Prema Negi in conversation with short-story writer Uday Prakash
What is your view on the origin of Hindi?
I have been questioning the conventional beliefs on this issue and this has brought me into conflict with many. If we explore the origins of Hindi, we will discover that it is not a very old language. I believe it is a colonial product. Bhartendu wrote between 1850 and 1885. Hindi was perhaps born a little before that. Some even move back the origin of Hindi to the “Veergatha” era. But the real question is how Hindi came into being. Everyone knows that it happened in the British era. The British imperialism and colonialism gave us modernity too – but only up to the point where the modernity did not pose a threat to its existence. Some laws and rules were changed. But the biggest contribution of imperialism to India was technology. Before the British, we didn’t have telephones, or railway lines, or automobiles. Colleges were also a British gift to us. They modernized education. Fort William College was founded. Just look closely at the renaissance in Bengal and you will realize that the imperialist-colonial modernity played an important role in it. The efforts made by Raja Rammohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati and the Brahmo Samaj for awakening India – they drew inspiration from the modernity that came to us from the West.
Hindi was born in Kolkata. The modern Hindi – which we call “Khadi Boli” – came into being in Fort William College. This, even Acharya Ramchandra Shukla, who has written the history of Hindi literature, cannot deny. His history is the Bible of Hindi literature. The British needed to capture the vast market that was emerging in India and when a market develops, it needs a language so that the people from different regions and states, who have their own languages and dialects, can communicate with each other. We can say that Hindi was the demand of the market. A link language was needed to enable people to communicate with each other and Hindi became that language. But that Hindi was different. In that Hindi, all such words that people could easily understand were included. There was no insistence that there should be no Urdu, Arabic word or word from any other language or dialect in it. This was the only consideration – that it should be intelligible to everyone. But then, what happened? We began excluding words from Hindi. If we look carefully, we will find that associating Hindi with a particular religion was a later development. This process gathered steam during the Bhartendu era. All the members of the Bhartendu Mandal wanted to purge Hindi of Arabic words and replace them with Sanskrit words. This was done under a well-thought-out scheme. Slowly, Hindi became a communal language. It was confined within the four walls of a community. I often quote Engels, who said that language is not only for communication and expression; it is also practical consciousness. When we divide practical common sense, the consciousness also gets divided. When, during the development phase of Hindi, it was being divided in 1850-60, those doing it could never imagine that it would lead to the division of the nation in 1947. When they separated Hindi from Urdu, they also separated Hindus from Muslims and ultimately, the country was torn into pieces. This was a calamity. I am not comfortable with today’s Hindi and that is why the institutional mechanism of Hindi dislikes me.
Is it true that the Hindi mainstream is apathetic towards all new progressive streams?
I see your question differently. I see it in the context of the journey of development of Hindi and the sociocultural conditions in which it developed. The history of Hindi is not very old. It is barely 100-150 years old. But the history of human civilization goes back thousands of years and centuries. Whatever may have been the nature of our society, there was one factor, one component that remained unchanged. Babasaheb Ambedkar and other thinkers have also pointed towards it. Indian society witnessed primitive communism, then feudalism, then capitalism and then socialism. Of course, real socialism was never ushered in. In the name of democracy, capitalism was patronized. India remained a colony for a long time. There was the Mughal period. Before that there was the Sultanate. From Central Asia, from West Asia, many civilizations, many races made forays into India. India was a big intersection. Everything changed in this vast land. But the question is why the Varnashram system did not change. This is a big question. The English did not touch it; the Mughals did not touch it.
You mean to say that the powers that be played a role in maintaining the status quo as far as the Varnashram system is concerned?
Yes. Definitely. And even today, this system is being protected. If you think something is changing in this system, you are living under an illusion. It remains as it is. If we turn the pages of history, we will realize that when Buddhism was edged out of India, it was a major turning point. The exit of Buddhism signalled the strengthening of the Varnashram system.
Like in politics, new identity-based streams are emerging in literature. Dalit literature, women’s literature, Dalit feminist literature are some of the older ones. Now, there is the talk of Shudra literature and Bahujan literature. Currently, the Dalit and progressive streams are competing with each other. Do you think the older, established streams of Dalit and progressive literature will accept the new ones?
The answer to this question is very long. This question is playing the role of a bridge between literature and language. If we look at OBCs, they have established their political domination in the Hindi-speaking area. Look at Bihar and UP. Even Modi – the Hindutvavadi – is an OBC. Caste and politics both are born of social chemistry. But language is different.
You mean to say that language and politics should not be mixed.
