Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Hindi cannot colonize the South because it lacks value

The true heritage of a society is usually what its intellectuals do not fuss about ‘preserving’

People who cannot pronounce “Kanimozhi" are trying to unify Indians. A few days ago, Union home minister Amit Shah, who many South Indians think is a North Indian, said that India needs a unifying language, and that the language is Hindi. He immediately unified half of India, for that is all it takes to make South Indians pretend that they love each other and that they are all the same. Then Tamil politicians, who are actually actors, and Tamil actors, who are actually politicians, lamented “the imposition", an English word that is extremely difficult for most Tamilians to pronounce.

The fact is no one has tried to impose Hindi on the South. But I have no doubt that the current regime in Delhi dreams about an India where there is a single dominant language, which coincidentally they speak well. After all, there can be no nationalism without a national language. As things stand, there is no such thing as an Indian nationalist; there are only North-Indian nationalists.

In India, “national" tends to mean a thing that is not national. Like the tiger, peacock, hockey and Delhi. National is often someone’s regional stuff, just like culture is usually Brahmin folklore, and “global culture" is the local culture of Caucasians with some quaint distractions. The South has accepted many alien things as “national", but it is too late for them to accept Hindi.

The people who want Hindi to be the national language wish that the South agrees to be colonized by the language. Then one half of India will not be so foreign to the other half, and a nationalistic Indian Prime Minister would not have to, absurdly, speak to the poorest Tamilians or patriotic space scientists in English.

But then, people do not surrender to a language to be “unified". People learn languages that are useful. What is the use of Hindi? What are the rewards of learning Hindi?

Even parents are not very appealing if they are not useful. That is why it is easier for a poor man to revolt against his parents than it is for a rich man. All aspiring colonizers, like parents and cultural evangelists, must first ask in what way they are appealing to their prey.

Guess who surrendered to Hindi when it appeared to have a lure? Rajinikanth. He was willing to act as the hero’s sidekick in Hindi films so that he could have a shot at Mumbai’s film industry, which was at the time more lucrative than Tamil. So did Kamal Haasan, another Tamil actor. A language does not conquer through war; it slowly encroaches through rewards. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who failed in their efforts to become Hindi stars, today condemn Hindi’s attempt to trespass into their fiefdoms. This could be because that language was never useful to them.

English, unlike Hindi, has tremendous rewards. Most high-paying or respectable jobs that do not break the law require English. Actually, the elite do well primarily because they are the elite. But what radiates from their glow are the fables of their formal intellectual training. And the poor then imagine there is a way to succeed. English has been that spurious way.

Millions of poor families spend their hard-earned money on educating their children in English, who then undergo considerable suffering to learn a language that is not a part of their environment, and millions do realize that they cannot learn it well enough. Even so, English helps them occupy professions that the elite have vacated.

For Dalits, English is the bigger thug they pay protection money to in order to subdue the local thugs—all of Indian culture. But it is hard for them to pretend that the language belongs to them. India is too formidable to be defeated by cultural midgets, and English is a midget in India.

Despite its rewards, English is a cultural failure in India even among the affluent. In fact, it has retarded us. India has to be the only society in the world whose elite do not speak any language with complete mastery. Many of us are stranded in English and we speak our mother tongues or the languages that raised us very poorly. For instance, many of us cannot read high prose or even give a formal speech in an Indian language. But then, most educated Indians are in reality semi-literates in English, too. Once a disappointed reader wrote this review of one of my novels: “This book is hard to read. I am only half way through and already I have an extra vein on my forehead. Dude write in a simple language!! There are so many fancy words in the book…(like)… salesian, grimace, furtive, asterisks…"

This is a person who likes books, who pays money to buy books, and I think he has a point. I myself have a modest vocabulary for a novelist.

It is this vacuum that Amit Shah wants to fill with the charms of Hindi. But Hindi will fail not only for the same reasons as English, but also for being useless to the Indians he may hope to convert. “Unification" is intrinsically useless to people.

Many aspects of “national" are vacuous, and this is so across nations. The “national" sport of most nations are obscure even in those societies. Argentina’s national sport, for instance, is “pato", in which a dog catcher rides on a horse. Football, the most popular sport in the world, is the “national sport" of very few nations.

The true heritage of a society is always what its intellectuals don’t fuss about “preserving": food, local pop-culture, practical garments. And what a nation does not celebrate as its national-something is what is truly national.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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