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Monday, 16 April 2012

The H Y Sharada Prasad Memorial Lecture

On 15 APRIL 2012
At India International Centre Annex, New Delhi

Namaskara and good evening to everybody. I consider it a great honour to have been invited to deliver the H Y Sharada Prasad Memorial Lecture on the occasion of his 88th birth anniversary. Although this gives me an opportunity to pay respects, to offer 'guru vandana', to a man who has been such an enormous influence on me, it's not that I haven't asked myself if I really deserve this honour? 

There are many reasons why I ask this question: One, I don't think I'll ever match the exacting standards of learning and scholarship that Sharada Prasad had set, not so much for others, but for himself. Two, I don't think it is easy to practice his exemplary humility and self-effacing nature in this world of intense marketing of the self. Let alone achieve, but to even assume a method of ratiocination that doesn't gradually drift towards the frigidity of logic and a reflection of one's moral being that doesn't end up assigning a false grandeur and superiority to oneself, is itself daunting. Sharada Prasad was a master of this process and in that sense, he was a true yogi, an ascetic. Even amidst his worldly occupations, there was an always-on meditative engagement that made him so very special. It is perhaps appropriate here to recall a prayer that he made to himself in 1957, when he was about to join government service [this was discovered 52 years later, in 2009, after his death]. He wrote: "I am saying goodbye to one profession [journalism] in a metropolitan city [Bombay] and am settling down in the capital of the country in government service. Let there be no ostentation and authoritativeness of a government officer, but a sense that I am in peoples' service. Protect me. Let the fact that there is someone above even the high, take root in my heart and mind. Let me always remember that peoples welfare should be above everything. Let not the glitter, authority, status, importance of the capital overpower me. Let the knowledge that the inner voice is my guide, be my protection." This almost reads like a 'vachana' written by one of the 12th century Kannada mystics. [And as you all know the 12th century in Karnataka was a period of great social churning, transformation and moral refinement]. It also reads like an extract or exegesis of a 16th century Purandara Dasa composition.     

I feel hugely inadequate to speak in the memory of such a fine human being and also on a subject about which he had such an intuitive grasp. There is a phrase called 'humba prayatna' in Kannada and it translates very poorly into English as 'foolhardy endeavour or enterprise'. That is what I think I'll put on display here, today, and I seek your pardon right at the beginning.

Even as I say all this, offer disclaimers, I feel I have a small right and an emotional claim to speak in Sharada Prasad's memory. For a very long time I thought of myself as his 'Ekalavya-Shishya'. But only when I got pretty close to him in the final decade of his life, did I realise that he was neither interested in playing 'guru' nor was he the type who sought 'guru dakshina'. He could of course be 'jagadguru', like some of his colleagues in Indira Gandhi's secretariat called him, but he could not be 'guru' in a banal and hierarchical manner of the term. I was his 'young friend' first whom he welcomed into his life by singing a lovely Kannada poem by Devudu Narasimha Shastry, and then, at various points, I was referred to as a 'son' and a 'brother'. When I got married, a silver bowl to hold vermillion, an ancestral acquisition, was symbolically shared with my wife to induct her into the family into which, without my knowing, I had long been made part of. 

Whenever Sharada Prasad came to Bangalore or when I visited Delhi, I would sit before him and argue endlessly; blabber my views forgetting who I was talking to and often goaded him to give the inside story of his eventful life. He never snubbed or silenced me. Surprisingly, he never spoke in riddles. He did not give an impression that he has withholding or hiding information. What he had willed not to share with the world, I sometimes felt, he had locked it up somewhere deep in his marrow, because the mind could trick anybody. Perhaps he had deliberately misplaced the keys, so that he too could not access it in a weak moment. As I wrote in my Outlook obituary in September 2008, for this atheist, his will was his god.


I don't want to assume that Sharada Prasad is only an excuse and not the subject of today's talk. He is, in fact, the finest illustration of the idea that I am about to explore - bilingualism as a cultural idea. I would like to assert that there was a Kannada nuance to his reflection, sobriety, humility, graciousness, simplicity and scholarship. A mind that was not exposed to the Vachanakaras or influenced by Dasa literature could not have made the prayer that he made in 1957 before joining government service [there are many more refined examples that one could give from his writings of course]. His wisdom and enormous common sense was a synthesis of the two languages he had mastery over and the two worlds that he inhabited - Kannada and English. He knew other languages of course, but I would not like to complicate my thesis at this point. I want to keep the focus only on his two primary worlds - one his natural tongue or his mother tongue, and another, his acquired tongue. He blended the two languages and two worlds in both his writing and ghost writing. It was not merely a linguistic or literary blending or borrowing, but a blending of worldviews [there are some writers who cleverly indulge in literary borrowings to add flourish to their writing and make it look distinct. They have an eye on a pan-Indian audience and particularly pan-Indian fame, Sharada Prasad's borrowings were not such flimsy and modular borrowings]. Former Chief Justice of India, M N Venkatachalaiah, when he released a translation of Sharada Prasad's essays in Kannada, in 2006, said something very interesting and beautiful: "Sharada Prasad is a 16-annas Mysorean, but he is also a 18-annas Indian. He is a great gift of Mysore to the country, who epitomises sajjanike [integrity], saralate [simplicity] and panditya [scholarship]. In our simple but wonderful culture [meaning the local Mysore culture], connubial felicity used to be the thought behind a husband bringing Mysore mallige [jasmine] to his wife, a little Mysore pak, may be even some Nanjangud rasabale [a plantain with a GI tag]. To that connubial felicity, we can add the graciousness of Sharada Prasad. He represents a kind of civilisational culture." It is the nature of this graciousness, and the blending and borrowing between languages and cultures which created a unique civilisational culture in Sharada Prasad and that is something I would like to engage with here today.

