Friday, June 20, 2014

Tamil and the Concept of India

Narendra Modi's "maximum Governance, minimum" Government has taken a minor detour, throwing in another troublesome issue into the pot of problems. The directive aimed at maximizing Hindi and minimizing English has Indian bureaucrats scrambling for Hindi dictionaries. Quite predictably, regional leaders seeing red, have issued strong written responses to the Center, causing the Modi-regime to partially recall their broad-spectrum antibiotic.

However, this stirred hornet's nest now smells of Annadurai and Periyar and of a certain Mr. Raghunath Vinayak Dhulekar who famously said - "People who do not know Hindustani have no right to stay in India. People who are present in the House to fashion a constitution for India and do not know Hindustani are not worthy members of this assembly. They had better leave."

The days of Hindustani ended a long time ago when the two-nation theory was practically imposed. The Persian-Arabic influence on Hindustani quickly decayed, quite naturally but with a few political nudges from here and there, until what remained was only Hindi. The fact that the Indian Constitution was written in English irked many in those days, but it stayed that way due to political and administrative vision that remained in an assembly ravaged by nationalistic fervour. Sixty years have passed since those turbulent times and we're back where we began. The same parties which had issues back in the day have troubles in accepting changes which are being imposed on them.

I write this article as a Tamilian and as an Indian, hoping that I don't have to choose between the two or explain which I am more - a Tamilian or an Indian. Since Tamil Nadu has been the most vocal state about its displeasure with these new directives, leading to questions about Tamil Nadu's patriotism and "why does TN have a problem if Andhra Pradesh can accept it?", I will give you a Madrassi's viewpoint and state, in clear terms, where we stand.

But for that, we will need to take a short trip into history.

History and Individuality:

The third century BC was a truly glorious period for the land which is now India, with great emperors such as Chandragupta Maurya and his grandson Ashoka creating some of the greatest land empires ever known to man and subsequently consolidating this powerful territory, ushering in a truly golden age. This (see left) is what the Mauryan empire looked like at its peak.

Ashoka, after relinquishing his arms rather dramatically after the Kalinga war, contributed majorly to the growth of another major Indian religion - Buddhism. The languages of his state, namely Magadhi, Sanskrit and the Prakrits flourished during this period.

At quite the same, the southern end of the Indian peninsula, was divided among three dynasties which were each centuries old already.

"Bindusara (Chandragupta Maurya's son) didn't conquer the friendly Dravidian kingdoms of the Chola, ruled by King Ilamcetcenni, the Pandyas, and Cheras. Apart from these southern states, Kalinga was the only kingdom in India that didn't form a part of Bindusara's empire. It was later conquered by his son, Ashoka."
Over the coming hundreds of years, the northern plains would change hands several times - with the seat of power remaining in Pataliputra and with Sanskrit gaining great prominence. The beginning of the golden Gupta age incidentally coincided with the last of the great Sangam meetings in the Pandyan kingdom.

Subsequently, while the kingdoms in the North fragmented further, the Chola empire also faded around the 4th Century AD, and remained hidden for nearly five centuries. This period marked the ascendancy of the Pallavas and the Pandyas in the southern part of the peninsula.

Even during this time, the cities of Mayiladudurai, Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Thiruchi and Pudukkottai fell under the sway of the fallen empire. Meanwhile the ascendant Pandyas further south extended their influence from their capital - Madurai.

Between 800 AD and the end of the thirteenth century, the Cholas were once again a well-established empire and often the most powerful kingdom of the south. Gangaikonda Cholapuram is, in fact, said to have been built after a successful military campaign all the way to the banks of the Ganges.

Beyond the thirteenth century, the Pandyas still flourished and even reached their peak. It wasn't until the raids by Malik Kafur and the formation of the Madurai Sultanate that this last great empire of South India was finally vanquished. All this after 2000 years at the helm of affairs.

Even after the end of the great empires of the south, India as a land was never fully consolidated. Below are two great Mughal empires from the 1600s, and both of them failed to completely absorb 'India' completely.


