(downloaded Dec. 2002)
October 17, 2001

"The day Hindi died"

[back to *Part 1*]

In Part 2, Palash Krishna Mehrotra joins Alok Rai and Shahid Amin for a wide-ranging debate about Hindi as taught in India's schools, as used by our writers…and our airhostesses. Also raised and addressed are the questions: Why was the process of Sanskritizing different for different languages? When Hindi intellectuals do start doing history and sociology in Hindi, would they find themselves in alliance with their colleagues in the Hindi departments or engaged in a struggle against them? Rai also points out that the old name of Nagari (the script in which Hindi is written) was in fact Babhani - the script of the Brahmans. The initial battle for an 'Indian' script for Hindustani was between Kaithi and Babhani. And Babhani won. As he argues, "What I am trying to counter is the Babhani takeover of the politics of the Hindi belt. It's obviously not possible to wind the clock back and go back to Kaithi, but you can go forward with this history, by recognizing what happened, and understanding the politics which went into the making of this dominant script."

Alok: The claim I have heard made often enough is that now is not the time to create divisions in the ranks. Once 'Hindi' is established, then we can go into this history of contention and fight the legitimate claims of this or that constituent of it.

Shahid: Of course, a kind of way of doing Hindi which is not high Hindi can't be a constituent of 'Hindi'. That will spoil the whole idea of what we will decide later on.

Alok: Well, this is the kind of fudging that goes on...

Shahid: I can also say that look Hindi is victorious; I will never be able to write in Urdu because, even if I do, the audience in Urdu will not be very large. So I shall write Hindi in ways you might not like: "Well, this is not what Hindi is" and I'll say that be prepared for this because this is the Indian nation-state encouraging diversity.

Alok: But that encouragement of diversity is within invisible and often unstated limits but those limits are very much there, and in fact so long as the Braj, Avadhi, Maithili or Bhojpuri is content to acknowledge the constitutional superiority of Manak Hindi, there is no problem. But the day it makes a claim for its own traditions, Hindi becomes endangered.

Palash: Could you explain that a bit?

Alok: The entire politics that went into the claim for including Maithili in the list of languages in which the Sahitya Academi gives awards is a good example. Hindiwallahs were extremely perturbed because the fiction had been maintained for the last several decades that Maithili was just a dialect of Hindi. The moment this history of how the dialects came to be subsumed under Manak Hindi was revealed, all that history of contention spilled out into the open. And it's not a history they wanted coming out, which is why they kept it so closely under wraps.

Palash: How successful have Hindiwallahs been in trying to impose boundaries as to what a language should be? Do Hindi writers feel this burden as well? Enough authors have chosen to write in a more colloquial Hindi. If crucial markers of civilization like literature haven't been harmed, then how deep is the damage caused by "Hindi"?

Alok: It's difficult to say. The question is a good one in the sense there is both success and a failure. I think you are perfectly right to say that the imposition of this Manak Hindi has been far from completely successful. As a matter of fact this is acknowledged in my book. The violence done by Manak Hindi on the people's Hindi has not been successful as Hindiwallahs themselves are wont to suggest in their poetic and emphatic moods: you can actually never stamp out the grass. It persists
in little corners; it springs back to life. This is something that is obviously there, that literary people have not accepted the dominion of this Manak Hindi which is, as it were, devoid of emotions and sterile.

On the other hand, this has occupied the high ground in our educational apparatus. It has therefore distorted at a very general level people's sense of themselves, their language and their history . Therefore, even though a Hindi writer, in exercising his creativity, is free to neglect the domination of "Hindi", the audience that he writes for is still subject to the dominion of Manak Hindi which comes to them with all the weight of the educational apparatus. So I, not for a moment, suggest that everybody who writes Hindi writes this kind of Manak Hindi.

Palash: There's been this criticism of the subaltern set: isn't it absurd people's history is not being written in Hindi?

