Debojit Dutta and Manjiri Indurkar
Necks, they are an important part of our anatomy. They supply us food and air, these narrow passages that connect the head to the body are like catalysts, without them functions stop, people die. They seem like bridges, taking people across, making ends meet; what happens when these bridges collapse? The people on it, they drown; and nations, they lose war. I kept thinking about wars while reading Sumana Roy’s brilliant essay In the Chicken’s Neck which is a part of the anthology India Since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation. When nations fight wars, these necks, these narrow passages, that supply everything from food to ammunition, keep those men sitting on those borders alive. Whenever I thought about these necks, I always imagined vehicles running up and down them. But I never thought about the people living in these necks. Are creatures even supposed to live in necks? Won’t they be obstructing the passage? Or are they insignificant viewers, spectators of a tennis match, watching everything, noticing everyone, on either side of the net.
The net seems like yet another euphemism for a line that divides people from people, nations from nations. Roy, who grew up in the small town of Siliguri, the chicken’s neck that connects the Northeast to ‘mainland’ India, talks about living in a town surrounded by international borders. From where going to another country was easier than going to another city. Roy, in her essay, travels to these bordering nations and leaves her footprints behind. They can be found everywhere, be it Nepal’s porous border, or Bhutan’s unwelcoming open gates; the ghosts of Bangladesh’s border, or the invisible border of China. Aren’t these but clever metaphors for our relationship with these nations? What is Bangladesh if not a ghost of India’s past, and who knows where India ends and China begins?
Roy, in her essay, journeys through these nations, journeys that end, where these nations begin, for it’s time to go back to the chicken’s neck and wait. Wait for another movement, wait and watch the passersby make way for them. Because in all this commotion, the infiltrators of this neck, the silent spectators, as long as they don’t block the neck, they don’t matter. Roy’s beautiful essay is a loosely stitched photo album, a collection of past instances where she’s the chronicler of her own stories. But if read carefully, one could notice how they are stories that we have heard before, read before, we have been, in some strange way, a witness to all the stories she writes about.
This essay is part of a collection of thirty essays, trying to reflect upon the modern history of the nation, edited by first time editor Atul Kumar Thakur who has managed to garner an impressive ensemble of writers. From Ramachandra Guha to Amartya Sen, from Jagmohan to Shashi Tharoor, from Bibek Debroy to Sunita Narain, each one here is trying to paint a picture of an India they have seen, and the India they hope to see.
Like Roy, another man who has spent much of his life surrounded by borders and unwelcoming neighbours, asks us to look behind before taking a step forward, to learn the lessons from history. He is Jagmohan Malhotra, the controversial governor of Jammu and Kashmir during the Gawkadal massacre. “Life and History are organic entities. They do not admit to sharp dividing lines. Past, present, and future are, in fact, inextricably enmeshed,” he says. Jagmohan, in his sharp and focused essay, talks about tackling the Kashmir problem by “instructively surveying the past”. Indentifying the past mistakes, understanding the minds that made these mistakes, and their motives behind their decisions, because that is exactly where the solution lies. After all, if the mistakes were made in the past, then, only the past can provide us with solutions.
Jagmohan, in his essay, brings with him, his years of experience and his understanding of Kashmir. This essay, titled Kashmir: Past, Present and Future, is a relevant history lesson, a first-hand account. However, it seems a bit rushed. The author, while pointing out the mistakes made in the past, and the measures that could have been taken, seems in hurry to reach a conclusion, the foreseeable future of Kashmir. “So far, unfortunately, the ‘spirit of Munich’ has determined the attitude of the Indian decision makers. A vague hope has been entertained: Tomorrow it will be all right. But it will never be all right. The logic of history is against it.”
Unlike Jagmohan, who ultimately resorts to cynicism, and paints a desperate picture of the beautiful Kashmir, there is Shashi Tharoor talking about the future of a brighter India, an India run by ambitious, intelligent and educated leaders from the middle-class. The Indian middle-class has never before, been a topic of so much discussion and debate. However, the past two years have taught us better. The Indian middle-class, a breed of office goers, the nine-to-fivers, it was always assumed that they will only worry about their pay checks and their annual holiday, until Anna Hazare happened, and began the middle class revolution, or so the middle-class would like to believe.
Tharoor, too, perhaps inspired by the sudden interest shown by the middle-classes in politics, talks about having more and more leaders from the masses, “Leaders who we can look up to, and not keep finding excuses for.” Tharoor dreams of an India where it will not be okay for a politician to be a criminal, where the politician will be the emblem of all that is good, and all that is all right with the world. It is a beautiful dream, perhaps shared by every Indian. However, things go haywire when Tharoor points out that the process has already started. “We already have, in the current Parliament, several educated and bright young professionals of the kind of background that for many years previously would not have been found in politics—people with good degrees, a national vision, international experience, intelligent ideas and the capacity to articulate them. It doesn’t matter that a significant proportion of them are the sons of politicians: the fact that they are in Parliament brings a different standard to bear on the quality of our politics.”
