Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
– Kamala Das in An Introduction
It is difficult to describe Kamala Das (1934–2009): accomplished fiction writer, acclaimed poet, dilettante politician, devoted social worker as well as a provocative person who not only defended the right to wear the burqa but also waxed eloquent about the supposed merits of the discriminatory dress code of Islam. Sans superlatives, it is impossible to make sense of a person who was torn between the conflicting desires of being a conformist and an iconoclast. Born in Malabar, Kerala, brought up in Calcutta, West Bengal, she breathed her last in Pune, Maharashtra on 31 May and was laid to rest back in God’s Own Country – Kerala. In between, she became Madhavikutty to her readers in Malayalam, Ami to admirers of her memoirs and Suraiyya to the Maulvis of Palayam Juma Masjid in Trivandrum. Kamala Suraiyya wrote about politics, patriarchy and passion with equal felicity. But if an epitaph has to be chosen, a line of the poem “An Introduction”, from the collection Summer in Calcutta, best describes her dilemmas: “I speak three languages, write in two, dream in one.”
The ‘Three Language Formula’ first devised in 1949, and revised in 1968 and 1986, has institutionalised Lord Macaulay’s prescription of monopolising the formal space in the Indian Subcontinent for the English language. Hindi has since evolved as the language of the marketplace; dominant regional languages masquerade as ‘official languages’ in different parts of Southasia. But whatever happened to the language of the heart, the medium in which Kamala Suraiyya dreamt even as she wrote in English and Malayalam – the formal and official languages respectively of the places of her birth and burial? If indeed there was such a language, it would unite torn minds. Meanwhile, language games played over and over again in Southasia continue to create bitterness, reinforcing the belief that true love – or truth – can be expressed only in absolute silence.
Hindi is widely understood even in the high Himalayan states of the Indian Union. From Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh to Baramulla in Indian-administered Kashmir, soldiers from Malabar or Marathwada can conveniently do their shopping in the local bazaars by speaking what passes for Hindi in these distant outposts. Without anybody noticing the demise of Kumauni or Garhwali, Hindi has displaced these two languages of the western Himalaya, from the government as well as the marketplace. Perhaps it is no surprise that the speakers of Kumauni and Garhwali, along with Bhojpuri and Maithili speakers – those whose languages were appropriated by Khariboli (which was to become Hindi) during the Indian independence struggle – dominate all Hindi publications in New Delhi.
The history of Urdu and Hindi is intertwined. Other than their script and vocabulary, appropriated from Persian and Sanskrit respectively, these two languages are almost identical in their spoken form. Urdu evolved as the language of camps, cantonments and royal courts of the Mughal Empire in Agra and Delhi whereas Hindostani was the name given to the vernacular that was formed by the amalgamation of Awadhi from Ayodhya, Bhojpuri from Benares and Braj Bhasha from Brindavan. Hindustani, later Hindi, spread through pilgrims, seers, devotees and itinerant traders throughout the plains of the Ganga and the Jamuna. The reformist Hindu Arya Samaj sect popularised the language everywhere from Bengal to Punjab. As the British began to patronise English, Urdu was slowly edged out of kacheris and courtrooms into the marketplace where it was soon devoured by what had come to be called Hindi.
Partition saved Urdu from annihilation as Muslims of the then United Provinces adopted the hybrid language of Arabic, Persian and Khariboli as a marker of identity. But Awadhi, Braj, Bhojpuri and even Maithili, with its distinctive sounds and closeness to Bengali, became victims of what has been described as ‘linguistic genocide’. This provocative expression is used to describe the slow death of a language when its speakers first turn bilingual and then adopt the learned language as their own, resulting in the demise of their original medium of communication. When a language dies, part of its memory disappears, history is lost and a culture dies with the death of its medium, hence the allusion to genocide. By the early twentieth century, Hindi became the unchallenged lingua franca of the vast landmass north of the Vindhyas and west of the Khasi Hills.
