In his landmark and classic novel Roots, author Alex Haley traces his genealogy back to seven generations pegging his roots in The Gambia, West Africa. By all accounts, it’s the work of a lifetime, an outcome of deep passion for learning and embarking on both a personal and cultural quest. Seven generations is truly a long period and the fact that Haley gives us microscopic details of a tribal life of a place that’s hard to find on a map and of a time so remote is in itself a magnificent feat. Also the fact that there’s not an ounce of bitterness or malice against slave-taking of his ancestors by the Colonising Whites reveals his spiritual evolution. A really far cry from the character and deeds of today cultural terrorists and civilisational vandals like Black Lives Matter.
For all practical purposes, Alex Haley’s predecessors who arrived in America as slaves became English-speaking Americans.
In this context, how far back can any person trace his or her “original” language given the long and extensive history of India? The ancestors of the stalwart of Kannada literature and public life, D.V. Gundappa originally hailed from Tamil Nadu. But he made Kannada his own and was equally fluent in Kannada, Telugu, and Sanskrit. The other literary eminence Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, a Tamilian, is renowned for his service to the Kannada language and literature and won the Jnanapith Award for it. Devudu Narasimha Sastri strove for Kannada throughout his life although his mother tongue was Telugu. In the realm of the Golden Age of Kannada literature — or the 20th century Kannada Literary and Cultural Renaissance — one finds a vast array of such distinguished scholars, writers, and litterateurs.
And in this excellent essay, we can also glean a small sample of the Bengali-Kannada linguistic interchange. From that essay, we learn how Swami Vivekananda became a towering influence on generations of Kannada writers, starting from T S Venkannayya, A R Krishnashastry, D V Gundappa, Kuvempu, and S L Bhyrappa, the finest Kannada writer of our times. Venkannayya wrote the earliest biographies of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. Krishnashastry too, wrote about Vivekananda. Kuvempu was closely associated with the Ramakrishna Mission, profoundly influenced by the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Apart from writing their biographies in Kannada, he translated many of Swami Shivananda’s writings from Bengali to Kannada. It is a recorded fact that most writers and poets of the Kannada Navodaya literary era were fluent in at least six languages, be it DVG, B M Srikanthaiah, Masti, Bendre, or Krishnashastry. Prof S Srikanta Sastri knew 17 languages and M Govinda Pai was fluent in 22 languages!
At the peak of its glory, Mysore University boasted of multidisciplinary and multilingual scholars like Radha Kumud Mookherjee, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and others who were the torchbearers of the culture and tradition of learning and never once identified themselves based solely on their mother tongue. The fact that this was the typical state of affairs even sixty years ago shows the precise damage that linguistic reorganisation of states has inflicted. One is hard-pressed to find even five scholars that India has produced in the last forty years who are equally proficient in barely two Indian languages including their own mother tongue.
How and why did this happen?
During the aforementioned (pre-Independence) period, the vibrant intermingling of various Indian languages — indeed, the very diversity of languages was seen as a powerful, binding and unifying force of culture, spirituality, ideas, and nationalism. It wasn’t uncommon for example, for revolutionary, patriotic, and other literature to be translated into multiple Indian languages. And this occurred during a period of slow transportation and backward communication facilities. However, this wasn’t merely an accident. It followed a dateless, historical tradition of give-and-take, assimilation, and understanding.
Let’s take a random example, historically, of any Hindu emperor in any part of India. Almost without exception these rulers patronised multiple languages no matter where they were geographically located, and the ruler typically set aside the bias and affection towards his own mother tongue and encouraged all languages in his domain. It is for this reason that almost every so-called regional language has a rich and significant corpus in various branches of learning. Besides, Indian history also shows that geographical boundaries were redrawn based on conquests and treaties without any significant damage to any particular language.
Equally, a study of forced or other migrations historically within India will also greatly aid a study of linguistic changes that have occurred over time: a notable example is of the Gouda Saraswata Brahmins who dot the landscape of the Konkan Coast today who originally hailed from the general region of the Gouda Desha or Bengal. One can also investigate the historical reason why the Goa State bus transport is named Kadamba, originally a dynasty that ruled parts of Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra.
We can cite several such examples, which are nearly endless given the expansive timespan of Indian history. But the substance remains: like every language in the world, Indian languages too, developed organically. It’s not as if somebody woke up one morning and said, “let there be Marathi or Gujarati or Telugu,” and the language just materialised out of thin air.
