24 June 2014

Post Facto -- Vernacular Claims: Malgudi, Modi and the Vox Populi

My most recent Post Facto column, for the Sunday Guardian:

A still from Malgudi Days
algudi Days had only to re-appear on YouTube for me to immediately surrender my afternoon to its warm, nostalgic embrace. The first episode of the 1987 TV series inaugurates the war between school ruffian Mani and posh new boy Rajam. Our unheroic hero, Swami, admires them both. Rajam, son of the town's police chief, comes to school in a spotless khaki uniform complete with matching cap, exuding a hauteur that many, including Swami, can only gaze upon in wonder. Clearly Rajam is the prince of this grubby schoolboy world, and his royal mien invites strong reactions.
But what Mani objects to is not Rajam's clothes, car, high marks or light eyes – it is his language. "Saala Rajam ka bachcha. Apne aap ko Angrez samajhta hai," he says, glaring into the distance as the object of his hatred disembarks from his chauffeur-driven vehicle. Our Shankar has more marks than Rajam, says Mani, but he doesn't speak English "hang-tang karke", with "firangi nakhre". But this is a British colonial universe, and it is also quite clear that much of the weight of Swami's father's letter to the headmaster lies in its impeccable English.
From Class I to Class VIII, I studied at a girls' school in Calcutta. It wasn't even a convent, but it was unremarkable to have teachers walk in and interrupt classroom conversations with the plummily-delivered injunction, "Girls, girls. No speaking in the vernacular." And this was an old-school school, which took language learning seriously. Bengali and Hindi were compulsory and you weren't let off for being — or pretending to be — unable to speak them, as you might in some fashionable schools today. In some ways, the vernacular is possibly worse off now than in Swami's times.
Structures of power embed themselves in language. Consider the word "vernacular" itself. The dictionary starts with a neutral "the standard native language of country or locality", but moves on to "the vulgar tongue of the masses." And "native or indigenous (opposed to literary or learned)". By the time you reach the etymological origin: "from Latin vernaculus, 'domestic, native' (from verna, 'home-born slave')", you can literally see English sitting fatly on the "vernaculars", squashing them with its weight.
uch airtime and newsprint has been recently devoted to what Prime Minister Modi's speechifying in Hindi will mean for our status as a world power. I'm not sure the world is that interested. But within India, Modi's choice of Hindi makes his speeches accessible to a much wider cross-section than Gujarati on one hand and English on the other might have done. A shift in Hindi's status — away from "vernacular" — is welcome. But the danger is that a language that feels so threatened by English might want to use this moment to flex its muscles — against other vernaculars? There are those waiting in the wings to renew that age-old controversial rashtrabhasha argument. And certainly, the reports congratulating the Congress's Mallikarjun Kharge for delivering his verbal set downs to the Treasury benches "in chaste Hindi despite being from the Southern state of Karnataka", or the AIADMK's V. Maitreyan for giving his fellow Rajya Sabha members "a pleasant surprise" by speaking in Hindi, would seem to suggest a political recognition that the linguistic ground is shifting.
Also language, it seems to me, has implications far beyond realpolitik. Certain ways of thinking and feeling are embedded deep within language. Would Kharge have used those Kaurava-Pandava analogies if he were speaking in English? I doubt it. Would Modi have said "temple of democracy" in English? Anointing Parliament "lokatantra ka mandir", calling it "pavitr" (pure, connoting sacredness): these linguistic choices connect seamlessly to touching his forehead to the ground as he entered Parliament — idioms most Indians watching would recognize as religious respect.
But even more than the implicit religiosity, I was struck by the register in which the Prime Minister chose to address the question of women. "Nayi sarkaar desh ke gareebon ko samarpit hai, desh ke koti-koti yuvakon ke liye samarpit hai, aur maan-sammaan ke liye tarasti hamari maa-behenon ke liye samarpit hai," said Modi. Sure, he could have said this in English, too. But try it: "The new government is dedicated to the country's poor, to the country's crores of youth, and to our mothers and sisters, aching for respect." Youth and the poor belong to "the country". Women are "our mothers and sisters". By casting women not as citizens, but in familial roles, Modi's words also implicitly transform his "hum" — "we" — into an audience of men. Women, meanwhile, are pushed into a position of "tarasna" — tarasna in Hindi is used mostly in a romantic context to indicate yearning, a kind of aching desire, sometimes the earth's desire for rain. An appeal tailored to a male citizenry, delivered in an idiom it understands — an act of communicative genius, or a depressing reminder of that Wittgensteinian thought: the limits of our language are the limits of our world?
Swami and Friends was written in English. And yet, when Shankar Nag — a Kannada actor and director, active in Marathi theatre — made the Doordarshan television series, he did so in Hindi. Later, it was also telecast in Telugu. On YouTube, there is a version in Tamil, in which a real-life Swami would have spoken. Lakhs of people in India who remember Swami fondly today would not know him if Nag hadn't broken the English barrier. And yet, Narayan made those acute observations on the linguistic politics of English in English. Clearly, we can be sensitive to political nuance in any language — and tone-deaf in any, too. It just depends on whom we want to speak to.

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