Friday, April 18, 2008

Politics and Indian languages

Today I saw a poster put up by the BJP with the usual sycophantic messages about some politician or other. What struck me was that in the list of signatories there was a certain "Gajanand (गजानंद) Mehta". Now, "Gajanan" (गजानन) - literally meaning "elephant face" - is a name for the Hindu god better known as Ganesh. Indeed the various Hindi names for Ganesh are quite charming and carry a very positive connotation for me, much as they may sound jarring in English ("big belly" and "twisted tusk" for example). I'm really quite fond of Lord Ganesh.

But "Gajanand" means nothing as far as I know. At best, it translates to "elephant happiness", but I'm quite sure that's not a genuine Indian name. In short, Mr BJP signatory is probably Gajanan, but either he or his admirers are unaware of the meaning of his name and therefore got it wrong. My point? That political parties professing to defend Indian culture are woefully short on the most basic appreciation of the same culture they claim to defend.

A related issue is that the members of parties which propagate (with violence) a particular language often lack a basic understanding of the selfsame language. I'm referring of course to Marathi, the language that has long been used in a Mumbai as a weapon. To the point that many people, who don't habitually speak it, now refuse to take it seriously and try to stay away from it to the extent possible.

The official argument of the Marathi propagating parties is that all residents of Mumbai are guilty of ignoring this language and must be taught to to "respect" it - by being slapped around if necessary. Honestly, their first point might be true. Marathi occupies a fairly marginal position in the discourse of Mumbai and most non-Maharashtrians have not bothered much with it (I am in a peculiar middle ground, as I understand it well but have not become fluent in speaking it, for reasons I may return to another time). But how much enthusiasm can you generate for a language by slapping people around? Indeed, what image do you give to the language by this behaviour? And what actually have the political parties in question managed to achieve on behalf of the language that they profess to support?

Some years ago I noticed a poster that said in Devanagari script, "Shiv Sena Shakha, South Mumbai" (शिव सेना शाखा, साउथ मुम्बई). The jarring note was the "South" - simply rendered in the Devanagari script without translation. Were the members of this party not aware that there is a perfectly good Marathi word for "South"? Or did they not care? One suspects that most Marathi political posters put up in Mumbai today have such mistakes and exhibit a mediocre understanding of the language (to be fair, things are not too different for most other Indian languages, though Bengali is probably in better shape. A Bengali poster with poor syntax would surely attract attention in Kolkata and would end up being corrected, though possibly after a fist fight between rival groups with different opinions about the correct version!).

There are clear signs that Marathi is in trouble even among Maharashtrians. I recently heard that in an interview, a leading Maharashtrian novelist was asked why he writes in English rather than his native Marathi. His answer: "my first novel was in Marathi and it took 10 years to sell 1000 copies!". On the same lines, my cousin alerts me to a recent news report saying Marathi libraries are closing down for a lack of customers. One of them is located in the Marathi heartland of Dadar!

It might still be possible to do something that would charm and attract people to learn Marathi and appreciate its depth and beauty, its literature, its poetry and most of all (for me) the wonderful Indian-classical-music-based Marathi songs in the Natya Sangeet tradition. And there must be groups of people - academics, literary figures, historians and the like - who are doing their best to further this goal. But anyone who expects the supposedly pro-Marathi political parties to spread love and respect for the language will end up disappointed.


Shyam V.Bale said...

D/Shri Mukhi,
The would be national language of
Bharat,is Hindi improvised with the
assistace of Sanskrit,and not Sanskrit itself.This is strange as
Sanskrit itself is recognised best
language and still has base in Bharat,in all the states in various forms.The script of Sanskrit,Hindi and Marathi being
Devnagari,Marathi is suppressed by
overwhelming growth of Hindi.There
are ill-feelings about Hindi in
Maharashtra.The other state languages are not affected so much because of their script.Hindi is that way a state language of Bihar,UP and MP to some extent.
Had Sanskrit been a costitutionally
approved 'National Language'problem
would have been different.The language of Gita,is certainly honoured all over."Satya Meva Jayate" would have been known to common man.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Mukhi,

First of all, can I congratulate you on your marvellously thoughtful yet light-hearted blogging style; it is a pleasure to read when you write so well.

Nevertheless, I must take issue with some of your linguistic views . All languages evolve! Words accumulate extra dipthongs; social factors influence dialects which in turn influence spelling and even orthography; external contact breeds evolution. In particular, names drastically evolve (in spelling, pronunciation, and connotation) over the years.

Of course, there is no excuse for 'linguistic barbarism' and certainly violence, actual or implied, in the name of language, is odious. Spreading a language by force will always be futile - I am in complete agreement with you. And of course, there will always be a place for classical style and great literatary heritage of the past.

Overall, though, I feel that vernacular is to be resolutely encouraged in the pursuit of creativity - I firmly believe that dismissing certain linguistic traits as unrefined or lazy is stifling, and perhaps a little snobbish.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear Anonymous,

I fully support the evolution of a vernacular. However I don't believe the transition from "Gajanan" to "Gajanand" reflects a colloquial usage, but rather simple ignorance. In my experience, most people who use the latter form are English-speaking. I don't blame them as such but I find it jarring that such ignorance is acceptable to parties which claim to propagate Indian culture.

One could, of course, argue that ignorant behaviour is part of our culture!