No. Not at all. I say, look at the media, look at literature, look at educational institutions, look at every institution – right from the Central Institute of Hindi to Sahitya Akademi to Hindi Academy – do you find that anything is changing there? In fact, the opposite is happening. As for OBC, Dalit or women’s discourse, its biggest patron emerging in the field of language is that caste, which is probably losing its hold on politics. This is surprising. Why is the Bharat Ratna – which is the highest award in India –being conferred on Madanmohan Malaviya for his contribution to Hindi? Just tell me the name of any Hindi writer who has been awarded the Bharat Ratna. This is an irony, a contradiction. Your question mixes society and language.
But language, after all, is born of society
This is a belief. We have been told so. It has been drilled into our minds. Language comes from the society but it is also controlled and directed from the top. Today’s Hindi is what we call institutional or official Hindi. But the people speak a different language; that is the people’s language. I will give you an interesting example. Balraj Sahni, who was a scholar, an actor and a professor of English, and was very close to Tagore and Hazariprasad Dwivedi – he had given a speech in JNU in 1972. In his speech, he said that when he was at Shanti Niketan, Hindi was the link language there. Students from different states communicated with each other in that language. He also did. But, Sahni said, when he visited the Hindi Department of Shanti Niketan, he could not understand the language that was spoken there. He said that Shanti Niketan did not teach him Hindi, the world of Hindi cinema did. His Hindi guru was Bimal Roy. When Bimal Roy made Hindi films, he had to use the language that the common man could understand. Some time ago, the BBC interviewed me. I was asked to list 10 best Hindi writers of the last 100 years. When I took the name of Manto, the interviewer interrupted. He said that Manto was an Urdu writer. I said if you oust Manto from Hindi, you will have to oust Premchand too; because there was no difference between the languages of the two. Premchand’s background was Urdu and so was Manto’s. Premchand did not write in Devnagari, he wrote in Urdu. Although, later, he wrote in Hindi too, but basically he wrote in Urdu. Recently, my book Mohandas was translated into Pakistani Punjabi. In Pakistan, Punjabi is written in Urdu, in India it is written in Gurumukhi. Both in terms of linguistic background and script, Premchand is as much of Urdu as of Hindi. So is Manto. What I mean is that there is a great difference between what Hindi is today and what it should have been – that is a language in which we can freely write and speak.
When I say there is not one Hindi but many Hindis, people get angry. But this is true. Hindi is a plural word. Dalit discourse will not be conducted in the official Hindi, neither will the struggle for the identity of the Dalits. The Hindi in which articles are written, speeches are delivered in universities and in seminars – that Hindi does not represent the social conflict in real society.
The question remains whether the present progressive streams will allow the emergence of new streams.
Just tell me, where is the stream which we call progressive – in society or in literature? I am talking of literature here. We will have to understand the difference between the two. Modernity in society is one thing and modernity in language is another. As for OBCs, they include backward classes like Yadavs, Jats, Kumhars and many others.
But here, the question is not only about Dalits but about providing a common literary platform to the backwards, women and other deprived communities.
See, I have already said that literature and society are different. Both should turn progressive and modern but the ways in which that will happen will be different for literature and society. Like the progressiveness that is coming into politics – for which a struggle is going on – or has come, there is a struggle under way in Hindi literature. Yes, it is visible in the literatures of Marathi, Tamil and some other languages but not in Hindi. The reason is that the historical and cultural structure and fabric of Hindi does not allow it.
Gender and caste biases are clearly visible in literature. Can’t we identify brahmanical literature in what has been written thus far?
Why not? Language is written culture. Culture means values. Let me give you my example. My village was in undivided Madhya Pradesh. Now, it is in Chhattisgarh. My mother was from Bhojpur, my father was from Baghelkhand and in the place where I lived, Chhattisgarhi was spoken. The children among whom I grew up all spoke Chhattisgarhi. Thus there were three languages in me – Bhojpuri, Bagheli and Chhattisgarhi. I made mistakes in writing Khadi Boli Hindi up to eighth grade. Even today, I am somewhat uncomfortable writing in Khadi Boli. Invariably, some English words, some words from the common spoken language do creep in. But the “Shuddh” Hindi of Banaras and Allahabad – the Hindi in which Namvar Singh and Manager Pande speak – that is beyond me.
In this context, just see the writings of Tulsiram ji, who passed away recently. Just compare his Murdaiya and Manikarnika with Vishwanath Tripathi’s prose. You will find a lot of difference in vocabulary, idiom, syntax, experience and consciousness.