Common sense and observable facts inform us that after say, three generations, a lineage residing in a certain geography makes its language, and thereby culture, its own. This is also at the root of second and third-generation NRI children who can barely speak or relate to their mother tongues. The physical environment is both an undeniable and powerful incubator that shapes one’s outlook towards culture, language, and ideas. No amount of denial will alter this reality.
An organic mingling of people and geographical divisions based on historical and lived regional realities had made for better cooperation and insured both language and culture against linguistic hostilities for centuries before the disastrous redrawing of boundaries was artificially imposed by Nehru & Co. Sure enough, it left violence in its immediate aftermath and enduring hostilities that continue till date.
While it can also be argued that the intent behind creating language-based states was perhaps noble, with the intention of “preserving” a certain language, in practice, it has backfired spectacularly. With that ill-conceived Linguistic Reorganisation Committee, we have perhaps irreversibly created linguistic identities and the consequential ugly politics flowing therefrom. One of the first demands emanating from every language-based state back then was the claim to larger and larger territories for itself: Belgaum for instance, still remains a bone of contention between Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Three major disasters have occurred as a result.
The first has been a near-permanent distrust between Indians speaking different languages, a phenomenon exploited with aplomb, chiefly by the “pure” Tamil warriors and by Bal Thackeray who built his career by stoking fear and alarm against the “South Indians who are stealing the jobs of Maharashtrians.” The other instance of this phenomenon rests on the question: why does a water-sharing dispute between two states of the same country have linguistic hostility as its invariable subtext?
The second is the fact that when linguistic identities harden, the underlying cultural edifice corrodes. And so we have an ironical spectacle of Hindus irrespective of their geography or language visiting the same pilgrimage spots across India on the one hand while on the other, thanks to these mindless language wars, they abandon their Hinduness at the altar of their language. This self-inflicted insanity has no parallel in any nation or culture across the globe.
The other facet of this is the fact that we now have two or three generations of Hindus who want to “learn” Hinduism through books written mostly in English. While my intent isn’t to disparage or condemn such people, the fact is that this state of affairs is the result of parents abandoning their mother tongue, which is perhaps the only and the most powerful vehicle that enables one to both practice and impart Hinduism. One’s Matrubhasha is also one’s Daiva Bhasha: when Hindus intentionally, deliberately berated and abandoned their own mother tongue, they also lost the language which would enable them to communicate with and understand what their own Divinities spoke. And when that vital cord, preserved over tens of centuries by literally shedding rivers of blood, was severed, Hindus also lost their literature, music, dance, the temple culture, and they don’t think twice before ignoring the sorry plight of the poor and hungry cows wading through mounds of plastic covers in urban garbage piles.
It is when you learn your epics in your own language on the lap of grandparents and other elders or have a conducive environment at home that the epics and the language and thereby the entire culture survives. However, even this statement is no longer holding true and this environment has all but disappeared what with grandparents imitating iPad adolescents. And it is this that the iconic Rallapalli Ananthakrishna Sharma and others lamented and mocked powerfully just sixty years ago and lived a life proudly rooted in our own culture.
The third disaster merits an independent and slightly detailed examination: it is the impending death of Indian languages.
This is the consequence of the twin-blow of mental and cultural colonialism via the English language and language wars, which has killed both English and Indian languages in India. Even the most gifted Indian writer in English will remain an imitator at best. The Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga is the most recent and outstanding example of this garden variety, whose felicity in English is only matched by his appalling ignorance of his own country and society, which he seeks to “explain.”
Indeed, this could’ve been avoided had the Indian people not missed the Sanskrit bus in 1947. Dr. Koenraad Elst puts it well:
If you want Indian unity, you’d better aim for an Indian language that will set India apart from the Anglosphere.
That Indian language can only be Sanskrit. At this distance, we can say that it was a fateful day when the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, cast the deciding vote in the Constituent Assembly in favour of Hindi as link language, to the detriment of…Sanskrit. Hindi was not accepted by the chauvinist speakers of the other vernaculars. One of the good reasons was that it was but a recent language, a common denominator between old literary languages like Braj Bhasha, Awadhi, Rajasthani and others. Hindi as it is, was deemed vulgar by speakers of highly civilized non-Hindi languages like Bengali or Telugu. It didn’t have the kind of prestige that could overrule such objections.
By contrast, Sanskrit if chosen as the link language would have sent a cry of admiration through countries like China and Japan, Russia and Germany, France and America. The state of Israel, that chose to make Biblical Hebrew its first language, would have understood very well that India made its main Scriptural medium into its second language…
Most importantly, it would have been accepted by the Indian people. Speakers of the constituent members of the Hindi commonwealth would have had no objection, and speakers of non-Hindi languages (even Tamil chauvinists) would have had fewer objections than against Hindi. As for the English-speaking elite, it would militate no harder against one Indian language than against another.
