India does need a national language, but...

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 08, 2019 11:00 hrs
Cartoon: Protest against Hindi imposition

Does it have to be the least musical of all that the country has to offer? And does it have to be the one that will enable us to understand Mann ki baat? Does it have to be the one which will make it impossible for North Indians to make fun of Hemamalini’s accent over the better half of a century?

Let’s spare a few minutes to consider our other options.

It cannot be any of the South Indian languages.

If Telugu, for instance, were to become the national language, Bollywood would take a terrible hit, since that would render all Hindi remakes of hit action films unnecessary.

It certainly cannot be Tamil or Malayalam.

When Azhagiri fell out of favour with his father and the reins were handed to the eminently pronounceable “Stalin” instead, you could hear news anchors in Delhi breathe a sigh of relief that carried across the Vindhyas. They only have Kanimozhi and Alappuzha to contend with now.

The BJP hardly has to win Karnataka any longer, and hardly anyone in Karnataka speaks Kannada anymore anyway.

What does that leave us with?

Let’s remember that Hindi is not only not the language of most Indians, but it is also detested by a good number precisely because of previous attempts to impose it on perfectly happy populations. It is the reason Congress lost Tamil Nadu definitively.

Of course, there is a similar option – Urdu. Prettier script, softer sounds, natural musicality.

The one indisputably good thing the South believes the North produced was its literature – particularly poetry – and most of that is closer to Urdu than Hindi. Surely, most sensible people would rather listen to a recitation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems, or even Gulzar’s work, than Mann ki baat.

My personal favourite thing about Urdu, which I have been learning for some years, is that its grammar allows one to decode the seemingly illogical assignations of gender – it never made sense to me that a moustache was female until I got started on the rules that dictated it must be so.

Naturally, WhatsApp will teach us that this is a secret weapon unleashed by Pakistan, and that we are in danger of yet another Mughal conquest.

For as long as we are learning the languages of conquerors, I have a little point to make. The British Empire was the only one which managed to permeate into Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the coconuts in our food made all other candidates sick, but the Mughals and Mauryas wouldn’t venture where the British did.

Which is why we have managed to produce the likes of Shashi Tharoor, who pointed out the foolishness of annually spending forty crores of taxpayers’ money in order to make Hindi an official language at the United Nations.

Another advantage of making English the national language would be that our future Prime Ministers would not be embarrassed by having to depend on translators who put words – sometimes, entire paragraphs – in their mouths.

It could be argued that the prime minister’s mann ki baat were so audible that the translator was able to make sense of his “mind voice”, as we call it down here.

But, just in case our future prime ministers are not fortunate or unfortunate enough to land such perceptive translators, perhaps they would do well to be able to speak English.

Most people in parts of India which do not speak Hindi speak at least a smattering of English, largely because most tourists with money tend to speak English.

If our politicians are loath to make it easier for us to interact with the rest of the world, but still push our Incredible India tag, perhaps we should all learn Hebrew, given the number of visitors – and sometimes settlers – we have from Israel.

This, of course, might be less useful than English if we compared the revenue generated by tourists who speak the two languages.

We do have another option, not from a past conqueror but a neighbour with whom it’s usually useful – and generally difficult – to stay friendly.

China has at least as many people as India, covers a much larger area, and has been slipping steadily into territory we insist we own, if only on our maps – and we might as well get a head start on the language.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

The Delusionary Indian Intellectual

No one should be afraid to talk about religion

How Modi-haters became his PR angels

Why the Indian elections will always go wrong

When the people want a change

Abhinandan Varthaman: Hero, yes, but victim first


Tokenism won't stop terror attacks

Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols


The legislative dangers of election year

Priyanka and the inheritance of power

The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends

The hooligans in our homes

Why the Ambanis should rule India

Ten things the chowkidars failed to protect


Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com