How linguistic coalitions growingly rule New Media.
In the vast hinterland of a new media without boundaries, the vernacular (or Indian language) outlets have not yet been able to make inroads that match their large user-base. Faced with a lack of tools and search engines, such as the users of English and European languages have acquired, and under the impact of the great Indian diaspora, the vernaculars today resemble our erstwhile major political parties with their shrinking pan-Indian vote base. Since languages and political parties are great survivors, to survive and to retain their hold over power, both have now chosen to swallow their pride and form mutually beneficial coalitions.
Politically, the importance of such hybridisation became visible first in the 1970s, when Morarji Desai formed the Janata Party, now defunct. Soon afterwards, Dev Anand hit the jackpot in Bollywood with his Zeenat Aman-starrer Hare Rama Hare Krishna capitalising on the cultural coalitions that the Beatles and the hippies had triggered in India. Having discovered a sizeable viewership among the Indian immigrants living abroad, Bollywood began marketing cassettes of popular music in numerous countries with large and rich communities of romantic music lovers and fellow-Indians.
The mainstream media took a little longer to realise the advantages of building bridges between the mainland culture and its diaspora variant. But now, beefed by a liberal sprinkling of English words, Hindi and Tamil movies and popular music are going viral at the press of a button. Vernacular writers, anchors, actors and even priests, faced with attrition leading to a near-redundancy of their vocation, realise that culturally English has an importance akin to Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal, or the redoubtable Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by Vaiko, which despite their tiny footprint have often managed to get enviable Cabinet berths in various coalition governments. The only emperor, as William Carlos Williams wrote, is the emperor of ice-cream.
Truth to tell, nothing in my generation's upbringing predisposed us to enjoy this linguistic hugger-mugger of the new media. And, as expected, the linguistic homogenisation of ‘Kolaveri di' or ‘Munni badnam hui darling tere liye,' is being hotly resisted by mono-lingual purists in both Tamil and Hindi. But, just as the rise of small regional parties became unstoppable as majoritarian politics failed to throw up parties and leaders that could rule by single majority, regionally limited vernaculars must also accept that they can no longer command national or international attention by remaining stand-offish. The undeniable grit and tenacity of popular music today, and its artful ways of forming coalitions with English, is creating bridges over the troubled waters of India's languages. Their hostility towards Hindi had led to countless bloody agitations and routine tarring of signboards in the last century. The young users of the social media have already half-learnt a couple of vernaculars, and are coming away astonished by their intellectual vigour, their feats of imaginative horse-play and their capacity and will to live. The vernaculars are not, the new media have revealed, dying — though they will need help now and then to get the fanatics, and the markets, off their backs.
It may be good to recall as we agitate unnecessarily about the loss of cultural identity in the great sweep of the New Media, that before the idea of India's languages was politicised and the States were segregated linguistically, all of us inherited, with our ancestral properties and grandfathers' walking sticks and grandmothers' old saris, a bundle of folk-tales and songs in a vernacular, to be recounted to the children and to be sung at all major happenings including births, deaths and marriages. These traditional songs and tales about fabled men and women were like title deeds that guaranteed a specific cultural territory. And as you were married into another region or travelled for trade, you could lend those to others and borrow theirs. The one thing you were to ensure was that you did not chuck them all out of the window.
Legends thus went leap-frogging through language barriers regardless of region or caste. The story of Ram's exile, thus, threaded its way from the Indo-Gangetic plains and went on to hit coastal Tamil Nadu, morphing into many forms. To each raconteur of a vernacular version, his or her tale was an age-old bit of history of his or her region, and the borrowers of the tales respected that fact. It is only now, with the great rise in literacy and the emergence of sophisticated tools of learning, that we see poor Oxford University Press being threatened over publishing an essay on three hundred Ramayanas of India.
The roots of the periodic bouts of fury over regional languages that seize this nation lie in a commonly held delusion about our vernaculars. It decrees that while the languages of the colonisers are wanderers and bullies by temperament, our vernaculars, like women, remained calm guardians of hearth and home. This can of course be true to some extent. But, let us not forget that women are above all the creators and fierce protectors of home and hearth, and if the household needs to move they are the first to cut their losses and take to the road. And while the household moves into uncharted territory, women reveal a new side to their passive personalities as fierce refugees, forever bargaining and bartering old goods for fresh food.
The young thespian Dhanush singing of a broken heart in Tanglish, is like Vidya Balan celebrating her sexuality, obeying the atavistic call of instinct, not following the dictates of a drama coach or a dark hidden foreign hand out to kill India's vernaculars.
(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer.)