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Intellectual Bilingualism

Ramachandra Guha's article on decline of intellectual bilingualism ("The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual", 15 August 2009) does not attempt to say much about the implications of this decline for the future of intellectual activity in our country. This criticism provides facts and evidence that are missing or misrepresented in Guha's essay.

Intellectual Bilingualism N Kalyan Raman who carried his word to the masses in their respective languages. As for Ambedkar, a leader of great contemporary significance, the availability of his works in English, authored by him or

Ramachandra Guha’s article on decline of intellectual bilingualism (“The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual”, 15 August 2009) does not attempt to say much about the implications of this decline for the future of intellectual activity in our country. This criticism provides facts and evidence that are missing or misrepresented in Guha’s essay.

N Kalyan Raman ( is a translator of contemporary Tamil poetry and fiction and also with the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 10, 2009

amachandra Guha’s essay, “The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual” (15 August 2009) is based on the perception that “writers, thinkers and activists of an earlier generation were often intellectually active in more than one language”, whereas in contemporary India, intellectuals (read: writers, thinkers and activists) tend to operate exclusively only in one language, English or the “language of the state”, leading to “a separation of discourses”. Apart from speculating on the factors that might have contributed to this “decline of intellectual bilingualism” and presenting a series of personal opinions and anecdotes in this vein, Guha does not attempt to say much about the implications of this decline for the future of intellectual activity in our country.

The purpose of this comment is not necessarily to contend with Guha’s interpretation of his own perceptions – and even less with his anecdotal forays into reality – but to use this opportunity to supply facts and evidence that are missing or misrepresented in Guha’s essay. In this way, I hope to raise a few relevant questions about the future.

Bridge Language

“Bilingualism” is defined as the ability to use two languages with equal or nearequal fluency. (The ability merely to read in a second language does not qualify a person as bilingual.) That having been said, we can accept that bilingualism might add to the societal reach of an intellectual; but does it necessarily enhance the merit of his ideas/works? Hardly. Gandhi and Ambedkar were mass leaders and continue to be revered not because they wrote (also) in English, but because their works, translated into many Indian languages, stirred the imagination of the people. More importantly, English was, for Gandhi, a “bridge” language through which he communicated with other nationalist leaders, especially from south India,

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in translation, has served the same purpose to this day. It would be foolish to argue that their “bilingualism” was in any way fundamental to their discourse or to its ultimate reach and influence. Have “Periyar” E V Ramasami Naicker and his writings remained obscure because he spoke and wrote only in Tamil?

It might conceivably be claimed that their “bilingualism” brought Gandhi and Ambedkar the direct attention of our rulers and the international elites in their time; and later on, of the world. Would things have been any different if they had used interpreters and if their works had been translated into English? Clearly, the answer must be in the negative.

As for the contemporary bilingual intellectuals mentioned by Guha, it is not clear what their bilingualism, specifically, has accomplished. Have they mitigated, in any significant way, the “separation of discourses” he alludes to? If so, how? Does a first-rank bhasha intellectual or writer have any intellectual rationale for indulging in bilingual writing – for writing (say) the same essay twice, in two different languages? Whichever way one looks at it, from the intellectual’s – and society’s – vantage, this particular parlour trick does not appear to be a critical issue. Translation, a fact of life in the subcontinent for ages, will likely have a big role to play under the right conditions, but that does not appear to be Guha’s focus in this essay.

However, from the article itself – and to a greater extent, from its tenor of admiration – we are able to infer that bilingualism seems very important to Guha. How so? The most direct rationale he offers is that it enables him to be “a grateful recipient of knowledge and understanding derived from languages that I do not myself speak or read”. If this is really true, Guha should be equally eager, not to speak of grateful, to read Indian language intellectuals in translation. Surely, it is no sign of special merit in the work of an intellectual that he is (also) able to hold a conversation


with Guha in the latter’s chosen – and only – language?

Native Tongue

Let us, therefore, leave Guha aside and examine what is missing in his thesis. First, it is natural for a linguistic community to conduct its affairs, for the most part, in its own language, and for its intellectuals, artists and writers to use that language to think, read and write – in brief, to express themselves. This is the reason why Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel spoke, read and wrote Gujarati; and Ambedkar, Marathi. They spoke the language of their community and constituency; it was a sign of their engagement and commitment. They learnt English, yes, but that did not relegate or marginalise their commitment. Instead, they knew how to use English to expand their reach and influence to other linguistic communities in India. As leaders, who were also intellectuals, they could do no less; and we are all the better for it. EVR, a Balija Naidu from Erode who spoke Kannada at home as a boy, did his political work in Tamil, bringing his brand of social reform to the Tamil nation. In fact, no writer, intellectual or leader of any stature in pre-independence India would have claimed, like Guha has in this essay, that he knew only English to the exclusion of his mother tongue. Many of them – not all – learnt English and other languages, exploring realms of knowledge beyond the limits set by their own language (all languages, let us remind ourselves, set such limits); but such education did not lead them to disengagement with their own linguistic community.

