Hindi Mahotsav: Hindi and Modernity: A Re-Examination


On Wednesday February 19th Manish Pandey greeted the book shoppers who had gathered in Hall Number 18 of the Delhi World Book Fair to the release of Peter D’souza’s book, “Hindi and Modernity: A Re-Examination.” Topics discussed at the panel included Hindi’s crisis of modernity, circulating negative stereotypes about the Hindi public, and the commercial strength of Hindi publishing.

Manisha opened with the popular contention: “there is no modernity in Hindi” and “the entire idea of our identity is tied to the West.” Hindi speakers are portrayed as rural and feudal, she said, and for years Indians have bragged, “I am very Western and modern in my thoughts”—as if ‘Western’ and ‘modern’ naturally equated with one another. She raised the issue of the intellectual dilemma of colonized nations, in which it seemed as if all modern thinkers and ideas, like Karl Marx and Marxism, originated in the West. Addressing Sudhir Chandra, sitting to her left, she asked him to clarify: “What is this conflict?”

Sudhir Chandra, a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, France, and author of The Oppressive Present: Literature and Social Consciousness, argues that there is a need to “interrogate” the “subservience” (Dastaa) and “mentality” (Mansikata) still present in Hindi: “We have accepted that modernity originated in the West,” he said, “but we have our own modernities.” He also went as far to question validity of the term ‘modernity’ itself. “Bhai, why are you giving us this name?” Hindi is pregnant with it’s own “alternative modernities,” he argues. When we evaluate literature, we are not really evaluating its quality on the basis of it’s proximity to the “modern,” but rather, the relevance of it’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to society. He gestured to the more important question of tradition. “If you don’t understand the origin of your tradition,” he said, “if you do not work toward it’s reinvention, then you don’t have a future, either as an individual or as a group.”

Abhay Dubey—journalist, author, and political analyst for the Center for the Study of Developing Societies—praised deSouza’s book for its comprehensive approach to all of Hindi’s emerging modernities. He singled out, in particular, feminism and the Dalit movement. “What new transformations have occurred? What kind of new values have taken place?” “By reading this book,” he said, “you will discover what ideas have come to be, what ideas are continuously being discussed, and the difference between Hindi modernity and the modernity of imperialism.” He lauds the progressivism of contemporary Hindi literature. If you go to a seminar organized for Dalit literature, then you will see Dalit authors intermingling with even more non-Dalit authors.

One such Dalit author mentioned at the panel was the recently deceased Om Prakash Valmiki. Om Prakash Valmiki, author of the autobiography, Joothan, is credited as being one of the forerunners of the Hindi Dalit literature movement. When Peter deSouza’s turn came at the mike, he paid tribute to his recently departed friend. He recounted an anecdote in which he had been speaking with Omprakash Valmiki at the hospital before the writer’s operation. The doctor told Valmiki that the operation would be a long one. Valmiki had responded, “Bahut kaam baki hai,” meaning, “There is still much work left to do.”

In the spirit of the work Valmiki left behind, D’Souza, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, sought to explore the “churning” he saw in society in his book. As a political scientist, he said, “We must get a sense of how people are responding to this change that is taking place… You can call it Hindi modernity, or you can call it the encounter between India and the intellectual world of Europe.” Whatever it’s name might be, he wanted it to “belong to the Institute of Advanced Studies” and to “open this debate” to public scrutiny.

D’souza worries about censorship brought about by increased politicization and lowered thresh-holds of offense. “It is a deep crisis,” he said. “I am reminded regularly of an essay that was published in 1927 France, called ‘Treason of the Intellectuals.’” In the essay, such questions were addressed as: why are intellectuals not doing what they have to do? Why are they not carrying the responsibility of being intellectuals? He expressed his gratitude to Vani Prakashan, publisher of the book and coordinator for the Hindi Mohatsav discussion, for aiding in his mission to galvanize Indian intellectuals to fulfill their responsibilities.

For the reinvigoration of social discourse, the Hindi publishing industry must also be rejuvenated. Manisha pointed out that if it were not for government support, the strength of Hindi publishing would lag even further behind. She said that in comparison with countries like France or China, relatively fewer scholarly works were available in the Hindi language. This initiated a debate between the panelists over readership: who do writers have in mind when they write? What is the difference in demographics between the English and Hindi audience? And, finally, if Hindi is indeed weaker in relation to English, what should be done?

Manish asked Suhdir why he wrote in English. He admitted that when he first began his writing career he wrote in English for his bread and butter. But if you look at his recent works now, he defended, they are almost all in Hindi. He challenges the belief that any problem exists in Hindi publishing. “Is it true that Hindi isn’t selling? If so, why are the publishers publishing us?”

Dubhey concedes, “We are a post-colonial society,” and “The cultural effect of English is still upon us.” The government functions in English. Even if you go to Bengal, where there is a special pride in the Bengali language, government signs will be in English as well.

But he added that English’s popularity doesn’t mean that Hindi doesn’t have it’s own role to play. He reminded his audience that Hindi is a “link-language” through which the regional translations of Indian literature flow. Outlining a plan for future action, he said, “the first stage should be to build the readership.” There doesn’t seem to be a paucity of readers, he mused, given the large market for Hindi newspapers.

Ravish Kumar, Indian TV Anchor, winner of the Ramnath Goenha Excellence in Journalism award, and host of programs on NDTV like “Prime Time,” “Hum Log,” and “Ravish Ki Report,” similarly remarked that Hindi was still deeply affected by a colonialist mindset.

Vanish concluded the session, however, with an optimistic nod toward his faith in the audience and in Hindi as a language of struggle. Thousands upon thousands of Hindi speakers watch his debates on TV, he said. He cited a show with Omprakash Valmiki, in which the Dalit author’s “brilliant mind” infused much energy into the debate—and, undoubtedly, the rest of Indian democracy as well.