The commercial sector was the first to adopt Hindi as its primary language – it is no coincidence that the first Hindi newspaper was published from the Bengali-speaking but Marwari-dominated city of Calcutta. The Independence movement had already reserved the space for the installation of Hindi as the state language. But personal space still belonged to a plethora of local languages that had their own myths, memories, ballads and stories. Despite the popularity of the Awadhi-language Ramcharitmanas and Hanuman Chalisa of Tulsidas, Hindu rites still depended upon Sanskrit texts.
The linguistic landscape changed with the entry of technology. The Hindi film industry transformed the personal into public and there was nowhere to hide once Hindi songs began to blare out of gramophones in every village. When His Master’s Voice – the popular recording company brand – boomed, everyone listened. The triangle was now complete – the state, the market and the personal, all the three domains of communication belonged to Hindi in India by the 1970s. The post-Emergency Janata Party government reinforced the image of Hindi as the language of governance – most of its cabinet members had used it as a medium of resistance in the past and were unapologetic about its imposition upon the southern states that had chosen to maintain their loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. By this time, Hindi had managed to acquire a critical mass of supporters even in states like Kerala and Karnataka. Then came satellite channels churning out soap operas 24/7 in the language of the market. The hegemony of Hindi was now total, and it spilled over the shores of India.
The soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka forced Hindi upon the Tamil-speakers in Jaffna, but Colombo learnt the language largely through commercial considerations. Bangladeshis can still understand Hindi programmes beamed from the sky as Apravonsha (which, incidentally, was the first name given to Hindi when it took root in Ayodhya and Brindavan) or corrupted form of Urdu. In Karachi or Lahore, a Hindi-speaking visitor is likely to be complemented for her excellent Urdu; in the hills and plains of Nepal, a journeyman – be he a barber, a carpenter, an electrician, a mechanic, a plumber or just a vendor of vegetables – can easily get along with everyone by speaking no language other than Hindi. But the history of resentment that the popularity of Hindi – or its Urdu form – has created among promoters and protectors of other ‘national’ languages in Southasia is equally old and thriving.
In Nepal, Hindi is the first language of a miniscule population. But almost all political parties based in its Tarai plains want it to be recognised as an alternative ‘national’ language. All ‘national’ parties, on the other hand, have nothing against ‘mother tongues’ but are terrified of accepting Hindi as a contender for ‘national’ recognition. The fear of Hindi is somewhat understandable – who can stand the might of a language supported by the biggest democracy and the fifth largest economy of the world, and backed by this planet’s fourth largest army? The dread of Hindi is so debilitating that Nepali zealots want the state to protect the latter’s monopoly in the nascent republic. In a controversial act, Vice President Parmanada Jha signed his oath papers in Nepali but took the vow publicly in its Hindi version. The matter was taken to the Supreme Court, which then decided that the holder of the exalted office needed to take a fresh oath and affirm his faith in the interim constitution. The row that the vow has sparked refuses to die down as proponents of Hindi and defenders of Nepali appear equally adamant.
Southasia has an unsettling history of language controversies. The Three Language Formula finally resolved the anti-Hindi agitation of Madras State, which erupted repeatedly in 1938, 1948, 1952 and finally 1965. But every other language-based movement has had more unsettling consequences. The Bengali Bhasha Andolan, raised against the Urdu-only policy of Pakistan, laid the ground for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The Sinhala Only Act, passed by the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1956, created conditions for the emergence of one of the most lethal group of insurgents in human history. History may not repeat itself in Nepal, but there is a lurking risk. Maintaining a battalion of multilingual translators is often a lot cheaper than keeping armed forces prepared for civic strife. An oath of office should be allowed to be taken in God’s own languages (is ‘He’ not multilingual, speaking at least Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese?) and the state should have no objection if someone loves her lover-tongue more than the mother tongue. The soul of Kamala Das would then sing: “It is human speech, the speech of the mind that is here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and is aware.”