July 2019

Last month the great playwright Girish Karnad passed away. Later in June, Amitav Ghosh, one of our very best novelists, was given the Jnanpith Award. Apart from their eminence, did the two writers have something in common? It could have been language; Amitav was the first English language writer to win in the Jnanpith’s history, while English was the language Girish spoke in (he had gone to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and became President of the Oxford Union).

As it happens, it wasn’t: both may have shared a love for language, but Karnad wrote almost all his plays in Kannada. Girish’s bilingualism can, perhaps, be explained by his background : he was born in Matheran to a Maharashtrian mother and a Kannadiga father and his initial schooling was in Marathi (he was fluent in that language too, a trilingual!).  The family moved to Dharwad in Karnataka when Girish was 14 and the state’s language and culture became his lifelong companions. When he was just 23, he wrote his first play “Yayati” about a king who was an ancestor of the Pandavas.  Years later in an interview Karnad said that the characters of the Mahabharat ‘spoke’ to him: “I could actually hear dialogues being spoken into my ears – I was just the scribe!” What the interviewer didn’t ask was whether the characters spoke to him in Kannada. They couldn’t have possibly spoken in English! In any case, Girish wrote the play in the language he was most comfortable in.

The important point here is that language isn’t just language; it’s the context and the culture which a language is part of that’s equally important. Could Girish Karnad possibly have written Yayati, Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Naga Mandala, his four great plays, in English? Tughlaq could have been written in Urdu (in fact, its first staging was performed by the National School of Drama in an Urdu translation). The other three plays are so completely based on our mythology and folk traditions, that they just had to be written in an Indian language.  Translations into other languages could follow (Karnad translated them all into English himself), but the original language had to be one which embraced the story and its characters.

This, of course, isn’t unique to Karnad.  Take the other three contemporary playwrights: could Vijay Tendulkar have written his plays in any language but Marathi? Or Badal Sarkar in any but Bengali? And Mohan Rakesh in anything but Hindi?

In contrast, Amitav Ghosh writes only in English but that’s not a contradiction because his novels are set in modern times and are about contemporary and international issues, so English isn’t out of place at all (and let’s not forget that English is a language of India too).  Yet, significantly, Amitav Ghosh in his acceptance speech at the Jnanpith Award said, “English is not by any means my only language. Nor would my work be what it is if I had grown up in a circumstance where one language predominated over all the others… My work has been shaped, formed and enabled by the linguistic diversity and pluralism of the circumstances in which I grew up.”

That diversity is both a blessing and a curse, as the recent agitations over the three-language education formula show us. In fact, the dispute over what languages should be taught in which states has been a subject of high emotions, resulting in the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956. It goes back even further – the British had to carve out a state for Oriya speakers from Bihar and Bengal 20 years earlier. No other country has such a rich diversity and consequently, such an intractable problem; ours is compounded by the fact that we have no real national language, Hindi the obvious candidate for that role, being seen as an imposition by Southern states. This has meant that English has become the de facto national language. That may have given us an advantage internationally, but it also brings in a class system in the country between those who speak English well and those who don’t. It puts the former at an advantage socially and professionally, while also giving an undesirable inferiority complex to the latter.

I vividly remember a work-related meeting a few years ago. The two men I was to meet were in animated conversation in Gujarati when I arrived. For my benefit they had to switch to English. Suddenly, they were different people: their language became stilted, they struggled for expression, they seemed like lesser men. How unfair, I thought, that lack of familiarity with a language seemed to so diminish them!

We all know that children pick up languages effortlessly if exposed to them early on. Ideally, given the status of English as the most widely used international language, that’s the one we should adopt and teach our children right from the first year at school, rather than at secondary level as at present. There’s not likely to be resistance to this because even working class parents now enroll their children in English medium schools. The state language and another Indian language (possibly Hindi) will make the three-language formula a successful one.

A few of these students will become the future Girish Karnads and Amitav Ghoshs; more will become the future Indra Nooyis and Satya Nadellas. Start ‘em young may be an old cliché, but here it might just work like magic.