To turn a battle for a new script into a popular social movement wasn’t easy when the literacy rate of the population was in single digits. How is it possible to make people passionate about something that doesn’t really affect them? The solution was simple but ingenious. In his erudite tract, Hindi Nationalism, Alok Rai writes in some detail of how the mobilization for Devanagari came to be fused with the call for Hindu Unity, cow protection, and Ghar-Wapsi. The Nagari Pracharani Sabhas—Committees for the Popularization of Nagari (the God-part, “Deva,” was added later)—and the Gau-Rakshaks and the Ghar-Wapsi evangelists shared the same offices and office-bearers. (Most likely this arrangement continues today too.) The campaign for Devanagari had immediate and practical goals, too, such as eligibility for jobs in government offices, for which, at the time, reading Persian was a basic qualification. The campaign gained velocity and was buoyed by the resistance to it from the Muslim elite, including Muslim leaders with a vested interest in the status quo, such as the best-known reformist and modernizer of the time, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Here is his defense of retaining the Persian-Arabic script as the only official script: “Would our aristocracy like, that a man of low caste and insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A. and have the requisite ability, should be in a position above them and have power in making the laws that affect their lives and property? Never!”
It’s extraordinary how sworn enemies can find common ground in each other’s worst prejudices. As always, it was a battle of old and new elites lobbying for opportunity, the new ones, as always, disguising their own aspirations as the will of “the people.”
The Devanagari Movement’s first victory came in April 1900, when Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant-governor of North Western Provinces and Oudh, issued an order allowing the use of the Devanagari script in addition to the Persian script in the courts of the province. In a matter of months, Hindi and Urdu began to be referred to as separate languages. Language mandarins on both sides stepped in to partition the waters and apportion the word-fish. On the “Hindi” side, anything seen as Persian influence, as well as the influence of languages thought to be unsophisticated vernaculars, was gradually weeded out. (Somehow the words Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan escaped the dragnet.) Sanskrit began to replace Persian. But Sanskrit was the language of ritual and scripture, the language of Priests and Holy men. Its vocabulary was not exactly forged on the anvil of everyday human experience. It was not the language of mortal love, or toil, or weariness, or yearning. It was not the language of song or poetry of ordinary people. That would have been in Awadhi, Maithili, Braj Bhasha, and Bhojpuri and a myriad other dialects. Rarely if ever has there been an example in history of an effort to deplete language rather than enrich it. It was like wanting to replace an ocean with an aquarium.
As the positions on both sides hardened, even the literary canons came to be partitioned. The “Urdu” canon erased the sublime, anti-caste Bhakti poets such as Kabir, Surdas, Meera, and Raskhan, a Muslim devotee of Krishna. The “Hindi” canon erased the greatest of Urdu poets Mir and Ghalib. (Something similar is at work in the world of Hindustani classical music, although it hasn’t yet had the misfortune of being formally divided into Hindu classical music and Muslim classical music.) Fortunately, progressive writers and poets, the very best of them, resisted this pressure. They continued to produce literature and poetry that was rich and deep and fully alert to what was being done to their language. But gradually, as the older generation passes, the newer one, whose formal education comes from “new” Hindi books and textbooks that have to be approved by government committees, will find it harder and harder to reclaim an ineffably beautiful legacy that is rightfully theirs.
It is for all these reasons that when Anjum’s father, Mulaqat Ali, recites his Mir couplet, his warning wrapped in mourning, he is confident that his young guests—who belong to the generation of “new” Hindi—will not grasp its true meaning. He knows that his straitened material circumstances mirror the straitened vocabulary of his visitors.
Today, many of the younger generation of Urdu speakers in India cannot read the Persian script. They can only read Urdu in the Devanagari script. Urdu is seen not just as a Muslim language, but as a Pakistani language. Which makes it almost criminal in some peoples’ eyes. In March 2017, two Muslim members of the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh were prevented from taking their oath of office in Urdu. A member of the Aligarh Municipal Corporation was charged with “intent to hurt religious sentiments” for trying to do the same.
Although Hindi’s victory has been a resounding one, it does not seem to have entirely allayed its keepers’ anxieties. Perhaps that’s because their enemies are dead poets who have a habit of refusing to really die. One of the sub-themes of the 2002 Gujarat massacre was poetry. As Anjum discovers to her cost when she travels to Gujarat with Zakir Mian, who was a friend of her father Mulaqat Ali.
He suggested that while they were in Ahmedabad they could visit the shrine of Wali Dakhani, the 17th-century Urdu poet, known as the Poet of Love, whom Mulaqat Ali had been immensely fond of, and seek his blessings too. They sealed their travel plans by laughingly reciting a couplet by him——one of Mulaqat Ali’s favourites:
Jisey ishq ka tiir kaari lage
Usey zindagi kyuun na bhari lage
For one struck down by Cupid’s bow
Life becomes burdensome, isn’t that so?
A few days later they set off by train, first to Ajmer and then to Ahmedabad. And then there’s no news from them.