In fact, it wasn't until the British Raj that the map looked like this:

What all these millenia of indigenous rule has created - please note that the separated territory involved is predominantly Tamil Nadu and Kerala - is a strong sense of identity with language, which has been the pole-star in Tamil history.

Hindus, Muslims and Christians live cheek-by-jowl almost everywhere along TN's coastline today. In fact, some of the best assimilation of different communities in a particular area can be seen in the state, where you can easily mistake a dargah's ritual as that of a temple's, or confuse Mariamman with Mother Mary. These are people divided by faith and united by language.

Unlike most Northern communities where people identify most strongly with religion and caste, the divisions down south are on lingual lines. Although I previously removed AP from this picture, one will do well to remember Potti Sriramulu (picture below), who born into the Madras Presidency died as a Telugu martyr.

His death reshaped India's map and gave us states based on language. Interestingly enough, there were debates as to whether Madras was to be part of Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu (with C. Rajagopalachari and Nehru, both favouring to keep it in TN) owing to the large communities of Andhrites as well as Tamilians in the city.

When human beings draw careless boundaries on the map, they reshape the future of civilization. Only a few decades after the formation of AP, we have only a small (but often influential) representation of Telugu-speakers in Chennai today. Similarly, Tirupati - where boards in Tamil were ubiquitous - has been cleansed of the Tamil language and replaced by Telugu. Stronger divides still, happen on the national level, as in the case of India and Pakistan, where now the respective scripts are mutually unintelligible. 

What all this tells us is that language, like any other aspect of civilization, requires patronage and support in order to exist. The invisible hand of market forces can hardly stand up to the real force of political will. In such a scenario, it makes perfect sense to protect a language and preserve heritage. Reactionary steps are only to be expected when the Government of the land tries to propagate one of its languages preferentially, albeit not necessarily at the expense of another. But we are talking about identity here, and there are few things that come with higher stakes.

The Modern Notion of India:

Sometimes, I am perturbed by the fact that restaurants in Delhi have on their boards messages such as:
"Cuisines: Indian, South Indian, Chinese". The definition of 'India' then begins to confuse me. Is South India a sub-set of India (as would seem logical) or is it another part of a vast region, thoroughly separated, united only by national elections?

Even today, I am asked - "Why do your people not speak Hindi? It is the mother tongue of the majority of India!" To clarify things at this point, I speak Hindi and Tamil, although I can write only in the former, much to my chagrin. My parents, brought up in 20th Century India, decided that it was better for me to learn the language spoken by the majority first, before my own mother tongue. While all that is water under the bridge, this only helps me consolidate my point that the people of Tamil Nadu are not opposed to Hindi as a language.

However, we expect our guests to speak in Tamil (or at least feign to learn) when they are visiting us, just the way we learn Hindi when we visit them. To say that Hindi is more Indian than Tamil is, or the even more inane "Hindi is the national language", is a poor line for a patriot to take. I am reminded of a vivid quote made by C. N. Annadurai - "It is claimed that Hindi should be the common language because it is spoken by the majority. Why should we then claim the tiger as our national animal instead of the rat which is so much more numerous? Or the peocock as our national bird when the crow is ubiquitous?"

It must also be noted here that Hindi and English are both, to some extent, foreign languages in the southern tip of the peninsula. The fact that enterprising Malabaris have picked up the languages quickly and become trilingual (I am assuming not all Malabaris can speak Arabic also) is something they should be credited with, and this is not something one can hold against people who haven't become multilingual with such rapidity.

While the question of whether a person from Region C should be encouraged, or perhaps forced, to speak in Hindi is widely debated, the more basic question regarding whether an outsider should be asked to learn the tongue-of-the-land is being left unattended. When I first went to Roorkee (which lies in the state of Uttarakhand), I was appalled to find out that people couldn't match the southern states with their respective languages. In fact, even today, I'm fairly confident that few will be able to tell which language is which from among the following:

So, another thing that the imposition of Hindi by the state does is promote one-upmanship, and let citizens take it for granted that Hindi is more important than any other language in India. In fact, prominent books written in the twenty-first century use those very words - "Hindi is the most important language in the country". Such statements beg the question: "Does Indian-ness have its roots in Hindi?"

