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Globalisation, English and 'other' languages

September 01, 2014 17:40 IST

U R Ananthamurthy on the importance of keeping alive our regional languages.

As a writer in one of the regional languages of our country I have always been aware of the ambience of many languages in our environment. I have often made an ironic observation that in India the more literate you are the less languages you know. The CEO of a multinational in Bengaluru knows perhaps only English but the bus stand coolie can manage Urdu, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and some English too.

Many languages are alive in our environment and we have always perhaps switched from one language into another unconsciously. I take the example of D R Bendre who was perhaps one of the greatest poets in my language. He spoke Marathi at home, wrote in Kannada. I asked him, “how long you have been using these two languages?” “Until I was 12 or 13 I did not know I was using two languages.” When he said it, his daughter-in-law had come to say something in his ear. And he talked to her in Marathi without thinking he was speaking in Marathi and he was speaking to me in Kannada. This is India and Europe does not understand it.

The so called ‘vernacular’ has always had its advantage and use despite the power of the language of cosmopolis -- Samskrutha in the past and English in our times. Great writers in regional languages, always knew that political and economic hegemony was a problem and yet could not determine the intrinsic literary quality.

All good students of literature know that a highly refined language can be a disadvantage also. It was a disadvantage for William Wordsworth who wrote in a language which was so refined by Pope and Dryden. So, he had to go back to the people. With greater refinement of language, emotions may get sanitised or too neatly expressed to feel true as it happened with the neo-classical poets in English in the 18th century. Wordsworth had to go back to the common speech to be able to speak with sincerity and passion. If this can happen within a language (a vernacular, a language of the people) you can imagine what may happen between two languages -- one of the elite and another of the common people.

Now let me go back to the great shift that took place in the past -- Latin to other European languages and Samskrutha to Indian Bhashas. The shift is subtle and slow and not dramatic. When a thousand years ago our great Kannada poet Pampa wrote the Mahabharatha in Kannada (making important changes in the original to suit his Jain belief: he intervenes into Mahabharatha), there were poets who composed in Samskrutha too. While Newton wrote in Latin the great Darwin who had an immense cultural impact on his times wrote his Origin of Species in English. In the 16th, century it was problematic to use English for discursive purposes.

People ask me, “Why you do not write in English. You know English. You would be known to a larger number of people.” Then I say, yes, I will be known to a larger number of people, but those larger number of people are people whom I don’t know, whereas in Kannada I know the people for whom I write. And they know me.

You may think this may have advantages or disadvantages, according to your political and your cultural stance. (The word ‘vernacular’ is defined as ‘unstandardised native language of a speech community’). May I say some of us who put our children into bad English medium expensive schools still suffer from this anxiety? It is not over. Bengaluru is full of that. Our own grandchildren will not speak to us in our languages now, thanks to Nehru and globalisation and all that.

I want to make an important observation here. The word ‘vernacular’ is an insulting term for any language. For technical purposes we may use the word, but our vernaculars are Bhashas. I must trace here briefly how these vernaculars got transformed into full-fledged languages in Europe and India.

The first great name in Europe who did not write in Latin but in the language of his people was Dante. (He wrote his defence of writing in the common language of people, but the defence itself was written in Latin. Milton too wrote some tracts in Latin and poems too, lest he be forgotten by the future generations with the disappearance of English losing political power). It is hard to get free from vernacular anxiety, even for those in love with their spoken languages, mother tongues.

I must however add two more observations here. Earlier than Dante, the first Kannada work appeared in the language of Kannada, an aesthetic treatise called Kavi Raja Marga by Nrupatunga/Srivijaya, a thousand years ago. But more amazing for me are these words of the Buddha in the pre-Christian era, admonishing some monks who too suffered from vernacular anxiety, from Vinaya Peethika. That was much earlier than the Latin and other transformations.

Every language has a front yard and a backyard. I take my own home in my village. A large house. We had a chawri, a front yard. We had an inner house, and we had a backyard, where there was a well. And in the front yard my father’s friends would come. He used to get the paper Harijan, and translate it to them, talk about the freedom struggle and things like that, and also Ramayana. But when he went to the backyard, all women, from all castes would come and my mother would talk to them on all matters. And, as a child, I listened to all this. That is why I became a writer.

If had been only in the front yard, perhaps I would have been a politician. Almost all Indian languages have a backyard. And also ati-Shudra, who now have become literate and they bring their rich experiences. We have much more spoken literature, oral literature, than written literature. And, this is in the backyard.

Our languages have a great future because the backyard supplies continuously. English is lucky because it had its backyard, not in London, but in Yeat’s Ireland, in Africa and also in India. It had a backyard and so English has been kept alive by the backyard people.

English was a gateway to knowledge. I had to learn by heart the impeachment of Warren Hastings, because my father said, “look, the British are so truthful, they punished even Warren Hastings. Look at his speech and learn it by heart.”

There are three languages that most people know. I don’t call any of them mother tongue. Mother tongue is a word which can be used only in Europe. I call them, in Kannada, Mane Mathu, Beedi Mathu, Attada Mathu. Mane Mathu is the house language. A large number of Kannada writers speak Telugu at home. Agrahara writes in Kannada but Telugu is his mother tongue. There are many writers and poets who write in Kannada but speak Tamil at home. Like Bendre, who wrote in Kannada but spoke at home in Marathi. This is culturally necessary. No Mane Mathu is given up in India.