The vote in the Constituent Assembly, fifty-fifty between Sanskrit and shuddh Hindi, shows how far India has slipped, and what an outrageous failure the so-called Hindu Nationalist movement has been. If the vote were held today, it would rather be fifty-fifty between English and Bollywood Hindi, i.e. Urdu. The secularists were then a small coterie around Nehru, now the same stream of opinion controls all the cultural and other institutions. Back then, a vote for English would be unthinkable, now the same taboo counts almost for a vote against English. The Muslims were only 10% and smarting under their guilt for the Partition, not in a position to make demands; now they are 15% and growing fast, and in active opposition to every language policy that smells of either Hinduism or nationalism…
Admittedly, Sanskrit is a difficult language, but then it is equally difficult for everyone…
One of the formative episodes in Dr. Ambedkar’s life was when he was denied the right to study Sanskrit in school because of his low caste. It helped make him a partisan of Sanskrit as national link language, a choice not followed by his so-called followers in the Dalit movement. They favour English, a choice unthinkable to the freedom struggle generation…Still Sanskrit is the only chance the lovers of India have. Hindi failed, and English will only weaken Indian unity… [Emphases added]
Now it appears that it’s too late because there are no careers to be made by studying Sanskrit — either as a language or in its application. More importantly, it lacks the aforementioned physical environment that acts as the incubator which nurtures it and allows it to flourish. At most, it can only thrive in the severely limited realm of and by the efforts of genuine connoisseurs and patrons. In their learned paper on Sanskrit pedagogy, the young scholars Hari Ravikumar and Shashi Kiran accurately assign the position Sanskrit occupies today:
A section of Sanskrit learners regard the language as an artefact of pride and they have blind faith that somehow a knowledge of Sanskrit can improve their knowledge of science, particularly in the area of computing and natural language processing. There is no substantial reason to believe so. Further, many of the knowledge systems of ancient India — all recorded in Sanskrit — have developed and progressed in varied degrees of sophistication over time and in the modern context they don’t need the crutch of Sanskrit. There are also many such knowledge systems that have become outdated.
The result of these misguided notions is simply that the aesthetic employability of Sanskrit is largely ignored…the primary strength of Sanskrit in the context of the 21st century [is] its aesthetic and linguistic beauty. Needless to say, this aspect of Sanskrit has timeless appeal.
Small wonder that Indian languages have decayed perhaps beyond the point of return. Two important factors illustrate this decay.
The first is the pervasive phenomenon of language lobbies which dictate literary awards and academic appointments among other things where merit is the first casualty. And then there are sub-lobbies of caste and other political-power equations within said language lobbies…enough said.
The second concerns the consequence that has been quite evident: apart from very rare exceptions, there’s actually very little by way of original, high-quality, and enduring literature emanating from any Bharatiya Bhasha in the last three decades. Indeed, one only needs to look at the quality of folks inhabiting the luxurious sinecures of say the Sahitya Akademi and similar bodies to see how far the slump has reached.
I can also delve in depth about the awful phenomenon of “creating” PhDs especially in North India where candidates pay others to write proxy theses, and obtain jobs as say, Hindi lecturers. The fate of their students is left to your imagination. The same can more or less be said about “purifying” Indian languages by stripping them of “Sanskrit influence.”
If all of this sounds alarmist, negative, and pessimistic, I shall point in the direction of Bollywood (indeed, the name itself reeks of willing, celebratory colonial slavery), which serves as the most inglorious illustration of the cultural catastrophe that accompanies linguistic disaster. Its shenanigans exposed at frequent intervals leave no doubt that it’s a well-oiled den of global high-end prostitution and crime and has little to do with art, culture, and language.
But in our context, and especially over the last decade or so, there’s almost no Bollywood movie that depicts native Indian culture. On the contrary, the so-called “100-crore club” movies have ridden to fame and fortune on the back of mocking precisely this native Indian culture and language. How much longer can cinema of other languages which actually look up to Bollywood as a role model hold their own?
Imposition of Hindi or any other language is the least of our problems.
Postscript: The eternal optimist in me says that there’s still time. As a first step, teaching Sanskrit or at the very least, the classic works of yesteryears of any Bharatiya Bhasha to children from age three onwards can at least help stem the tide.