Inside India’s 200-years quest for vernacular medical textbooks

By, New Delhi
Oct 31, 2022 04:58 PM IST

The initiative by the Madhya Pradesh government marks an important chapter in India’s 200-year-old quest to impart medical education in vernacular languages.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah released three translated medical textbooks in Hindi for MBBS students in Madhya Pradesh on October 17. Calling it a historic occasion, Shah said 10 states including Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala and Gujarat have begun translating books of engineering courses in regional languages.

Prof Trilok Chandra Goel, 85, a former professor of surgery at King George Medical University, ( KGMU), Lucknow, is perhaps the first writer to have written books in Hindi for medical students. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Prof Trilok Chandra Goel, 85, a former professor of surgery at King George Medical University, ( KGMU), Lucknow, is perhaps the first writer to have written books in Hindi for medical students. (HT Photo)

These books are in line with the central government’s National Education Policy (NEP) that supports offering professional education in regional languages. However, to be sure the books released by the Madhya Pradesh government are only transliterations.

The initiative by the Madhya Pradesh government marks an important chapter in India’s 200-year-old quest to impart medical education in vernacular languages. In 1822, the East India Company established the Native Medical Institute ( NMI) in Calcutta (now Kolkata), with a view to providing trained native doctors for the civil and military establishments of the Bengal Presidency. The institute, which offered a three-year course, developed a glossary of medical terminology in the vernacular and translated treatises on anatomy, medicine and surgery from European languages to help the native students.

“At the Native Medical Institute (NMI), established in Calcutta in 1822, students expected to be ‘able to write Hindustani in both the Persian and Nagri letters’ were taught pharmacology, materia medica, physiology, and anatomy alongside knowledge of the Ayurvedic and (Unani) Tibb systems of medicine. Medical vocabularies first emerged alongside the production and translation of textbooks in this context and continued to circulate in the proliferating medical print market in nineteenth-century Bengal. For instance, a multilingual vocabulary of technical terms pertaining to the human body, which provided Arabic, Persian, Hindi, and Sanskrit equivalents for English terms was compiled by the NMI superintendent Peter Breton,” writes Charu Singh, a historian of science , who teaches at Standford University, in an article published last year in South Asian History and Culture journal.

In fact, NIM fought off many attempts to impose English. Its superintendent, John Tytler, who succeeded Peter Breton vehemently opposed the idea of implementing only the English language in the institute, but he did not succeed for long.

In 1834, a committee appointed by Lord William Bentinck, Governor General of the Bengal Presidency, to report on the state of medical education, criticised NMI for the ‘inappropriate nature of its training’ and recommended a medical college ‘for the education of the natives’, where only western medicine will be taught.Its students, the committee recommended, should possess a reading and writing knowledge of the English language and Hindustani languages. A year later, in 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minutes which sought to establish the need to impart English education to Indian natives sealed the fate of NMI.

NMI was abolished and Medical College Bengal (better known today as Calcutta Medical College) was established in 1835 marking the beginning of European medical education in English in India .

The rise of language activism

Over the next decades, as the English language got deeply entrenched in institutes of higher education, including those imparting science education, many orientalists and language activists continued their efforts to advance the cause for Indian languages. One such person was Rajendralal Mitra, a polymath and a pioneer figure in the Bengali Renaissance, who also became the first Indian president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In 1877, he wrote “A Scheme for the Rendering of European Scientific terms into the Vernaculars of India,” a treatise which offered ideas for translations into Indian languages of Western scientific and medical texts.

Mitra’s Scheme for the Rendering of European Scientific Terms into the Vernaculars of India, Singh writes in her article, “is recognized by historians of science and colonial modernity as a key moment, marking the earliest Indian intervention in nineteenth-century discussions of the translation of European scientific and medical knowledge”.

Similarly, in 1906, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha (Society for the Promotion of the Nagari script and language) set up by Madan Mohan Malaviya, a scholar and education reformer, brought out a 359-page Hindi Scientific Glossary (HSG) to promote scientific discourse in Hindi. The dictionary offered vernacular equivalents of European scientific and technical terms to help Hindi authors to write articles and textbooks on scientific subjects.

Language activism and Hindi nationalism was growing fast in the early 20th century in north India. The Vernacular Scientific Society, better known as Vigyan Parishad, was set up in 1913 by a group of university professors to promote science journalism in Hindi. The society’s president, Ramdas Gour, a university professor, often lamented the absence of teaching in mother tongue in the institutes of higher education. In 1915, the Vigyan Parishad started publishing a science magazine ‘Vigyan’ , which published articles at the intersection of literature and science. Vigyan Parishad also wrote and translated several scientific books in Hindi .

