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Translate ‘Gaay hamari mata hai’. That’s the secularism gap between English, Indian languages

The English intellectual can't ignore Indian languages anymore or will end up legitimising the flawed Hindutva argument about the revenge of the subaltern.

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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?


Also read: Don’t blame only English elite. Indian secularism failed in Hindi heartland first


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.


Also read: Secularism gave up language of religion. Ayodhya bhoomi pujan is a result of that


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.”


Also read: A new freedom struggle for India must be based on a new nationalism. No short-cuts will do


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.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. Biased article! Author is still living in the Colonial era. Today more and more Indians are realising importance of preservation of their languages/culture which were systematically ridiculed and destroyed. Go and try to teach the importance of English to Germans/Japanese/Chinese/Russians/Italians/French. You don’t understand your own culture equate secularism with language and not respecting diversity. The flawed thinking that English= Intellect is doing much harm to our country. These bigot’s don’t realise that even a beggar talks in English in their UK/US country.
    Moreover, you give much importance to a language which has its many words derived from Sanskrit and Hindi.
    Comparing soulless language such as English where, aunt and uncle aren’t differentiated shows that mind if the author and the language itself is too narrow.
    Learn to respect your culture, we respect cows and you ought to respect the sentiments of the people in country. You people regard the superstition of the Vatican/ demon/devil/church as respectful but disrespect yours own, shameful. You can’t have antichrist or anti prophet views in developed and Muslim countries. Just because India is a tolerant/secular country which gives you freedom of speech at a much grander level you people dare to spew poisonous views, hurt sentiments. Most people of these type of views in their constant pursuit of westernisation adapt their bad things mostly instead of good things, blindly follow something which has always been better in own home in order to please God knows who. Try to understand your culture and it’s emotional depth unless you have a propaganda like Greta toolkit.

  2. Writer is a dishonest fake,wanna be Marxist,Gandhian,nehruvian . Any school goers here who were asked to write an essay on the cow. And if at all as a 5-15 year old, will you say gaay hamara maata hai. His fake intellectual pretensive core is repulsive to say the least.

  3. Dear friends, let us not split hair. Every language is to be cherished and spoken as per your choice. Many people cannot read and write in their mother tongue. Parents want their children to study English, speak English and feel proud when their children do so. Let’s face it, English makes things easy in today’s world. So what if its foreign language. If we can wear jeans, tshirts etc why not English. Technology, medicine and IT need English.

  4. Fundamental premise that English gives you intellect is flawed.

    This article is an example with lot of jibber jabber and nothing concrete.

    Two words which stood out in this was secularism and gaay and I couldn’t resist giving my 2 cents.

    Author needs to do a quick check on word secularism. It does not mean equality of religion. It means state is out of religious institutions literally. And this proves the point English does not give you intellect.

    Gaay status cannot be understood with this ‘English intellect’

    Since human learned farming and settled on plains, gaay has been a constant companion in our evolution till now. Gaay’s association with Kanha gives it divine status in our culture.

    So no I am not ashamed of saying cow is our mother or gaay humari mata hain.

  5. The article seems to be unapologetic about the Hindu cow sentiments no matter the author tries to make a distiction between its Gandhian origin as opposed to that of Sanghi hate machine. The claims of secularism notwithstanding , the connection sought to be made with the so called arrogance as one tries to objectively explore/ translate the gau/ ‘gau sentiment’ to Indian English is far fetched and looks to be in bad taste !

  6. Hey man, you say you hate cow politics. That’s the problem. You hate people who consider cow as mother. Just learn to love cow without politics okay.

  7. In our schools, we started the Gaay essay as ‘Gaay ek paalthu jaanvar hai’. This translates perfectly into english without inviting ridicule nor losing it’s meaning. Unfortunately ‘Gaay hamari maata hai’ was drilled into your head. It is not wrong . It is the belief of a large group of people in India. And with a slight ‘majority is right’ belief, you believed it was true. Then when you were introduced to a world outside India through english, through your travels or your friends, suddenly you realised that from the perspective of the whole world, the majority does not believe that ‘gaay maata hai’. That clash in beliefs need to be addressed in your self. Also, the bane of democracy where we believe that ‘majority is right’. Majority is not right. A whole group of people can together take the stupidest decisions. Usually it is the lone dissenting voice that could have more reason.
    More than the inability to translate ideas or emotions, it is more our emotional insecurity and fear of ridicule that prevents us from translating properly. After all, english is the native language of some part of the world and people there do use it to express their ideas and emotions.

    • The cow example of you taken depends on “Majority is Right” just because more people in world don’t consider cow as sacred animal you are suggesting we should change our belief isn’t it? Of course english is native in some places, but we are not native of these places. Basically by just adopting the language we cannot also adopt the culture.

