Once upon a time (some four decades ago), it was the done thing to blame all the ills of the nation on feminism — from errant children to the break up of joint families, rise in crime, pornography and prostitution. Today, Hindi has become the favourite punching bag. It is being hit at for imposing its supremacist regime over all other Indian languages, for the rise of casteism, racism, for introducing a string of foul abuse words in polite discourse, through Bollywood films and serials on Netflix. Worse still, across the board, all Hindi wallahs are increasingly being stigmatised as supporters of a totalitarianism whose ideas are fast permeating social media, publishing and the government machinery.
As a second-generation Hindi writer from what was then Uttar Pradesh and now Uttarakhand, the act of writing to me includes three essential areas: The world, my own self and language. The first is undeniably dominated by English and will never exactly be mine like my mother tongue, the second I explore and gauge through my writings, and the third is not only a writer’s tool but also the body of what I write. I cannot just put it away, like a painter would his brushes or a carpenter his tools.
If we go by the undeniable decadal census data, Hindi is the mother tongue to a majority in the dozen most-populous states and the medium for governments’ subsidised education therein. It’s true that Hindi is spoken in different accents and flecked with dozens of local dialects. But it is also true that the standardised Hindi used by school texts, in government correspondence and translations was not crafted by creative writers or the Hindi-speaking public. It was created (borrowing the Nagari script from Sanskrit), by four clerics (Bhakha Munshis) at the Fort William College in Calcutta around 1805, under orders from the British. It went on to create a vast Habermasian public sphere — the government-run school system, publishers, native politicians and social reformers. From Gandhi to Dayanand Saraswati to yes, even Raja Ram Mohun Roy rushed in and used it to communicate their revolutionary ideas verbally to mostly illiterate masses .
There is another side to the picture. Around the 1930s, my mother was at Shantiniketan and wrote a story, her first and last in Bangla, which she spoke like a native. When she took it to Gurudev Tagore for his opinion, he smiled and told her never to forget that she must write in her mother tongue. And it is this ever-changing and highly malleable language that all our greats from Premchand, Phanishwar Nath Renu, Manohar Shyam Joshi, Nirmal Verma, Krishna Sobti and young Alka Saraogi have been using. It comes liberally mixed with dialects, other vernaculars and yes, even English (read young Gaurav Solanki’s Gyarahveen A ke Ladke). The editorial writing of the last five decades by journalists like Rajendra Mathur, Prabhash Joshi, S P Singh, Udayan Sharma and many others has vastly benefited from this linguistic pool and crafted a Hindi that has made Hindi newspapers and digital media garner the largest chunk of readers.
Let me hesitantly acknowledge here the perceived absurdity of someone’s position who writes in both English and Hindi against the hegemonic push for Hindi by the present dispensation, but also stoutly defends Hindi and demands the just dues the publishing and media houses have largely denied it. Like a child asking if she may have some candy with one already put in her mouth, a sly question is posed to me in public gatherings: Is it fair of you to continue to describe English as part of colonial baggage in the Subcontinent and, therefore, incapable of expressing the whole truth as experienced by non-English speakers? Looking at how it has been heavily politicised and is being used by the Right why can’t you admit now that Hindi today is less a language and more of a tool to push the saffron agenda?
In the 1950s, I was sent to various Hindi medium sarkari schools (Lucknow, Shajahanpur, Almora, Mukteshwar and Nainital) by my peripatetic father, who was often transferred mid-term, thereby leaving us to cope with badly mauled second-hand school texts. Even so, I never realised that my schooling was in any way provisional or experimental compared to those studying in the local English-medium private schools, where my much younger siblings were sent around the latter half of the 60s. I simply came alive in the Hindi speaking school environ everywhere I went. My friends were from varied backgrounds and included a local dhabewallah’s son, the criminal lawyer’s granddaughter and also one-eyed Mohan, whose family had fled Lahore and in the melee, a stray pellet had blinded him in one eye. In Nainital, where I spent the longest time in school, it was another medley of children from all over the hill districts of UP.
Recent readings on how Hindi has hidden the real history of India’s caste, class and communal warfares from countless children in Hindi-medium schools by putting everything in a Brahminical idiom, dismay me no end. At school (Lucknow and Nainital) we had read and acted in poems and plays of the 19th century great grandfather of Hindi, Bhartendu Harishchandra. Bhartendu, the scion of a wealthy Agrawal family in Kashi, came out as a jolly iconoclast who ripped apart the Brahminical elite of the Kashi of his times and wrote folk songs for singing women and prayers for Lord Krishna. He had listed 12 kinds of Hindi, including “Railway Hindi” (a variety laced with plenty of angrezi ) and also written a welcome song for Queen Victoria and her son in Hindi. Then there were Premchand and Nirala who wrote acid verses about Jawaharlal Nehru and an infamous ditty for Gandhi: Bapu Tum Yadi Murghi Khaatey! (Oh Bapu, if only you’d eat a chicken!
So, by the time we finished school (1964), none of us in GGIC (Government Girls’ Inter College) were naïve enough to believe that ours was a harmonious society with one language, one anthem and one irreplaceable Leader. Schools taught me that racial or linguistic homogeneity is not always a guarantor of peace, nor of discord. Only the stubbornly blind will fail to see that in a nation as vast and varied as ours, in society, languages and families, progress can only be incremental. That no community is entirely free of venality, brutality and envy. No people have a history without bloodstains and shame. But there is incremental progress notwithstanding. Till a few years ago, the non-availability of Hindi books was a constant complaint and also cited as proof that no one, no one well-educated that is, read Hindi. Today, on Amazon, one can order at least two dozen titles in Hindi by Dalits that include not just fiction and poetry but essays and autobiographies. Another two dozen by tribal writers. And these have not seen the light of the day as exotica, but because they sell. Ditto with the YouTube.
As a Hindi writer and anchor, I lost jobs again and again but never my faith in the power of words. My relations with many of my anglocentric owner-managers have been disastrous because of my stubbornness in not allowing substandard matter when I manned the guard posts; but I do not hate the market. I realise the world I knew has changed. But some changes are ahistorical. Like people, languages remain internally plural. They hide whole registers of infinite variety within them. Like a good musician, the writer just has to enter their insides and tease out notes long ignored or buried within. Nations like ours experiencing impossible identities in the 21st century can build up terrible tensions within themselves by clinging to binaries on languages. The beauty of good creative writing in any language, remains in how it highlights and resolves that tension through bold, perverse, politically unbeholden words.
The writer is a senior journalist and author