More than 43 years ago, in 1977, then-external affairs minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent his poem for publication to the Hindi weekly Saptahik Hindustan. When it did not find space in it, he wrote a letter to its editor Manohar Shyam Joshi, who was yet to write his path-breaking novels but had already become a leading journalist.
“Dear Mr Editor, I had dispatched a poem to you a few days ago. I don’t know if you received it. Kindly publish it if you find it interesting, or else, throw it in the bin,” Vajpayee wrote to a journalist who was a decade younger to him.
Through the prism of his letter, and Joshi’s subsequent reply, one can see the fall of Hindi from the authority it had commanded not long ago. It is now inconceivable that any Union minister would humbly send his poems to a Hindi publication only to find them unpublished for long.
Since the late 1980s, Hindi has considerably ceded its intellectual and social status, I wrote in a recent article, that eventually caused the first defeat of secularism in the Hindi heartland. Before English media began blatantly supporting the Hindutva forces, major Hindi publications had already caved in.
And yet, the importance of Hindi in building a vibrant national discourse and safeguarding constitutional values cannot be underlined enough. Admittedly, it is just one of the many Indian languages, but it is too geographically vast, culturally diverse, commercially viable and electorally dominant to be ignored.
Effectively, the new freedom movement being talked about now will not arrive without a massive transformation of Hindi media and publication sphere. The Hindi belt is formidable enough to pull down whatever resistance other states put up. Hate the language if you wish, but if the collapse began in its zone, the resurrection cannot but arrive from the Ganga-Yamuna doab — an endeavour that requires strong financial and intellectual investment from various spheres.
A language of knowledge
A few years after the 1904-05 Japanese-Russian war, which devastated Russia, American literary critic William Lyon Phelps wrote an extraordinary essay, Russian National Character as Shown in Russian Fiction. Noting that the war had “left Russia in a profoundly humiliating situation,” he wrote: “If the greatness of a nation consisted in the number and size of its battleships, in the capacity of its fighting men, or in its financial prosperity, Russia would be an object of pity.”
“But,” Phelps continued, “the real greatness of a nation consists in none of these things, but rather in its intellectual splendour, in the number and importance of the ideas it gives to the world, in its contributions to literature and art, and to all things that count in humanity’s intellectual advance. When we Americans swell with pride over our industrial prosperity, we might profitably reflect for a moment on the comparative value of America’s and Russia’s contributions to literature and music.”
Many votaries of Hindi today boast that during the last three decades, Hindi has become the dominant language of a flourishing market of over 500 million people, as evidenced in the sales of newspapers and bestsellers in what is now termed as “new Hindi”.
However, it is solely reflective of the vast geography and population it covers, and has no link with its literary or intellectual clout or output. The language of the market is different from that of creativity and knowledge. The respect a language enjoys is a function of the knowledge it produces, not of its economic growth.
The first investment is required in the media sector. One must discount the media houses that collude with the government but a greater duty now rests with the English ones that also have a Hindi wing, apparently to tap its vast market. Instead of making their Hindi publications and news portals a poor translation of the flagship English counterpart, editors must invest in original reporting and writing. The Hindi market is too vast to be surrendered to easy translations. A translated product may not even yield the desired commerce. Investment in Hindi is both good business as well as resistance politics.
Hindi media sphere cannot be left at the mercy of Dainik Jagran and Aaj Tak. The readers and viewers of Hindi need a formidable alternative in their own language; they do not want the English media houses to treat Hindi as a translated venture hub.
Building a scholarly base
The Hindi publishing industry also needs an urgent overhaul. The dearth of quality work on social sciences is a perpetual lament in the Hindi sphere. The hidden fact is that the first language of some 528 million people (2011 Census) doesn’t have a single peer-review journal. In no publishing house, a board of editors rigorously read and approve the manuscripts. The manuscripts are sent to the press after a few occasional comments by a friendly editor and a routine proofread.
I have published a book in English and two in Hindi. I received absolutely zero editorial interventions for the Hindi manuscripts; these were published verbatim. Whereas the English manuscript was marked with significant queries and suggestions by the publisher that helped me improve the text.
This, of course, is no comment on the talent in Hindi. The work culture, sadly, lacks the requisite rigour and professionalism, which is also reflected in poor salaries in media and missing royalties in publishing — ironically, these publications boast far greater sales than the English ones.
The rise of English, be in media or publishing, is aided by professionalism and heavy investment in quality. Few writers and journalists are born genius; most are carefully groomed by editors and peers over the years.
The grooming an English journalist or a writer receives from veterans is absolutely unmatched in today’s Hindi world. Haruki Murakami wrote in his novel 1Q84: “One of an editor’s greatest joys is nurturing a young writer over time. It’s a thrill to look at the clear night sky and discover a new star before anybody else sees it.”
I am not sure how many Hindi editors have had this moment of joy in the last three decades. The Hindi zone is teeming with ideas, its publishing houses badly need legendary editors like Ravi Dayal, Rukun Advani and Salima Tyabji to whom veteran writers like Ashis Nandy, Ramachandra Guha and Amitav Ghosh never tire of expressing their gratitude for lifting their manuscripts several notches above the bar.
Quality books and newspapers in a language enrich its readers and, eventually, the society in deeper and profound ways. Whereas, mediocre books gradually destroy the ability of the people to think and live critically. The absence of good books and journals leads to a servile society. Given the blind adherence of the Hindi society towards the Sangh Parivar, one wonders whether the turn Hindi media and publishing have taken in the last few decades is deliberate, part of a larger strategy.
I have recently floated an idea in the Hindi circle that since the publishers may not change their operations soon, a bunch of writers-journalists-scholars may form an informal and voluntary group that reads and prunes manuscripts, as well as commissions quality writings on various issues before these texts are sent to publishers.
Hindi versus English
Hindi also needs to get rid of its resentment towards English, a tendency that has intensified in the recent decades following high asymmetry between job opportunities and salaries in the two languages. Besides consuming a considerable energy of Hindi speakers, the resentment fuels the Hindutva’s flawed contention of ‘the revenge of the subaltern’ against the elite English. One must oppose the English’s arrogance, but to term it a “language of slavery” insults all those Indians who have worked in the language and enhanced the understanding of this nation.
The cause of this resentment perhaps lies elsewhere. Speaking to me, veteran poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi, with a touch of melancholy and regret, once described the contemporary Hindi literary-scholarly sphere as “a reign of mediocrity”.
This mediocrity, together with an inferiority complex vis-a-vis English, has stifled the language’s soul in the last few decades. It cannot be cured by social media activism or publishing cheesy bestsellers, but only through an urgent introspection and course correction.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.