(Sharing three Bengali songs I grew up with. All three are by Hemant Mukhopadhay, the legendary singer and music composer who also sang in Hindi . Enjoy even if you don’t understand the lyrics)
(Deccan Chronicle, The Asian Age, February 28)
Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity
by Pavan K. Varma
Penguin, Rs 450
Hinglish is the lingua franca of the advertising world, campuses round the country, and increasingly even Bollywood. It may well overtake standard English as the most common spoken form of the language globally, but “a nation that hopes to take its place on the high table of the most powerful nations of the world can hardly afford to hobble into the 21st century on the crutches of Hinglish”, argues author-diplomat-historian Pavan K. Varma in his new book, Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity.
Hinglish is one among the myriad examples cited by Varma in this scathing critique of the growing tribe of “linguistic half-castes” in present-day India who cannot speak English properly and are adrift from their mother tongue.
Varma’s latest piece of work is a sequel to his earlier bestseller Being Indian. Drawing upon his formidable knowledge of Indian history, contemporary events and personal experience, he examines the legacies of colonialism that persist in our everyday life, affecting our language, politics, creative expression and self-image.
The devaluation of Indian languages is a core concern of the book because language is a symbol of people’s identity and is the most vital part of their culture. The language issue also underscores a deeper malady. “We have internalised the criticism of our indigenous culture by our own colonial rulers which manifests itself in the shocking neglect of so many aspects of our heritage”, rues the author.
The new book is Varma’s angriest till date. There is anger, he says, because “there is an urgent need to underline the point about the agenda of colonialism in the field of culture which is never interrogated, never scrutinised, and never explored for its continuing legacy”.
The purpose of colonialism was not the physical subjugation of the people but the colonisation of the mind, the book stresses. “There has been a political audit, an economic audit. But we have not had a cultural audit. I am genuinely apprehensive that a civilisation which was the benchmark of excellence in a variety of fields is on the verge of becoming a derivative civilisation. That transformation is something I find myself very unwilling to accept”, Varma says.
As we chat over a cup of coffee at New Delhi’s India International Centre, I tell him that reading the chapter “Macaulay’s legacy” took me back to my school days at Kolkata’s La Martiniere. Everyone was allotted a “house” on admission to the school. Mine happened to be Macaulay, as in Thomas Babington Macaulay, best-remembered for his avowed aim of creating a class of people who would be Indian in blood and colour,
but English in education, in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. Most people in my school could have been justifiably dubbed “Macaulay’s children”, but the tag did not worry us unduly at that time. Varma laughs uproariously.
Macaulay’s legacy continues, a point which the book emphasises through everyday illustrations: Bookshelves in most middle-class homes in cities have only English titles. Only English newspapers are available on Indian domestic and international airlines, whereas even in Pakistan Urdu papers are available on flights. Today, we have a situation where many of the educated in India have never read Kalidas or Thiruvalluvar but are familiar with Shakespeare. The last point is hammered home through a telling analogy: try imagining a situation in Britain where Englishmen take pride in knowing Kalidas but have never heard of Shakespeare. London is dotted with blue plaques commemorating homes where its scholars, artists and intellectuals lived. But in Delhi, he notes, until recently, even the haveli of its greatest Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, was occupied by a kabadiwallah, or peddler of junk, and was rented out for wedding receptions.
Becoming Indian is a passionate plea for the reappropriation of our linguistic and cultural space. This is also in our strategic interest, the book stresses.
No major power in the world is judged by the gross domestic product statistics alone. Culture, politics, economics, issues of social sensitivity all gell into creating an image of a nation, but while politics and economics are forever in the foreground, culture has been least analysed and least-researched in this country. Meanwhile, many parts of the world are waking up to the need to upgrade and expand their cultural infrastructure. China, with whom India is compared constantly, destroyed a considerable part of its classical heritage during the Cultural Revolution, but has now invested in 83 national museums and plans to boost the figure to a hundred in 2010. “By contrast, our museums, the repositories of so much of our heritage, remain in visible neglect. There is no proper display, no worthwhile scholarship, no cataloguing commensurate with international standards and no sense of pride in our priceless artefacts that would make us give them the attention and funds they deserve”. Indians need to seriously introspect on where they are in relation to their languages and in their our own interest because citizens of a great nation “cannot afford to appear like linguistic photocopies or caricatures”.
The book raises many important questions which we need to debate. It would be a pity if that does not happen. But I have only one niggling concern. Macaulay’s legacy and the gravity of its impact on our civilisational continuity is probably easier to appreciate when one’s basic needs have been satisfied. My part-time maid dreams of the day when her grandchild will be able to “abuse in English”. Heritage or civilisational continuity mean little to her. Her only goal is to somehow get the child out of the ghetto and ensure that he grabs a slice of the bigger pie that she has seen.
In a world where English is not used as a language of social exclusion, there would be no need to view English expletives as a passport to mobility. In such a world, my maid, I am sure, would share Varma’s vision of India.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and
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