For me, or for most contemporary writers working in these parts, language can never be a given. It has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow-cooked.
It was only after writing The God of Small Things that I felt the blood in my veins flow more freely. It was an unimaginable relief to have finally found a language that tasted like mine. A language in which I could write the way I think. A language that freed me. The relief didn’t last long. As Estha always knew, Things can change in a day.
Less than a year after The God of Small Things was published, in May 1998, a Hindu nationalist government came to power. The first thing it did was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. Something convulsed. Something changed. It was about language again. Not a writer’s private language, but a country’s public language, its public imagination of itself. Suddenly, things that would have been unthinkable to say in public became acceptable. Officially acceptable. Virile national pride, which had more to do with hate than love, flowed like noxious lava on the streets. Dismayed by the celebrations even in the most unexpected quarters, I wrote my first political essay, “The End of Imagination.” My language changed, too. It wasn’t slow-cooked. It wasn’t secret, novel-writing language. It was quick, urgent, and public. And it was straight-up English.
Rereading The End of Imagination now it is sobering to see how clear the warning signs were, to anybody, just about anybody, who cared to heed them:
“These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests,” we were repeatedly told.
This has been hammered home, over and over again. The bomb is India, India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just anti-national, but anti-Hindu. (Of course, in Pakistan the bomb is Islamic. Other than that, politically, the same physics applies.) This is one of the unexpected perks of having a nuclear bomb. Not only can the Government use it to threaten the Enemy, it can use it to declare war on its own people. Us . . .
Why does it all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black-and-white images from old films—scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps? Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless columns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no soundtrack? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right?
The mayhem came. On October 7, 2001, three weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in power in the state of Gujarat, removed its elected chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, and appointed Narendra Modi, a rising star in the RSS, in his place. In February 2002, in an act of arson, 68 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death in a train that had stopped in Godhra, a railway station in Gujarat. Local Muslims were held responsible. As “revenge,” more than 1,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Hindu mobs in broad daylight in the cities and villages of Gujarat. More than 100,000 were hounded out of their homes and herded into refugee camps. It wasn’t by any means the first massacre of members of a minority community in post-independence India, but it was the first that was telecast live into our homes. The first, that was, in some senses, proudly “owned.” I was wrong about there being no soundtrack.
“The End of Imagination” was the beginning of 20 years of essay writing for me. Almost every essay was immediately translated into Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Urdu, and Punjabi, often without my knowledge. As we watched mesmerized, religious fundamentalism and unbridled free-market fundamentalism, which had been unleashed in the early 1990s, waltzed arm-in-arm, like lovers, changing the landscape around us at a speed that was exhilarating for some, devastating for others. Huge infrastructure projects were displacing hundreds of thousands of the rural poor, setting them adrift into a world that didn’t seem to be able to—or simply did not want to—see them. It was as though the city and the countryside had stopped being able to communicate with each other. It had nothing to do with language, but everything to do with translation.
For example, judges sitting in the Supreme Court seemed unable to understand that, for a person who belonged to an indigenous tribe, their relationship with land could not simply be translated into money. (I was arraigned for contempt of court for saying, among other things, that paying Adivasis, indigenous tribespeople, cash compensation for their land was like paying Supreme Court judges their salaries in fertilizer bags.) Over the years, the essays opened secret worlds for me—the best kind of royalty that any writer could ask for. As I travelled, I encountered languages, stories, and people whose ways of thinking expanded me in ways I could never have imagined.
Somewhere along the way, slow-cooking began again. Folks began to drop in on me. Their visits grew more frequent, then longer, and eventually, pretty brazenly, they moved in with me: Anjum, an Urdu speaker from Old Delhi, came with her adopted daughter, Zainab, and a laconic, cloudy dog called Biroo. A young man who called himself Saddam Hussain showed up on a white horse he introduced as Payal. He said his real name was Dayachand and that he was a Chamar, a skinner from Jhajjhar in Haryana. He told me a terrible story about what had happened to his father. He spoke in a sort of Mewati-Rajasthani that I found hard to understand. He showed me a video of the execution of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, that he kept on his cell phone. It was Hussein’s courage at the moment of his death, he said, even if he had been a bastard, that had made Dayachand convert to Islam and take the name Saddam Hussain. I had no idea what the connection between the video and his father was.
