India has now been a free country for 70-odd years. Over these decades, we have made progress in many spheres of activity but there is one area where things seem to be sharply deteriorating — the state of Indian languages. I am not merely referring to the 220-odd minor languages and dialects than we have lost since the 1960s but the condition of major languages with tens of millions of speakers. This is hardly the first time someone has raised this issue, but the usual thinking is that Indian languages are being hurt by mutual suspicion combined with the apathy of an English-speaking elite. However, there may now be an even bigger threat — fossilisation.
Harivansh Rai Bachchan is one of the most important figures in Hindi literature but his great grand-children are almost certainly more comfortable in English than in Hindi. This is neither a unique situation nor can it be blamed solely on lingering colonial attitudes in elite schools. Across the country, this is being experienced by rooted families who are proud of their linguistic heritage.
The professional usefulness of English too is not a credible explanation. Indians have long been comfortable with a link language that was different from what they used in daily life. Over the centuries, Sanskrit, Persian and English were used for government, commerce, legal documents, high culture and so on. Far from displacing local languages, they enriched them with new words, ideas and themes. This is why the greatest writers and poets in most Indian languages were themselves multilingual and happily borrowed from the link languages.
In my view, the current crisis in Indian languages comes from a set of interlinked factors that are holding them back from evolving with the times. The first problem is that school textbooks are hopelessly outdated. I have personally verified this for Bengali and Hindi, but also asked parents of children learning other languages.
In lower grades, textbooks will have a smattering of folktales, stories from the Panchatantra and the epics, the lives of folk-heroes and so on. These are acceptable as they are timeless; analogous to nursery rhymes and fairy tales in English. However, the rest of the material seems stuck somewhere between the 1930s and 1970s. A survey of the technology reflected in the stories is quite telling. Forget mobile phones and laptops, you will rarely find television sets and aircraft. It is still a world of steam engines and animal husbandry.
Matters do not improve in higher grades — a great deal of preaching about “good habits” and the need to help the poor. These may be worthy goals but why do Indian language classes need to be specifically burdened with them? There is simply no sense of fun in the material. This is no way to promote a language in a country where the young, including the poor, are so aspirational. Munshi Premchand’s Idgah may be a great story but, at the risk of offending his fans, it may no longer resonate with most school children.
The second major problem with Indian languages is that the output of innovative new literature has slowed drastically. Allowing for the odd exception, publishing is increasingly limited to literary novels aimed at winning government awards rather than engaging readers. Once there was a flourishing culture of writing science fiction, detective novels and travelogues in languages like Bengali but these have slowed to a trickle.
Less than a decade ago, pretentious literary writing was strangling Indian English publishing till the arrival of Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Patnaik. Whatever one thinks of their writing styles, there is no denying that they opened up the field. A similar revolution in popular writing needs to happen in other languages. The steadily improving editorial quality of Indian language newspapers shows that there is demand for good writing.
The third related problem is a dearth of translations into Indian languages. A Tamil or Marathi writer will be pleased that his/her novel has been translated into a foreign language. While this may be good for the personal reputation of the writer, it does little for Tamil or Marathi. A language is a medium for transmitting ideas and its repertoire grows as it absorbs material from elsewhere. The success of English lies in the fact that we can read Homer and Kapuscinski without having to learn ancient Greek or Polish. Therefore, inward translation is more important than outward translation. For several languages, translation is an area where government support may be critical to creating a minimum ecosystem of material.
Popular culture depicted in cinema and television are today the most important factors that have kept Indian languages alive. However, these will not be enough in the long run if they do not keep evolving by generating and absorbing new material that fires the imagination of successive generations.
Sanjeev Sanyal is the author of The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean shaped Human History
The views expressed are personal