Nobody disagreed when Saeeda (who loved Anjum and was entirely unaware of Anjum’s suspicions about her) suggested that the soap operas on TV be switched off and the news be switched on and left on in case, by some small chance, they could pick up a clue about what might have happened to Anjum and Zakir Mian. When flushed, animated TV news reporters shouted out their Pieces‑to‑Camera from the refugee camps where tens of thousands of Gujarat’s Muslims now lived, in the Khwabgah they switched off the sound and scanned the background hoping to catch a glimpse of Anjum and Zakir Mian lining up for food or blankets, or huddled in a tent. They learned in passing that Wali Dakhani’s shrine had been razed to the ground and a tarred road built over it, erasing every sign that it had ever existed. (Neither the police nor the mobs nor the Chief Minister could do anything about the people who continued to leave flowers in the middle of the new tarred road where the shrine used to be. When the flowers were crushed to paste under the wheels of fast cars, new flowers would appear. And what can anybody do about the connection between flower-paste and poetry?)
Why should a 21st century mob be so angry with a poet who lived more than 300 years ago? Wali Dakhani, the Wise Man of the Dakhan (Deccan), was a 17th-century poet who also came to be known as Wali Aurangabadi and Wali Gujarati. He wrote in Dakhani Urdu, an idiom that was not familiar to the court poets in the north, who wrote mostly in Persian at the time. Although he wrote in Urdu, Wali Dakhani was the first poet in the subcontinent to present his poetry as a Diwan—a collection that was formally arranged in the Persian tradition in which poems were presented in alphabetical order in three mandatory sections: Masnavi (narrative poems), Marsiya (elegiac poems commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain), and Kasida (the tradition of singing praise to warriors). Wali Dakhani’s Diwan took the elite circle of poets, who all wrote in Persian, by storm. He became a cultural bridge between the north and the south, and the founding father of Urdu poetry.
The modern-day mob that destroyed his shrine, so high on nativism, could have just as easily valorized Wali Dakhani for being the man who influenced poets who wrote in Persian to write in Urdu, who turned the writing of Urdu into high literature. Because Urdu is nothing if not a language born on the streets of Hindustan. But, sadly, that’s not how the story goes.
The destruction of Wali Dakhani’s grave during the 2002 Gujarat massacre was not the only incident of its kind. During those same weeks, in the city of Baroda, a mob attacked and damaged the grave of Ustad Fayyaz Khan, one of the most accomplished singers in the Hindustani classical tradition. Many years earlier, in a riot that took place during the 1970s, a mob burned down the house of Rasoolan Bai (Garson Hobart’s favorite singer). The only good thing to be said of this contemporary mob tradition is that it understands the dangers posed by art. And it has impeccable taste.
I will end this very long lecture with a short note about slogans and mantras in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Anjum survives the Gujarat massacre because the mob that finds her lying over the corpse of Zakir Mian, feigning death, believes that killing Hijras brings bad luck. So instead of killing her, they stand over her and make her chant their slogans:
Bharat Mata Ki Jai! Vande Mataram!
She did. Weeping, shaking, humiliated beyond her worst nightmare.
Victory to Mother India! Salute the Mother!
They left her alive. Un-killed. Un-hurt. Neither folded nor unfolded. She alone. So that they might be blessed with good fortune.
That’s all she was. And the longer she lived, the more good luck she brought them.
Bharat, Hindustan and India are names that are used interchangeably for the country we live in. “Akhand Bharat”—undivided India, which contains the territories of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, is the ideal of Hindu Nationalists. Chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai! (Victory to Mother India) is seen by many as being patriotic and not necessarily Hindu Nationalist. In less extenuating circumstances, Anjum would surely have shouted down, perhaps even beaten up those controversialists and unimaginative literalists who ask how King Bharata, whose Kingdom was called Bharat came to be a Mata (mother), and why India is a motherland and not a fatherland.
The second slogan she was forced to chant, Vande Mataram, usually translated as “Praise Be to Thee, Mother,” is from a poem written by the popular Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay that appears in Anandamath, his novel about the Sanyasi rebellion, first published in the 1880s. It is a novel that is, and always has been, greatly favored by Hindu nationalists because it created a template for the ideal Hindu warrior, the fantasy Hindu warrior, who rises in rebellion against his degenerate Muslim oppressors. Anandamath is a wonderful example of how, in the process of its telling of the past, literature can also mould the future. In the poem, the motherland is conflated with the Hindu Goddess Durga.
However, the first two stanzas came to be the unofficial anthem of the National Movement because they only mention “the mother,” which lent itself to being interpreted by both the Hindus and Muslims as a reference to Mother India. Although it was a much-loved song during the struggle against British colonialism, in today’s atmosphere of a very different kind of nationalism, a bullying, coercive nationalism, people, Muslims in particular, many of who are not unaware of the provenance of the poem, are often forced to chant “Vande Mataram” as a form of ritual humiliation. Ironically, the modern version of the song was hugely popularized in the 1990s by the Sufi singer A. R. Rahman. Sadly, a once loved slogan has become controversial.
