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India's many mothers

- by Sunil Gangopadhyay

The world, they say, has become a village. The coinage ‘global village’ has ubiquitously spread into every aspect of our lives.  Now, what is the significance of this new sobriquet used for our Mother Earth? Of course, the term ‘village’ is not being here used in its usual sense. Usually, the natives of a village have something in common with regard to their practice of religion, food habits, dress, social customs and so on. There may be some elements of variation, yet they do not boast of a striking dissimilarity.  Does this mean that the utopian vision of an egalitarian society has been transformed into a reality?  Well, we may feel thrilled by fantasizing about a situation like this, but the present global scenario hardly encourages us to believe this. Gradually national territories are eroding; nations are at logger-heads with one another; the divide between the haves and have-nots is rampant; intolerance and communal feuds are on the rise; civilization is being shaken by the gruelling, violent attacks of terrorists.

Those who subscribe to the Big Bang theory believe that an explosion created this universe.  And this very universe that comprises countless galaxies of planets, stars, satellites is continuously expanding its horizons.  Human civilization also may be compared to it.  The journey of mankind had its beginning in a certain location in Africa.  Thereafter, a small ethnic group migrated to different parts of the earth: one of the bands moved to Central Asia and from there to Australia through Persia, India and China.  The other group of people travelled across different parts of Europe first.  Then crossing the Bering Sea, they entered America and Canada.  After this, in a couple of lakhs of years, this very human race had undergone the process of tremendous transformation in terms of appearance, attire, manners and behaviour.  Like the celestial bodies, humans and other animals on Earth have a huge numerical strength.  There is a striking difference between humans and different animals.  Apart from a different sexual life, humans, unlike the other animals, are in possession of the wealth of language.  It’s the bliss of language that has bound humans together.  Again, it is language that fuels feuds and friction.  If it is presumed that the human race in Africa at the threshold of civilization spoke one language for communication, today Homo sapiens speaks more than eight thousand languages.  A Hungarian, a Tamil, and an Australian—they are all the inhabitants of the same planet: Earth.  But their mother tongues are poles apart from one another.  If they bump into one another, the only language of their communication will perhaps be silence.

Now, if the people belonging to the pluralistic societies separated by barbed wire fences subscribe to the concept of a global village, what will be their common language and religion?  For the time being we are not concerned with religion, here our chief concern is language.  And needless to say, the answer to this question is English.

Though English is a highly developed and complex language, it has forged ahead of two or three other European languages of comparative embellishment due to historic reasons.  During the age of colonization, the English were considerably ahead of the other European nations.  More than half of the globe was brought under into their submission.  The English took pride in the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”  After decolonization, former British colonies could not say farewell to the English language.  All of Australia and a large part of North America adopted the English language.  Even in India, English is recognized as one of the official state languages.  And the English language slipped the banner of victory into the hands of the Americans due to their unprecedented progress in economics, science, and technology.  The remarkable advances in computer and information technology led the English language to race ahead making other languages subservient to it.  Once, French and Spanish rivalled English.  Even after World War II, the French, in a bid to display their self-pride in their mother tongue, never uttered a single English word.  But now, a person who has some working knowledge of English can achieve his goals in any part of Europe.

Admittedly, English is recognized as the most utilitarian language. Then what is the future of other languages?  Many predict that other languages are heading towards the inevitable fate of extinction.  There is a concern that in a hundred years or so, the worst will happen. (A report from the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon on the ‘alarming rate of extinction of the world’s languages’ notes:  “While half of all languages have gone extinct in the last five hundred years, the half-life is dropping: half of the 7,000 languages spoken today won’t exist by the year 2100.”  The New York Times adds this perspective: “Eighty-three languages with ‘global’ influence are spoken and written by eighty percent of the world’s population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researches said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants.”  This prognostication has two sides.  Will the other languages embrace a slow but natural death?  Or will they be strangled to death?  The second process is certainly impossible.  If we draw the comparison of monstrous fishes swallowing up tiny ones, we’ll make a mistake.  For however big fish an English might be, there are at least quite a few languages which should never be compared to small fish.  They are so big and powerful that English language lacks the power to swallow them one by one.  One-third of the world’s population speaks Chinese and Indian languages.  The foundations of the Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese languages are firmly rooted. Though a small segment of the world’s population speaks French and German, these two languages are widely spread by virtue of their long-standing heritage and literary opulence.  Any deliberate attempt to launch an assault on any one of these languages will undoubtedly spark off strong disquiet and upheaval.

