By Swapan Dasgupta
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.