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When a language dies, something irreplaceable dies: Ganesh N. Devy

Wherever English went, it destroyed native languages, but not in India: Ganesh N. Devy.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

"I’m this angry person,” Ganesh N. Devy tells my photographer colleague, but his eyes are mild, and what might be a smile touches the corners of his lips. If the scholar is indeed ever upset about anything, it rarely shows. All through our conversation, on the lawns of a Goa conference centre where, the next day, he is to speak about murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, his voice does not rise above a conversational tone, his expression stays genial.

I begin by asking the literary critic and linguist about his academic journey and his evolution into a public intellectual. Devy tells me he dropped out of his first attempt at college because “everything happened in English, and I did not understand all of it properly, I felt inadequate.” He had read in Marathi, but not in English, which he could write but hadn’t spoken. He moved to Goa and did manual work before giving higher education another shot.

There’s a little story about how he turned his weakness — the lack of familiarity with English — into a strength. (He has a B.A. in English literature, two M.A.s and a Ph.D., and was professor of English literature at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.) As a 17-year-old, he chanced upon a book by Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck — The Good Earth. “I found I could actually understand it fully. With the help of a dictionary, I read two or three other books. Then I decided I like literature, enjoy it. I found my natural inclination.” He then decided to read at least 200 to 300 pages every day. “Even if it took eight or 10 or 12 hours. Even on the day I got married, I read my quota. I continued without any exception for the next 25 years, till I was 42.” Then, he won a Sahitya Akademi Award, for After Amnesia, a book in English, “I said to myself, now I do not have to learn any more English. I decided not to read books at all.” He says he covered most of the literature worth reading in those 25 years, and now only reads challenging books: something disturbing or highly philosophical, some obscure book.

His love for teaching was something he discovered early, while in college, where he was a volunteer teacher for leprosy patients. Aside from the university, he has also taught in schools, at a technical university, with tribal students, and with a community that had once been labelled criminal. This diversity, he says, stretched him. “It also taught me the beauty of not segregating life from knowledge. This mix of life and knowledge, city and village, the underprivileged and privileged, the technologically challenged and the technologically gifted: this, I thought, was the purpose of education. I found that not teaching was the best way to teach. I just tried to share what I thought I knew, what I thought they needed to know, or what I thought they knew and I needed to know.”

The story of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a massive survey of languages he launched eight years ago, had its genesis when he was in his 20s, as a research student reading the 1971 census. He found that while the 1961 census listed some 1,652 mother tongues, the 1971 census listed only 108. “And there was one more item, the 109th, which said ‘All Others’. Those two words influenced my life. Everywhere, in everything I have done, I have tried to look at ‘All Others’.”

He thought he would first figure out the ‘where’. “There was no clear map available. From hearsay, gossip, general knowledge, I did a very crude map of the languages that had not been disclosed. I noticed they were in Central India. If you were to draw an imaginary line from Gujarat to Bengal — the Surat to Howrah railway line — [this region was] a hundred kilometres north of it and a hundred kilometres south of it, the entire tribal belt, eastern Gujarat, what is now Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal, Southern Bihar. This was a very exciting thing, because I realised an enormous number of very small communities and languages exist between the Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian groups of languages.”

This prompted questions from the tribal perspective: “Is there something in these languages that kept them strong, and kept their communities undestroyed and non-colonised? Wherever English went — Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand — it destroyed native languages, but in India, tribal communities continued to speak their languages, as did ‘mainland’ Indians. Had tribal languages given strength to the neighbouring Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese?”

There were no books to answer these, he says; linguistic anthropology of the time described communities with theoretical apparatus, but not in terms of a lived historical experience. “Anthropology granted tribals only their sociology, and denied them their history.” These questions filled his mind; he remembers long walks talking aloud to himself. He decided that he would quit the university and start looking deeply at tribal languages.

Bolt by bolt

He started the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in 1996. But, he found, there were immediate material needs to take care of: hunger, migration, lack of schools, health. “I spent nearly 10 years putting together a healthcare scheme, a microcredit scheme (which spread to over 2,000 villages), grain and seed banks, establishing schools, creating employment so that this work becomes possible, a building so they can meet, management structures so that the building is kept properly. It was like a traveller preparing for his journey, and putting together his car, bolt by bolt.”