  8. The real tragedy is that we have become a country of people who have no mastery over any language. We may claim that we have the largest English speaking population but how many of us can actually claim command over it?
    On the other hand entire cultures die when a language dies. In fact demeaning the local language has been the key weapon in the hands of colonial forces in India for the last thousand years. It is exceptionally effective – in the first half of the millennium (well into the second half actually), it was Farsi, Turkish or whatever the occupying forces thought was intellectual enough. Since then it has been English. Of course we should learn to speak in English but then the emphasis should be on learning it properly, however as a second language to your mother tongue – not a mish mash of words (just listen to any “Bollywood” interview) which bear no resemblance to what you will hear from a learned one or read in a book. And yes, it is okay jot to know English as long as you are articulate in one of the Indian languages – preferably your mother tongue.

      • In the English language paradigm, Mother Tongue and Mother’s Tongue both mean the same. What you say is a dialectical difference. Such dialects are there in all languages all across the world. Even English within the English speaking areas has it’s own dialects. In days of yore, the English spoken in East End of London was distinctly different from that spoken in the South End of London. And in India, our dialects change almost every 100 kms or so. Just than the Hindi dialects have been highlighted as distinct languages, as though they are some unique feature of the Hindi language. Just like one who speaks Bhojpuri may not understand the Hindi spoken in Western UP, one who speaks the Kannada of the old Mysore region may not understand the Kannada spoken around Hubli/Dharwad. I can give you similar examples in Bengal and Maharashtra too. But they are not distinct languages, they are just dialects.

        • Just for info- Bhojpuri is linguistically closer to Bengali than Hindi…hence Bhojpuri can’t be considered to be a dialect of Hindi.

  9. Text book understanding of subject will never help English writers.
    Enlightenment in nation should come from everywhere and it is continuing process

    But we indians abhor the word secularism.

    Fyouck your secularism.

  10. Gaay hamari mata hai’. The correct translation of this is that “ Cow is our mother”. This is because that is what is the real meaning of this sentence, no matter which language you choose to translate this in. We are not referring to The cow as a domestic animal, rather treating it with all the respect and love which we would give our mother. It is the arrogance and perhaps deliberate illiteracy of the author and his kind that he refuses to acknowledge our culture, our ethos, our heritage, our religion and perhaps also feels ashamed to do so. After all we don’t refer to other domestic animals as our brother, sister, father and mother. This special privilege is only for cow.
    This deliberate and stupid mistake has also been made when “translating” our religious and texts in English and other languages because authors use the coloured lense of their own cultures to translate the books. But what is really unfortunate is when our brother Bharatiya do this like this’d author of this article
    To sum up, दो शब्द अंग्रेसी के क्या बोल लिए, के तुम अपने आप को फंने खान समझ बैठें

    • फंने खान अंगरेज़ी भला क्यों बोलेगा?सभी भाषाओं का सम्मान करें

  11. Arguments put forth by the writer are valid but do not address the issue adequately. Secularism has nothing to do with English or Indian languages – it is more to do with deep, basic attitudes of people to tolerate differences in inward thinking and outward appearances. Can I truly tolerate, respect and try to empathise with somebody who is dissimilar to me in religion, skin colour or mother-tongue all the time? The answer to that (if you are true to yourself) is NO for most Indians. It may be a ‘qualified yes’ to most of the remaining Indians – provided they think like me, vote like me, speak like me, are from my caste or my state, so on and so forth. True separation of personal beliefs from state affairs is not possible in current India.

    The only real solution to keep the idea of India going is to keep India from devolving into this religion vs that or this language vs that and we have a principle for that which all Indians recognize irrespective of language and that is LIVE AND LET LIVE. Do not unnecessarily impose your thoughts and your beliefs on others – coercive behavior may seem attractive but will always birth resentments. Better option is to make something more attractive so that people will flock to it nevertheless – like make regional language schools attractive in fees, curriculum, ease of learning etc. so that parents will willingly admit their children to such schools. Indian state will never be truly secular because Indian people are not secular – but Indian people are tolerant and that should be encouraged so that we focus on improving ourselves rather than fighting with one another perpetually.

  12. Yes, it’s true the language has become an invisible divider of intellect in India. As intellectualism spread from high class with English education to masses with vernacular background the inevitable divide happened. This also given raise to separatist tendencies. Take Tamil Nadu for example, there are many eloquent political commentators and authors in TN, who have only mastery of Tamil, hence have no reach to knowledge beyond Tamil. The raising anti-brahminism also played a part in shrinking quality translations. The parallel growth of Tamil intellectualism automatically gyrate towards separatist tendencies.

  13. Fully agree with the writer…..It is time…. else the englishers loose their heft in the society at large and politics in particular….

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