Words unheard


A broad-brush history of the last thousand years for the subcontinent that we now recognize A as India, whatever else it may or may not choose to recall, will look deficient if it does not mention the emergence of the modern Indian languages, the bhashas. Such a history is bound to talk of our transition from the feudal economy and political order to industrial economy and democracy. It will no doubt devote space to narrating the colonial experience, the clash between tradition and modernity and the shift from conventional rural forms of sense and sentiment to semi-urban order of civics and ethics. But no history of India over the last millennia can be conceived or completed without pointing to the birth and the pervasive spread of the bhashas.


The dates of their origin vary quite substantially. If the history of Marathi can be traced back to the seventh century AD, that of Odia can go back to the 11th century. Tamil may have a good two-and-ahalf millennia of existence to claim while Malayalam may have but a third of that span to its claim. However, in spite of having different dates of the first known use of these languages, what is common for all of them is that they had more or less replaced the previously used prakrits and apabhramshas and started acquiring a new energy at the beginning of the second millennium.

These were many languages: Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Tulu and Malayalam in the south; Assamiya, Boro, Manipuri, Bangla, Odia in the northeast and the east; Kashmiri, Dogri and Punjabi in the northwest; Gujarati, Marathi and Konkani in the west and Hindi, Magahi, Maithili, Urdu and Bhojpuri in central India. This is not the complete list of languages that sprung up during the first half of the last millennium. There were, additionally, Santali, Gondi and Bhilli, the languages that we now call `tribal languages'. There were also languages of nomadic communities such as the Bhantu of the Sansis and Gormati of the Banjaras, and many more.

The rise of the bhashas in India is historically comparable with the rise of the modern European languages. As Latin declined, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish sprung up; and, more or less in the same period, English, German, Russian, Czech, Polish and Swiss gained currency. One may almost read the rise of the modern languages all over the world as a necessary historical prelude to the rise of the modern world. Of course, establishing causality be- tween the rise of a given language and the condition of the society that uses it is not easy. Yet, the status of a given language can safely be taken as a necessary condition for the rise or the fall of the society using it.

Linguists describe the languages such as the European French or Indian Kannada in terms of a chronology made of the ancient, the middle and the modern. Though mindful of this scholarly convention, let me use the term `modern languages' for all of these millennial languages. These modern languages received the benefits of the technologies contributing to their growth more or less at the same time. Thus, the use of paper for writing spread in Asia and Europe between the 12th century and the 14th century. China was an exception in that it had hit upon the idea much earlier. The use of printing for multiple copies of what was written came to be known to the modern languages beginning with the 15th century to the 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, to speak metaphorically, `the world was in print'. Given the command over paper-making and printing, the modern languages began production of written and printed literature all over the world. The Indian bhashas made big strides in that direction during the 19th century.

The modern languages, combined with the paper and print technology, created knowledge institutions for their perpetuation. Although the histories of the struggle for creation of language-related institutions have dissimilar chronologies in different modern languages, they all had entered the phase of localized knowledge production by the end of the 19th century. This was true of the bhashas as well. The range of new subjects and disciplines they explored during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century is truly impressive, even unprecedented. Beginning with history, the social sciences, linguistics and philosophy up to physics, mathematics, cosmology, environment-study and medicine, the pre-Independence writers and scholars contributed to the bhashas. The number of books produced in them, theatre, music and cinema activity in them and their widespread use for speaking, reading and writing by a decidedly large number of persons created for the bhashas a promise of gaining stature as languages of knowledge.

Today, that promise lies broken. As India became ready to experience independence, the constituent assembly proposed a list of 14 Indian languages as the languages of modern India. It is true that the list had Sanskrit included in it for complicated historical and emotional reasons and Sindhi got included in response to the trauma of Partition. But, the 12 other languages had indeed been thought of as the potential languages of not only governance but also of knowledge.

