I thought I had written a great essay in the Hindi test, but while returning my paper the Hindi teacher singled me out in the class. “You are using too many Farsi words,” she said in chaste Hindi. She had circled each Farsi word and given me poor marks. For days I wondered what she had meant because I don’t know Farsi. This was not a government-run Hindi-medium school. This was an elite Christian-run English-medium school where the board exams we took were administered not by the state or central education board but by the Anglo-Indian-dominated Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations.
I had many levels of language confusion, perhaps I still do. The Hindi that my schoolmates and I spoke each other with, the Hindi that we spoke at home and in the bazaars was a Hindi that my teacher insisted had too many Farsi words in it – and would penalise me for using it in writing. I identified myself as primarily being a Hindi speaker, and only later did I understand the minor difference between Hindi and Hindustani. Yet Hindi was not my mother tongue. I was the second generation of Punjabi refugee grandparents. My grandparents came from Multan and Lahore and settled in Lucknow. Yet, even my parents didn’t speak any Punjabi. Unlike Bengalis, Punjabis get easily deracinated.
Somebody once shamed me for not knowing Gurmukhi, “the script of your mother tongue”. Yet I discovered that my parents wrote in Nastaliq, the script of Urdu. Yet it wasn’t Urdu but an associated script, Shahmukhi.
More recently, as I made many Pakistani friends over the internet and told them I was a Multani from Lucknow, they asked me with awe if Multanis in India still speak Seraiki. It turns out that there’s a whole Seraiki movement in south Punjab in Pakistan these days. They say they are not Punjabi, that their language isn’t a mere dialect of Punjabi but completely different.
My Punjabi grandparents had settled in Lucknow, a city that was once the most important centre of Urdu as Delhi declined. Yet the Lucknow I grew up in was the capital of Hindi nationalism, where the language of the streets was declared foreign by my Hindi teacher.
Even the Urdu that the Awadh court patronised until the British annexed the province was not the language of the people. The language of the people was Awadhi, of which there seemed to be no trace in Lucknow anymore.
I wasn’t great at English. The year that the Hindi teacher ticked me off for using Farsi words – I must have been 13 – I flunked the English exam because I didn’t understand a word of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I wondered if people in England still spoke English like that. My parents were educated in Hindi-medium schools. They knew what disadvantages that brought in this world. They were proud of sending me to Christian-run English-medium schools.
We subscribed to two newspapers at home, one Hindi and one English. The Hindi teacher in school often mourned the declining standard of Hindi in the newspapers. The English papers taught me the peculiar Indian newspaper English. Eventually it was in Indian English that I found myself a language. I read RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and Mulk Raj Anand to find that English could describe the world around me with great ease, something that shuddh Hindi could not.
Macaulay’s minute and the Rajbhasha committee
I learnt later about Macaulay’s minute (“English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic”) and the English Education Act of 1835 whose purpose was to creating a native ruling class to assist colonisation. I also learnt about the Hindi-Urdu debate and its centrality to the Partition of India, and the Rajbhasha Committee of 1960. It is this committee, both a product and a propagator of Hindi nationalism, that was the reason why the Hindi I was taught felt like a foreign language. The same school taught me Sanskrit for four years. I loved Panini’s rules of grammar, getting a sense of a classical language, using Sanskrit words for “dog” and “fool” as expletives towards friends. This is also how I realised that the shuddh Hindi that was being shoved into our minds drew words from Sanskrit to replace the so-called Farsi words – words with origins outside the Indian subcontinent.
This was an agenda of those who believed in “Hindi Hindu Hindustan”, though ironically none of those three words is indigenous. As school became a distant memory and I didn’t have to read and write the Devnagiri script as though my life depended on it, the Hindi part of me has reduced considerably. Yes, I am a Macaulayputra but please don’t pretend you don’t know who’s to blame. It’s not Thomas Babington Macaulay but the Rajbhasha committee. I speak Indian Hinglish only. It is a more authentic Indian language than the joke that is shuddh Hindi. T
That is not to say my confusion over language is over. I have come to terms with the thought that I will never be flawless in any language. Language mein bohot problem hai. I have often wondered which language I think in. I have to ask myself that question often these days because the Hindi nationalists who are in power tell me I am an elitiya whose mind is colonised by Lord Macaulay. I would say I think in English but feel in Hindi.
