Whose Hindi is it anyway?

merā azm itnā buland hai ki parā.e sholoñ kā dar nahīñ,

mujhe ḳhauf ātish-e-gul se hai ye kahīñ chaman ko jalā na de.

(Translation: My conviction is so strong that I do not fear the blaze of others, but indeed I am dreaded by the flame of a flower (of my own garden) lest it should not ablaze the garden (itself)).

I have often been reciting the above lines of the famous poet Shakeel Badayuni in my head in past some time thinking if in our wildest imaginations there is a Bharat Mata (Mother India), this is what she must be lamenting. Her adamant and unruly children have been innocently robing her of her multifaceted glory by imposing on her a certain uninformed and ridiculous linguistic monism. A mammoth is being reduced to a mink. We never really think beyond the political maps of South Asian countries. We never really imagine or explore the linguistic or cultural maps of South Asia and we misinterpret the political as cultural. It is really hard to kill a language. The South Asian cultural maps are fading to a mono-colour and the linguistic maps are shrinking too. Just imagine a multilingual landscape as variegated as South Asia becoming monolingual one fine morning. Think if everyone can speak and understand only one language—Hindi or English or Urdu.

            I grew up speaking Kashmiri. I think in Kashmiri because that is how I grew up in my family. I have Kashmiri friends and relatives who speak better Kashmiri than I do and yet others who speak awfully terrible Kashmiri. I do not know when I picked up Urdu growing up in Kashmir valley. When I came outside the valley as a child for the first time, I realised I was speaking to people around me in Urdu that they called Hindi—it was same. However, when I came across the people from the Hindi belt, I initially kept wondering why they spoke like how those characters on the television from the Ramayana of Ramanand Sagar or the Mahabharata of B.R. Chopra spoke. I used to laugh at some of my friends and ask why they couldn’t talk in normal language not realizing probably this is what was normal for them. And they in turn kept taunting me that my language sounded like Farsi (Persian) and thus very foreign to theirs. It was all linguistic fun and we would all enjoy it.

            In a few years’ time I was to be trained as a Sanskritist, and now since I was dealing with the idea of languages professionally, it all meant business to me. I was gradually unfolding the ‘power’ dynamics and ‘identity’ issues related to languages. I do recall a couple of times I felt severely discriminated along with a few other friends while walking at Connaught Place in New Delhi at the hands of a few street vendors because we were talking in Kashmiri. I also gradually became aware about how Kashmiri language had suffered in its land of birth because it was always made to be oppressed by the dominance of Urdu (which is the state language) exactly how so many other South Asian languages are made to be oppressed by the dominance of Hindi. The problem is not Hindi or Urdu or their marvelous literary traditions or the native speakers of these languages, but the problem is that on the name of the romantic notion of ‘one nation, one language’, the power that is being exercised through the imposition of a certain language of a certain large geographic zone of South Asia on to the lengths and the breadths of this multi-linguistic landmass.

            The line between love and hate is very subtle, but rather simple as well. I love languages out of my absolute free will and according to my taste, but I would begin hating them if they are imposed upon me. I love my Urdu, but I hate the Urdu that has been made to kill my mother-tongue. One of the main reasons of partition between Western Pakistan and Eastern Pakistan was that the former was imposing Urdu on the latter. Ironically former was predominantly a Punjabi speaking area and the latter was a Bengali speaking territory and Urdu as a concocted Islamic category was made to mediate between the two completely distinct cultural zones trying to unify them under the single imaginary Islamic linguistic umbrella. It had to be a miserable failure. In other words, the idea of a national language sounds wonderful, but only on a Wikipedia page. Language is not a representational symbol like a flag, but it is a dynamic reality. Even if one fine morning a certain multilingual nation like India becoming monolingual, over a course of time it will gradually create as many completely distinct dialects of that one single imposed language. This is a linguistic reality. Funnily India will land-up having hundreds of Hindi-s, but all unique in themselves.

            India should have a robust language policy that should emphasize on the quality of language learning rather than running meaningless language departments, both classical and modern, in almost all of its public universities those are not able to offer any contribution to scholarship at large. The question is always hijacked by how many or which language. There is never a sound focus on how to do a language structurally and systematically. There can be no bigger irony than this for a multilingual landscape like South Asia. I still love linguistic jokes, but I do have problems with linguistic hegemony—my mother-tongue has succumbed to it.

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