The actual movement started in 2005, when he began creating formats to study languages, a hugely complicated task. Formats have to vary for each language, he explains. “For instance, the code languages of nomadic communities, who like to be secretive, need to be described in a certain way. Whereas if you want to describe Bengali or Telugu, it’s different.”

I realised an enormous number of languages exist between the Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian groups

He also launched Dhol, a journal in 11 tribal languages; it did not have ads, earning enough from sales to stay in print. He remembers the launch of the Chaudhary language edition on a hillside in Gujarat in 1999. “All 700 copies were sold, for ₹10 each. I had kept a basket there and people put in their money.” Back in Baroda that night, he took out the notes to count them. “They were all soiled, crumpled. You know, you have a note, you tie it to your dhoti, put it in your turban. Hard-earned labourers’ money. They put their money down because it was the first printed sample of their language. Only that experience — not my knowledge of Socrates and Aristotle and Panini and Patanjali and Aurobindo and Gandhi — told me that I must spend my life recording these languages. Till then, my quest was intellectual, but in 1999 it took on a very strong emotional life.”

Between 1898 and 1928, George Grierson, an Irish bureaucrat, carried out a linguistic survey of what was a very different India, one that included Burma, but not what is now southern India. Devy calls it “a landmark, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of colonial times, like Max Mueller’s Sacred Texts of the East.” After Independence, India continued to change, with linguistic States being adopted. “Many major languages became marginal; notional languages — Pahadi or Rajasthani — had erupted.” Such languages did not exist, he says; “the names are administrative descriptions of vast territories.”

In 2006, the UPA government decided to carry out a new linguistic survey, and passed a ₹600 crore budget in the 11th Five-Year Plan. But, three years later, “I was told by the government organisation entrusted with the task that nothing had happened and nothing would be possible because they did not have manpower. Appointments were not made in that institute.”

“I felt very pained,” he says, and explains that for hundreds of communities, economic development is hampered when their language is denied official existence; with no school lessons in their language, children must learn in other tongues, they lag behind their peers. Later, their employability and incomes remain low. In other alarming news, UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger had already listed 180 Indian languages.

“I said, somebody has to do this survey. I was ready with my formats.” In 2010, in Delhi, he convened the Bhasha Sangam with representatives of 320 Indian languages, and they decided to do a people’s linguistic survey and deliver it by 2013. “I went to all States, built teams, trained them, got them to go to the field, went to the field myself.”

In September 2013, the Sangam reconvened in Delhi. “I asked them to bring their State manuscripts and place them on the ground of the Tees January Memorial as our dedication of the survey to the nation.” Devy confesses that until then he wasn’t sure if the survey would be respectable, let alone rigorous. “But it appears in retrospect that training them, based on my earlier experience of classroom teaching, where I had learned to share with the students their own knowledge and mine, had come in handy.”

The teams delivered documents of up to 600 pages, covering as many as 40 languages in some States, and including over 600 languages of tribal and nomadic communities. “I started preparing them as manuscripts. [The PLI] will be 92 books, 30 in English, 30 in Hindi, one for every State language for every State or union territory. And there are 20 national volumes: sign language, language of diaspora, language policy, and so on. About 35,000 pages, 50 volumes.” Half are out already; all will be in print by December 2020.

“Surekha [his wife, Prof. Surekha Devy, who has been silent through most of the chat] was a chemist and a very successful research scientist, and she has told me many times that my book on literary history (After Amnesia) is far more important than the linguistic survey. Even the small book published last year, The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India, she says, ‘is a real book. She says ‘all these volumes, people have collected. You just built a team, you edited them.’ I say, ‘No, no, this has taken the life out of me.’ But she has not found it a great intellectual idea.”

She interjects, deadpan, “He has written an introductory volume, which is quite important,” and then laughs at his teasing. “He has lots of ideas. He discusses ideas with everyone. I tell him, why don’t you put on paper what you’re thinking.” He replies, “She is waiting for me to write a good book, actually.” They both laugh.