Inspired by the love for one’s mother tongue, man has time and again proven that he does not hesitate to lay down his life in honor of his mother tongue.  One glowing example of a sacrifice of this magnitude is what happened on the 21st February 1952 in Dhaka.  Five years after the  partition from India and the origin of a new state called Pakistan, Bengalis in the east rose up en-masse demanding the recognition of Bengali as the official state language.  On that day in Dhaka, four people fell to the bullets of police.  This kind of sacrifice, to be a martyr to one’s mother tongue, has few parallels.  Since Bengalis comprised the majority population of Pakistan, their demand to make Bengali the state’s official language gave rise to the new sovereign state called Bangladesh.  Later UNESCO announced the 21st February as Mother Tongue Day to be observed in all countries.  Again back to India, ninety percent of people of Kachar are Bengali speaking. Voicing their protest against the government’s apathy and indifference to the Bengali language, people had come out on the streets of Silchar.  There also, the irresponsible police administration resorted to indiscriminate firing on the procession resulting in the death of eleven people on the 19th May, 1961. This utterly tragic and heinous act was not given much publicity; rather, it was hushed-up.

India and China, two neighbouring nations, are the focus of the rest of the world as they fast develop.  But with regard to the issue of language, the problems faced by these two countries are different.  Mandarin, being the mother tongue of ninety-five percent of the Chinese population, means China isn’t confronted with many linguistic barriers.  But as far as the fostering of English is concerned, China lags far behind.  Again, though India has made much headway in English, there is a yawning communication gap between one Indian state and another because of language barriers, as most of the people of one state cannot understand the language of another state.  Almost eight hundred languages are in use in India, of which twenty-two important languages are recognized by the government (Two more have been adopted by Sahitya Akademi.).  Among them, there are eleven languages like Hindi, Bengali, and Tamil and the like, each of which is spoken by more than one crore of people. Hindi and Bengali are among the five principal

languages of the world.

After independence, the Government of India contemplated treating both Hindi and English as the linking languages for the entire nation.  And it was hoped that in about thirty years’ time, Hindi would be able to replace English and be our principle language.  Had that hope been fulfilled, it would have been auspicious for the nation.  One can recall China was, once upon a time, multilingual.  But by the royal mandate of a royal monarch, Mandarin was imposed as the common state language, which in turn strengthened their national unity.  In India’s democracy, had all spontaneously accepted Hindi, we could have avoided many problems.  Sadly enough, even after sixty years of independence, that hope has eluded us.  In view of the present global situation, English plays the role of the principle language of our country. This isn’t out of an overwhelming and spontaneous love for the English language.  The allegiance to English has its roots merely in utilitarian outlook.  And gone are the days of adherence to the King’s English.  Like American and Australian English, now we have freely begun to use our own Indian English.