Shahid: I read somewhere about a circular with some banks in Chennai: if it is Tuesday then you have to use Hindi. There is this claim made for Hindi being the natural language of representation of at least North Indian reality. The problem is that over the last fifty years the newer ways of understanding our society, the concepts, the narratives, haven't really originated in Hindi. Whether it's 'Sanskritization', or 'subaltern', or 'dominant caste', or 'vote-bank', 'minority appeasement' etc, they all emerge out of an effort by academics to engage with Indian reality. And this engagement hasn't taken place in Hindi. Because of that, they have a particularly interesting or difficult problem. When people like me try, after a very long period of time, to write history in Hindi, there seems to be no reference point. I have to really craft a language of history which is written in Hindi. It's not that having written history in English, now, when I start doing it in Hindi there are these readymade models waiting for me. I must now try and come back as the prodigal son. If more and more people who come from the Hindi belt start doing social science or history in Hindi, we'll have a very interesting conflict, perhaps between those who are trying to develop disciplines in Hindi, and those who use Hindi as a disciplinary tool itself.

Alok: It might be interesting to ask how much intellectual energy there is within the Hindi departments as opposed to the Hindi belt. And when Hindi intellectuals do start doing history and sociology in Hindi, would they find themselves in alliance with their colleagues in the Hindi departments or engaged in a struggle against them? To my mind there is so much hypocrisy and violence written into this official Hindi, the language is unable - till it sheds this baggage - to actually free itself to ask these important questions. I think that is the reason why important questions are - despite the fact of the enormous numbers and the enormous political energy in the area - not being raised in a serious academic form.

Take a Hindiwallah who insists on his right to use Hindi. Once I was at a film symposium and there were people from both North and South India. The language they were speaking was a kind of mix of Hindi and English. And we were rubbing along with some understanding and some loss. Then one of the local Hindi patrakars stood up and began to make a speech about how his rights were being denied and so on. He wanted to speak in Hindi and his entire expectation was that he would be denied that right; he would be told: you can't because there are people present from elsewhere. As it happened, I was chairing that session and I said: please speak in Hindi. He had nothing to say and kept quiet after that. All he wished to do was to insist on his right to speak in Hindi. So there is a further problem of what you are going to say in the language once it is granted to you. That problem has not been addressed simply because the Hindiwallah has invented an enemy who holds him back. He is always shadow-fighting with this guy who has denied him the right to speak.

Shahid: Alok, who are you addressing in this book? Are you trying to wean the Hindiwallah back to some kind of a position where a more intelligible dialogue can take place? Presumably the Hindiwallah is going to say: I don't read English. Or are you saying that - since this is part of the 'Tracts for the Times' series - what is feared today is Hindi nationalism running amok as it were.

Alok: Thank-you. I think that is really the crux of it. I am addressing the Hindiwallah because I think that the political situation in which all of us - Hindiwallah, Englishwallah everything elsewallah are stuck has something to do with the fact that the democratic impulse of the Hindi belt is being constantly perverted. To me it is profoundly important to liberate those democratic energies of the Hindi belt and I believe that can only be done through Hindi. No matter how liberal, enlightened and progressive people like us who use English are, as a matter of fact it will always be possible to paint us into an elitist corner. It is only the Hindiwallah who can release those energies but the Hindiwallah cannot do it so long as he carrying this historical baggage. As far as I am concerned, my real audience is the Hindiwallah. Even though I have written in English, I would still be addressing the Hindiwallah.

Shahid: This reminds me of that famous dialogue of Gabbar Singh in Sholay where he says: Gabbar se tumhe sirf ek admi bacha sakta hai, aur vo Gabbar khud hai . So are you saying that only Hindiwallahs can save us from the other Hindiwallahs?

Alok: Absolutely, that is it. And that is why I think the question of Hindi is so important. That even though in some sense it is certainly possible for metropolitan elites to pretend that Hindi is a non-issue, that it's over, that in the age of globalisation who needs Hindi any more? For me it is a profoundly important political question because those energies, which a certain kind of Hindi can misrepresent and pervert, and a certain kind of people's Hindi I believe represents, will continue to be important in the political space. I think it is important it be addressed because I think what we are suffering from is a perversion…
Palash: What makes it possible for the latter Hindi to masquerade as the bearer of and representative of the energies which the earlier Hindi represents?

