Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Loss Of Heritage: A Question Of Language

The second article on culture... (the below stands true for every Indian Language; I am using Hindi and Marathi since they are the languages I speak)

I am a person schooled in 3 languages: English, Hindi and Marathi. My language of choice is English; followed by Marathi and Hindi. Marathi is my mother tongue; but I am furthest from it. I am fluent in Marathi - more than in Hindi, in fact; but it is still my third language, behind the other 2. This post stands despite the above facts, and is in fact borne out of the above.

My first tryst with  language was in college, when I studied language groups and the origins of language as a hobby. Thereafter, along the line of a career, my hobbies got lost: Language, Reading, Dramatics, Culture etc... and life just became too fast paced. The initial flame was lit during my sojourn as a visiting faculty of Brand and Advertising Management, when I came in touch with SPIC-MACAY, and began attending cultural dos again - after a gap of 15 years and more. Then, last year, I was part of a fabulous LinkedIn discussion that examined the education system in India, and the impact of a foreign language on the mind - as well as the feasibility of introducing an increasing number of subjects in the vernacular. A lot a current research was shared (I cannot find the dicsussion thread, as it has been archived); which acted as the catalyser. I slowly began asking myself questions; some pretty uncomfortable questions, ones to which I had no answer. This post below chronicles the questions I have asked myself over the past few months.

What is Language? The educated will tell you that it is a means of expressing oneself, and of communicating with each other. The dictionary will tell you that it is the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. Some will add non-verbal communication on top of this. Even wikipedia will delve in some detail on this aspect. Well, before I ask the questions that came to me, let me clarify: the above is but one small aspect of what we call language. Hidden away deep inside the wikipedia article is the little beauty: "Language is therefore dependent on"communities of speakers"...

In truth, language is far more than a means of communication: it is a carrier of the entire social history and cultural heritage of a people. Through language, we communicate words, ideas, social practices, values  and emotions... the entire culture of a people is encapsulated in what we call language. Let me elucidate with a popular example:

This is a poem by Neeraj, and was later adapted into a song, with a heart-rending rendition by Mohd Rafi.  Try translating this to English. Or, better yet, note how easily the poem gels with you; you can visualise the scene as it plays in front of your eyes. The word Shrungar, for instance, instantly connotes its meaning to us; we can immediately visualise both the scene as well as the meaning of the line just from this word. There is no English equivalent; this is borne out of our cultural landscape, our society and its norms...  now imagine a world where this word has become obsolete. A language is a means of passing on the cultural heritage, norms, values, thoughts, ideas, history, prayers, rituals and much much more. We stand to lose far more than just a means of communication. I shall delve into this in more detail later, for this is far too complex a matter to be taken up in a paragraph. But I hope that the uninitiated among the readers have been able to grasp the import of my statements.

Am I being melodramatic? Consider the questions below, those that have occurred to me:

1) Visit any book-store. Count the number of Vernacular books and English books. The ratio will be 95% English. Even in the seedier second-hand store, the ratio remains the same. In a nation where the major languages are Hindi, Marathi, Bengali etc - the literature is primarily in English. Why?
2) Compare the best of Vernacular books with the English books you are so fond of. (If you read vernacular - you are a better person than I am!). Why the difference in quality?
3) Why is it that most of the reported literature from India - judging from magazines, new sites and other sources - is in English? Why is the visibility not there for Vernacular literature? Point out how the Neeraj poem above is in any way inferior, or superior - to an English poem!
4) When and what was the last vernacular book you read? For me, it was Caravaan Guzar Gayaa - kavya sangraha by Neeraj circa 1996. Why so?
5) How many of us read- I mean really read - the vernacular papers in preference to the English? I dont mean reading it as a secondary publication - I mean the vernacular as a vehicle of choice? And please dont state quality - how can they produce quality and attract talent when the readership is absent?
6) What will be the impact of the lack of interested readers and practitioners on the cultural richness, progression and development of that language? How long will it, or can it, continue without patronage? Remember: Persian was prevalent for a good 300 years; the absence of literature in persian was one of the contributory factors in its rapid decline; with the others being lack of speakers of persian among the common people.
7) Insaan kaa insaan se ho bhaichaaraa, yehi paighaam humaaraa; Naye naye jagat mein huaa puraanaa oonch neech ka kissa, Sab ko miley mehnat ke mutaabiq apna apna hissa - Kavi Pradeep... lovely lyrics, a song and a poem from our past; now just compare the lyrics of today with the golden days. How many of the day have such deep meanings? And how many songs of the old days had such lovely poetry? Where are the poets in India today? Where are the Kaka Hathrasi, Shivmangal Singh Suman, Neeraj etc? Where are Rabindranath Tagore and Harivansha Rai Bachhan of the modern day? (If there are any, please enlighten me. I may not be aware, that is also true...)
8) Why dont we Indians read Vernacular literature with more interest? Why the inordinate emphasis on and prefence of English? Where does the fault lie? We see Hindi movies, adulation for Hindi (Or Marathi or Tamil or Telegu)  stars is common - and yet we totally ignore the language everywhere else? From where does this incipient loss of a language come? And is this hampering our imagination as well as hindering our growth potential? 
9) We can translate Harry Potter into Hindi; we can translate other western classics into Hindi (or other vernacular languages) - but there is no sign, there is no indication, there is not even the remotest hint of popular demand for original literature in our own mother tongue or the regional tongue that is now already our second language, instead of being the first. Where is the Hindi, or Marathi bestseller?????? What direction are we as a society taking?

Food for thought, I hope...


  1. Ajaadi ke baad hum or bhi jaada angrezjada ho gayen .Before Independance Indian languages and literature were doing very well .But after Independence in place of developing our own languages we start fighting to each other .Gandhi ji wants The whole education wether its its engineering ,Medical in India should be granted in mother tongue .In Hindi for a Hindi speaker ,In Tamil for Tamil ,Marathi for a Marathi .And using Hindi as a link language thought the country while regional langauges offical in there regions Because Hindi was and still acting as natural link language among common peoples .If that would happened then today we emerge as aS confident nation in our own culture and language in place aping a foreign one ..But unfortunately Non-hindi speakers taken it as imposition and Hindi speaker taken as everything for them as granted .In this fight of Hindi and other regional languages only one language get benefited that is English.By luck I get the chance to read to lots of Hindi and Urdu books(In Devanagari )because my Grandpa loves novels and he have a good collection of them.But now days peoples have taken novel etc as medium of entertainment and they read english ones to show that they can have a good knowledge of english any many these books in homes as just puted on tables etc for showcase no one read them .I hope one day we come out of this mental slavery and start taking proud in our own culture and language because if that not happened in few will not have any thing to be called as Indian .We will be just a copy of Britan and USA and I feel so much bad when I see we are actually progressing toward that at a high speed.

  2. Vishal ajoon ek pan comment nahi! And your blog is in English!
    Kay mhanave?
    Apathy ki dusre kahi karan?

    1. Good observation... It does seem to be apathy to me. I also wrote this on Quora, ( ), and the response was better. In quora responses are better because it is a different medium, and the levels of interaction are much higher. A blog is more inmpersonal,, and there is no interaction since conversations are not in vogue - unlike Quora where the same people have been interacting frequently.

      This is why I think this is apathy... we respond among ourselves, but not on an anonymous open forum such as a blog!