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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Mind the Dot

The much-misused and bruised nuqta is getting rid of its historical baggage to stage a quiet but firm comeback.

Written by Seema Chishti |
December 1, 2013 5:16:40 am

By Seema Chishti

In a telling moment for those who follow language and its altering usage in everyday life,in a promotional for Gujarat Tourism,its ambassador Amitabh Bachchan,says; “Kuch aur din gujaro Gujarat mein.” The ‘z’ in “guzaro”,as this man with an impeccable diction would have otherwise pronoun-ced,has been replaced knowingly with “gu-jaro” to rhyme with the ‘j’ sound in Gujarat.

The nuqta,a bindi-like small dot below a letter in Devanagari,differentiates the ‘j’ from the ‘z’ or the simple ‘kh’ from the guttural ‘kh’ as in Khan or “khwab”.

The nuqta has a symbolism that goes well beyond the innocuous small bindi. It was first introduced in the 17th century when Devanagari was being developed,(“as old as Fort William,” says a nuqta enthusiast) in an environment where Persian and Arabic were used extensively. The purpose was to absorb sounds from other languages,and enlarge the Hindi vocabulary.

The nuqta,especially in the early 20th century,got embroiled into issues related with Hindu nationalism. As one of the fallouts of the virulent debate on Hindi versus Urdu versus Hindustani,a strong plea was made to disband it altogether. Madan Mohan Malaviya wrote forcefully in his magazine Abhyudaya in 1930,“Hindi mein bindi kyon?” Later,as the country headed to Partition,and in the words of historian Shahid Amin,as the India-Pakistan boundary became a linguistic “LOC”,Hindi and Urdu had people batting for them,but Hindustani,or the language that grew out of cross-fertilisation,got no patronage from either India or Pakistan. This,in fact,became a big political issue. Mahatma Gandhi took the middle ground between Hindi and Urdu and held that Hindustani must be recognised as a language,rather than the isolating ideas of pure Hindi or Urdu languages.

The nuqta became symbolic of this larger battle,and for several decades disappeared from newspapers and even Hindi textbooks. So,pronouncing words like “khandaan or zabardasti” correctly started to be regarded as an elitism,which the popular Hindi discourse didn’t want to be part of. Sevanti Ninan,a media watcher,in her popular book on the Hindi press,Headlines From the Heartland,discusses this exceptional phase in pushing Hindi as the language of popular politics with the emergence of Jayprakash Narayan.

But even after all that,in the ’80s and ’90s,the ‘z’ or ‘kh’ was something you did not bother with. So,as Amin says; “Former president Zail Singh could never escape Jail in the Hindi newspapers. He was never Zail Singh in a crucial phase of his life.”

More importantly,there seemed to be no problem if you added the ‘z’ or ‘gh’ sound to where it never existed. So “begum” became “beghum” and “jurm” became “zurm”.

Rakhshanda Jalil,critic and author,who has looked at both Hindi and Urdu literature in that phase,rues this absence and speaks fondly of the time when her mother,a librarian at a school,was “continuously referred to as Mrs Zalil by her colleague Mr Jain (instead of Mrs Jalil). My mother’s arguments with Mr Jain never ended until they both retired. She said she never called him Mr Zain,so why couldn’t he try harder? Zalil,meaning insult,has meant that the disregard for the nuqta has had a direct bearing on my life.”

Says Ashok Vajpeyi,writer and former chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi,and a popular Hindi columnist,“I have been told that technology inhibits the application of the nuqta. When I write for newspapers,I am saddened to see jameen rather than zameen and worse still,gajal and not

ghazal. English words have been altered to be taken into Hindi,a process called tatbhav,which is changing a word,like lantern being called laalten,but Persian and Arabic words have usually been adopted by a process called tatsam,or taking them as-is. So this is a problem.”

But despite a sense that diction is not a turning point for hiring radio jockeys as it used to be perhaps half a century ago,the nuqta,feels Dr Ravikant,assistant professor,Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,has staged a quiet but firm comeback. He says it is because of the ubiquity of the electronic media and its curious relationship to text.

“I would attribute that to the use of text,especially Hindi text,on TV. As more and more English words are being used to deliver news,especially technical phrases on Hindi business TV,and using Roman is still a leap,the nuqta is essential to spell those words. The antipathy that those favouring Sanskritised Hindi had for various reasons is not on the decline. English is being embraced unhesitatingly,and Hindustani despite no state patronage,which means Hindi,Urdu and a mix of English thrown

in,remains the language of popular communication. So,the nuqta is invaluable now,” says Ravikant.

Word and pronounciation,when certain sounds and influences have been purged over the long run,can have far-reaching consequences on how the speakers of that language see and locate themselves in a larger context of who they are. Deep into the bitter post-Partition years,cleansing Hindi of Urdu influences was key to try and project an exclusive idea of India. Bombay cinema was key to keeping the idea broader and,therefore,on AIR,there was a ban on Bombay film music as a “corrupting influence” from 1952-57. “Then,” says Ravikant,“A Gujarati Khoja Muslim called Amin Sayani,whose mother was a Hindustani activist,used Hindustani on Radio Ceylon on his Binaca Geetmala,stringing together popular Bombay film music,something that had millions glued to that station,forcing AIR to set up Vividh Bharati.”

Vividh Bharti and the consequent acceptance of Hindi film songs and lyrics as the foremost ingredient in the nationalist mix,say critics,kept popular Hindustani alive and kicking,before television brought it back.

The same Bachchan,modelling for another advertisement for a cold cream,pops a nuqta to turn “najar” magically into “nazar”. The dot is back in sight.

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