A rail-thin man with his right arm in a plaster cast, his shirtsleeve flapping at his side, slid in like a shadow. He refused all offers of food and drink. The man handed me a piece of paper that said:
My Full Name: Dr Azad Bhartiya. (Translation: The Free Indian)
My Home Address: Dr Azad Bhartiya , Near Lucky Sarai Railway Station, Lucky Sarai Basti, Kokar, Bihar
My Current Address: Dr Azad Bhartiya, Jantar Mantar, New Delhi
My Qualifications: MA Hindi, MA Urdu (First Class First), BA History, BEd, Basic Elementary Course in Punjabi, MA Punjabi ABF (Appeared But Failed), PhD (pending), Delhi University (Comparative Religions and Buddhist Studies), Lecturer, Inter College, Ghaziabad, Research Associate, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Founder Member Vishwa Samajwadi Sthapana (World People’s Forum) and Indian Socialist Democratic Party (Against Price-rise).
I offered him a cigarette. He went outside to smoke it, and returned only after a few weeks. That was the beginning of Dr. Bharatiya’s drifting in and out of my home. It continues to this day. The next to come was the opposite of a drifter. Biplab Dasgupta, from the Universe of English, was an officer of the elite intelligence services currently posted in Kabul. He asked me to call him what his friends called him—Garson Hobart—the name of the character he had played in a college play. He arrived with an expensive bottle of whiskey from which he drank steadily. He seated himself at my table and, without so much as asking, used my pen to start writing something, from which he never looked up, except to occasionally enunciate the Latin name of a bird, as though he were checking the spelling by saying it out loud.
Later it occurred to me that he might have been doing it to trouble future translators in whose languages the scientific taxonomy of birds and trees, with their genus and species names that identified each of them as unique, did not exist. Hobart’s expression changed—in fact, almost everything about him changed—when my doorbell rang, and I found a man and woman standing outside. The woman turned out to be Hobart’s tenant, who had apparently gone missing. Her name was Tilotamma, and the man with her was Musa, her Kashmiri lover who seemed to know Hobart, too. They came in carrying cartons of papers and files, and towers of dusty documents. She put up a few sheets of paper on the ’fridge and secured them with a magnet. It was a word list, an alphabetically organized lexicon:
A: Azadi/army/Allah/America/Attack/AK47/Ammunition/ Ambush/Aatankwadi/Armed Forces Special Powers Act/ Area Domination/Al Badr/Al Mansoorian/Al Jehad/Afghan/ Amarnath Yatra
B: BSF/body/blast/bullet/battalion/barbed wire/brust (burst)/ border cross/booby trap/bunker/byte/begaar (forced labour)
C: Crossborder/Cross-fire /camp/civilian/curfew/Crackdown/ CordonandSearch/CRPF/Checkpost/Counter insurgency/Cease-fire/CounterIntelligence/Catch and Kill/ Custodial Killing/Compensation/Cylinder (surrender)/Concertina wire/Collaborator
D: Disappeared/Defence Spokesman/Double Cross/Double Agent/Disturbed Areas Act/Dead body
It went on to cover the whole of the English alphabet, all the way to Z. When I asked what it was for, she said it was to help innocent Indian tourists in Kashmir to communicate better with the locals. She betrayed no signs of sarcasm or irony. Musa said nothing. He melted into the surroundings so quickly that I forgot he was there.
After a while Tilotamma’s ex-husband, Nagaraj Hariharan, came by, looking for her but pretending not to. For some reason, he had brought his mother-in-law Maryam Ipe’s fat medical file from a Cochin hospital. He showed it to me, even though I made it clear that I had no interest in the blood profiles and oxygen saturation charts of complete strangers. It was only much later that I saw the notes that contained Maryam Ipe’s ICU hallucinations. I could not have imagined that, if you study people’s hallucinations long enough, they tell you more than volumes of sentient conversation ever could. Major Amrik Singh, a tall Sikh officer of the Indian Army, arrived, denying several extrajudicial killings that I hadn’t even accused him of, insisting that he was being made what he called an “escape goat.” Once he picked up on the generally non-accusatory atmosphere of his surroundings, he began to boast about his counterintelligence operations and how he had passed himself off as a Hindu, a Sikh, or a Punjabi-speaking Pakistani Muslim, depending on what the particular covert operation demanded.