Why this difference?
This difference has come from life. Secondly, even if you have grown through trying times but your values are different, then you won’t be able to see that experience in the way a Dalit would. Talking about Dalit litterateurs, Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan, Daya Pawar’s Achhoot – they represent what these people went through. Tulsiram’s Murdaiya is also about personal, experienced pain. Any writing is essentially autobiographical. I was talking of Tulsiram, who passed away recently. When Omprakash Valmiki died, look at what Tulsiram ji had said while paying tributes to him. He said that the struggle one goes through, the pain one has to withstand – it starts showing on your body once you turn 45. This is true of Namdeo Dhasal, Daya Pawar, Tulsiram, Omprakash Valmiki and many others among us. I am not a Dalit but a tough life does afflict your body with various diseases. Tulsiram ji had talked about the death of Daya Panwar (Tulsiram ji’s kidneys had also failed). Daya Pawar had come to Delhi to accept some award. He was staying at IIC. He died there. Tulsiram ji had talked about the difficulties they faced in sending his body to Maharashtra. Looking at it in another way, Omprakash Valmiki was successful, he had a job. Tulsiram had also become a professor – in JNU. At one level, he was successful.
The point is that society hasn’t changed. We can also put it in this way – the reactions to the process of change have grown more aggressive. Aggressiveness towards Dalits, women and Tribals is growing. The voices of protest are also rising against people like us who are raising questions about language from within literature. My belief is that the forces of change have just begun gathering momentum.
Parallel to brahmanical literature, there always existed a stream of literature opposed to it. That literature is being given different names today. Then, why can’t we identify Shudra literature and slot it as a distinct category?
This is a political issue. It is better handled by intellectuals who are a bit political-minded. I am not one of them. I am not at all interested in politics, especially in power politics. I feel that writers, artistes and scientists should not be categorized. Marx had said that mathematics is the highest science. Can we say that this mathematical calculation is Dalit, that one is OBC? Two plus two will always be four. They can be nothing else. I believe that writers are Dalits among Dalits. I have said this earlier – writers are worse off than Dalits. The writers who raised their voice against the establishment were either killed or persecuted.
Is the writers’ community also divided?
Yes. If any writer is under the illusion that he is addressing the entire society, he is mad because his voice is reaching no one.
Leftist litterateurs perceive Bahujan literature as being casteist? What option does the Bahujans writers have then?
The leftist litterateurs have only one option – to address society as a whole. Leftist ideology does not allow you to accept any race or category. It only recognizes economic categories.
The Mahishasur issue kicked up a controversy recently. You wrote about it on the social media. Would you like to elaborate your views on the issue?
Whatever I wrote on it is very clear. The fact is that not only Mahishasur (buffalo-rearer pastoral community) and Vratrasur (tribal community that was dependent on agriculture and which demolished dams) but also the Ramayana’s characters like Hanuman., Jamvant, Atibal, Dadhibal, Sugreev, Bali, Angad, Guh, Nishad, Kaustubh, Mareech, etc all are mythological, identity-based icons of different communities. They can also be described as totems of different human communities (exorcism or the occult like “Tona-totka” must also have originated from them). Similarly, Shiva, Rudra, Bhairav, Ganesh, Vinayak, etc are also symbols of different communities. In the struggles/wars between the different communities, the victor communities created their own concepts about the vanquished communities and publicized these concepts. Dev-Danav, Sur-Asur and similar other constructs actually represent perspectives and attitudes of different communities. Tribal and Dalit symbols are readily visible in the communities that sided with Ram. Guh and Nishad are symbols of Dalits and OBCs (in the present context) while Hanuman, Sugreev and Angad represent Tribals. This sub-continent has witnessed innumerable inter-community struggles and they remain undecided to date. Buddha was aware of this truth about our social diversity and that was why he waged a battle against it, and Buddhism had an upper hand for a long period. We all know the narratives of counterattack and disintegration that followed.
A few years ago, Samuel Huntington wrote a book The Clash of Civilizations. It was a much-talked-about but very controversial book. He had predicted that the 21st century would be a century of the rise of the repressed communities (cultures) and their resistance. It was a hypothesis, which we all had opposed. But today it is before us as a “prophecy”. The races and communities, which were persecuted for centuries, have become aware of their deprivations and are demanding their modern, human rights from the wielders of power. The forces that are aggressive today are also clearly identifiable. They are savarna, brahmanical, fascist, Hindutvavadi political formations. They have been dominating and lording over society for centuries. As education spreads, as democratic consciousness grows, we will find more and more “mythological heroes” pitted against one another, just as is happening in the case of Durga-Mahishasur now. I can bet this will happen. The time has come to understand who were Surs and who were Asurs. Obviously, nobody’s basic human rights can be suspended for eternity.