I am not an academic who can marshal great many references to substantiate what I am saying, but only a journalist or merely a journalist, who has been trained to function on intuition, common sense and a bit of hurried reading. So, there is no grand theory being proposed here, but quite simply observations or a felt and practiced belief system if you wish to so call it.  


What is this bilingualism as a cultural idea? Why is it that I am bringing in the simple skill of acquiring two languages and complicating it, seemingly, with the idea of culture? The New York Times had a column recently [Gray Matter by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, March 17, 2012] on bilingualism and nearly half-a-dozen friends forwarded it to me. But honestly, my response to the column was rather tepid. It spoke about a scientific study of a bilingual mind. The conclusions of the study as presented in the column was as follows:

"Speaking two languages rather than just one has obvious practical benefits in an increasingly globalized world. But in recent years, scientists have begun to show that the advantages of bilingualism are even more fundamental than being able to converse with a wider range of people. Being bilingual, it turns out, makes you smarter. It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age."

The column further said that this view of bilingualism was remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers had long considered a second language, cognitively speaking, to be an interference, and it hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development. The column concluded that collective evidence from a number of studies suggested that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. "These processes included ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving."

It is not very difficult for anybody to conjecture why I found this article tepid. One, it had a very utilitarian and technocratic take on the subject and threw no light, whatsoever, on the cultural negotiation that a bilingual mind was particularly capable of. It didn't seem to have a clue about how this cultural negotiation led to a better understanding and nurturing of diversity around us. Although the column-writer had a Bengali surname, it didn't seem to know that the Indian subcontinent was a great site of study for this kind of cultural negotiation and Europe too would lend itself to this kind of study, but in a less interesting way of course [Europe has many monolingual nation-states]. In other words, The NYT column did not situate the argument in a particular cultural or geographical context. In short, it had very little use for me. 

I am not for a moment trying to deride the column here, it had useful information, but I am referring to it only to emphasise my differences about and variance from a strongly prevalent linguistic and quasi-scientific notion of bilingualism. I would rather happily drag bilingualism into the field of culture studies or political and even strategic studies [don't forget linguistics and area studies departments in the US were funded by the Pentagon for a longtime]. But, anyway, there was one open-ended sentence in the NYT column, which allowed one to insert and expand one's own interpretation. It said: "The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment." That was an interesting phrase, which had a fortuitous dynamic. The cultural idea of bilingualism is all about an immense ability to manage the environment or rather the cultural and political environment.  

Let me put this abstraction aside and explain with a slightly personal experience. I recently published a book and titled it 'Pickles from Home: The Worlds of a Bilingual'. When people heard about it, they asked me to elucidate its thesis or its central argument. To them I said I have no thesis to present. I said theories can be explained, but worldviews can't and my book was about worldviews. They have to be experienced and what I try to do in my book is to try to expose the reader to the two worlds I swing between - the Kannada world and the English world. The Kannada word and the English word. This does not happen in any conscious fashion, but in the most natural way possible. I said, that is how I am and that is how I was brought up to be. It is a default consciousness. For me the two worlds are not water-tight compartments. They often overlap. They co-exist. They create a mirage of being one, while they are actually two. They have things in common and they have irreconcilable differences. They often feed on each other. But if you ask me to separate the elements of the two worlds with scientific precision I can't do it. I feel each one makes a rough approximation of that separation and blending in their own way. If one reads or re-reads Sharada Prasad or ruminate about his life, he led a similar life swinging between two worlds, words, value systems and cultures. 'Bilingual' or 'bilingualism' is a metaphorical suggestion for me to indicate an engagement with two worlds at a time. I have a good reason to believe that most Indians lead a life like this, constantly approximating and appropriating the two worlds. In some sense they are constantly in the mode of translation. Perhaps, the mistake they make is to allow one world to dominate over the other. One of the most important questions before me as I speak on this subject is how would it be if one created a parity between the two worlds? To talk of parity comes in because there is a hierarchy between the two worlds and I'll come to it a little later.  

Forget the fact that my book is a liberal experiment in this direction, but this idea of cultural bilingualism deserves to be India's modernity project. Therefore, bilingualism for me is not a sheer linguistic idea. It is not about proficiency in two languages. To say so would confine its possibilities to a very narrow terrain or system of knowledge. The grammar or script of the two languages is not a pre-condition to experiencing these two worlds or reconciling two worldviews. 