Is it wrong for an auto-wallah in TN (who probably doesn't know Hindi) to speak in Tamil to a Hindi-speaker, while it is right for the Prime Minister (who clearly knows English) to converse in Hindi alone with a non-Hindi speaker? Why is the promotion of a state-language any different from the promotion of a state-religion? Why is only one of these considered taboo?

Second Language and The Future:

Because most higher-learning in this world is being transmitted through the medium of English, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reject the language altogether. Unless the state can magically conjure a similar infrastructure in Hindi, as there exists in English, it will be wrong to ask people of the southern states to choose Hindi over English, as their second language.

For all practical purposes, this would imply that quarter of a billion people become trilingual at least, to ensure a smooth transition. Learning languages isn't an easy task, especially when the languages belong to entirely different families. This is another reason why Gujaratis, Marwadis and even Maharashtrians can understand Hindi more easily than Tamilians. Similar scripts and shared roots are a great advantage while learning new tongues.

Contrary to a popular misconception, Tamil does not have its roots in Sanskrit. The other three languages have different proportions of Tamil and Sanskrit, as they evolved over the millenniums, gradually developing a flavour of their own. Kannada and Telugu especially, have incorporated far more Sanskrit, and are therefore slightly closer to the northern stream of languages.

All this makes it difficult, both in terms of learning and in terms of ideological acceptance, for Hindi to become a widely accepted second-language in the south, especially in Tamil Nadu. It is possible that, over time, there will be organic growth of the language (this is actually highly probable due to the one-sided language transfer within the country) and that is the only acceptable solution.

Until then, we don't need any more link languages. And thank you very much, we're well-integrated into mother India. We certainly don't need anyone to tell us how we can be better Indians.

Friday, June 6, 2014

People: The Talkative Bengali

On my way back to Delhi from Dhaka, I had the fortune to come across this most colourful Bangladeshi who just wouldn't stop talking. Here's what he had to say about life, the universe and everything else.

Sometimes people from Bangladesh go for Hajj and never come back. We can hide and work in Saudi... Even if we are caught, what will they do? They can only send us back.

The Good:
"Bangladeshi ko respect nahin karta log... Indians are respected, on a relative scale at least. Even in Dubai, Indians and Pakistanis were better off. Bangladeshis are seen as idiots. Luckily for me, I learn languages quickly. I can speak Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Malabari and little Arabi...

You said you are from Chennai? Chaapaadu khaya?"

The Bad:
"Apna gaon me bhi kaala hota hai... (Even in our place, there are black people.) Even in the Arabi gaon, there are a few black people. But I don't understand how the entire gaon in Malabar can be black. Allah kasam, these people must have done something wrong in their previous birth!"

The Funny:
"Noya Bangladesi joyega na, usko kuch nahin maalum hota hai. (When new Bangladeshi goes - to the Gulf - he doesn't know anything.) I had one friend who came to Dubai with me. One day, police stopped him and asked for his pataka. He was confused. He checked his pocket because he was scared and then, he searched the surroundings. He looked at the top of all the surrounding buildings also! Then he got angry with policeman, and shouted at him - 'There is no pataka here! You are trying to play a game with me.'

You see, the problem is that Pataka in Arabi means ID Card. So policeman was asking for his ID Card. But in Bangla, Pataka means flag. My friend was searching for the national flag."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Importance of Reality

Ever since I bought my DSLR camera, I've been trying to justify why I find certain things worthy of seat in my 16GB memory card and why I don't give certain other things a chance. In other words, I have been wondering - often cursing myself for not being able to generate a reasonable answer - what I find beautiful and what I do not. Are only beautiful things worthy of being captured through the lens? Or is everything that one chooses to capture through the lens beautiful?

Such questions, when left unanswered, become bothersome indeed. This one in particular grew so loud over the past few months that I dreaded the moment I'd have to pull the camera out of its black leather bag. Sometimes, intimidated by the question and confused by the implications of the answer that it would elicit, I have chosen not to act, letting the shot go and forgetting the moment forever. The past few days have serendipitously provided answers and somehow eased the pressure on my right index finger just before the click. But before I talk about answers, I must first explain the question itself.