A book he’s working on, The Question of Silence, will be about three silences: those created by state terror all over the world; the one created by people no longer speaking but digitally getting into each other’s heads; and the coming silence of the decline of languages across the globe. His publisher expressed reservations, he says. “I said, ‘you don’t understand; I’m writing about the future of language in this world in a manner nobody else has done.’ The publisher said, ‘No, you go and write a systematic book, give a complete bibliography.’ I have not given up. I will still write it the way I want to, whether it gets published or not. But it could be a good book. I am writing it for her.” His wife laughs again: “It will be a wonderful book.”

Every language, whether it has 700 words or 7 million, covers the entire semantic universe available to humans

He smiles. “There is a cupboard at home filled with books with my name on them as author or editor. By 2020, there will be almost 125 books to my credit. But she still wants me to write a decent book. I am still struggling to publish that decent book which apparently nobody may understand. I will train myself, learn, just as I decided to learn how to read for 25 years, then I decided how not to read for another 20, 25, this time, I am going to learn how to write, even if takes 10, 15 years, if I have that many. I will write this book.”

She mentions a work on the Mahabharata she wants him to write. Devy says, “This Mahabharata we are living in, where every now and then somebody is lynched, killed, has to face CBI, ED inquiry — you have to mobilise some support, at least pick up the phone and say ‘I’m with you’, write a letter, send a complaint.” He has been active in the fight for free expression, particularly after the murders of M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, and returned his Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015. The couple’s move to Dharwad in Karnataka was in part because it was where Kalburgi was killed.

He also convened the Dakshinayan movement of writers. It has no formal structure, he says, just groups locally in many towns. He is not interested in turning it into a political party or even doing lots of protests. He hopes to grow it into a very large, open ‘multiversity,’ where writers, thinkers, artists, will teach, at their own locations, as volunteers. as their contribution to creating a knowledge society.

Pushed to the edge

I ask, is it not natural that languages evolve, die, as they have done for thousands of years? That is true, he says. “But when a language dies, something irreplaceable dies. A complete perspective of the world goes. Every language, whether it has 700 words or 7 million, covers the entire semantic universe available to humans.” What he is motivated by, in part, is understanding how languages get pushed to the edge for other reasons. “The normally cited reasons are: lack of political patronage, policy inadequacy, the language does not get taught due to non-recognition, non-availability of employment in the language.”

He pauses to deliver a brief dummy’s guide: gestural communication giving way to the tonal (grunts, and suchlike, with no semantic meaning), to hunter-gatherer languages, to the agrarian languages that most current languages originate from. And now, he says, “The human brain seems to have decided to switch over to a different communication medium.” Sound-based communication, says Devy, is analysed in the left lobe, in the Broca’s area. But now we are increasingly depending on visual images, which get analysed through the pre-frontal cortex, closer to the site of judgement and analysis, consuming less energy.

Memory is changing too, he says. Once, for collective memory to be passed on, we needed institutions like the library, museum, university, to make knowledge systematic. Now, as we entrust our memory to computer chips, he says. “The human brain has decided to give up the function of memory — our biological memory, sensory, will be there, but analytical memory will be gone.”

The human brain is cleaning the space occupied by memory, handing it over to memory chips, and acquiring a higher cognitive ability for comprehending the world, he says. “Languages as they are, are collapsing.”

In response to a question on whether he’d read Isaac Asimov and his Foundation series, in which there is a group whose communication is advanced and almost non-verbal, and his laws or robotics, Devy says he hasn’t read much science fiction. But he riffs on artificial intelligence and the dilemmas it will bring, the unlimited energy a Dyson sphere could bring, and then back to the major theme: what this will mean for communication. “The universe is exploding into us, and while coping with that, we will have to have a different language.”

He comes abruptly back to the present. “All this does not take away even an iota of my empathy with people close to me in villages: the marginalised. Great universal science and working with communities are not mutually exclusive, exactly as life and university were not separate, religion and city were not different.”

Devy returns to that moment he chanced upon the words ‘All Others’ in the census document. “That has been a mortal wound in my mind, those two words in a dead page of a census.” He remembers Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf: “The hero walks on the streets every day, but one day notices a door, opens it and enters, and the rest of the world is beyond that door. Nobody else sees that door, or even thinks there is one, the door probably is not even there… The ‘All Others’, at 109th place in the 1971 Census list, opened to me as a door. The rest is madness.”

peter.griffin@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 9:40:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/when-a-language-dies-something-irreplaceable-dies-says-ganesh-n-devy/article22998792.ece

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