In the book, you quote a statistic saying a language is dying every two weeks. Maybe that’s statistically right, but there’s a sense of panic to it – surely a language like Hindi or any of the official languages of India, which are spoken so widely, will never actually die?
No, I think exactly what you have said illustrates that there is a problem in this country, and it is a problem that should be addressed, that people should be concerned about. You may say that it creates a sense of panic, but there is a measure of urgency about it, you know. One of the things that India is most proud of, and rightly so, is its ancient cultures and its diversity. And language is a part of both those cultures and that diversity.
Between when you first came to India as an adult, and now, do you find a change in the attitude to language?
Yes, in two ways. First of all, when I came to India, it was in the sixties, and the excesses of the pro-Hindi movement were going on. I think that the Hindiwallahs have learnt their lesson much more now, and are prepared to leave it to the natural process to see what happens to Hindi in relation to other Indian languages.
And I also think that the barrier has in some ways been broken. When I originally came here, people of a certain educational status and financial status, didn’t think they would ever learn English really. But now, far lower down the economic scale – I don’t want to say ‘social scale’ – people do realise the barrier of English and are learning it, and this is where the trouble, perhaps, is at its most grave. Because in doing that, they’re going to schools where the teachers themselves don’t speak very good English, and they’re getting neither proper education in their own language nor in English.
Those are the two changes I’ve noticed.
Image: A man reads a Marathi language newspaper in Mumbai