Arundhati Roy on the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write

What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write? is one of my favorite pieces of writing on the Internet. At its core, the essay is about using translation as a primary form of literary creation in a country as linguistically diverse as India. Put another way, it’s about Arundhati Roy’s quest to bend English in such a way that it captures some of the flavor of India’s many tongues.

While I haven’t read any of Roy’s novels, I recently read a different book that pulls off this feat admirably: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. One of my favorite scenes from Midnight’s Children is where a mother yells at her child: “Fool from somewhere!”

Roy’s essay covers a lot of ground. If I start quoting from it then I’ll end up reproducing the entire piece here, so I’ll just mention two of my favorite parts. The first one is how English is perceived in the Dalit community:

[English] is also the language of emancipation, the language in which privilege has been eloquently denounced. Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the most widely read, widely translated, and devastating denunciation of the Hindu caste system, was written in English. It revolutionized the debate on perhaps the most brutal system of institutionalized injustice that any society has ever dreamed up. How different things would have been had the privileged castes managed to contain Ambedkar’s writing in a language that only his own caste and community could read. Inspired by him, many Dalit activists today see the denial of a quality English education to the underprivileged (in the name of nationalism or anticolonialism) as a continuation of the Brahmin tradition of denying education and literacy—or, for that matter, simply the right to pursue knowledge and accumulate wealth—to people they consider “shudras” and “outcastes.” To make this point, in 2011 the Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad built a village temple to the Dalit Goddess of English. “She is the symbol of Dalit Renaissance,” he said. “We will use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.”

The second one is about how Devanagari—associated at the time and perhaps even now with Brahamanical oppression—came to be the primary script in which modern Hindi is written, erasing the once-popular Kaithi script from public memory:

In order to clearly define itself and mark itself off from other competing constituencies, the newly emerging Hindu constituency [in British India] 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.

I’d never heard of Kaithi before reading this essay. Digging around a bit, I found a wonderful piece about the script on Satyagraha: कभी हिंदी और उर्दू से ज़्यादा इस्तेमाल होने वाली कैथी खत्म कैसे हो गई?


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