You may ask why is it important to discuss this issue now? Or, why am I speaking about the reconciliation of the two worldviews? Why am I trying to make it a cultural and political question? The reason is simple. There is a serious alteration and shift taking place in the way we culturally imagine ourselves. Our regional cultures and regional languages are assuming a certain exclusivity. They are embarking on a new enterprise of narrow nativism. They are generating a certain dangerous reactionary tendency, which, if we do not address in an ingenious way, we'll soon be thrown into an orbit of chaos. From a multilingual and bilingual moderation and vibrancy, we seem to be slipping into an alley of monolingual narrowness and shrillness.  

We often speak with a stereotypical echo about our federal polity, but we seem to have forgotten that this federal polity is essentially a cultural and linguistic arrangement. The government has completely abdicated and outsourced its cultural responsibility. It only has a deformed economic vision for a country that is culturally so rich. Culture has come to mean two-and-a-half poems that come as relief in a rather boring budget speech. There is a distinct difference in the language and approach of the speeches that prime ministers have made after Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi. We have to remember that most parts of India was linguistically and culturally reorganised in the 1950s and the 60s. Recently, I drew a map of India with fifty states for 2040 and most of the new states that I carved out as a one-man reorganisation committee were still cultural regions. There is no doubt that there is an apparent decline of the linguistic state. Globalisation, urbanisation and migration could be the reason, but that does not mean an erasure of cultural or linguistic identities. They are acquiring a new shape and expression and there is an urgent need to moderate that change. What new shape and expression they would take, what new trough would this mercurial energy occupy is the question that we seem to be ignoring and ignoring at our own peril. It is in this backdrop that discussing bilingualism as a cultural idea becomes extremely important. Federal polity is not about coalition politics. It is about cultural politics. Why does Mamata Banerjee or Karunanidhi or Bal Thackeray or Laloo Yadav and now, Akhilesh Yadav behave the way they behave? Why has Mamata banned English newspapers in West Bengal's libraries? Managing our polity is not about managing inflation, corruption and GDP growth rate alone, there are far more deeper questions we seem to be ignoring and hence, the bilingualism debate is crucial.   

Let me shift gears here and not 'politicise' the issue any further. Let's return to an exploration of the bilingual idea itself and its various dimensions.  

A few minutes ago I had spoken about achieving parity between two hierarchical worlds. I had also said earlier that the word ‘bilingual’ is a metaphorical suggestion to indicate an engagement with two worlds at a time. What are these two worlds? What do they constitute and through what categories can they be explained? Specifically, in the Indian context, the two worlds constitute the regional and the cosmopolitan or the provincial and the pan-Indian or the native and the wider world [We need to remember that these are alternating categories when we speak about the idea of cultural bilingualism]. It is evidently characterized by the choice of two languages [hence 'bilingual'] an Indian makes to represent these two worldviews with the start of his/her formal learning process. The journey itself is not as important as the dilemma it creates and dynamics it unleashes in India’s cultural and political life. The dilemma arises because the foray into the two worlds is through a proverbial travel on two boats, simultaneously. 
The Indian reality and identity today clearly rests in negotiating the travel on two boats. An Indian tries to grapple with both the worlds together to communicate his unified, engineered identity. He walks hand in hand both with the real and the imaginary. To be an Indian is thus to be two selves at a given time. This idea is deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche; the moment it ceases to be, the imaginary institution of India would itself somewhat collapse. Bilingualism as a cleverly-engineered cultural idea has come to support pragmatically the very idea of India — a union of various regional linguistic realities.   

I referred to the native and the wider world. They automatically imply the local and the universal and it is at the heart of deciphering and delineating the negotiation between the two worlds or bilingualism. In my understanding, the local and the universal are not mutually exclusive domains. This is at the heart of understanding the 'bilingual' idea. The local also contains an enlightened universal in it. The local not only looks intently into its own details, but also looks up at the broad sweep and expanse of the sky. Therefore, we need to consider the conceptual prospect of two universals. That would theoretically set the base for achieving parity between the two hierarchical worlds that constitutes the 'bilingual'. One vision of the universal is obtained by curating commonalities; another grows organically from the particular. Let me try to explain this abstraction with an example. 

Sometime back I tried to sort out this idea in my mind while in conversation with a colleague in Kolkata. He said his photographic experiment with the theme of the itinerant circus artistes had found more buyers than his experiment with Chitpore, a throbbing Kolkata locality. While the ‘Circus’ theme did not have a geographical particularity, ‘Chitpore’ was specifically located. It was about a distinct local heartbeat.