Those who champion Hindi – such as the Rajbhasha Committee – mostly argue in the name of nationalism. It is our language, national language, official language, mother tongue. Yet the Hindi they promote is an alien language. I don’t even know what my mother tongue is. Hindustani? Hindi? Seraiki? Urdu? Indian English? Awadhi? If my mother tongue is the language my mother speaks, it is Hindustani, and I speak it too.
There is no one mother tongue in India, not even in the Hindi heartland. People speak Marwari and Bhojpuri, Gondi and Brajbhasha, Maithili and Mewari, Bundeli and Garhwali. This is why the Hindustani poetry of Amir Khusro, written 800 years ago, is more naturally intelligible to me than the gibberish Sanskritised Hindi that my government tells me is my language. Those who condemn me as a colonised, deracinated elitist who uses English as a tool of social domination must ask themselves, for instance, why Macaulayputras like me love watching Hindi cinema and hum Hindi songs all day.
It is not only the English-speaking whose minds need decolonisation. The nationalism of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan was created by and in response to colonisation. Modern nationalism itself came from Europe, thanks to the colonial enterprise. The decolonisation of language would be an artificial one, real decolonisation would require us to question nationalism. English was not only the language of colonisation but also central to the Indian freedom movement. Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Jinnah and so many others wrote in English. The Indian Constitution was first written in English, borrowing and making better ideas from Britain, the United States and elsewhere. India was imagined in English. The colonisers brought many things to India, such as tea. When they left, tea was still a drink of the elites. Can you imagine telling someone at a chai shop to stop drinking chai garam chai to decolonise themselves? That is how ridiculous the attack against Indian English is.
To promote Hindi, don’t promote it
If Hindi nationalists want to promote Hindi, they should learn from the history of English. The English language has developed, thrived and become the lingua franca of the world not by closing itself but by being open to influences from all over the world. If early English borrowed words from Latin, today’s English is a language juggernaut by having borrowed local words from Macaulay’s putras. Hindi nationalists should see the “Farsi” words that are used in English today, many of them having made it into the Queen’s language via India. They should read Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, a delicious book that the British are happy to read even today. All successful languages are mongrel languages that allow themselves natural, organic evolution through those who use it. This means not being insecure, nativist and xenophobic about foreign words.
In 2011, a bureaucrat with the backing of the Urdu-speaking prime minister Manmohan Singh Kohli, sent out a circular asking central government departments to use simpler Hindi. She gave examples. For instance, she said, the sentence “Tankan aivam ashulipi pariksha ke pariksharthi swagat-patal par panjikaran karayenge” would be a lot more comprehensible if it were expressed as, “Typing aur shorthand exam ke ummeedwar reception par registration karayenge.” I don’t know if good sense prevailed, but it is never too late for Hindi nationalists to learn.
The Rajbhasha Committee worries about government institutions such as the Indian Railways continuing to use English. They want to promote the use of Hindi by doing such things which are rewarding officials who use Hindi. They should ask themselves why they need to promote a language if it is the mother tongue of the people. All that the Rajbhasha Committee needs to do to promote Hindi is to dissolve itself, and all that Hindi nationalists need to do to popularise Hindi is to swallow their nationalism. If Narendra Modi wants to promote Hindi, he should go to his constituency Varanasi and pick up a newspaper called iNext, published by the Dainik Jagran group for the young reader. It is a bilingual paper that uses both Roman and Devangiri scripts, the Hindi and English languages, sometimes in the same article.
(An earlier version of this article first appeared Scroll, 8 August 2014.)