A baby girl appeared on the doorstep, unaccompanied. Anjum moved in with astonishing speed, swooped her up, and would not let anybody else come close for at least two weeks. A hand-delivered letter arrived from the forests of Bastar. It was written in cramped, tiny handwriting. English, as far as I could tell. It was addressed to Dr. Azad Bharatiya, who, for some reason, read it aloud to Anjum, translating it into Urdu on the fly:
Dear Comrade Azad Bharathiya Garu,
I am writing this to you because in my three days’ time in Jantar Mantar I observed you carefully. If anybody knows where is my child now, I think it might be you only. I am a Telugu woman and sorry I don’t know Hindi. My English is not good also. Sorry for that. I am Revathy, working as a full-timer with Communist Party of India (Maoist). When you will receive this letter I will be already killed . . .
My home became a commune and a confederacy of languages. Over time all of us housemates learned to talk to each other, translate each other.
The new slow-cooking recipe involved considerable risk. I had to throw the language of The God of Small Things off a very tall building. And then go down (using the stairs) to gather up the shattered pieces. So was born The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
It is not necessary for readers of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to know or understand the complicated map of languages that underpins it. If it were, if readers needed a field guide in order to properly understand the book, I’d consider myself a failure. To see it in bookshops sitting side-by-side with pulp fiction and political thrillers gives me nothing but pleasure. The fun and games with the Language Map is just that—an extra layer of fun and games. In truth, the Map of Languages of The Ministry, and their intertwining histories, could become a rather large book in itself. So, all I can do right now, just as an illustration of what I mean, is to drill below the surface of the first few chapters. I’ll start with the opening sentence:
She lived in the graveyard like a tree.
“She” is Anjum. She’s middle-aged now, and has left her home in the Khwabgah (the House of Dreams) where she lived for years with a group of others like herself. The Muslim graveyard where she now lives is close to the walled city of Delhi. The first time she gives us a hint about who she really is begins at an intersection between two languages. The traffic policeman is none other than William Shakespeare himself.
Long ago a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” she asked. “What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?” The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he’d made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn’t a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.” The Man Who Knew English said it was clever of her to come up with that one. He said he’d never have thought of it himself. She said, “How could you have, with your standard of Urdu? What d’you think? English makes you clever automatically?”
Anjum is born to Shia Muslim parents in Old Delhi, in the years soon after Independence. Her father, Mulaqat Ali, who traces his family’s lineage directly back to the Mongol Emperor Changez Khan, is a hakim, a doctor of herbal medicine who works for the family that makes the legendary sherbet Rooh Afza, which is Persian for “elixir of the soul.” Her mother, Jahanara Begum, supplements the family income by stitching white Gandhi caps that she supplies to Hindu traders in Chandni Chowk. She is already the mother of three girls when Anjum is born. In the second chapter, “Khwabgah,” we witness Anjum’s birth. In addition to her mother and the midwife, her mother tongue, too, is present. And found wanting:
Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother’s arms wrapped in two shawls, said, “It’s a boy.” Given the circumstances, her error was understandable . . .
. . . The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part. Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was.
. . . In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language. Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.
To live outside language—for a family whose lives are intricately, obsessively, wrapped up in language—is the crisis that Anjum’s birth creates. For the first few years, Jahanara Begum manages to keep her secret. But then a time comes when she has to tell her husband. Mulaqat Ali is a man whose real passion is Urdu and Persian poetry. He has a formidable repertoire of couplets, and can produce one for every occasion, every mood, every subtle shift in the political climate. He believes that poetry can cure, or at least go a long way toward curing, almost every ailment, and prescribes poems to his patients instead of medicine. When he hears the secret that his wife has kept from him for so many years, and cannot find a poem to comfort himself with, he loses his moorings. He does his best to steady himself, to come to terms with it, but eventually is unable to.
