Watching a nasty and entirely uncalled-for spat between Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for forests and environment, over replying to questions in Parliament in Hindi, this writer felt deeply ashamed of what seasoned leaders from the Hindi belt may inadvertently be doing to Hindi. It was to Jairam Ramesh’s credit that he sportingly switched to Hindi. But he could just as easily have turned nasty (like Maneka Gandhi) and asserted his right to reply in English.
The periodic clashes between the self-appointed promoters of Hindi as India’s national language and those opposed to it have created ugly stereotypes and myths that are hard to debunk for lack of proper communication between opinion makers on both sides. The Hindi belt is a vast catchment area with dozens of little regional cultures and dialects nestling within it. Together they are constantly shaping and reshaping a language that, for 41% Indians in nearly a dozen northern states, is the sole medium of both intra-personal communication and formal teaching in state-run schools.
Hindi’s problem is that nearly everything known about it has filtered down to India’s non-Hindi-speaking middle classes through English and is known at second hand. For Indian scholars the primary sources for accessing the early history of the Hindi belt and the Hindi language, are the works of several European scholars and details handed down to posterity by the journals maintained by the British administrators, their munshis and babus.
But Hindi has come a long way since then. Most of its creative users —writers, journalists and their avid readers—emerge from the dark slums and inner lanes and by-lanes of post Independence small-town India. Apart from their families and workmates, they must fraternize occasionally with politicians and their henchmen, mafia dons and all the tragic flotsam of a politically stifled and intellectually volatile area. But this does not mean they support them. They do, however, try to light up their mostly unenviable lives with a colourful language by turning standard grammar and semantic rules upside down. They will also use popular English nouns as verbs or adverbs and create a whole new set of hybrids. The ultimate output of this new Hindi flooding our literature, media and Bollywood films is like multiple rivulets of melting lava gushing towards a vast plain, bubbling with steam and unseen inner furies. And the readers wade through them as though obsessed. They devour and debate each word, each editorial in homes, college campuses and tea shops. They rip apart the arguments put forth by writers and editors in voluminous letters to the editor. And either share with their favourite writers the dread and the guilt of communal riots, and the persistent, tormented moral ambiguities that it breeds, or else reject it equally passionately.
In contrast, the contemporary English writing scene in India seldom seems to raise its voice. Both the writers and the readers prefer understated anger or sharp asides. The inclusive madness and the vitality of Hindi and small-town India is usually ridiculed or dismissed as being too crass. Mainstream Hindi literature finds few takers in English and the translators seldom bother to place the text in clear contexts with references to the writer’s correspondence, his or her theoretical writings or insights about the Hindi publishing scene that has helped readers access them. And with India’s national book reviewing and literary criticism scene becoming more and more one-language-centric, few critics are willing or able to introduce non-Hindi-speaking readers to the multiple inner tensions that the Hindi belt grapples with, not the least among them a complex relationship it has with Islam and Urdu.
To most non-Hindi-speaking readers, masters of Hindi prose such as Rahi Masoom Raza, Asghar Wajahat and Abdul Bismillah basically remain Muslim writers. Few realize how these Indian Muslim writers, in voluntarily opting for the Devanagari script in place of the Arabic, may have made a purely literary choice which is also a political one. Urdu and Hindi remain symbiotic but alienated twins, but are constantly foraging in each other’s literary baskets. Neither a lasting conflict nor a long history of communal rioting and the use of Hindi by some xenophobes have managed to turn the world of Hindi or Urdu letters into a battle cry against Islam or Hinduism or else another whining pacifist manifesto.
Like a Greek tragedy, few of us realize, right may often be pitted against right in the Hindi belt.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org