It is sad that the bhashas spoken by a larger part of India's 130 crore are nowhere in the reckoning of the world. Not one of them is seen even by its speakers as a language of knowledge. Not one is considered the language of opportunities, not one as the language of India's future. The bhashas survive today merely because they have not been officially replaced by a modern language like English. Of course, there has been no shortage of linguistic chauvinism in our country. There have been some memorable language movements; and there have been numerous other, not so memorable, initiatives twining identity and language. They all deserved the political space. Yet, where is at least one notable institution of learning in any of the bhashas that has truly made a global mark? Where is the Indian writer, leaving aside Ghalib of the 19th century, Tagore and Premchand of the 20th century, who writes in a bhasha and is read or respected all over the world? After Tagore, not one of them was ever found worthy of a Nobel. Where are the science journals in the bhashas that the scientific community outside may want to consult? Of course, we have great cinema and greater music in Indian languages. But, cinema and music alone do not make a language a great language.

It is really time for us to think as to why in the century described as the knowledge century India is a `failed' nation. The ability of intellectual classes to use the English language as the language of our lived knowledge is no compensation for what we lose when the bhashas are severely eclipsed. Enriching bhashas does not mean learning to hate English. Forced replacement of English with Hindi is no solution either. That would be the case of a medicine deadlier than the disease. It is both civilized and prudent to love the bhashas as well as the modern languages of knowledge. But it will be visionary to start thinking of how to empower the bhashas, how to bring to them contemporary knowledge in every possible discipline, how to revitalize them. Governments and formal patronage cannot accomplish this. All that formal patronage can do is to multiply mediocrity. Revitalization of the partially paralyzed bhashas will be possible when we understand that the bhashas laid the foundation of Indian modernity, and that `progress' in another language-ecology is an intellectual mirage. One wonders if we ever will, or if it is already too late in the day.

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courtesy : “The Telegraph”, 02 November 2018


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Rod and Mr Reddy: A natural pairing

Ramachandra Guha

Two intellectual heroes with not a trace of pomposity and a fine sense of humour

In the past decade, I have often visited Cambridge, Massachusetts, and come to like it enormously. The town has fine cafes and bookshops and — as the home of Harvard and MIT—a greater concentration of intellectual talent than any other place in the world. The best time to visit it is in the fall, when the air is crisp and the sky cloudless, and the colours are beginning to change.

I spent the last week of October in Cambridge. I ate at some nice places, rummaged through the shelves and cartons in the Harvard and Raven Bookstores, walked through the streets, met some old friends and made some new ones. I also made a trip to Walden Pond, taking a long parikrama around it, observing the other worshippers, young and old, as well as the glorious foliage that surrounds these holy waters.

For me, among the attractions of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that it is home to two scholars I enormously admire. One is the great historian of modern China, Roderick MacFarquhar. Rod (as I call him) is of Scottish extraction. He was born in 1930 in Lahore, where his father was a colonial civil servant. He was sent to boarding school in Scotland, and then went up to Oxford. On graduating, he became a journalist, covering Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral for the BBC and Mao’s Cultural Revolution for The Economist. He then served a term in the UK Parliament as a Labour MP.

Roderick Macfarquhar
Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

In 1960, while still a journalist, Rod MacFarquhar had founded The China Quarterly, which quickly became the leading English-language journal on contemporary China. Before entering politics, the editor had himself written several books on China. After he failed to win re-election to Parliament, Rod chose not to return to journalism but to become an academic instead. In the 1980s, he was appointed to a professorship at Harvard University and, later, became a much admired head of its Government Department. In between his teaching and administrative duties, he authored three landmark volumes on the origins of the Cultural Revolution.

American universities have no retirement age for their professors. Some carry on teaching into their eighties and even into their nineties, determined to have a say in new appointments and curriculum changes even when manifestly out of touch. Like most politicians, most academics also do not know when to retire. Rod MacFarquhar was different. He chose to vacate his prestigious named chair when people would ask ‘Why?’ rather than ‘Why Not?’. A young friend of mine took one of his last classes, a seminar on ‘Political Leadership’, which had its students absolutely enthralled.

