In a multilingual nation, every language is expected to initiate a discourse that nourishes secularism and confronts subversive tendencies, I had recently written. The English-speaking community alone cannot be held responsible for the crisis Indian secularism is in. However, English faces other, though not unrelated, questions. Given that English is the language of administration and higher education, its practitioners believe themselves, and are often taken, to be the thought leaders of India. Whether they actually are or not is immaterial but the belief is shared by many people in eminent positions at various public and private institutions, and hence plays an important role in shaping the national discourse.
It is important to ask then: has English been able to provide intellectual leadership, particularly in forging the nature of secularism, that India needs to adopt in the changing political climate? Is there any fundamental rift, perhaps a trust deficit, between the speakers of English and other Indian languages? Are there certain inherent constraints on Indian English writers that lend an inescapable element of melancholy to their vocation, despite their utmost commitment to the word?
English and the Indian memory
The written literature of this land dates back to around 3,000 years. Many languages and dialects, several of which form a close bond, have written and narrated this nation over the millennia. In contrast, the Indian memory of English stands at just around 200 years.
English has significantly contributed to the understanding of India since then, and is now rightfully an Indian language. While the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution still doesn’t list it among the official languages of the Republic, Sahitya Akademi had added English to its awardee languages as early as in 1960 (with R.K. Narayan’s novel The Guide becoming the first winner). The Jnanpith also embraced the language when Amitav Ghosh became the first English writer to be awarded the prestigious award in 2018.
However, since English doesn’t share the syntax or idiom with Indian languages and has mostly avoided an intertextual conversation with these languages, several English writings carry the possibility of becoming an inadequate translation of a native experience.
As early as in 1938, novelist Raja Rao expressed the melancholic dilemma of an Indian English writer in the foreword to his novel Kanthapura, saying that English is “the language of our intellectual make-up”, “but not of our emotional make-up”. “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language,” he wrote.
These words still hold some truth. Politicians deliver speeches, communicate with people in Hindi, Bangla, or Tamil, only to be translated by the English journalist. The original is often retained in parenthesis because the translation doesn’t match the speech.
Consider an instance relevant to the ongoing discourse on secularism.
Students of primary classes in the Hindi belt are often asked to write short essays on various topics. One such topic is the cow. The first sentence of the Hindi essay is mostly this: ‘Gaay hamari mata hai (the cow is my mother).’ The same student writes in English: ‘The cow is a domestic animal.’
My childhood schools of Uttar Pradesh are well behind me now. I have lived in several metropolises, have had some exposure to world literature and cinema, and fiercely oppose cow politics. But I still cannot write in Hindi that ‘gaay ek paaltu pashu hai (the cow is a domestic animal)’. Likewise, I cannot write in English that ‘the cow is my mother’. The myriad memories of gaiyya and gaiyya ki roti (the first chapati of the day in many Hindi-speaking north Indian households is kept for the cow) may not find an easy rendering into the English sensibility. The sentence gaay hamari mata hai may invite ridicule in many English gatherings.
English needs to get rid of this contempt for Indian languages, and accommodate their concerns, myths and little traditions. In its absence, the trust deficit between English and other languages widens, restricting the catchment area of English and enabling its ideological opponents in the Hindutva wing to hurl allegations at the language and its practitioners. The rift between English and the Indian cultural-mythical experience seems proportional to such allegations.
The anvil of multilingualism
Not long ago, multilingualism was an important aspect of the writerly vocation in India. A vibrant camaraderie was witnessed among practitioners of English and various other languages. The revered editor and literary critic Sham Lal wrote columns on Nirmal Verma; U.R. Ananthamurthy and Mahasweta Devi were national figures; the Nobel winner Mexican ambassador Octavio Paz and Hindi writers Ajneya and Shrikant Verma sat together on a memorable evening in Delhi and jointly composed a poem.
Historian Ramachandra Guha in an essay recalls his friendship with the multilingual scholar Sujit Mukherjee, among whose close friends were the Hindi novelist Rajendra Yadav and the Oriya playwright J.P.Das. Guha, the youngest in the gathering by a couple of decades, spent long evenings with the elderly men who carried the sensibilities of three different languages — Bengali, Hindi and Oriya. And these were just some of Guha’s associations with practitioners of various languages, including his friendships with the Kannada legends Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnad. I often like to believe that though Guha works only in English, his engagements with a range of Indian giants have gone a long way in making him among the most authentic and compassionate chroniclers of contemporary India.
Let me share another, perhaps the richest, instance of a conversation among English and other Indian languages. M.K. Gandhi’s autobiography, originally written in Gujarati and immediately rendered into English by Mahadev Desai, has been translated in almost all Indian languages, several in more than one translations, making it perhaps the most translated work in India in the last hundred years.
Reading Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s wonderful paper on these translations, Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of Translators’ Experiments with the Text, he had delivered in 2008 at Jadavpur University when he was the Governor of West Bengal, I learnt with delight about the creative liberty writers of various languages, including Desai, have taken to translate the Mahatma. Each text carries its own merit; there are as many Gandhi autobiographies as there are languages. Gandhi, it then occurred to me, like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, can be read like a national epic, a mahakavya, written and narrated by Indians over several generations — with Desai’s English version, to use Gopalkrishna’s words, being the “twin” of the Gujarati’s.
The profoundly erudite Gopalkrishna, by the way, has translated the ancient Tamil classic Tirukkuṛaḷ into English, as well as Vikram Seth’s mammoth novel A Suitable Boy into Hindi with a fantastic title, Koi Achha Sa Ladka, a rendering about which the great literary critic Harish Trivedi says, “The creative Hindi translation goes one better (than the original) by adding value.”
Language of the ‘new’ nation
Over the last three decades, such multilingual minds have increasingly become a rarity who deftly navigate with the sensibilities of various languages, for whom the nation is a text to be written and translated, multiple times over. Each text and every language a nation in itself, not just in theory or as platitudes but as a lived daily experience.
Being monolingual could be a serious disability for opinion leaders of a multilingual nation. It may restrict their vision, make them indifferent towards the cultural moorings of their compatriots and create a set of unavoidable others. A mind that works in more than one language is likely to find the seemingly invincible assertions of one language being easily contested and confronted by the other.
There are now calls for a new freedom struggle to forge a new model of secularism and nationalism. It is perhaps not possible without initiating dialogue across several provinces and languages, without English surrendering its arrogance and displaying humility about its limitations. India requires an intellectual leadership that turns introspective at the defining moment as Raja Rao did and accords Indian languages their rightful place in the discourse.
The secularism proposed by the English intellectual is likely to be partial and rigid if it continues to confine Indian languages to the kitchen or basement. This secularism may not always be in concord, may even be at variance, with the idea of secularism offered by Indian languages. Worse, it will then seem to legitimise the Hindutva argument about the revenge of the subaltern, a flawed argument but clothed in a vocabulary that makes it look logical to many.
The freedom movement was led by leaders from various zones, deeply rooted in their languages. The new model also needs to be fashioned on a multilingual anvil. An epic, jointly written by many, with a flexible form that harmonises the various conflicting claims.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.
This is the second in a series of articles on English and Hindi language and secularism debate. Read the first article here.