Our dance floors light up only when Bollywood songs play. But why? Bollywood melodies are Indian in their modulation. We respond to the words; we feel their emotion, more than we do for songs in English. An Englishman will not “get” Mitwa, no matter how often he listens to it. This is because words are loaded with meaning that is more than just definition; we invest them with an emotion. Other words are based on evolved concepts. What happens when we borrow such words from another language is that often we don’t really understand what they mean.
Read and right: Traditional learning is not enough in today’s world. Emilo Morematt / AP
Indians think secularism means inclusion. This is because we have no precise word for it in any Indian language. The word actually means distance from religion, but in no Indian language can distance from dharma be a good thing. The word does not exist because the concept is alien to us. Hindi uses binsampradayik, which means non-sectarian, and that’s why the meaning is lost to us. We have the strange phenomenon of parties with names such as Hyderabad’s Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (Group for the Unity of Muslims) and Kerala’s Indian Union Muslim League in the Lok Sabha calling themselves, and believing themselves to be, secular.
This inability to understand because of the limitations of our language and culture extends to concepts such as rights. When one points to the violence against Muslims in their state, Gujaratis will say, “but they started it first with Godhra”.
The Gujarati is not being evasive when he says this, nor is he being cruel. He is stating fact. He cannot understand why you cannot understand how “Muslims” could have “started it first” and then escaped punishment.
Gujaratis don’t have the vocabulary to internalize the horror of collective punishment, or the uniqueness of the individual. This is because identity comes from community in India, not from the individual. Unfortunately, though it’s India’s most urban state, English is not popular in Gujarat because it is not the language of success. Its merchants trade in Gujarati, which is a superb language of trade, given its rich and evolved vocabulary of Perso-Arabic (hawala, hundi, badla), which is used in all of India’s markets.
Gujaratis are pragmatic, but their language and culture do not accommodate individualism. Even their dances, Garba and Dandiya, are communal, another word which Indians do not understand clearly.
Seven years ago, the Editors Guild sent three of its members (I was one) to Gujarat to meet local editors and write a report on the role of media bias during the 2002 riots. What the team members heard made their hair stand on end.
Distance from English, from the European languages of reason, is always a bad thing for the developing world.
Isolationist states such as Iran and North Korea, defying the world at the cost of hurting their citizens, are more likely to have populations that don’t speak English. The danger to Pakistan comes mostly from its non-English culture, which wants the supremacy of religion. Urdu-medium Muslims are unhappy under secular law based on reason because the rule of reason is not utopian.
A study by Tariq Rahman, a professor of sociolinguistic history at Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam University, (www.tariqrahman.net) showed that Urdu-medium Pakistani students were almost twice as likely as English-medium students to favour discriminatory laws for Pakistan’s Hindus. Madrasa students were four times more likely.
Allama Iqbal knew the limitations of Indian languages. Iqbal spoke Arabic, German and Punjabi. He knew Sanskrit well enough to translate the Gayatri Mantra.
He wrote his poetry in Persian and in Urdu. But his great text of reform was written in English because you cannot communicate reform without its vocabulary. He wrote the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam in the 1920s as a series of lectures. The lectures comprise the world’s finest document on Islamic reform, and lie mostly unread. Muslims love the emotional Iqbal who wrote stirring songs of Muslims on horseback conquering the world. They are bored by the rational Iqbal who talks of reason—or they cannot access him because he’s talking in English.
But Iqbal could not have written his Reconstruction lectures in Urdu, or for that matter in Persian or in Arabic, even though all the Islamic terminology he used was Arabic. He was giving those words flexibility through English, something he could not do in Urdu.
We connect emotionally to our culture through our language. And that is important, because it is our culture and we should be able to feel it not just through words but also visuals and sound and movement. But we understand the world, its science, its intricacies and its wisdom, through the language of Europe. It is the language of our universal civilization; Europeans have only achieved it before the rest of us, and that is fine.
The best Indian writers are those who understand this and are truly bilingual. They talk about our culture with the Westerner’s method and vocabulary. That is why we like the English writing of men such as Gandhi, Tagore and Iqbal, because it is illuminating.
English monolinguals, those who do not read their mother tongue fluently, are also at a disadvantage. They cannot understand their own culture fully since they have limited access, though they can sniff its odour. And their penetration into the West is cosmetic because of the attached prophylactic of the pidgin English which most of us know. We don’t really understand the West. We can follow its rules when we migrate but we cannot build a society along its lines here, even a housing society, because it’s not yet in our nature. That civilization hasn’t really been penetrated, because a study of its classical roots, its harmony, is needed to actually internalize it.
And so we return to the Englishman who cannot really “get” Mitwa.
Can we in turn really understand the English songs we listen to, and the books we read, the way that the English do?
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
Write to Aakar at email@example.com