In retirement, Rod MacFarquhar continues to write the odd essay in The New York Review of Books, to attend seminars and answer queries from younger academics (when asked). But unlike most other academics and unlike almost all politicians, he has no desire to cling on to the vestiges of the power and the status that past accomplishments have awarded him.

Rod MacFarquhar has lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the past three decades. Another scholar I venerate moved there more recently. E.S. (Enuga) Reddy was born in Nellore in 1924; after taking a first degree in Madras (where he was active in student politics), he went to New York for further studies. Thereafter, he joined the United Nations, where he worked for 35 years, ending as Assistant Secretary-General.

Mr Reddy had many different assignments in the UN. However, he was best known for steering the organization’s Special Committee against Apartheid. From the early 1960s to the mid 1980s, he catalyzed world opinion against the racist regime in South Africa. After he retired, he continued the campaign in his personal capacity. When apartheid finally fell, Mr Reddy visited South Africa where he was received like the hero he was, and decorated with a high State honour. Not long afterwards, in Mumbai, I met an activist from Durban who had spent many years in exile. When I mentioned Mr Reddy’s name, he instinctively stood up as a mark of the respect that so many ordinary South Africans have for this extraordinary Indian, and which must surely mean more to the man than the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo that he also possesses.

While working on South Africa, Mr Reddy developed a serious scholarly interest in Gandhi. He now has the largest collection of articles and clippings on the subject outside of the Sabarmati Ashram. These he shares freely with scholars of all nationalities and countless books written by others have been made possible by his generosity.

Mr Reddy and his Turkish wife (a translator of the poet, Nazim Hikmet) lived for more than 50 years in Manhattan. However, a couple of years ago, their daughter persuaded them to move to Cambridge where she was herself based. It was in this town that I saw the Reddys last month, in their new apartment off Western Avenue. We spoke, as always, mostly of the Mahatma.

Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy

On this last visit, I also saw Rod MacFarquhar in his apartment on Memorial Drive. As I entered, Rod paid me an unexpected compliment; I was, he said, the third Indian he had known who always arrived on time. (I asked for the names of the others; they turned out to be the patriot and liberal parliamentarian, the late Minoo Masani; and the maverick economist-turned-hardline Hindutvavadi, Subramanian Swamy.)

Note that I call one man by his first name and the other by a respectful prefix. This is because I got to know Rod in the informal, relaxed world of the American academy; whereas Mr Reddy is my father’s age and has been, in terms of his influence on my own work on Gandhi, a father-figure.

Roderick MacFarquhar and Enuga Reddy do not know one another. It is very likely that they do not know of each other. Yet, in this writer’s mind, they make for a natural pairing. Both have made major contributions to scholarship and to public life. Both have nurtured institutions and mentored many talented individuals. Both have strong roots in their native country but are greatly admired in a country not their own: China in the case of Roderick MacFarquhar, South Africa in the case of E.S. Reddy. And yet both made their home and carried out their profession in a third country altogether: the United States of America.

Rod and Mr Reddy are also united by attributes of personal character. In their prime, both wore their learning as well as their professional distinction lightly. Now, in retirement, they absolutely do not crave or miss the power or fame they once possessed. Neither has a trace of pomposity; both have a fine sense of humour (often aimed at themselves). Both are generous with their time and their resources; Mr Reddy has donated rare South African materials to Yale and rare Gandhi materials to the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, while Rod is keen to donate his great library of Chinese materials to a university in India.

While in Cambridge in late October, I enjoyed my time in the bookstores around Harvard Square and my walk around Walden Pond. But the highlight of my visit was the darshans I had and the conversations I conducted with Roderick MacFarquhar and Enuga Reddy, two of my personal heroes.

courtesy : "The Telegraph", 10 November 2018


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features