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From an Historian’s Notebook: Joys of Parochial Self-effacement

I can read ‘Hindi’; I can speak bad Hindi if I am allowed to disregard all rules of gender; and I can write it if
linguistic diversity and parochialism
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When I was growing up in Calcutta, there was an unpleasant movement called ‘Amra Bangali’ that specialized in defacing street signs and shopfronts with tar if they had English-language lettering on them. Many people decided to live with the defacement; some undertook the Sisyphean task of cleaning off the tar smears; others decided that compliance was a minor compromise. I cannot forget the sight of our family doctor, whose consulting chambers were in Lake Market, standing on a ladder, repainting his sign himself in Bengali: Majumdar Clinic, he wrote in the Bengali script, replacing the English sign that had read ‘Mazumdar Clinic’; and, of course, the ‘z’ reflected the consonant shifts of his East Bengali origins better. 

At the time, Bengali and Bengalis had come to be associated with a narrow-minded and parochial rejection of the world, embodied in the term ‘apasanskriti’, which I always translated as ‘entartete Kunst’, decadent art, the renowned Nazi expression that had led to the persecution of so many creative figures in the German-speaking world. How this happened is a longer story for social historians to tell, and they would be hard-pressed to explain how this tendency made its way into ‘progressive’ Bengal and came to be used mainly to denounce anyone who engaged at all with ‘the west’ or ‘the western world’. It took my grandmother’s insistence on reading out to me Bengali poetry and my Bengali teacher Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya’s complete comfort with the literatures of the world to convince me that Bengali was not the language of backward-looking pot-bellied hooligans, and therefore a language worth cultivating.

Fast forward a few years, and the whole academic world caught up: denouncing all things ‘western’ is now the central tenet of postcolonial academia, and of course much of western academia is concerned with ‘the non-west’, ‘the global south’, and so on. The sight of ‘global south’-based Uncle Toms invited by western academics to denounce the West from the universities of the West, and making a pretty good living doing so, has become commonplace.

But I digress: Bengal for Bengalis, or other such purificatory fantasies, belong to different worlds, and according to the values cultivated today, it is those with greater claims to being downtrodden who must triumph in the Olympics of the oppressed. I have been given to understand in no uncertain terms that the issue today is Hindi and its alleged status as an Indian national language. I don't believe 'Hindi' is one thing; and although its diversity has been swallowed up by vulgar nationalist propaganda since the 19th century (promoted, ironically, by several Bengali nationalists in search of a 'national' language that is not English), it has seriously prevented me from reading literature in the Nāgarī script of any description. I can read 'Hindi'; I can speak bad Hindi if I am allowed to disregard all rules of gender; and I can write it if I must (my spelling is better than my grammar). But I somehow can't do it without feeling that I am participating in some weird imperialist project. This has seriously hampered my engagement with much of North India, somewhat dismissively known now as the 'cow belt'.

As I listen to various statements from the Hindutva brigade about the need to stuff Hindi down the throats of all Indians (with the accompanying assumption that that which is stuffed down throats re-emerges as a coherent national language), and at the anger generated at this attempt in other regions of the country still known as India, I am also concerned that a return to other parochialisms ought not to be defended as a solution. Language is a means of communication; and before the age of nationalisms, no one defended a monolingual world or a world of restricted language use as a virtue. Not every user of a language was adept at its use; not every speaker of four or five languages was expected to speak all of them with equal felicity; but the ability to switch languages greatly aided the work of communication and increased one’s chances of having a language, at least understandable in its basics, in common with another person who hadn’t grown up in the same socio-cultural milieu as you.

But meanwhile, the academic world has decided to tell us, loudly and (mostly) in English, that it is the Global South that should be given priority in all claims to language, culture, and civilization. What exactly this means will vary from person to person: what’s important is that we recite this slogan. The justification of various parochialisms that results from global southism, reinforced, as we noted, by a general academic guilt in what we have decided to call the global north, creates a perfect environment for völkisch thinkers, and for ethnocentric and fascist governments from the global south, while all who refuse to play the game of reverse-hierarchy are forced into the ghettos predefined by their academic colleagues. There’s a disjuncture here that is only apparently one: it’s the same world that produces mythologies of the authentic Volk and the academics who insist that only their own work as global southists be taken seriously. (South Africa is now the North of the Global South, incidentally: we shall hear more of this in the years to come.) 

In a world where knowledge production is divided by a priori notions of hard cultural divides that are congruent with linguistic ones, it’s hard to be understood if we don’t speak in that one voice – or at least if we don’t all speak in English about all having an authentic voice that, mysteriously, only expresses itself in an authentic language. That authentic language is so authentic that many of its users have no idea how authentic it really is, because many of them don’t speak English and therefore can’t express themselves in the language of authenticity claims. Is this, then, that which divides linguistic parochialism from linguistic self-determination – the former must make authenticity claims on its behalf in English, the latter can’t? Or is that what distinguishes the fascists and populists from the academics – the former make authenticity claims in their own languages to their own predefined Volk, and the academics make that same claim in English to the rest of the world, only framing it more broadly in terms of cultural autonomy, ‘decolonization’, or the redressal of the historic injustices of the Enlightenment’s tyranny over non-Europeans? Perhaps for the academics, the claims to Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani or Ein Reich, Ein Volk … are to be used with more caution. But then again, perhaps not.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of or its editorial team members. 

Image courtesy: Public domain

Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

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