Whose language is it anyway?


Whose language is it anyway?

AT the heart of Vijay Nambisan's Language as an Ethic lies a political argument; on the uses of English, or the validity of Indian writing in English. Part of the new Interrogating India series, Nambisan's extended essay is divided into four chapters, of which the one on writing is the third. Nambisan explores what is now an old debate, between the English bashers — U.R. Ananthamurthy is a case in point — and the defenders of this charge of elitism and goes on to trace the debate to some of its more vociferous moments in the early 1990s. What he does do is mercilessly expose some of the more specious arguments that the English bashers use: "The allegation that writers in English favour a consumerist market economy points to a curious attitude towards modernism. It should not need saying that jeans, discos — are hardly evidence of a modern way of thinking." The word Nambisan should have used, of course, is modernity, or perhaps modernisation — and I can't resist that quibble with a writer who continually points out other people's mistakes — but the point is well made. As is the distinction between writers in English who get huge advances and a much larger majority who publish in the country with Indian publishers, the fact that if at all a culture of "little magazines" exists, it is in several bhasas and not in English, and the complacency of academics who make a living out of "an anti English stand and talk of cultural hegemony." Finally, this chapter is passionate politically, indicting English bashers as fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, this nuanced political understanding does not characterise the rest of Nambisan's book. The first chapter, Language as an Ethic, deplores the "debasement" of language, following the rather curious procedure of quoting long extracts from The Hindu to prove that Indians don't really care about language, as newspapers regularly carry stories rife with linguistic slippage. I'm not sure that this nit picking serves any useful purpose besides marking Nambisan out as a bit of a fuddy duddy, and, more dangerously, as conservative. Witness this approving extract from Forster's Two Cheers For Democracy, an essay on Orwell "which might serve to define the intention of this essay as well": "Liberty — is connected with prose — and bureaucrats who want to destroy liberty tend to write and speak badly." Now many crimes should be laid at the doors of bureaucrats, and journalists have many roles to play, but surely the urgency of this save language project is being overstated? Similarly, in the next chapter, called Sounds without Sense, Nambisan argues for "the sanctity of the text" (in a discussion of, for heaven's sake, B.R. Chopra's Mahabharata: has nobody spoken to him about popular culture?) and examines various forms of high art, read classical music; making a plea for the artist to pay as much attention to the words as to the form of the music.

In his last chapter, on political correctness (versus artistic incorrectness) Nambisan talks of the ways in which a text like Kipling's Kim has been interpreted by Edward Said, in a Twentieth century classics edition issued in 1987. He argues, firstly, that Said has not done his homework on the text and has got various dates wrong, and , secondly, that Kipling's only fault, as it were, was to portray "the ground realities of his time — except for the one overwhelming reality of colonial exploitation — artistic judgements based on political correctness are not aesthetic but political." However persuasive this is as a passionate statement of belief, criticism is more complicated than that, and I suspect Nambisan knows that. If all that literary criticism set out to do was to say that the writer was merely a product of his time, then I, for one, suspect my job would be much easier.

The rest of the chapter takes issue with language as a political tool, and Nambisan returns to his favourite crime scene: newspapers and magazines, commenting pithily on the Godhra coverage and the defence of state sponsored violence in certain sections of the media.

While Nambisan's plea for language to be used correctly comes from the heart — complete with extracts from sacred texts and quasi anthropological arguments supporting the magic of language — it cannot sustain this lengthy deliberation, which falters even as it attempts to articulate its several incompatible positions.

Language as an Ethic, Vijay Nambisan, Penguin, Rs.195

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