The photographer, introduces his ‘Chitpore’ pictures thus in the catalogue: “One rainy morning, walking through the maze of Kolkata’s bylanes as part of my journalistic assignments, I came upon a baby struggling to wriggle out of a shack but tumbling over and over again. However, his futile struggle and the glint in the eye trying to see the rain washed world outside somehow entranced me and I immediately thought of capturing the pulse of a place that nestles so much of diversity under the sky... Chitpore within Kolkata is more than a mere urban space - it is labyrinthine courtyard where past overlaps with the present and tradition jostles with modernity... Meandering through narrow streets of Chitpore I have learnt a lot about life itself - its sheer unpredictability along with the unabashed joy and the brooding shadows. Here I have discovered chaos in every nook and corner but that has also been the flint - the friction needed to light my creativity.”

Interestingly, the commentary for the ‘Circus’ pictures (Seagull, 2010) is written by a French mime artiste. Although the circus artistes are of Indian origin, the art of circus and the culture of clowns has a universal connotation, which create easy frameworks for any person writing on them. Not so with Chitpore, none could have spoken with ease about its chaos and enlightenment other than the discoverer himself. A discoverer who has walked the streets since childhood.

As the photographer-colleague mentioned his almost contrasting commercial experience with the themes, I tried to further the analogy by saying that I somewhat understood what he meant. It was like the difference that existed between Satyajit Ray’s 'Pather Panchali' that was about a way of life and 'Ganashatru', which was a slice of life. 'Pather Panchali' could not be set anywhere but in a remote village of Bengal, but 'Ganashatru' could have happened anywhere. The former comes to life because of its details, while the latter stands out because it resonates universal ideas like corruption, compromise and moral degradation. Not surprisingly it is an adaptation of Ibsen’s play.

While the universal is easier to connect with, the local and the particular expects a certain commitment to understand its context and history. It lives in its minutiae that expect a certain devotion to reveal. It demands a greater involvement. People, usually, do not have the time for it. The shortest cut they sometimes take to accessing the local is through an artefact that again sits in a decontextualised milieu or through an exotic gastronomic channel. This is probably why something that is perceived as having universal attributes, however formulaic, does commercially well, while all that is local struggles to survive. Here I am reminded of another Bengali genius Ritwik Ghatak. In his final movie 'Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo' (1974) there is a remark made by the ‘Chhau’ folk dancer (‘Chhau’ dance of Jharkhand, Bengal and Orissa is performed with a mask): “These days people don’t come to see the dance, they just take the mask and keep it in their drawing room.”

When it comes to the universal and the local, we can broadly distinguish between two categories of people: there are those who learn to pan the world and there are others who decide to dig a place deep [It is another matter that people like Sharada Prasad or A K Ramanujan or Raja Rao or Dilip Chitre or even great bilinguals like M K Gandhi or Tagore or Rajaji or Ambedkar for that matter, could achieve both with felicity]. It is unfair to create a hierarchy between them but their politics and dynamics are altogether different. They quite simply follow two methods that yield varied insights. For instance, the world of Indian cinema divides itself on these two popular categories: some are comfortable making only Bollywood movies and some believe in ‘parallel cinema’, whatever that means. both have meaning, one is seen as more meaningful than the other. In continuation of our discussion, it is important to understand that while the mainstream movie focuses on universals and certain perpetual emotions; the ‘parallel’ ones look for nuance and newer detail. However, there are actors and filmmakers who swing between the two categories with remarkable ease and hence it is important to consider the prospect of two universals.

A necessary premise for this thesis is that the universal and the local are interconnected. The universal that we have propounded earlier exists; we can call it the bird’s-eye-view universal. But, there is a universal that emerges from the study of the particular. The texture and quality of this universal emerging from a deep study of the local is unique. The puranic texts celebrate this universal when they say ‘the universe is apparent in an atom.’ William Blake also sang in the ‘Auguries of Innocence’: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower”. Peruse these lines from cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s book 'Local Knowledge': “To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening. To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency. It is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largeness of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham, comes.” 

Therefore, the two universals are complementary. One cannot be decried for the other or the two can’t be placed in a hierarchical order. The puranic saying, the Blakian utterance and the Geertzian quote also celebrate this complementary nature. Yet, when it comes to realpolitik, there is strife and stratification. 


Through a portrayal of his father in his brilliant essay, 'Is there an Indian way of thinking?', A K Ramanujan, captures with distinctiveness, the typical Indian bilingual who can hold the traditional and the modern, the western and the non-western, the local and the universal in the same brain: "[My father] was a mathematician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit scholar, an expert astrologer. He had two kinds of exotic visitors: American and English mathematicians who called on him when they were on a visit to India, and local astrologers, orthodox pundits who wore splendid gold-embroidered shawls dowered by the Maharajah. I had just been converted by Russell to the ‘scientific attitude.’ I (and my generation) was troubled by his holding together in one brain both astronomy and astrology; I looked for consistency in him, a consistency he didn't seem to care about, or even think about. When I asked him what the discovery of Pluto and Neptune did to his archaic nine-planet astrology, he said, ‘You make the necessary corrections, that's all.’ Or, in answer to how he could read the Gita religiously having bathed and painted on his forehead the red and white feet of Visnu, and later talk appreciatively about Bertrand Russell and even Ingersoll, he said, ‘The Gita is part of one’s hygiene. Besides, don’t you know, the brain has two lobes?’"