It is when we meet Mulaqat Ali that we get our first hint of the fraught history of language that mirrors the fraught history of the Indian subcontinent. The churning that eventually culminated in the bloodshed of Partition partitioned not just land and people, but a language, too, making one part “Muslim” and the other “Hindu.” This is a description of how Mulaqat Ali conducts himself with the shallow young journalists who from time to time arrive to interview him for various newspapers’ weekend supplements about the exotic culture and cuisine of Old Delhi:
Mulaqat Ali always welcomed visitors into his tiny rooms with the faded grace of a nobleman. He spoke of the past with dignity but never nostalgia. He described how, in the thirteenth century, his ancestors had ruled an empire that stretched from the countries that now called themselves Vietnam and Korea all the way to Hungary and the Balkans, from Northern Siberia to the Deccan plateau in India, the largest empire the world had ever known. He often ended the interview with a recitation of an Urdu couplet by one of his favourite poets, Mir Taqi Mir:
Jis sar ko ghurur aaj hai yaan taj-vari ka
Kal uss pe yahin shor hai phir nauhagari ka
The head which today proudly flaunts a crown
Will tomorrow, right here, in lamentation drown
Most of his visitors, brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own youthful hubris, did not completely grasp the layered meaning of the couplet they had been offered, like a snack to be washed down by a thimble-sized cup of thick, sweet tea. They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realized that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.
The language known variously as Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani, and, in an earlier era, Hindavi, was born on the streets and bazaars of North India. Khari Boli, spoken in and around Delhi and what is now Western Uttar Pradesh, is the base language to which the Persian lexicon came to be added. Urdu, written in the Persian-Arabic script, was spoken by Hindus and Muslims across North India and the Deccan Plateau. It was not, as is often made out to be, the high language of the court. That, in those days, was Persian. But neither was it, as it is often made out to be, the language of ordinary people everywhere. Urdu was the language of the street, but not necessarily the language spoken in the privacy of most ordinary peoples’ homes, particularly not by the women. It came to be the formal language of literature and poetry for Hindus and Muslims alike. Urdu varied from region to region. Each region had its own high priests staking their claim to true pedigree. In fact, it saw its brightest hour as the Mughal Empire faded.
The partitioning of Urdu began in earnest in the second half of the 19th century, after the 1857 Mutiny, when India ceased to be merely an asset of the East India Company. The titular Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was formally deposed, and India was brought directly under British Rule. Muslims, seen as the main instigators of the Mutiny, came in for severe punishment and were treated with great suspicion by the British administration. Power bases began to shift, hierarchies changed, releasing suppressed resentment and new energies that began to seep through the cracks like smoke. As the old ideas of governing by fiat and military might began to metamorphose into modern ideas of representative government, old feudal communities began to coalesce into modern “constituencies” in order to leverage power and job opportunities. Obviously, the bigger the constituency, the greater the leverage.
Demography became vitally important, so the first British census was a source of huge anxiety. “Hindu” leaders turned their attention to the tens of millions of people who belonged to the “untouchable” castes. In the past, in order to escape the stigma of caste, millions had converted to Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. But now their religious conversion was viewed by the privileged castes as catastrophic. Reformists rushed in to stem the haemorrhage. Hinduism became an evangelical religion. Organizations of privileged caste Hindus, who believed deeply in caste and believed themselves to be Aryans, descended from the European race, sought to keep Untouchables and indigenous tribespeople in the “Hindu fold” by performing Ghar Wapsi (Returning Home) ceremonies, a farce that was meant to symbolize “spiritual cleansing.”
In order to clearly define itself and mark itself off from other competing constituencies, the newly emerging Hindu constituency needed cultural symbols—something to fire the imagination of its evangelists and its potential recruits. The holy cow and the holy script became the chosen vehicles for mobilization. Gau Rakshak (cow protection) societies proliferated, and simultaneously the demand was raised that Devanagari (Deva as in Dio/God—the script of the Gods) be officially accepted as a second script for Urdu. Devanagari, originally known as Babhni, was the script of Brahmins and had, like Sanskrit, been jealously guarded, its purity protected from the “polluting influence” of lower castes, who had, for centuries, been denied the right to learn Sanskrit. But the changing times now required that it be promoted as the indigenous script of “the people.” In fact, the more widely used script at the time was a script called Kaithi. But Kaithi was used by non-Brahmin castes like the Kayasthas, who were seen to be partial to Muslims. Extraordinarily, in a matter of a few decades, Kaithi was not just discarded, but erased from public memory.