India has been home to many civilizations. The various castes, communities and civilizations that came to India – they all had their own legends, icons and beliefs, which gradually became established. Shaivites were mother worshippers. They had their Durga and their Kali and goddesses with dozens of other names. Similarly, there were Vaishanavites. Just look at Peoples of India. It is the biggest survey. It will transform your thinking. You will realize that there are so many communities in India that they cannot even be counted. There are so many icons, so many major gods….there are 153 castes, communities and groups thta have taken something from one religion and something else from another. In terms of popularity, local gods, that is, local saints, faquirs, sadhus and deities are worshipped more than the major gods.
When it happened, it must have been a struggle between patriarchal and matriarchal societies, though we now call it gender discourse. Durga was a mother, a woman – so all women should identify with her. As Mahishasur is dark, a man, he is anti-women. All women, including Dalit women, were brainwashed into believing that being women, they should be against Mahishasur. Whereas, what was the truth? Mahishasur or Bhainsasur were cattle grazers. So, it was a clash, a war between two communities which took this form later. All our mythological icons are at war with each other. Shaivites clashed with Vaishnavites, Buddhists fought Brahmanvadis and Muslims and Christians fought each other. These battles are being replayed even now.
The images and idols being published on social media are of no use in today’s times. They are also provocative. There are also many other forms of Durga. A mother can never be so violent. I was saying the same thing when a controversy erupted over the Mahishasur issue of FORWARD Press. Some feminist women writers had also joined the debate. They linked Durga with themselves. I said that I remember my mother. I had seen her battle cancer for one and a half years. When my mother was alive, she was not so cruel. Her tongue wasn’t protruding out, blood wasn’t dripping from it and she wasn’t wearing a garland of skulls. What sort of mother can wear skulls around her neck? See Kali, see Durga – all her 18 hands are holding weapons of one sort or the other. Maybe in a society where women are extremely repressed, an image of Durga armed to the teeth may have some appeal, but it is not true, it is not proper. But we must also remember that this image of Durga, of Kali has been drawn by men. It represents the male mindset. How do we know that Durga actually looked like what we see on calendars and in idols? A mother cannot be like this. I counterpose Durga to Saraswati. Why did Saraswati – the goddess of wisdom and knowledge – not get the central position? In this large country, there is only one temple dedicated to Saraswati. Many charges were also levelled on Saraswati. It was said that she was the daughter of Brahma and that the father and the daughter had relations. And so, Brahma no longer held centre stage. What was brought centre stage was Durga, who was holding weapons in all her 18 hands, and Laxmi – in other words power and capital. This symbolism exposes the Hindu mindset. Today, the 18 hands of Durga-Kali hold modern weapons. They hold tanks, guns and cannons. They are killing tribals, they are dispossessing Tribals of their lands and mining them. Who are being displaced by all this? Mahishasurs. So, the same metaphor now has different connotations. Now, it stands for multinationals, corporates attacking Dalits (those who are trampled upon, those who are repressed). This is the new form of Durga.
What could be the agenda for freedom from caste?
If we talk of a casteless society, it has to be a socialist society. It will be a modern society. This is possible and it should happen. For this, both forces should join hands – the leftists and those who want freedom from caste or want to annihilate it. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is very well argued. I believe that Ambedkar was the greatest modern intellectual of India. There was no one as modern as him. His wife was a Brahmin. Caste held no significance or meaning for him. He was drawn towards Buddha because Buddha was probably the first liberator of the world. Four hundred years before Christ, Buddha said things which can stupefy us even today. They are very striking, very logical. We are far behind even Buddha. We may become modern, we may become communist, we may become Marxist but still we will be nothing before him. But this is easier said than done. Varnashram system is at the root of corruption, black money, riots. It will neither allow a casteless society to come into existence nor will it allow building of secular society. It will not allow modern democracy to grow.
Published in the Bahujan Literary Annual May 2015 issue of the Forward Press magazine
For a detailed exposition of the concept of Bahujan literature, read Forward Press Books’ Bahujan Sahitya Ki Prastavna.
Contact The Marginalised Publications to order a copy; phone: 9968527911, email:firstname.lastname@example.org
The English edition of the book is titled The Case for Bahujan Literature, which is also available with The Marginalised Publication.
For the e-book version, click here.