While there exists a wide variety, we often celebrate one form of bilingualism in India and that is the swing that exists between one’s mother tongue and English. We seem to have assigned very clear roles for these two languages. One to serve local needs and another to handle universal concerns. One is said to speak the language of the heart and another of reason. It is made out that one fills in the lacunae caused by the other. There is a clear hierarchy enforced here. The local obviously is offered a subordinate role because the heart cannot be worldly-wise. In his famous essay on the 'Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual', Ramachandra Guha, perhaps falls into this trap when he says: "For Gandhi, and for Tagore, the foreign language was a window into another culture, another civilization, another way (or ways) of living in the world. For them, the command of a language other than their own was a way of simultaneously making themselves less parochial and their work more universal. Their readings and travels fed back into their own writing, thus bringing the world to Bengal and Gujarat, and (when they chose to write in the foreign language) Bengal and Gujarat to the world. Bilingualism was here a vehicle or something larger and more enduring—namely, multiculturalism." At another point in the essay, he says: "Tagore understood that while love and humiliation at the personal or familial level were best expressed in the mother tongue, impersonal questions of reason and justice had to be communicated in a language read by more people and over a greater geographical space than Bengali." While I agree and hugely appreciate the larger point that Guha makes, I suspect that he builds a hierarchy here. He tries to compartmentalise the roles that two unequal languages play, but never speaks about how Gandhi or Tagore's English had the wisdom, worldview and nuance of Gujarati or Bengali. In my experience and understanding, transactions between languages in bilinguals take place in a far more complicated fashion. Here the NYT article that speaks about a complex wiring in a bilingual becomes useful.  

When I say a language has its own worldview, in a bilingual condition these worldviews meet and feed on each other. They are independent cosmologies. Both perceive the world with their own logic and both have their own creation myths. The intelligence, emotion, idiom and logic of one is fed into the other and vice versa. They nurture each other. As a bilingual, I have experienced that the figurative thinking processes of my Kannada often lends a distinct flavour to my English. And a certain English rhythm clears up knots in my Kannada engagements. It is difficult to verbalise this experience, but it is palpable. You know you have been served well, rather enriched, by the interaction between the two languages. This can be gauged even if we take a close look at the English written by various Indian English writers who have an active and alive relationship with their mother tongues. The ones who speak Tamil are certain to write a different English from those who speak Kannada or Hindi or Punjabi. In an interview that Raja Rao gave to 'Indian Literature' in 1988, he said he molded the English language to his needs and did not believe in writing it like the English or the Americans and hence his style was uncommon as many had pointed out. He further said that when he wrote about Mysore, he tried to think in Kannada. Raja Rao's experiment did not distort the English idiom, but only enriched it. I am not trying to make a case here for bad English, but there is certainly a nuanced way of enriching the two languages and two worlds that one inhabits. 


Let me briefly return to the varieties of bilingualism. I was recently criticised by journalist and writer M S Prabhakara for actually wasting time on a subject like bilingualism as it was a platitude in the Indian context. Prabhakara was not referring to the English-mother tongue bilingualism variety, but to, say Kannada-Telugu in a place like Kolar, Urdu-Telugu in a place like Hyderabad, Tamil-Telugu in a place like Chennai or Tulu-Konkani in a place like Mangalore or Marathi-Gujarati in a place like Mumbai. These are functional bilingualisms and not the committed variety. They are mostly bilingualisms driven by a certain economic need. But the bilingualism that I have spoken about so far, or the bilingualism that Guha speaks about is an educational and intellectual variety. But the more significant thing about the bilingualism that I am referring to is the one that exists between two unequal languages. One is a power language, English, and another the local tongue, which does not have global currency. What I am trying to do is to bring the two unequals on the same platform and see how they interact and negotiate with each other. What barter or swaps they bring about would be interesting for me. But many suspect that this is an impractical enterprise. It is one thing to imagine English and French or English and German or English and Spanish on the same platform and it is very different to imagine English and Kannada on the same platform or for that matter any Indian language.

This reminds me of the Russian writers and Russian nationalism. In Russian novels we see parents speaking French to their children at the dining table. The problem before these writers was how to introduce Russian. They succeeded to a large extent through a very different political project. But can that ever be possible in the context of any of the Indian languages, which are heritage languages living the threat of a clipped and compromised existence.

Even a couple of decades back, there was an intellectual atmosphere in the states where we ensured that the shadow of our regional tongues did not eclipse our English. We kept the two intellectual worlds distinct. For instance we didn't have the courage to Kannadise our English writing or allow the Kannada world to peep into the English world. We kept them distinct. They were exclusive domains. [When I say writing, I am not referring to creative writing here like that of Raja Rao, but the problem that afflicted and afflicts discursive and critical writing]. Perhaps the time has come to shed this inhibition and work on new strategies. 

