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Things that happen only in India

The pluralism and the linguistic diversity of India is something of which we can truly be proud of.

I have often argued that we are all minorities in India. But language is one of the most interesting affirmations of our diversity.

TEN years ago, when India celebrated the 49th anniversary of our independence from British rule, H.D. Deve Gowda, then the Prime Minister, stood at the ramparts of New Delhi's 16th-century Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India's "national language". Eight other prime ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him, but what was unusual this time was that Deve Gowda, a southerner from the State of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he scarcely knew a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one — the words having been written out for him in his native Kannada script, in which they, of course, made no sense.

Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere, but it represents the best of the oddities that help make India India. Only in India could a country be ruled by a man who does not understand its "national language". Only in India, for that matter, is there a "national language" that half the population does not understand. And only in India could this particular solution be found to enable the Prime Minister to address his people.

Back in the 1980s, one of Indian cinema's finest playback singers, the Keralite K.J. Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.

Instance of pluralism

I have often argued that we are all minorities in India. But language is one of the most interesting affirmations of our diversity. One look at our rupee notes, with their denominations spelled out in 18 languages (and nearly as many scripts) is enough to make the point. The Constitution of India recognises 18 languages today, but in fact there are 35 Indian languages that are each spoken by more than a million people — and these are languages with their own scripts, grammatical structures and cultural assumptions, not just dialects (and if we're to count dialects, there are more than 22,000).

No language enjoys majority status in India, though Hindi is coming perilously close. Thanks in part to the popularity of Mumbai's Bollywood cinema, Hindi is understood, if not always well spoken, by nearly half the population of India, but it cannot truly be considered the language of the majority. Indeed, its locutions, gender rules and script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the south and the northeast. And if the proliferation of Hindi TV channels has made the spoken language more accessible to many non-native speakers, the fact that other languages too have captured their share of the TV audience means that our linguistic diversity is not going to disappear.

One of my favourite silly jokes as a small child was about a native of Madras (not yet rebaptised Chennai) who finds himself lost in the nation's capital and approaches a Sikh policeman with the helpless query, "Tamil teriyima?" Whereupon the cop retorts, "Punjabi tera baap!" Part of the good-natured joy of the juvenile joke was that the bilingual pun was one that most Indians — but only Indians — could catch instantly. The popularity in the 1990s of those endless "Ajit jokes", which relied on linguistic humour of the most inventively bilingual kind, could never find an equivalent in the monolingual cultures of America or the white members of the British Commonwealth.

Not language-dependent

But my larger and more serious point is that Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. The French speak French, the Germans speak German, the Americans speak English (though Spanish is making inroads, especially in the southwest and southeast of the U.S.) — but Indians speak Punjabi, or Gujarati, or Malayalam, and it does not make us any less Indian. The idea of India is not based on language (since we have at least 18 or 35, depending on whether you follow the Constitution or the ethnolinguists). It is no accident that Jawaharlal Nehru's classic volume of Indian nationalism, The Discovery of India, was written in English — and it is fair to say that Nehru discovered India in English. Indeed, when two Indians meet abroad, or two educated urban Indians meet in India, unless they have prior reason to believe they have an Indian language in common, the first language they speak to each other is English. It is in English that they establish each other's linguistic identity, and then they switch comfortably to another language, or a hybrid, depending on the link they have established.

In my last column, I sang the virtues of pluralism as a global doctrine. It is, of course, also a very basic Indian virtue. In my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I argued that pluralism emerges from the very nature of our country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography, reaffirmed by its history and reflected in its ethnography. Many columns ago I suggested in these pages the slogan, "Garv se kahon ki hum Indian hain." In the spirit of today's column, perhaps that should be amended to read, "Garv se chollungo ki njangal Indian aachhey." Other versions welcome, of course!

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