In Priya, one of New Delhi’s bustling shopping malls and a symbol of the new consumerist culture in India, billboards written in Hindi (but printed in English script) call out to shoppers Piyo thanda, jiyo thanda (drink cool, live cool) and Yeh dil mange more (this heart asks for more). For North India’s middle and upper classes, Hindi has become ‘cool’ again, establishing itself as the lingua franca of both the marketplace and the mass media. The majority of news and entertainment television channels are now broadcast in Hindi, and the number of FM radio stations in Hindi has doubled in the past five years. But has this return of Hindi to the metro media translated into an increasing interest in Hindi literature?
A survey of those both inside and outside the Hindi literary world reveals that the Hindi of the marketplace and the Hindi of the book have little, if any, connection. “I don’t think I’ve ever read a Hindi book,” says Aditya, a college student in Delhi. “Middle-class people like me speak Hindi, but we would never read a book in Hindi.” Dharmendra Sushant, an editor at the Hindi publishing house Vani Prakashan, explains: “There is a gap between the marketplace and Hindi literature. The Hindi that is used in the marketplace is actually for English speakers — it is for their consumption.” This ‘bazaar Hindi’ tends to be a parody of vernacular Hindi, a satire of the native Hindi speaker and his literature. This irony reflects the paradoxical status of Hindi as a national language that has never actually been accepted as such by either India’s rulers or its common people.
Estimated to be spoken by over 500 million people, Hindi is the world’s fourth most widely-spoken language, and is by far the most used language within India. Despite having been made the national language of India by a constitutional provision in 1950, however, Hindi has never managed to gain legitimacy as either the language of the government or of the people. Instead, it has been repeatedly rejected by the speakers of other regional languages and sidelined by English, the language of status in post-colonial India. In fact, in contrast to its aspirations of national prestige, Hindi is largely perceived as a subaltern language, the dialect of the rural, uneducated Hindiwalla.
In terms of literature, books in Hindi seem. completely absent from the mainstream marketplace, which is dominated by English paperbacks and glossy hardcovers. Even in Delhi, considered to be the capital of the Hindi literary world, it is hard to find bookstores selling works of Hindi fiction. The leaders of the Hindi literary establishment themselves are well aware of Hindi’s marginalised position, having, with obvious irony, named the annual festival of Hindi as the Hindi Pakhwada (Hindi’s Funeral)
Contrary to the festival’s title, Hindi literature itself has been experiencing an undeniable growth spurt. Indeed, decades after some predicted that it would be eclipsed by English, Hindi literature is currently flourishing, growing daily in terms of both readers and writers. Its readers are not the same as those urbanites for whom Hindi is suddenly ‘cool’, however. Nor are they even necessarily the ones that can be seen perusing through India’s larger bookstores. The question remains, then: Where, and who, is this expanding Hindi-reading public?
The answer lies partly in the fact that Hindi publishers have not created the type of market for their wares that English publishers have managed to create in India —fanfare-filled book launches, page-3 literati, the ‘must-read’ syndrome, the cult of the bestseller list — a fact that Hindi publishers are proud of. The Hindi literary world has its own kind of publishing industry, its own kind of heroes and stars, and its own kind of readership. Rather than trying to adopt the financially successful English publishing model, Hindi has stuck to its traditions and created its own model of success. Thus, the world of Hindi literature is a mix of hundred-year-old traditions and new technologies, old classics and experimental forms.
Hindi publishers speak of a constantly growing market of diehard readers spread out across cities, towns and villages all over India. Whereas the readers of English literature tend to be confined to metros and smaller cities, Hindi readers can be found in all corners of the country, including some of its least-developed areas. “It is a seemingly paradoxical thing that in places like Bihar, which have the least development, we sell the highest number of books,” says Vani Prakashan’s Sushant. “The average Hindi reader wants to read serious literature … Hindi readers also tend to be very politically well-informed and opinionated.” Another quality of Hindi readers should also be mentioned: their extreme enthusiasm. The average Hindi reader tends to be a serious and emotional aficionado of the literature — any Hindi sahriday (connoisseur) can recite to you lines of their favourite works and authors by heart, and can usually tell you the tales and histories that accompany both the authors and their works.
Interestingly, it is often through this very medium — oral transmission — that Hindi continues to spread and flourish. While English literature, in particular the novel, is dominated by prose forms, poetry remains the heart of Hindi literature. And although poetry is not easy to sell in the book market, it is ideal for spreading by word of mouth. (It is for this reason that the Hindi writers of the Freedom Movement of the 1870s to 1940s chose poetry as the medium through which to spread their nationalist and anti-colonial messages.) Thus poetry readings, in the traditional forms of the mushaira and the kavi sammelan, continue to be one of the primary channels for dissemination of Hindi literature. These readings tend to proceed in much the same manner as they did hundreds of years ago. After proper summoning and coaxing by the host and audience, poets recite by heart their lines of verse, emphasising and repeating certain lines in response to the audience’s cheers of encouragement.
As during the Freedom Movement, poetry continues to be the medium through which political ideas are voiced and spread among the Hindi-speaking working classes. Revolutionary and protest songs handed down since the turn of the last century are still heard at protests and political meetings today. Over the last forty years, the Naxalite movement in particular has used poetry with great success in its efforts to mobilise workers and sections of the landless poor. In Hindi, a substantial body of Naxalite poetry has emerged in the Khan Boli and Bhojpuri dialects, representing the creative energies of common farmers, workers, students and political activists.