The relationship between Kannada and English, or the relationship between the occidental and oriental thought, or by extension, the debate on how native wisdom should approach and accept European enlightenment has been a fantastic debate in Kannada. The great 20th century Kannada writers, starting with B M Srikantaiah to Kuvempu, Karanth, D R Bendre, Masti Iyengar, Adiga and Lankesh, and also the significant ones like A N Krishna Rao, Ananthamurthy, Karnad, Tejasvi, Kambar, Gokak and others have had a very creative and cosmopolitan engagement with western thought or its invariable medium - English.  

To explain their engagement and negotiation with the 'other', there has even been a popular and informal postulation, which could, for the sake of convenience, be called the 'jeerna shakti' project. The writers exuded confidence that they had the ability to discern what they should borrow from the west and through English, and also had the ability to digest [jeerna shakti] and Kannadise what they had borrowed.  

The shrill, chauvinistic cultural enclosure that has been built and the refusal to have a creative engagement with the 'other' is only a sad development of the 1990s. In the 20th century many Kannada writers were English professors or had a deep knowledge of western literature, but they gave up English to write in Kannada. When they did so, they did not reject English altogether or develop hatred to the content and the context it brought along. They only devised an ingenious cultural filter to handle it. Their commitment to Kannada was supreme, but at the same time their attitude to English was creative and healthy. It is only now that English has been a source of a certain inferiority complex ['khinnate' as we say in Kannada]. It is largely the result of monolingual education. The casualty is the decline of the bilingual intellectual.     

Just to give you a slice of the debate taking place currently in Kannada that effectively thwarts the creation of a bilingual intellectual, let me paraphrase an essay by Kannada linguist and writer K V Narayana. Let me warn you that the debate is a very complex one and there are parts that I subscribe to. However, I strongly feel that this theory of nativism has dangerous consequences in an increasingly globalising and migratory world. It has the danger of being misunderstood and misutilised by language activists:

The fundamental distinction that Narayana makes is that there is something called ‘our’ knowledge and ‘our’ assessments, interpretations and storage devices for it and there is knowledge ‘external’ to 'our' cultural situation. He says in the past 50-odd years (since the integration of Karnataka) in the process of building the Kannada nation, we have conducted a massive exercise of offering knowledge through Kannada. We undertook enormous translation projects of social science and humanities texts to transfer the medium of knowledge from English to Kannada. Even as we did this, we did not integrate the various texts to understand the world around us. The volumes simply created an illusion that we were creating knowledge in our language. Students not only used Kannada to come to terms with the knowledge they were being imparted, but also used the language to reproduce what they had picked up. There is no doubt there have been some mature contributions over the decades, but after a long journey we feel nothing belongs to us. Despite all the knowledge we still seem to be wondering about the inadequacy that surrounds us. Why is this so?

Narayana tries to reason out this conundrum. He says that when we decided that we want all knowledge through Kannada, we surrendered the crucial option of choice, of picking and choosing what we want and, also, of whatever we sought to receive, we did not specify the framework through which we needed them. There was a gross indiscretion in the process of seeking, as well as transfer and as a result, he says, we have ended up in a messy situation: Kannada, inadvertently, has been reduced to a language that merely receives knowledge. This is his central point. By implication, he says the language has lost the confidence to generate or create knowledge.

Not all is lost, Narayana assures us. He says a rescue operation can be launched by creating a special knowledge zone. The first step we need to take in this process is to integrate the various knowledge zones that remain scattered, independent and disconnected in the language. Even though we can’t erase the borders between them, we should not create walls. Through this process, as it connects history, sociology, political science, anthropology, archaeology, art history, linguistics etc., we’ll figure out the way Karnataka has been perceived and interpreted by these disciplines. As we peruse the material, we’ll realise that the various disciplines have perceived and placed the land and its culture in a global framework. That there is hardly any difference between an insider’s view and an outsider’s take because the theoretical receptacles are the same or similar. They are indistinguishable and alien.

Therefore, even though there already exists something called Karnataka Studies, it does not offer a true insight into our past, present and our future. What Narayana means is that the tracks do not lead us to a fruit orchard. So, following this crucial first step, the next one, of understanding everything with a new perspective and reconstructing knowledge that illuminates our existence, follows automatically. We’ll be able to understand Karnataka through Kannada. In other words, we would have put in place a Kannada-way of looking at ourselves and the wider world. We would have to create our own new tools to interpret ourselves and establish a Kannada worldview. He admits that this is not an easy task, but argues that it is imperative that we make a beginning. Only when we do this will a static ‘receiving language’ like Kannada become a ‘giving language,’ a tongue that can impart knowledge.

To people who protest a split up between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ knowledge, he has a sharp retort. He says they have invested heavily in universal models that are in use now and believe that they would serve the needs of the society at all time to come. They are not aware that there are pressures constantly working within cultures to severely restrict the frameworks of learning or perceiving knowledge. When such pressures are pointed out they may say we shouldn’t allow them to haunt us. It is an outcome of such indifference that cultures and languages have reached a stage where they simply parrot what others have already stated, Narayana says. If this has to change, we have to use frameworks that have an organic or symbiotic relationship with the knowledge that is created.

