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Multilingual Readings

by Francesca Orsini

Students browse through books at a roadside stall in Lahore. Arif Ali—AFP

Learning new languages does not require discarding the ones you already have

Several years ago I picked up two booklets from a footpath seller in New Delhi, one in Hindi called Romantic Prem Patra and one in English called Love Letters. In Love Letters the idioms of love combined hidden literary references with office English—one letter channeled Henry James to praise the beloved’s “bustling curve of the wide Riva” and “large colored balconies,” while another addressed “to a Lady of Business” ended with “I hope that you will be in good health and will not be busy with your office-business. Please consider my proposal. You have crossed 30. Please take a decision.” In Romantic Prem Patr, instead, the range of love idioms was much broader and had roots in older traditions of songs and storytelling. It went from the coy, chupke chupke love of newlyweds to saucy exchanges between devar and bhabhi, from a young Majnun pining for his Layla to an old tota singing to his old mynah or a wife burning with viraha while her husband was away. What struck me at the time was that ishq, viraha, prem, love are words and idioms cultivated in different languages and literary traditions, and yet their specific aesthetics and emotional nuances were and still are immediately familiar to readers and publics across divides of script or even literacy. Yet when we study them as part of literary or religious history, we imagine them as belonging to different languages and speaking to separate groups.

There is something deeply wrong about studying literature in multilingual societies as if each literature is monolingual and forms its own separate world. We create artificial boundaries only to be endlessly surprised when traces of “other” languages pop up in texts—Persian words in Hindi poems or Brajbhasha mixed with Persian. Part of the problem is that we think of literature, adab, in terms of cultivation—of texts that need to be carefully read, rules of language and poetry to be learnt, preferably with a teacher, and vast canons of classics that require mastering before one can call oneself a poet or an adib. But if we consider the long tradition of poetry, stories, and songs—even sophisticated ones like Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas or Waris Shah’s Heer Ranjha—orally performed at gatherings, public festivals or ritual occasions, and therefore more widely accessible, perhaps even overheard by those who were not their intended audience, then the familiarity with different idioms and their aesthetics begins to appear less surprising. We also begin to see that the script follows the text in its movement across different audiences—Shahmukhi or Gurmukhi, Persian, or Nagari—and does not determine to which literature a text “belongs.”

In fact, reading about the lives of even ordinary educated people well into the 20th century, we often find that education meant learning, literally stacking up, languages, and the way to learn them was through literature, both read and memorized. True, languages like Persian, and later Urdu and English, would be valorized because they opened job prospects, but that did not mean that one would not learn, and cultivate, other languages, maybe as part of one’s religious practice or simply for fun. Take Bhanupratap Tiwari, the son of an ordinary clerk, whose 1890 handwritten autobiography, atmacharit, which I found in the UP State manuscript archive, is basically a catalogue of the languages he learnt and what he read with whom. From three-and-a-half to 5, his grandfather made him learn Hindi couplets by heart, and from 5 to 8 he taught him Sanskrit, while a local pious man taught him the Premsagar, the modern Hindi version of Krishna’s story written at Fort William college, and the Avadhi poetry of Tulsidas. Between 8 and 11 Bhanupratap studied Persian with a teacher of Chunar Mission School, and then privately with his father and with a maulvi in Mirzapur, with whom he read Jami’s Yusuf Zulaykha, among other texts. At the same time, he also sang devotional poetry in a satsang.

Bhanupratap and his father were keen that he should learn English, but school fees were too high, so he first read Ballantyne’s Primer on his own and was then admitted for a few years in an English school with English boys and girls, which he called “a fairy world.” But when his father got ill and had to retire, Bhanupratap had to start working in an office himself, much to his regret. This piecemeal education is by no means exceptional, and every time I tell Bhanupratap’s story, people bring up their own recollections of lessons with maulvis or pandits, or older relatives or neighbors. Bhanupratap also translated Sa’di’s Bostan into Hindi, though more often people cultivated literary languages separately, without mixing them or translating them. After all, to be educated meant that you knew Persian, Urdu, Brajbhasha or Sanskrit poetry in that language. Later, Bhanupratap would contribute to North Indian Notes & Queries with items of local history and folklore from Persian, Sanskrit, and Avadhi sources.

Even the colonial education system, with its clear hierarchy between English and local languages, now called “vernaculars,” did not produce monolingual individuals. In fact, because the coming of English coincided with new ideas about mother tongue and national language, many English educated in the 19th century decided to write in Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, and so on, and the same was true of readers. It remained so well after 1947. As Rosinka Chaudhuri, who works on English and Bengali writings in colonial Bengal, has argued, English and Bengali strengthened and benefited from each other, and the same could be said of other languages of South Asia. This does not mean denying hierarchy between languages since, as David Lelyveld has put it, “codes of linguistic behavior [take] on the same characteristics of hierarchy [of] other sorts of human interaction.” But, he continues, it was understood that “linguistic repertoires … varied even within a single household, let alone the marketplace, school, temple, court, or devotional circle.” No single language could cover them all.

This still remains the case, and yet language ideologies have not just pitted languages against each other, and regional languages against English. They also subscribe and strengthen identification between language, literature, and community that makes multilingual skills and practices suspect. Already in Bhairav Prasad Gupta’s 1959 novel Sati Maiya ka Chaura, set in 1940s Awadh, when the Muslim protagonist Manne decides to take part in a Hindi college debate he is ostracized by both his Hindi professors and Urdu friends. Why on earth would he want to do that? He does not “belong” to that language and the language does not “belong” to him.

For states, multilingualism is a headache, a problem that requires solving (rather than a fact of life). For families, languages get so dramatically bound with education, resources, jobs, and socioeconomic mobility that they are imagined as a ladder—you discard the “lower” ones as you climb up the rungs. In India, even in states that traditionally set great store on their languages and literature, like West Bengal or Karnataka, being educated in those languages is now perceived as a “handicap”, something that can blight your whole life. Bilingual writers and readers are getting rarer, with a corresponding narrowing of aesthetic horizons.

It has not always been thus, and there is no reason why it should be like that. Languages don’t just have functional value, and learning new ones does not require discarding the ones you already have. One can think of languages like rooms in a home with many windows rather than as rungs of a ladder. Why would you want to live in a smaller home, with fewer windows? Tracing the history of multilingualism means realizing not only how even texts written in a single language were part of a multilingual world; It means valuing the access to different aesthetics that multilingualism gives, whether one is a connoisseur or simply enjoys listening to ghazals, songs, tales, or reading Romantic Prem Patr. As Zoya, the protagonist of Anuja Chauhan’s novel The Zoya Factor thinks when she arrives in Australia, “People who know only one language… which is weird. Because, hello, what would they switch to if they started getting pally, or angry, or fell in love?”

Orsini is a scholar of South Asian literature. She is currently Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

From our March 9 – 23, 2019 issue

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1 comment

Idioms March 27, 2019 - 12:52 pm

Hi Francesca,
I was searching for idioms and landed on your wonderful post.
It was a really good read.
Also agree with the thought that learning new languages does not require discarding the ones you already have.

Freya, Seattle


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