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September 13, 2000


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Language as a mask of conquest -- I

I have been thinking about language rather a lot lately, partly because of the ongoing Tamil issue in Sri Lanka; partly because of what my friend Reeta Sinha said in a column about Hindiwallahs and non-Hindiwallahs; and partly because of the recent shenanigans of the brigand Veerappan in championing the cause of Tamils in Karnataka.

It seems to me that there are at least five roles that a language may play. It may be:

  • A transactional language
  • A literary language
  • A liturgical language
  • A cultural language
  • A conquering language

    The first three are rather obvious. A transactional or business language as a lingua franca has always been necessary ever since the evolution of different languages. The example par excellence, of course, is English, which has now taken on this role globally, thereby serendipitously giving the English-educated Indian elite a rare global competitive advantage.

    Ancient Greek is a good example of a literary language which people might learn to explore, in the original, the fine works of literature in that tongue. I suppose the ballads of Homer, the drama of Aristophanes, the historical writings of Thucydides, and the philosophy of Socrates are a good reason to learn Greek, even if the science of Aristotle has long been superseded.

    For a particular religion or a group of people, a language may resonate with meaning if their scriptures are written in that language. Arabic is perhaps the best example; for it is seems to be the duty of every Muslim to learn it to understand his religion in its original, unadulterated form.

    Both Latin and Sanskrit have served all three purposes in the past. Sanskrit was India's main link language; it has an enormous classical literature and it is the basis of most Hindu liturgy. Latin was the link language for Europe and there is a large store of classical works in the language. It is also the basis of much Christian liturgy.

    The issue of the language of culture is interesting. I claim that things that belong to a particular culture can only be expressed fully and properly in the language that is the basis of that culture. This means that the language becomes far more important, at least in the minds of its speakers, than a mere conglomeration of sounds and ideas: it defines them in a very real sense. The language becomes precious to them in a somewhat irrational way.

    Some of this has to do with vocabulary as a function of the geography and climate of a place. For instance, there are 20 words for 'rice' in Malayalam, but only one for 'snow' and 'fog' combined. In English, there is one word for 'rice' and 20 words for different types of 'snow'.

    But the enduring differences don't come merely from these; language is a state of mind. As someone who is completely bilingual in English and Malayalam, I can say with certainty that for me, Malayalam is the language of the heart, and English that of the head. I am moved, sometimes to the verge of tears, by poignant writing in English, it is true; but it is still a received wisdom, smrti, that which is remembered; not sruti, that which is experienced.

    O V Vijayan's 'clattering black date-palms and the wind whistling through them from the Palakkad gap' is more evocative in Malayalam than in English. The fragrance of a fallen flower is stronger in Kumaran Asan's Veenapoovu than in any poetry I have read in English.

    I can relate better to the angst-ridden Dasan of M Mukundan's Mayyazhi than to Camus's L'etranger. I understand the Kathakali of G Aravindan's Marattam better than I can understand the concerts in Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar. Because I do not need them interpreted: they are mine in an ineffable, visceral way.

    I believe this is how many people view their languages. They are internalised self-images, intangible and evocative; they are a large part of our 'imaginary homelands', as Salman Rushdie would have it. I am reminded of a long quote from Walter Scott:

    "Breathes there the man with soul so dead
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd
    As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
    From wandering on a foreign strand?
    If such there breathe, go, mark him well!
    For him no minstrel raptures swell,
    High though his title, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim, --
    Despite those titles, power and pelf,
    The wretch, concentrated all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung."

    Language has the same suggestive power to affect us: witness the ongoing struggle between peoples that are otherwise ethnically and religiously the same, such as in the Balkans between Serbs and Croats; or in Canada between the Quebecois and English-speakers; or in Spain between the Basques and others. Similarly, Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, racially and genetically the same, but divided by language and religion.

    And this is why I object strenuously to the Hindi-ising of India. Because, those Hindi zealots are saying to me, "Your culture is not worth anything; why don't you lose it, learn ours and be second-class citizens in your own country?" For there is a distinct Malayali ethos, with its melancholy, brooding ways that contrast so markedly with the exuberant tropical landscape. It lies in a self-image of 'the lone traveller bearing the weight of his shattered dreams and the wasted springtime of his life'. I am loath to lose this ethos.

    This ethos, of the palm-fringed Arabian sea-coast, of lazy cargo barges floating down the quiet backwaters, of the heights of the Western Ghats, of pilgrimage to Sabarimala, all this to me is only fully expressible in Malayalam, the native tongue that has evolved alongside the culture.

    This is also the reason most South Indians are not very keen on seceding from the Hindi-dominated North. While we might make occasional noises about it, the Malayalis, the Kannadigas and the Telugus are aware that if were to create an independent nation, we would merely be exchanging the tyranny of Hindi for the tyranny of Tamil: for Tamils are noticeably chauvinistic about their language, whatever its real merits.

    And that brings me to the final use of language, as a mask of conquest. Those whose cultures are under threat view the proposed pan-regional language as that of a ruthless conqueror. This was the status of Russian in the Soviet Union; despite 70 or so years of attempted eradication of the local tongues, they have not disappeared, by any means. They were also vehicles of ethnic nationalism.

    In the same manner, those who would impose Hindi on the rest of us in India run the risk of creating simmering resentment. For, Hindi really does not meet any of the characteristics I laid out above:

  • It is not a useful link language with anybody other than Nepal and Pakistan; in India, at least half the population doesn't know Hindi as its primary language.
  • It has a rather poor literature; maybe it is my ignorance, but all I can think of are Premchand, Kabir and Tulsidas.
  • It has no particular liturgical importance, or in any case, any more than the Bhakti tradition that evolved earlier in Tamil, Bengali etc.
  • It belongs to a narrow culture, that of the Gangetic Plain; and this is not exactly the most appealing culture in India, as it is largely the BIMARU (Bihar-MP-Rajasthan-UP) culture, that of the severely underdeveloped; and in any case Urdu could lay a large claim to this culture.

    If one were to have to learn some foreign language (and indeed for those in the South, Hindi is largely a foreign language, with a different script and an alien vocabulary) then we might as well focus on English, because then we would be able to communicate with the world at large. In fact, this is precisely what South Indians have chosen to do, while suffering through the imposed Hindi that is forced down our unwilling throats in high school.

    Language as a mask of conquest -- II

    Rajeev Srinivasan

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