We have yielded to the superiority of English under compulsion.  What shall be the fate of other Indian languages? Will the sole dependence on English cause the abandonment of those languages?  The diaspora is the order of the day.  Many Indians have also now settled abroad. Following generations are now deprived of learning their mother tongue. They are solely dependent on English for their upbringing.  But their numerical strength is not yet any cause of concern. In comparison to the vast population of India, they comprise a very insignificant segment.  The majority of Indians fortunately have not become detached from their mother tongue.  Now the question is: Does everyone need to be bilingual?  Some are of the opinion that even though other languages won’t become completely extinct, they will remain confined within the narrow walls of the domestic environment.  This means the mother tongue will be used to communicate with parents and servants while communication outside of home English is sine qua none.  If this were so, then in which language would poetry, fiction, and philosophy be written?  Apparently, these things seem to be inessential.  But civilization marches forward on the basis of these intellectual harvests.  Whatever might be the perception of a handful of self-conceited writers, still now the greatest wealth of poetry and literature is written in the mother tongues of authors and poets.  The authors of England, America, and Australia write in their own mother tongue.  Writers, whose mother tongue isn’t English, will have to survive in an unequal contest. Until now, in creative writing, this second category of writers was nominal.

However relevant the discussion of the future of language might be, it’s a fact that the majority of people of our time have an emotional attachment to language. However inglorious language might be, still most people love their mother tongue from the core of their hearts.  To save their mother tongue from becoming extinct, even today, there are some people willing to sacrifice their remarkable lives. In connection with this, an anecdote can be mentioned.

Isaac Bassevic Singer was an illustrious author in the Yiddish language.  He was also a Nobel Laureate.  Many are under the impression that Yiddish is a dying language.  At the time of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said the following:

People ask me often, why do you write in a dying language? And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive the ghost is. Ghosts love Yiddish and, as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts but also in resurrection.  I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: Is there any new Yiddish book to read?  For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for two thousand years Hebrew was considered a dead language.  Suddenly it became strongly alive. What happened to Hebrew might also happen to Yiddish one day. (Although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place)

There is still a minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is:

Yiddish may be a dying language,  but it is the only language I know well.  Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.

(Quoted from Sugata Srinivasaraju’s book, Keeping Faith with the Mother Tongue)


We, too at Sahitya Akademi, believe that ‘A mother is never really dead.” And one’s love for the mother tongue is inseparably connected with one’s love for mother.  We have a commitment to safeguard and honor all the mother tongues of all Indians.  Even we feel the need to conserve those languages which are spoken by the hill and tribal people and which have no written accounts. Another aspect of our program is to bring writers from different corners of the country together and assist in exchange.  At present we give awards for the best writing in twenty-four languages annually. Besides those selected, other authors and researchers of additional unrecognized languages are recognized and awarded by us.  Indian literature is the conglomeration of writing in a number of languages.  Through translation, those literatures of one distinctive entity are increasingly being brought closer together.

Sunil Gangopadhyay was born in 1934 in Faridpur in what is now Bangladesh. He received his Master's degree in Bengali from the University of Calcutta in 1954. He has been associated with the Ananda Bazar group, a major publishing house in Kolkata for many years and is currently the President of the Sahitya Akademi. Author of well over 200 books, Sunil is a prolific writer who has excelled in different genres but declares poetry to be his "first love." He was the founder editor of Krittibas, a seminal poetry magazine that became a platform for a new generation of poets experimenting with many new forms in poetic themes, rhythms, and words. His Nikhilesh and Neera series of poems (some of which have been translated as For You, Neera and Murmur in the Woods) have been extremely popular. As in poetry, Sunil is known for his unique style in prose. Arjun, Pratidwandi (The Adversary), filmed by Satyajit Ray, Aranyer Din-Raatri (The Days and Nights of the Forest, also filmed by Satyajit Ray), Abar Aranya (filmed by Gautam Ghosh), Ekaa ebong Koyekjon are some of his well known works of fiction. His historical fiction Sei Somoy (translated into English by Aruna Chakravorty as Those Days) received the Indian Sahitya Akademi award in 1985. Sei Somoy continues to be a best seller more than a decade after its first publication. The same is true for Pratham Alo (also translated recently by Aruna Chakravorty as First Light), another best selling historical fiction and Purbo-Paschim, a raw depiction of the partition and its aftermath seen through the eyes of three generations of Bengalis in West Bengal, Bangladesh and elsewhere. He is also the winner of the Bankim Puraskar and the Ananda Puraskar.