Alok: Basically, in the transformation of Hindi from Bhartendu to 1930s and 40s with the emergence of Rajbhasha Hindi, something happens to Hindi. And this latter Hindi, not Bhartendu's Hindi, the one that emerges in the 30s and 40s, basically schooli Hindi becomes the vehicle of a certain kind of identity. This was so because of the continuity of the names Hindi and "Hindi" which I have tried to address in my writing by wrapping the latter thing in quotation marks. Because of the superficial similarity and continuity in names it was possible to for the latter Hindi to masquerade as the bearer of and representative of the energies which the earlier Hindi represents. When Gandhi came and talked about Hindi becoming the language of the national movement, he was speaking about one kind of Hindi. When Tandon in 1945 says: I am sorry, I cannot stop you from leaving the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan - something has happened to Hindi. There is another Hindi that has taken its place. Something has changed in the nature of Hindi. And, in effect, this is when the exclusivist interpretation of Hindi starts - a fact masked very well because the same name is used to describe the language at two ends of this historical continuum.

Shahid: What you are saying in your book is an important political question: how is Hindi taught in schools? That's where a particular way of knowing the language or not knowing the language is…

Alok: Is instilled into the minds of generations and it isn't only language which is instilled. Instilled is a version of history, a cultural agenda, its worldviews, the outlines of possible futures. Hindi becomes the code for a kind of politics and that is why the Hindi issue is important even though the gifted people, creative people, literary people will always be free. Meanwhile the perversion of young minds continues unabated.

Palash: We used to get marks cut for using Urdu words in an ICSE school. More than that I studied Nirmal Verma in English translation.

Shahid: One can look at this from another interesting angle- in a 'good' private school the Hindi teacher is an outsider. She or he comes only to teach Hindi and not anything else, while the geography teacher might be doubling as something else. Similarly, an English teacher is not just an English teacher. There is a way in which there is something coming from the outside, which belongs to us, which has not been fully accommodated and yet represents the large masses from who everyone is alienated. When the masses speak Hindi everybody runs away. The way Hindi is taught and approached in middle school is a very complex situation given "globalisation" and so on, than it was when we were studying. The pressure to like English was less, but then although Hindi was a bit on the outside, it was also on the inside to some extent.

Now, your average smart middleclass Delhi school-going child (not government school going) would be less competent in Hindi today than she would be even ten years ago. And yet the agenda of Hindi in school hasn't actually addressed this change in the situation and stubbornly remains the same.

Alok: I think what is going to happen, and this is speculative really, is that a change in the external situation of Hindi will be masked by the fact that there was an earlier paranoia and this is only going to be deepened by the current paranoia. The earlier paranoia was that Hindi was being held back by its enemies. Hindi's history is a history of how it has been denied its rightful status by Urdu, English etc. And now, the world itself seems to have turned against Hindi. Therefore the actual change in the situation, and the kind of responses that we might require as a nation, is something that the Hindiwallahs will not be equipped to understand, simply because to them it will be part of a long history of denial. I find it significant that all the international channels that have come into this country have actually started addressing the Hindi audience very directly and the language they are using is completely different from Manak Hindi.

Palash: You call the language of Zee 'grotesque Hindi'.

Alok: But to their credit, all of them are making an attempt to get away from the historical baggage and actually begin to speak to the people. It will be a tragedy if it is only the multinational television agency which is going to speak to the people…

Shahid: Whereas the airline hostesses don't speak in this Hindi, they speak in Manak Hindi.

Palash: And this is even if you are not flying Indian Airlines…

Shahid: Anyone who speaks Hindi over 30,000 feet speaks in a very peculiar way. And there is something happening there, why must such…

Palash: Rarified hindi…

Shahid: How can rarified Hindi be so stultified?

Alok: I'll tell you why it's stultified. Because of its sources of sustenance. It's an attempt to sound like Sanskrit. That is the tragedy of it. They are trying to make good on the claim of being the jeshtha putri of Sanskrit which is a linguistically fraudulent claim.

