibly failure of Simhala nationalism has invalidated their premises. Still their and today's hindi supporters intentions should not be questioned. I strongly disagree with you that Hindi's development was post-1950 and Indian languages are incapable of expressing 'abstract ideas'. History of Hindi dates back to Raso- literature,at least 1000 years. And being daughters of Sanskrit-- grammatically and vocabularily a very strong language- -Indian languages are quite capable of expressing ideas and concepts as abstract as one might imagine. But again reading your post it seems you are being impishly provocative here. Did you really mean what you wrote?