In an interview to a little magazine, Narayana clarified his point: “In our enthusiasm to ensure that all knowledge is made available in Kannada, we opened our gates wide. Now, we little realise that the knowledge we possess is what got transferred from elsewhere and that we haven’t created any of them ourselves. We seem to have expanded our understanding of things, but then we have lost the ability to think independently. Ram Manohar Lohia had once said that India had not produced an independent thinker after the fourth century. Shankaracharya was the last one. We have come to such a pass that if we need to develop a process of thinking we borrow it from outside. We have lost confidence that a Kannada mind can create it independently. When we borrow, we struggle to adapt to them to our circumstances and that in itself appears like a huge exercise. We should not only have a goal to create our own knowledge systems but we should also believe that it is very much possible.”

In the same interview Narayana makes a more general observation. He says that a sort of languor or fatigue has impeded the Indian mind. To think independently has taken a back seat. “It is like the state of Hanuman’s mind in Ramayana just before he is to leap across the ocean. He thinks he is an insignificant small ape and may not be able undertake the venture. But luckily for Hanuman, there are others around to instill confidence in him. But sadly, there is nobody to do that to our languages and cultures. We have simply given up.”

But my nagging questions about this indigenous enterprise of knowledge is as follows: In the world that we live, is it really possible to segregate ‘our’ knowledge and ‘their’ knowledge? What kind of an exercise would this be and what kind of mindset would this require? Is it not embedded with an element of violence like in all reclamations, revivals and revisitations? Is there a more reconciliatory path that we should explore? How does one erase the power relationship that exists between the language that gives and the one that receives? How does one handle the economics and politics of it? Isn’t it a better strategy to reverse the process, at least as a first step to achieve parity, where you flood the power language, in this case English, with elements and idioms that are local? Does this whole exercise of marking territory not shrink our world and vistas, is it pragmatic at all when the human mind is now such an enormous interface of innumerable influences? It is easy to unleash this project, but how does one control its dynamics? Haven’t we seen the havoc caused by chauvinistic groups? Wouldn’t they derive legitimacy from this kind of a knowledge project? How does one infuse a good deal of magnanimity into this whole process?

Narayana perhaps anticipated some of these questions. He says in the final paragraph of his essay: “As we get into an exercise like this, there are people who’ll accuse us of being frogs in the well. They may be correct, but while we express wonderment about the expanse of the ocean, we can’t allow our ponds and lakes to go dry. They sustain us, not the sea.”


In his essay 'The Rise and Fall of a Bilingual Intellectual' Ramachandra Guha makes a very important observation. He says: "Between (roughly)the 1920s and 1970s, the intellectual universe in India was — to coin a word — ‘linguidextrous’. With few exceptions, the major political thinkers, scholars and creative writers — and many of the minor ones too — thought and acted and wrote with equal felicity in English and at least one other language. It appears that this is no longer the case. The intellectual and creative world in India is increasingly becoming polarized — between those who think and act and write in English alone, and those who think and write and act in their mother tongue alone."

The question that we need to ask today is what will be the consequence of such a polarisation in India? You only have to look at language activism to understand the impending danger. Rogue elements have started giving it a bad name. In Karnataka, like elsewhere, politicians across party lines seek the help of language activists to suit their own narrow ends. Their help is often sought to organise protests, shout slogans, picket, wave black flags, unleash carefully-controlled violence (where the size of the stones to be pelted are pre-determined) and also blackmail daily wage workers, traders and corporates. It is a fairly well-known story in Bangalore that some Kannada activists collect a ‘hafta’ from shopkeepers and set up protests in front of software companies to simply make money and more money.

Come November, the Rajyotsava [state formation] month, huge sums are collected to put up roadside tents that blare out Kannada film songs day in and day out. In Karnataka, no activist group has attained the ‘stature’ of the Shiv Sena or the MNS in Maharastra, but they aspire to get there soon. The biggest cutouts and posters that you will find in any part of Bangalore today are not that of politicians, but that of thick-mustached and pot-bellied language activists. In the near future, we may be in need of a separate movement to rescue all that is local and regional from these people. We may have to rescue Kannada and Kannadigas from ‘its own’ activists.

Some years ago, a joke about these type of activists in the Kannada literary circles was that if they ask you for money to celebrate Rajyotsava, give them a piece of paper and a pen and ask them to write all the letters of the Kannada alphabet. The understanding was, since they would invariably fail, you’d be spared of pulling out your purse. Let me remind you, this joke about the activist was some years ago. Then, you could crack a joke about or at them and shoo them away. Not anymore. You are likely to be roughed up or knocked down if you dare suggest anything close to it. Your house will be circled by their fleet of autorickshaws flaunting the red and yellow flag. The Kannada flag, instead of evoking respect, spreads fear and numbs the emotion. When there is a bandh call issued in the state, it is funny to watch how the red and yellow flags flutter over glazed commercial buildings, like a token of surrender in a war zone.