Palash: The gap between the grammars of the two languages is enormous…

Alok: On the other hand, in order to make good on the claim the language needs to go through all kinds of contortions to sound like Sanskrit. Obviously, while going through those contortions all life gets squeezed out of it and you get this absurd kind of sound which you hear with particular clarity at 30000 feet, but which you hear no doubt on the ground a well.

Palash: Which brings us to the fact that a lot of other languages have also gone through this process of Sanskritizing and then there has been a challenge from within the language. That hasn't happened with Hindi? Is it because we have the largest number of illiterate population in the Hindi belt. So those in control haven't really been challenged.

Alok: I don't know how the demography of it works, but clearly the Sanskritizing phase in various languages, whether you speak of Bangla or Marathi, has happened in very different cultural and demographic contexts. So that the Sanskritizing of Bangla by the land owning Bhadralok was a different process from the way in which Hindi was Sanskritized by the upwardly mobile, newly educated intelligentsia of the Hindi belt. And obviously the latter process was bound to be contentious in a way the process in Bengal was not.

Shahid: I just wanted to point out that the word for illicit sexual relationship in rustic Bengali, as also used by Nazar ul Islam, the great Bengali poet, is aashnai. I would bet my last silver Hindi rupee that it would never be used in Hindi. So that there is a way in which in Bangla you are able to get away with both a Sanskritik or even a Persianised spin with a certain panache that is historically just not possible with Hindi.

I think the significance of Alok's book that it gives a very readable and complex view of something as natural as a mother tongue, a nationalist mother tongue. There is no space left after the two. And I wonder whether the feeling that Hindi has no history is analogous to the kind of journalistic nonsense that we hear that Hindus have no sense of History. These irresponsible statements are made by the same person.

Alok: For me the only underlying truth about those statements is that they are attempts to deny the history there is. It's a kind of wilful amnesia. And to me the interesting point is what motivates this desire to forget? What are we trying to repress? And on the psychoanalytical metaphor which I use in the book: that the path to health lies through confronting that what you are trying to repress. All this hurt and social anxiety are comprehensible but must be faced. And to pretend that it didn't happen and to subsume all of it in the myths of antiquity of ancient origins only deepens the problem. The problem doesn't go away.

Palash: You keep saying we need to understand Hindi's history. Two key points struck me about this history: Kaithi and Khatri's alternative.

Alok: Kaithi is not a language but a script. And the interesting question really is: what happens to Kaithi? Today obviously Kaithi is a non-starter

Palash: Its importance lay in that it was an alternative script to Nagari.

Alok: And it was a very real alternative, there were in fact more schools using Kaithi than there were using Nagari. How is it that a particular minority variant of the script actually prevails? In my account I relate it to a kind of caste politics of the Hindi belt. And I was rather pleased to discover that Badrinarain Upadhyaya (author of Premghan) declared in one of the Sahitya Sammelans that the old name of Nagari was in fact Babhani - the script of the Brahmans. So the conflict was between Kaithi and Babhani. And Babhani won. What I am trying to counter is the Babhani takeover of the politics of the Hindi belt. It's obviously not possible to wind the clock back and go back to Kaithi, but you can go forward with this history, by recognizing what happened, and understanding the politics which went into the making of this dominant script.

Palash: Khatri too had his alternative which was also very moderate for the time…

Alok: Khatri was making a claim for Khari Boli. It's a very specific kind of politics because it was actually about the language of poetry and the language of prose. Khatri was making the claim that whereas Khari Boli was universally used as a language of prose, Khari Boli should actually be used as a language of poetry. So in favour of Khari Boli, he made the claim that unlike Braj this was actually close to the language of all the people. It was something that would be written both in the Urdu script and the Nagari script, and therefore it would be suitable. Khatri completely missed the point that the whole impulse of the script movement was precisely to create a demand, which would be acceptable to only a few people. The script demand was of its essence, of its intrinsic and necessary nature, a divisive demand; it was a demand for a claim against some people, so this demand for a Khari Boli was a non-starter, even though ten years later all of it was accepted but in these ten years Khari Boli itself has been transformed. As it was a new Sanskritized variant -"Hindi" emerged.

-- back to H/U history resources -- FWP's main page --