The Hindi publishing industry is aware of these traditions, and sees no need to change them. When asked why they have not been able to create the same kind of consumerist market for their publications as their English counterparts, Hindi publishers respond that they prefer to concentrate more on the particular demands of their long-time and hardcore readers. Jayprakash of Prakashan Sansthan dismisses the recent consumerist trend in English publishing: “It’s nothing like that in Hindi. There was always a good market for Hindi books, and there is a good market now. In fact, our market is expanding. Our books go all over the country.” Rather than selling primarily through bookshops as is the tendency with English volumes, Hindi publishers rely heavily on sales to libraries and universities, at book fairs, and to individuals. “We are constantly getting letters from readers all over the country and outside of the country asking for particular titles,” says Sushant. “We do our best to make sure that these books reach the readers wherever they are. We release as many paperback editions as possible, and try to keep the price down. But there are problems, like the cost of shipping, which can be as much as the cost of the book … In this way, Hindi publishing is unorganised.”
Because of this lack of organisation and the continuing importance of oral transmission, it is nearly impossible for any writer in Hindi to survive on the earnings of the writing alone. Prem Chand and Nirala, two of the greatest Hindi writers of the modern era, are also seen as archetypes of the typical Hindi writer: both died in poverty after living lives of periodic destitution, during which they put every last bit of their money and effort into their writing. Many aspiring Hindi authors, however, continue to pursue writing as a part-time pursuit. A survey of today’s popular Hindi writers reveals that most are government servants, academics or private-business owners, who write during their spare time.
Hindi’s most prominent authors, like Shrilal Shukla (whose Rag Darbari is regarded as a classic of Hindi literature), Ashok Vajpayee and Vinod Kumar Shukla were fulltime government servants when they penned their masterpieces. Award-winning poets and essayists like Anamika, Purushottam Agarwal and Manager Pandey write while teaching at university. Many aspiring authors are forced to use their own money to see their titles into print. Amidst all this, the increasing market for Hindi literature has also led to an increase in Hindi authors, with everyone from office babus to tea-sellers trying their hand at both poetry and prose.
Despite this thriving, living literature and its corresponding rich tradition of literary criticism, Hindi literature as an academic discipline has yet to develop strength. The study of Hindi remains mired in outdated syllabi and antiquated methods, which together have turned off generations of potential Hindi readers. At the primary- and secondary-school levels, Hindi is a casualty of the antiquated learn-by-rote system and of perfunctory, uninspired teaching. “We study Hindi in school because we’re forced to, and most people drop it as soon as they can,” says Padmini, a college student from Jamshedpur. “Even though I liked Hindi literature, the teachers didn’t care about what they were teaching and made it completely boring.”
At the university level, lack of funding and, more importantly, lack of respect has led to stagnating Hindi departments. As a result, there is little research work being done. Professors everywhere cancel classes so that they can pursue more lucrative work, like competitive-exam coaching. Students too tend to abandon any serious study of the literature, simply using their degrees as stepping-stones to more ‘serious’ careers. “When you tell people that you’re in a university like JNU, they’re very impressed and ask ‘In which department?” says Vivek Shukla, an MPhil Hindi student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “But when you tell them you’re in the Hindi Department, they lose interest and ask you why you didn’t choose a more sensible field.”
What may prove to be the redeeming feature of the sagging Hindi academic world is interest from outside of India, including from the Hindi-literature readership. Recognising the political importance of the Hindi-speaking populace and the richness of its literary tradition, universities in both the West and much of the rest of the developed world are increasingly providing funding and support for the study of Hindi language and literature. This interest has led to the development of ties between Indian and foreign universities, as well as the recruitment of Hindi professors as temporary or permanent faculty in universities abroad.
Perhaps more importantly, the native Hindi-speaking readership abroad has also begun putting pressure on Hindi academics and litterateurs to increase the size and scope of their attempt. With the increasing migration of Hindi-speaking Indians to foreign countries over the past 30 years, a large and dispersed Hindi diaspora has developed; these are not only consumers, but also producers of Hindi literature. Publishers report that they send a large number of copies of their publications to countries like Australia, the UK, Canada and the US. Hindi aficionados and writers in those countries have also begun publishing their own Hindi literary magazines, as well as sending longer works back to India for publication. “In several countries, lots of people have begun writing,” says JNU Hindi professor Chamman Lal. “Some have become big names in the Hindi literary world.” Although the diasporic writing scene is still in flux, Lal says, “it is certainly much bigger than it was a few years ago.”
This interaction between the Hindi-speaking diaspora and their host populations is proving to be an important force in shaping modern Hindi literature. Thirty years ago, Nirmal Verma challenged the notion that Hindi literature could only be about ‘Indian’ themes when he published his stories and travelogues of Europe (See Himal Jan-Feb 2006, “The atmabodh of Nirmal Verma”). Now, there exists a whole genre of Hindi literature detailing the experiences of Indians abroad, like the writings of Krishna Bihari and the short stories published regularly in the Hindi journal Wagarth. For some Hindi critics and publishers, globalisation and migration abroad phenomena typically seen as threats to regional languages like Hindi – have actually given a new strength to the literature. “It is an interesting development that with the spread of English across the world and the movement of peoples due to globalisation, the advantage is actually not with those who speak English, but with those who speak languages other than English,” says Sushant of Vani Prakashan. “This is because those who come from other languages can bring something new to the dialogue. There is something of the place and the language that is in one’s blood.”
Sushant’s optimism and excitement about the future of Hindi literature seems to be shared by many critics, writers and publishers, who see Hindi readership expanding across India and beyond its borders. At the same time, they also see this movement as a kind of return to a native consciousness. While not completely separate, this nonetheless remains distinct from and alternative to the colonial consciousness symbolised by English literature. Says Sushant: “Hindi is spreading in all four directions. And yet, people are returning to their roots. It is a question of identity.”