Beedi Mathu is the language of the province, what you mischievously do with a boy or girl on the street. Kannada is the Beedi Mathu. Attada Mathu is the language of upstairs. Ramanujam has a poem: “When I was hungry I spoke to my mother in Tamil, to get my food. I talked to boys and girls in Kannada when I was mischievous. My father, a professor of mathematics, was upstairs and talked to me in English when he called me.”

He would have talked to him in Persian or at one time in Samskrutha, or later on, if China is dominant, Chinese will be the international language. And, it has no meaning for me. But we need an Attada Mathu, to communicate. Sankara needed it, Ramanujam needed it, or Gandhi needed it, or I need it, otherwise I would not have been able to talk to you. Don’t emotionalise things by talking only about mother tongue. This is Europe. In all our territories all these languages survive.

If Karnataka becomes only Kannada kind of things, becomes a fascist state. It should make way for other languages and they should also learn about Beedi Mathu. This is the right kind of attitude to languages.

Languages and India

India is a civilisation and not a nation in the sense Europe evolved the notion of nation states after the collapse of papal power. Both Tagore and Gandhi had realised this during the struggle for freedom in India. In his Hind Swaraj Gandhi thought that ‘modern western civilisation’ was evil and our struggle for freeing ourselves from British rule should be a struggle to free even Britain from its bondage to the notions of modern civilisation.

After what we have seen of the failure of the Soviet Union and avaricious culture of modern China, and the globalising India we have come to realise that concentration of power in any form is evil, and we need not reject wholesale the great ideas of anarchist thinking that is seen in visionary thinkers like Tolstoy and Gandhi.

They believed in self regulating small communities, largely rural communities in the case of Gandhi, for humankind to be creative and live in harmony with Nature.

Nehru was basically a ‘cosmopolitan’ thinker, attracted emotionally to Gandhian dreams. Smaller, language-based, state enjoying a certain degree of autonomy, was closer to the Panchayat Raj ideal of Gandhi. Yet Nehru, in his dream of a strong India -- ‘strong’ in the western sense -- was opposed to the creation of linguistic states. But Nehru was a genuine democrat and he had to yield to the demand of linguistic states.

The ‘cosmopolitan’ Indian English educated class was skeptical of universal suffrage and also of linguistic states. They have a readymade vocabulary to denigrate the dream and desire for smaller self-regulating community-based state power.

In India we have realised that if we overcentralise there is danger that we may Balkanise. Examples of Tamil Nadu at one time, Assam even now, are examples for such movements and violent agitation. Our civilisation is based on three principles. They are:1) Democracy, 2) Secularism and 3) Federalism. When Indira Gandhi was in power she tried to belittle federalism and put her own henchmen in power in all the states and the ‘high command’ became more ‘high’ than people could bear. Movements appeared in Punjab for separation. She declared Emergency and thus belittled democracy and she paid a heavy price. In recent years the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to change the ‘secular’ nature of our polity and despite ‘India shining’ slogan they lost power.

We are searching for ways to remain a civilisation with pluralities of culture, and formation of linguistic states was one such step. But we must realise, for instance, that even Karnataka is mini-India and in an overall ambience of Kannada language culture other linguistic cultures in Karnataka -- our own languages like Tulu, Konkani, Kodava, and Urdu -- should not feel alien in our land. This is true for almost all other Indian linguistic states.

Our children in Bengaluru spend a lakh of rupees and get into a bad private school where everything is taught in English and they don’t create knowledge in the schoolroom. Knowledge is transferred to them. Whereas in the mother tongue school knowledge is created in the school room, and then they can shift to English and other languages. I am not anti-English. But they should learn to create knowledge. And now common schools have become a dream and the government goes on assuring us but common schools are ignored because our children don’t go to these schools. But government school teachers are better trained, better paid.

In Kerala I found that private people are opening English medium schools with teachers who are very poorly paid, English very bad. But even a poor man feels if there is no English they will not go very far. I recommended in my report of a Kerala government-sponsored committee, after studying the situation for six months, that all government schools should offer them spoken English from the first standard but teach them in their own mother tongue.

But two members of the committee did not sign this report because the private school lobby is very strong, because if the government schools, common schools, would become much better, our children would also go there and then the big commercial ventures will suffer. This is true of Bengalooru. This is true everywhere.

I think that our whole Kavi Raja Marga ideal of combining the Marga and Desi and creating a language which may not travel beyond its territory but which can mirror the whole world is possible if we can combine Mane Mathu, Beedi Mathu and Attada Mathu and not leave any of them.

I will finish it with a story. Srikrishna Parmatma went to a common school. One of his classmates was Kuchela or Sudama, a very poor man. That can’t happen to my grandson. My point of this well known story is that Krishna becomes Bhagwan because he had Kuchela as a friend. Otherwise this myth would not have been possible. And Kuchela had some hopes because Krishna was his classmate. Now, we have destroyed hope, we have destroyed glory. And that is globalisation. And we have to get back to the common school system.

Jnanpith Award-winning author Professor U R Ananthamurthy, who passed into the ages recently, made this speech at the fourth Sumitra Chisti Memorial Lecture in 2009.


U R Ananthamurthy