We must be bilingual even in a single language, we must have a minor language inside our own language, we must create a minor use of our own language. Multilingualism is not merely the property of several systems each of which would be homogenous in itself…. Not speaking like an Irishman or a Romanian in a language other than one’s own, but on the contrary speaking in one’s own language like a foreigner…all mistranslations are good—always provided that they do not consist in interpretations, but relate to the use of the book, that they multiply its use, that they create yet another language inside its language’ (Deleuze: Dialogues 2, 4-5).
The Indian constitutional expert Granville Austin remarked that during the framing of the Indian Constitution, the only debate more explosive than property was that of language. Much water has flowed under the bridge since the late forties, and indeed one still feels very much at sea.
This is because the Indian case is different from the Euro-American context wherefrom many of our formulations still derive. For the most part, Europe remains a single language-single country system; at most, in Europe as in the United States, there may be the rise of another language (for example, Spanish). In obvious distinction, India is deeply and comprehensively multilingual, with many languages having over fifty million speakers. But this fact has led to a simplistic reflex cultural pride in India’s multilinguality. Pride is no substitute for a sober, nuanced and reasonably comprehensive analysis (it would really be impossible to be comprehensive in this case), and Rita Kothari’s edited volume, A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India (Oxford, 2017) raises many issues, complicating a simple pride over India’s bi- or multilinguality.
Most of the articles depict this complex linguistic terrain. The volume consists of sixteen articles plus an Introduction and Epilogue, making it as comprehensive as an average-sized academic book can hope to be. The book rightly raises issues not only from within languages, each taken separately, but also the more difficult question of the rutted relations between languages, and over a longue duree. Though all articles have something to offer, a few stand out—for example, those that raise questions of the complications and conceptual challenges that multilingualism concretely represent. Madhav Chippali and Sundar Sarukkai submit that India must have a very different understanding of translation—translating German to Vietnamese is not like translating Tamil to Malayalam, or Sanskrit to Kannada. Where there are already prior shared intimacies (or enmities), a halo of translation-into-Tamil may be part of the very conception of an original Malayalam work. They ask what translation is when the boundaries of languages (Sanskrit and old Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam) keep shifting, when broad plot-lines of epics like the Mahabharata are shared, but there is no desire for line by line translation, when Kannada may sometimes be evoked only for a regional or aural affect rather than for itself? Language, for a writer, may be a particular world of feeling and nostalgia, rather than any oeuvre or plot, and so for them translation is conceptually prior to language, an otherness prior to self, whereby the question of identity and authority is constantly deferred. As Veena Naregal also notes, translation refers not only to literature, but also to newer modes of authority such as the secular social sciences—while ‘culture’ may have a political/electoral agency, the norm in the more everyday governance of India is still English-centred. How may there be a better give and take between the elite and the regional, the electoral and the literary-scientific? Naregal is one of the few voices in the volume that raises crucial institutional/disciplinary questions of the humanities within the broader higher education architecture.
From a different angle, Francesca Orisini makes a similar point, asking us to go beyond the moves from Sanskrit to vernacular, and instead concentrate on the multiplying contexts of reception and authority/agency, each of which generate new productive uses of older forms. This is salutary as the current institutional framework of language and area, where one specializes in a language (say, Hindi or Telugu) pre-empts the more fundamental register of ideas and practice. For example, as Orsini explains, the phrase ‘Na Hindu na Turk’ will have different meanings in different contexts insofar as these concepts speak back to the changing idea of ‘secularism’ through ages, regions, theologies. This understanding of different ideas of secularism (ideally read in a non-teleological fashion, not as simple moves to ‘modernity’, constitutionalism, etc.) may have more valence than the simple, methodological assumptions of current specializations in the academy where, despite some critical self-consciousness, specialism in a language (or a regional language plus Sanskrit/Farsi) still forms the backbone assumption.
This priority of concepts rather than language-specialization would result in the more genuine multiplication of the signifier that Mitra Phukan discusses in her essay about the North East’s use of English. She uses the fine examples of words like ‘rape’, or ‘Bangladeshi’ or the idea of ‘conch-shell bangles’ as a symbol of communal amity—their valence in Assam today, or in the English language, is very different from the seventies when the novel was written, a time more proximate to the traumatic 1971 war. In the seventies it was the avoidance of such a direct term as rape that contributed to the affect of horror and shame. Further, the very relations of intimacy, rurality, archaisms of Assamese (here an Assamese novel with a Muslim Bengali protagonist) to English is not simply symmetric as the relation of Bengali to English, or of Assamese to Bengali (this last being especially hierarchical). Such a mix is thus not only pre-modern, but is consistently present—a classic nineteenth century example, as the scholar Tridip Suhrud explicates, is Govardhanram Tripathi’s Sarasvatichandra, with its easeful mix of kavya, Wordsworth and Nagar Brahmin Gujarati. There are also cases where this multilinguality within a given text is less easeful and more hierarchical. As Sowmya Dechamma explains with regard to a 1924 text whereby the more disadvantaged Kodava language (its ‘folk songs’ etc.) is framed by Kannada, the latter being a more dominant language and where framing replicates the structure of dominant/disadvantaged. The further twist is that even in that intertext, Kodava is hardly transparent, and is itself in that transcription being standardized, authenticated, and made amenable for literature and science.
A further (if happier) complication is the linking of language, in an intrinsic sense, with performative song and the visual arts. Linda Hess and Neelima Shukla-Bhatt discusses this interlinkage with reference to pre-modern poets like Kabir, Mira and Narsinha Mehta (all their oeuvres accreting over time, geography, language). Analogously, GN Devy discusses the interlinkage of language and visual codes in Rathwa painting, whereby rituals intermix liturgy and painting. Kothari notes in her Introduction that fourteenth century Gujarati is more different from contemporary Gujarati than contemporary Marwari. Sometimes it is the ineffable (‘beyond language’) that paradoxically slides betwixt languages—it is perhaps not a surprise that many pre-modern poets are seen as multilingual religious mystics, whereby it is their facility with different languages, idioms, and ideas that facilitate their spiritual prowess.
To call India simply multilingual can thus seem a very externalist assessment—multilinguality is fraught with positive and negative affect, with a sense of both power and powerlessness. For a child who cannot speak the language of her classroom, or a worker who cannot speak the language of his bosses, the experience and demand of multilingualism can be traumatic, and this is often enough the case in India, a case at odds with the official injunction to be proud of India’s multilinguality. It is hard to disavow that injunction—pro-diversity might indeed mean this compulsive call to celebrate multilinguality. Many of the trials of compulsory nationalism rest on this normative account of the happy coexistence of a linguistic diversity that no nation can match. Yet the affect of Indian multilinguality may be subtler. And this book calls us to stay true to these more opulent possibilities of intellectual and cultural dynamics of India, both traditional and modern, and to always push ideas, language and meaning to, as Hess says, the very ‘brink of the conceivable’.
Nikhil Govind is Head and an Associate Professor in Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal, Karnataka.