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Book Review
Hindi's history: split wide open
By Anand Vivek Taneja

Book: Hindi Nationalism
By Alok Rai
Publishers: Orient Longman
(Tracts for the Times Series)
Price: Rs 150

The importance of this book is best understood by some comparative linguistics of the simple sort. For a start, listen to a qawwali by Amir Khusrau. Then listen to a speech by Atal Behari Vajpayee on a good day. You will find the Khusrau qawwali, written seven hundred years ago, far easier to understand. And far more beautiful. (Though some would say that anything would be more beautiful than Vajpayee's interminable pauses, but let's not be unkind.) The fact that a Turkish noble, who was in effect a second generation immigrant to India wrote, and presumably spoke, a far more accessible language than the Brahmin Prime Minister of contemporary India, has a lesson for us which we ignore at our peril.

Alok Rai is highly qualified to give us these lessons and he does precisely that in a concise, yet erudite and passionate book. Apart from being an Allahabadi, and a respected scholar, he happens to be the grandson of Premchand, the father figure of modern Hindi, who also wrote a significant body of work in Urdu. And the importance and urgency of Alok Rai's work, for himself as well as any concerned reader, emerges out of the violence done to the fluid yet often magnificent language that the everyday characters of Premchand's wry fiction speak. This language has been replaced by a bureaucratized, dead, homogenized, Sanskritized, sanitized version that makes students regularly fail exams in their own 'mother-tongue', and make non-Hindi speakers dread and resent the language. Hindi, in short, is being done in by 'Hindi'.

Rai puts part of the blame on us, the English speakers of this country. As speakers of what is essentially an elite language, and often disconnected from vernacular realities, we are really in no position, even with our 'secular' (hopefully) outlooks and access to power, to challenge the sectarian and communal agendas that are now nearly inextricably linked with the 'Hindi' wallahs, and their (potential) mass audience.

Rai writes about how struggles for power determined the counter positioning of 'Hindi' against Urdu, English and Brajbhasha. He painstakingly explains how these struggles transformed a dynamic and popular language with near infinite local variations, to a homogenized, de-Persianized version of one dialect, Khari-Boli, which is essentially the language of the elite, Brahmin class. The book, though full of detailed, meticulous research, never drags like some other scholarly works.

Hindi Nationalism documents the rise of divisiveness between the languages through the school for British administrators at Calcutta's Fort William. Also covered is the struggle for the introduction of the Nagari script in the courts of Avadh from the late 19th century onwards, and the often arrogant reaction of the Persian-reading Kayastha and Muslim administrative elites to the 'boorish' upstarts from the Nagari-using classes. Rai skillfully narrates the struggle of 'Hindi' to emerge dominant as the 'one language' of the 'one nation', and the chauvinism and the contestation associated with it, down past Partition to the efforts of the 'Nagari Pracharan Sabha' in Tamil Nadu.

Though writing with a sense of urgency verging on desperation, Rai does not give up on Hindi, whose future as a language that links disparate regions and communities - as it did in the past - he does not doubt. In his own words, "There is no cause for pessimism here … my hope is to free Hindi from this repressed history of violence … and so enable it to realize itself. By distancing itself from 'Hindi', which is unmistakably a part of the problem, Hindi can work towards becoming part of the solution…"

And for anybody who has ever swayed to a Khusrau qawwali or applauded the recitation of a Ghalib sher, or smiled at a Premchand story, three final words - Read this book. There is also an extensive selection of quotes in myriad forms of Hindi (and if you insist, Urdu) rendered in Devnagari here.

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