But the language activists who were respected a generation ago, were a different species. Even then, you wouldn’t agree with their philosophy of exclusion, but you never suspected their personal sacrifice and commitment for the cause of the language and the geographical spread that contained it. You never agreed with their path, but you gave them space and heard them out. In the context of Karnataka, this kind of activism was symbolised by such people as Prof. M Chidanandamurthy and his Kannada Shakti Kendra. One should also acknowledge the benign Kannada activism of people like Rajkumar, who never endorsed violence. At one point, when he learnt that his fan association was misusing his name, he quietly distanced himself from it. Rajkumar never leveraged his position as a popular film star and language activist to contest elections or endorse political parties like many Tamil and Telugu stars do. At one point when some members of the Rajkumar’s Fans Association ambitiously contested a few Assembly seats, they failed to retain their deposits. That was the determination with which the Kannada people punished any excess in the name of language or region. There were the dumb types as in the joke mentioned earlier, but they were not mainstream: they were quite simply a joke. Scholar-activists like Chidanandamurthy were avid pamphleteers. They believed in developing a logic, however sophistic and skewed it may have appeared to you. They believed in democratically submitting memorandums to chief ministers. They thought they should fill up news columns and the letters page in local newspapers to influence opinion. But today’s activists trust their muscle more than a memorandum. They can actually be the scum of any political party.

The old-style language activists are in a dilemma when it comes to their new-age counterparts. They are at a loss of words about these people who have usurped the space they created with personal sacrifice and small donations. Their slogans have all been appropriated.

The intellectual component in Kannada activism has been extinguished. The common pursuit they tried to create for the community has been replaced by individual ambitions. Where the old activist types could raise a few hundreds for the language cause, the new types can raise lakhs, if not crores. While the old types used public transport, the new types move around in SUVs. It is ironical that November, the Rajyotsava month, is full of regrets about people who have come to occupy the Kannada space.

One of the major reasons for this is the exit of middle class from the regional language space. In a place like Karnataka they went away to chase their software dreams. How does one get the middle back into the regional language space? I think the bilingual project is not such a bad idea.

A mail that I received from an esteemed colleague a couple of days back had this to say about regional tongues and the middle class.  Ajaz Ahmed wrote: "I have always believed people down South have managed to negotiate better the interface between the local and the cosmopolitan/global/English than those in the North. It is indeed quite ironical that even as Hindi, in many ways, was sought to be imposed on the country, the English language, and the quest to learn it, has relegated it to a secondary position. The middle class is decidedly indifferent to it, best exemplified through the ever sliding grades in Hindi in board results. A language deprived of a middle class is bound to flounder. Such deprivations have consequences; the loss severe and lasting, and we realise this late in our life, as I have over the last 10-15 years."


How to bring in the middle class in is the most defining question. I can't think of any other pragmatic first step other than encouraging a bilingual ideal. The bilingual ideal can be built only if we negotiate and build bridges between the local and the global and recover the cosmopolitan stream of our local languages and cultures. Cosmopolitanism is not the preserve of English alone. All celebrations of cosmopolitanism, which means shedding one's cultural self, specifics and submerging with a very amorphous techno-global identity, calls for a serious re-examination. Cosmopolitanism is not an idea that is confined to just one culture or one language or even one political system. It is a far greater liberal stream that is at the core of all cultures. Being rootedly cosmopolitan is about allowing constant social renewal and innovation.


I conclude this long lecture by returning to Sharada Prasad. When a Kannada translation of the essays from his book 'The Book I Won't Be Writing and Other Essays' was being released in 2006, the tremors in his hand didn't allow him to hold a pen to write a preface. So, I offered to take a dictation. This marvelously accomplished man began his preface with a line of regret. He said: "Kannadadalli barahagaaranaagabeku yembudu nanna kaigoodada yeletanada aasegallali ondu" [meaning "To be a writer in Kannada is among the many unfulfilled dreams of my youth"]. Sharada Prasad had also told me, on a different occasion, that he wanted to edit a Kannada newspaper after he had retired. Let me try to be a little provocative here. After taking down that dictation, I felt that Sharada Prasad's Kannada was far superior than his much extolled and elegant English prose. This was further confirmed when I later read some of his epistolary exchanges with many great Kannada writers and his Kannada speeches. They added a fresh new touch of graciousness to the language. If they are compiled and published they would undoubtedly make for a classic volume. Sharada Prasad quietly and eminently served the bilingual ideal. Eminent Kannada writer P Lankesh, writing about a slim volume in Kannada that Sharada Prasad had edited on his grandmother ['Mommakkalu Helida Ajjiya Kathe'] had said: "Sharada Prasad could have become very famous, tyranical and grown stinking rich... but very rarely do we come across a person like him... despite occupying a very powerful position for decades, he never for a moment let his integrity lapse, never lost his cultural concern and never sullied the good name of his family."  

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts.      


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