It is true; it doesn’t matter if they are sons of politicians, if they are capable and educated it is all we need. Unfortunately, contrary to Tharoor’s beliefs, education is not directly proportional to capability. Tharoor’s optimism, without examples to substantiate his claim, borders on naivety, something, that is not expected from a man of his intelligence.
People, most often, while reading translated text, complain about what all got lost in translation. I, for one, often find myself cringing about bad translations; I always feel that most translations fail to do justice to the original text. But it is also true that without translations, I would never get to read any other language authors and therefore, however bad the available text, it is still better than no text at all. While it has always been about the text for me, Saugata Ghosh, in his eloquent and extremely well researched essay Litany of Lost Languages, talks about the need for translation, not to save just the text, but the language in which it was written, the culture that it belongs to, and the people who wrote it and were written about. It is not about what got lost in translation but what has been found in and through translation.
He journeys through the various periods and phases of English translations, how the master’s language eventually became the tool, the means to save the languages of those once ruled upon. “English still the unofficial lingua franca of our country, thanks to our colonial inheritance; the power of English language translation needs to be harnessed here as well to stem the rot.“
As Ghosh rightly points out in his essay, we are living in times where most of us are losing touch with our own languages. Most people cannot speak in their mother tongue, English, increasingly is becoming the language in which we read, write and speak. In times like these, perhaps it is best to use the language to save the many others, because with a lost language, we lose cultures, we lose civilisations. Ghosh’s essay adds much value to the collection, for it leaves us with the hope of rediscovering an India that once was, the one that habituated many cultures, the one that spoke many languages, and took pride in it.
While Ghosh makes a case for English as a means to save our languages, Ramachandra Guha, India’s foremost historian, writes about the relevance of bilingualism and the lack of it in his essay The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectuals. Guha’s essay on bilingualism begins with an argument he was witness to in the Kesavan household (between B.S. Kesavan and his son Mukul) where the father calls the son paithyam (Tamil for lunatic) in a tongue Mukul has scant access to. The son of a multilingual, Mukul, unlike his father, can only seek comfort in one language─ English. It is from the Kesavan household, that we begin tracing the fall of bilingual intellectual.
In the course of the essay, Guha visits many such households, narrating stories of the relationship these individuals shared with the many languages they knew. The historian recollects Gandhi’s opposition to English in keeping with the fervent nationalism and anti-colonialism of those times—language, it seems, was like clothes to the man, neither of them exported from Britain would be acceptable—and about Tagore’s criticism of this idea.
Exploring how one language might influence the other in a bilingual or multilingual person, he cites the case of Harivansh Rai Bachhan: “Surely Bachhan’s Hindi verse must have at some level been influenced by, or been a response to, his doctoral work at Cambridge on W.B. Yeats.” A more striking example, according to Guha, is how Premchand’s Godan, “considered the very archetype of modern Hindi novel”, was first outlined in English.
It is a powerful essay, an apt start to the book, a one that forces you to rethink your monolingualism. It made me think of my grandfather, who could write, just as beautifully, in three languages, English, Hindi and Marathi, his son, my father, in the process of growing up, let go off one language, he chose Marathi and Hindi over English, and me, the most privileged of the lot, decided to pick what my father had left, English. Guha ends his essay with an example of Ramu Gandhi, the son of Gandhi’s youngest son, who according to the author is “the most brilliant man to have walked the lawns or entered the bar or spoken in the auditorium of the India International Centre.” It, too, is a story of three generations of great men and women of the Gandhi family, who unlike me, chose to stay bilingual.
It is needless to say that Guha has dipped his pen in history and not ordinary ink while writing this essay. He has dug deep into the past to bring out examples of the bilingual intellectuals. The historian, also, laments a decline in the number of people who are ‘linguidextrous’, citing that most scholars, including himself, are confined majorly within the boundaries of one language alone, the ones, who unlike Ramu Gandhi, are responsible for the fall of the bilingual intellectual.
A collection as humongous as this one is a reviewer’s delight as well as nightmare. Within the 340 pages of fine print, this book promises to encompass an India of the past, present and future. It’s a book about a ‘modern India,’ and much like the nation state, the book lacks consistency of pace. While the reader will revel in the beauty and the depth of details of some essays—other than the discussed, Aditya Mani Jha’s Immortal Picture Stories: Growing up with Indian Comics and Sunita Narain’s The Decade of Environmentalism of the Poor are insightful reads for different reasons— there are others that leave you wanting for more. It is an attempt at redrawing the map of India, and it is a daunting task, taken upon by its editor. While there always is much to complain, there is also much to cherish in this collection, one that has something for almost everyone.