Post-Independence efforts

After Independence, in 1961, the Government of India set up the Commission for Scientific and Technical terminology ( CSTT) with the mandate to ‘evolve, develop, and define’ scientific and technical terms in Hindi and in other Indian languages, and publish technical dictionaries /glossaries, definitional dictionaries and encyclopedias. The commission has so far brought out about 300 glossaries in 22 Indian languages—185 of them in Hindi.

“We adopt a Sanskrit method of word building. We involve teachers, scientists, writers, and language experts in building terminology in various Indian languages. So far, the commission has developed Hindi equivalents of 60,000 medical words. Currently, we are focusing on digitising and taking all our glossaries online in a searchable format. We have already finished work on 80 of our 300 glossaries, which will go online soon and help in promoting writing medical and engineering textbooks in various Indian languages,” says Prof Girish Nath Jha, CSTT chairman.

“We will provide grants to publishers to translate medical books in Indian languages, using our dictionaries, ” he adds.

However, not many medical publishers have been keen on publishing books in Indian languages, except nursing books and a few English-to-Hindi medical glossaries and dictionaries.

The lone language warrior

Prof Trilok Chandra Goel, 85, a former professor of surgery at King George Medical University, ( KGMU), Lucknow, is perhaps the first writer to have written books in Hindi for medical students. His first book in Hindi “Adhunik Shalya Chikitsa Vigyan” (Textbook of Modern Surgical Sciences), was published in 2015 by Delhi- based Japyee Brothers Medical Publishers.

But, it took Goel, who otherwise is a best-selling author of several medical books in English, almost a decade to get a publisher for his Hindi book.

“In fact, most publishers refused to publish it, saying there is no market for it. Finally, Jaypee Brothers agreed only on the condition that the 3,000-page book would be cut to about 1,000 pages,” says Goel, who co-authored the book with his son Apul Goel, also a professor at KGMU.

The former professor says that writing the book was a Herculean task as finding the Hindi equivalents of English medical terms was difficult. He says he used CSTT’s Comprehensive Glossary of Technical Terms (published in 1991). “But the problem was many terms such as hydatid, hematocele, pyocele, were missing, and many were inappropriate or misnomers. So, I had to create my own terms in Hindi. Hydatid became jalboond, inflammation became pradah, etc,” he says. What helped Goel was his deep interest in Hindi literature.

In all, Goel says, he ended up coining 400 new surgical terms while writing the book. His forthcoming book is a glossary of surgical terms, which will be published by Uttar Pradesh Bhasha Sansthan --- a state government organisation, which also published Goel’s second book Adhunik Shalya Vigyan last year.

Lack of a market

Publishing of medical books has witnessed rapid growth in the country over the decades, with textbooks of many Indian writers being sought abroad. Almost all health sciences books in India are being published in English—though a few medical publishers started bringing out nursing books in Hindi in the 1990s. Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers , one of the country’s largest medical publishing houses with 4,000 titles in health sciences to its credit, first produced a nursing book in Hindi in 1993. But, the publisher has brought out only one book in Hindi —by Prof Trilok Chandra Goel -- so far for medical students.

Its highest-selling Hindi title is English -Hindi dictionary by UN Panda.“The fact is there is hardly any market for medical textbooks in Hindi or any other Indian language. Unless medical colleges adopt Hindi as the medium of teaching, the demand for the books in Hindi is unlikely to rise,” says Ankit Vij, managing director, Jaypee Brothers.

“Medical books by Indian writers published by us have been translated in several foreign languages such as Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. India is a multilingual country and it is not easy to translate medical books in so many languages, which is why English has continued to prevail. The share of books in Hindi in our total sales is almost negligible,” says Vij.

But Goel is hopeful. He feels that an increasing number of students in new medical colleges in north India are from non-English medium backgrounds and that they will be more comfortable in their mother tongue. “But the translation of medical books for them should not aim to write technical terms in Devanagari,” he says, referring to the three books translated from English-- Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry -- for MBBS students in Madhya Pradesh. In these books in Hindi, even the names of the titles have been left unchanged— just their scripts have been changed to Devanagari.

“It is possible to study science and medicine in Hindi medium if simple and appropriate terminology is adopted for English words, ” adds Goel.

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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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