It is not unusual to have a Bengali slogan being chanted in non-Bengalis speaking states. Slogans in India—whether they are being chanted by lynch mobs or protestors, by the right-wing or the left, by people in territories under military occupation, or protestors against big dams—are a performance directed outward, for the rest of the country and the rest of the world to hear, and therefore, quite often, are not in the local people’s mother tongues. In Kashmir’s massive protests, you will hear chanting in Urdu and in English, rarely in Kashmiri. The chant of Azadi! Azadi! (“Freedom! Freedom!”) is Urdu—originally, Persian—and has probably traveled east from the Iranian Revolution to become the signature slogan of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, as well as, irony of ironies, the women’s movement in India. At the opposite end of the country, down south in Kerala, I grew up to the resounding roar of Inquilab Zindabad! (“Long Live the Revolution!”) in Urdu, a language that local people neither speak not understand. The other Communist Party slogan was Swadandriyam, Janadhipathyam, Socialism, Zindabad! (“Freedom, Democracy, Socialism, Long Live!”) That’s Sanskrit, Malayalam, English, and Urdu in a single slogan.
I’ll end with the journey of a mantra through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Two months after Anjum and Zakir Mian go missing, and the murdering in Gujarat has begun to tail off, Zakir Mian’s son, Mansoor, goes to Ahmedabad to look for his father. As a precaution, he shaves off his beard, hoping to pass as Hindu. He does not find his father, but finds a terrified Anjum, who has been enrolled in the men’s section of a refugee camp, dressed in men’s clothes, her hair cut short, and brings her back to the Khwabgah. She refuses to tell anybody what happened to her, but—haunted by memories of “how the men were folded and the women unfolded”—she takes a wailing young Zainab, her adopted daughter, to a barber, has her hair cut off, and dresses her in boy’s clothes. “In case Gujarat comes to Delhi.” The other precaution she takes is to teach Zainab to chant the Sanskrit Gayatri Mantra that she says she learned while she was in the camp in Gujarat. She says that many of the other refugees had learned it because they believed that, in mob situations, they could recite it to try to pass as Hindu. Neither Anjum nor Zainab has any idea what it means, but Zainab takes to it happily, chanting as she dresses for school and feeds her pet goat.
Om bhur bhuvah svaha
Tat savitur varenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
O God, thou art the giver of life,
Remover of pain and sorrow,
Bestower of happiness,
O Creator of the Universe,
May we receive thy supreme sin-destroying light,
May thou guide our intellect in the right direction.
The Gayatri Mantra appears three times in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The first time, as a talisman against mob violence. The second time as promotional material in a British Airways commercial to attract customers from India’s new and exponentially expanding middle class. And the third time in a fast food restaurant in a shopping mall. Zainab has grown up now, and is betrothed to Saddam Hussain. Saddam tells them the story of how years ago, his father was beaten to death by a mob outside a police station. The mall they were in, Saddam says, was exactly where that police station used to be. Zainab says she knows a Hindu prayer, and recites the Gayatri Mantra as a gesture of love for her future (as well as late) father-in-law.
Such are the ways in which Sanskrit has been finally been indigenized.
A few months after Anjum returns from Gujarat, ravaged and broken, unable to continue living her old life, she moves in to the old graveyard, where she sets up home. Over the years, as she gradually recovers, she builds the Jannat (Paradise) Guest House. When Saddam Hussain joins her, they expand their business to include funeral services. The graveyard becomes a place where anybody—any body— that has been denied the grace of a funeral by the Duniya (the outside world) is given a dignified burial. Under the auspices of the Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services, depending on what the occasion calls for, prayers for the dead include the Fateha, singing the Internationale in Hindi, and reciting from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. In English.
So, how shall we answer Pablo Neruda’s question that is the title of this lecture?
In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?
I’d say, without hesitation, in the Language of Translation.
 The English policy in my mother’s school has since been completely reversed. Now, only Malayalam is taught in junior classes.
 This assertion was made by Badri Narain Upadhyaya “Premghan” at the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan in 1912. Cited by Alok Rai in Hindi Nationalism (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2001), p. 53.
 Rai, Hindi Nationalism, p. 52.
 Rai, Hindi Nationalism, p. 57.
 Atul Chandra, “Language Row in UP Assembly: Sanskrit Allowed, Urdu Not,” Catch News, 30 March 2017 (available online at: http://www.catchnews.com/politics-news/language-row-in-up-assembly-sanskrit-allowed-urdu-not-56230.html).
 “BSP Corporator Takes Oath in Urdu, Is Charged with ‘Intent to Hurt Religious Sentiments,’” The Hindu, 14 December 2017, updated 15 December 2017 (available online at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/bsp-corporator-takes-oath-in-urdu-is-charged-with-intent-to-hurt-religious-sentiments/article21665609.ece).
 See Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Delhi: Penguin India, 2017), p. 171.
 See Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Delhi: Penguin India, 2017), p.84.
 Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions/Libro de las Preguntas, translated by William O’Daley
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.