When I first moved to Delhi a few months ago, an eager friend dragged me by the arm into what he believed was one of the finest spots to unleash the potential of a 18mm-55mm lens: Akshardham. Fine weather and a clear sky embraced us that day as I watched hundreds of men and women committing, through a click, the pink sandstone to memory forever. Then I looked at the monument through the Viewfinder and realized that it was all that I had imagined it to be - aesthetically appeasing, symettrical and clean. But it was nothing more.

I remember standing there for a while, then shifting positions uneasily, surreptitiously sneaking into the grassed area and then returning to my original spot, hoping to get the right click. I adjusted every single setting on the device, until it became obvious that there would be no magical camera-moment that day. So I clicked the picture anyway, more to please my friend than anything else. That was when the question - What is beautiful? - intensified.

To complicate things further, when I visited Chandni Chowk on the subsequent weekend, I found it intensely photogenic. Grime, dust and heaps of garbage notwithstanding, this place was far more interesting through the lens than Akshardham or the Lotus Temple could ever be. I found it almost as beautiful as Kurla Station on a busy Monday morning, Ranganathan Street just before Karthikai Deepam or, for that matter, the narrow gullies in Mathura for which no one cared. Perhaps I should speak of how much more I thought of the rickety ferry between Al Ras and Al Ghubaiba in Dubai than I did of Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower. Or why the messiest port on the Ganga is just as memorable as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Perhaps you will come to the same conclusion that I arrived upon a few days ago - that I am deliberately being nonconformist, that I'm rejecting socially accepted standards of beauty just because they're the accepted norms. Perhaps you think that I'm being a dissenter for the sake of being branded as one. I will not blame you for reaching such a conclusion for I was unable to come up with a much better explanation myself until recently. Everytime somebody told me "But Europe is the most beautiful place!", I found myself cringing. I felt the desperate urge to ask them what it was particularly that they found so beautiful and why they found it more beautiful than another exceptional place (the world will never be short of exceptional places).

For a long while I hated myself not for being critical of people who could make superficial, all-encompassing judgements (such as New York > Paris or Delhi > Kolkata) but for not being able to explain why I disagreed with them. Perhaps you might well argue your case if you were required to live in such a place and make a living there, but I think it is quite strange that travellers make such statements. Well yes, if you compare the number of malls or if you use the width of the roads as a numerical parameter to pass such a judgement, you can use all these logical operators ('<', '>', '='). But only a fool would compare Bangladesh's roads to New York's or Dhaka's almighty history with that of The Big Apple's 200 year version.

I think human endeavour is beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful than nature's boons. Cultures evolve out of this endeavour, languages are composed through human effort and architecture develops from collective creativity and sweat. Every second of the minute, every minute of the hour and hour of the day, these efforts are being made. Some are reinforced, a few are cancelled out and some just hang in there. So it is safe to say that styles which have developed over hundreds of years aren't born out of chance. They are organic to the place; in other words, they are real.

Reality is, if not beautiful (I will contest that it always is), very important. Reality is when you don't have to wear a mask or put up boards on either side of a bridge to hide the houses of the poor or when you can be proud of yourself for what you are. Reality is the consequence of a multitude of forces, human and natural, which is so difficult to duplicate that any attempt to do so manifests itself as contrivance. There was something unnatural about Akshardham which, even though splendid in architectural design, left it bereft of the magic that other 'real' monuments conjure. Perhaps, over time, it will become as real as everything else, but that day is not today.

This concept of reality is also what prevents me from accepting blank statements which say that a sparsely populated town in the US or in Scandinavia is any more beautiful in the eyes of a traveller than Baghdad or Lagos. If you find one place intensely more attractive, it is because of the tinted lenses that you wear. Take them off, learn about the place and you will find magic in the place you are visiting. When you realize what is real, it is hard not to find that beautiful.

Perhaps you will disagree with much of what I have said about beauty and reality today, but I am satisfied that I have been able to articulate what  has avoided me for quite some time now. So the next time when I think that the scene at 10 a.m. underneath the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway just outside DLF Cybercity is worthier of being captured by the lens than the haute-couture within DLF's swanky CyberHub, my finger won't tremble with doubt.