Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity

Last Updated: Tue, Sep 17, 2019 11:27 hrs
Cartoon: Protest against Hindi imposition

The self-proclaimed liberals on Twitter, most regional politicians in the country, and all the coherent speakers in the Congress are, for once, singing the same tune: “Hindi imposition must be resisted.”

My Twitter feed has been dominated by people listing all the languages they speak in a day. My news feed features, after several years, Jairam Ramesh, who has apparently spoken three languages in a minute.

Thankfully, my WhatsApp feed has a single repetitive element: people sharing a comic clip which has made Tamilians laugh for decades – “Ek gaon mein ek kisaan Raghu Thatha”.

The DMK, AIADMK, PMK, and all the other parties in Tamil Nadu see eye to eye on the issue of language. It even unites politicians across South India, who rarely agree on anything. Suddenly languages which share their script and origins with Hindi, from the eastern, western, and northern reaches of India feel endangered by Hindi itself.

All of us are terrified the “imposition of Hindi” will destroy our cultures – as if adding to one’s knowledge would necessitate obliterating one’s memory of previously acquired knowledge.

It might devastate the proponents and opponents of Hindi to think this, but their zeal is rooted in the same idea – their love of homogeneity.

Since Partition, India has been divided into pieces that will reassure their occupants of their homogeneity – by religion, by language, by conviction of correctness.

If this had been done a little more sensibly – by available natural resources, or by the courses of rivers, for instance – we would have fewer political parties and a healthier economy.

We have broken into countries that are united by religion, into states that are united by language, into cities that are united by investment, into ghettos that are united by caste.

And our love for homogeneity is a national epidemic, quite the same that afflicts the minds of parents who dress their twins – sometimes even fraternal ones – in identical clothes well into their teen years, couples who colour-coordinate their social media “candid” photo shoots, guardians of “native varieties” of animals, and in-bred communities who hope their offspring will continue the trend and pass on their genetic defects faithfully to the next generation.

It is reflected in our schools, right from the uniforms to the answers in examinations, usually reproduced from textbooks and standard guides, and marked by teachers who can themselves barely answer the questions without a rubric, let alone set questions that are not lifted out of guides.

And it is because neither students nor teachers are encouraged to think that states like Tamil Nadu, instead of interrogating their abysmal systems of education, are fighting against the “imposition” of NEET. The fragile egos of students and their families’ desire for them to become doctors are more important than the lives of the unfortunate patients who might surrender themselves into their charge.

Let me make it clear that I don’t think spending crucial amounts of taxpayers’ money in translating official documents and creating an official language for a country whose people have no common language is a good idea.

The situation is quite like the scene in Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, where the speaker says:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

And to whom I was like to give offence.”

People are walling in their cultures, and then discovering new ones that are being endangered by exposure to others. And they are walling out anything that they see as The Other.

We’re building higher walls to ensconce smaller areas, and then making our rules within – what clothes can be worn without offending anyone’s paranoia, who can sleep in the same room without offending nature, how hair should be arranged in order not to offend anyone’s moral compass, what bodily functions may be allowed without offending the gods.

For the longest time, we have been using the word “culture”, to seal off outside influences and claim commonality with what lies within its adjectival boundaries. We vaguely understand it to refer to art forms that can barely entertain an audience that is not well-versed in them, but that can be showcased for tourists as exotic elements to exhibit as souvenirs upon their return to their own cultures. We also use it to chide people whom we believe are being amoral by embracing individuality.

We often forget that the most accurate connotation of “culture” is likely the biological one, which refers to growth in a conducive environment. And one person’s idea of growth may well be synonymous with another’s idea of contamination.

It might be useful to remember that it is usually scientists who grow cultures in their laboratories and toxins that destroy cultures of microorganisms in our homes.

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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