Further, it remains natural for most Indians to use their native tongue for the business of living, which, of course, includes matters of the intellect and the arts; it is equally natural for them to reach for a wider knowledge of the world through other tongues, while remaining steadfast in their commitment to their own linguistic community, expressed in and through their contributions to that community. There are exceptions, of course, in the form of a tiny, but powerful minority, to which we now turn.

Self-confessed Monolingual

Although, Guha alludes to himself as one who effectively has no other language except English, “the elephant in the room” in his article is the growing band of monolingual Anglophone Indian intellectuals and its presumptive centrality in the national discourse. (That a self-confessed monolingual can presume to hold forth about bilinguals is by itself a signifier of that misplaced centrality.) Increasingly, our public sphere is occupied by social scientists, administrators, historians, journalists, TV anchors, technocrats and plain academics who cannot even hold a conversation of ideas in any Indian language. Such fancies as they do harbour about a sense of community – including activism and inquiry – are played out ineluctably in the metropolitan arena, nearly always among their own kind. It keeps them busy enough, I imagine, but they are nevertheless subject to two inescapable consequences of their choice: ignorance of and disengagement from the life-currents of a larger community.

Language is an instrument of community before it is anything else. It is not possible to engage with a community – with its past, present or future – without acquiring competence in its language. All western scholars who are engaged in serious research in India learn the relevant language of the community/region they are studying. Even traders, pawn brokers and shopkeepers pick up the language of their customers, for reasons of business. In contrast, the monolingual Anglophone’s ignorance and disengagement, combined with a presumption of superiority, result in something that closely resembles a colonial mindset, of which Guha himself is an exemplar in this article.

Untrue Statements

Consider Guha’s inference from the availability of Tagore’s essays in English, authored by him or in translation: “Tagore understood that while love and humiliation were best expressed in the mother tongue, impersonal questions of reason and justice had to be communicated in a language read by more people and over a geographical space greater than Bengal.”

Since Tagore is not quoted as having said so, with due citation of reference, we must assume that this is Guha’s own interpretation of Tagore’s “understanding”. In that case, this must be the most preposterous

october 10, 2009

rationale for English translation ever to be dreamed up by a scholar of repute. This flawed perception also delivers a gratuitous insult to the Bangla language and the great nation of Bengal. One may wonder what Guha understands of language; or, indeed, of reason and justice!

Consider this too: “…many – perhaps most – of the best poets and novelists in Tamil, Kannada, Oriya, Gujarati, etc, – are likewise comfortable in one language only. They may occasionally read a novel or tract in English, but most of their reading

– and all of their writing – is confined to a single language, their own...The Hindi writers I meet are all deeply rooted in their environment, yet few follow Nirmal Verma in his curiosity about, or knowledge of, the wider world.”

The absurdity of this statement is stunning, because it is so demonstrably untrue. Who might Guha be talking about – Ashokamitran? Mridula Garg? Mahashweta Devi? Krishna Sobti? Sitakant Mahapatra? Satchidanandan? And what makes him think that the “wider world” is not, and has never been, accessible through Tamil or Kannada or Malayalam? Immediately following his admission of the monolingual Anglophone Indian’s ignorance (“…knowing the world well (sic), without knowing the locality (sic) much – or at all”), Guha means to foist, through that likewise, a reciprocal ignorance on those who work in the Indian languages. The extent of ignorance on both sides is, unfortunately for Guha, not so symmetrical.

Wrong Presumptions

Yes, it is time to set the record straight on this presumption. No modern intellectual

– artist, thinker, writer or social scientist – of any stature can hope to function without informing himself of history and of the contemporary world. To cite just one instance, Tamil society has, over the past 50 years, spawned and nurtured a new genre of poetry – pudukkavidai – to meet the demands of the times we live in, throwing off the burdensome and anachronistic rigours of the tradition of classical Tamil poetry which had held sway for nearly 2,000 years. It can be nobody’s case that this act of cultural invention and renewal was accomplished without “a knowledge of the wider world” or without

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Economic & Political Weekly


a culture of vigorous debate and polemical arguments. Let us be clear: the great political, social and cultural transformations in this country have been, are and will be wrought by leaders and groups who communicate in the language of the people. Therefore, Guha may rest assured that most serious intellectuals in the “localities” are at least as well read as anyone else. They are, in fact, better read because they can directly relate what they read to the ongoing life and history and destiny of a real community with which they are genuinely, democratically, engaged. Every free society forges and deploys its own epistemic strategy, appropriate to its history, politics and aspirations for the future. To privilege the role of the so-called bilingual intellectual while ignoring – or remaining largely ignorant of – such strategies seems, in a way, invidious.

The other presumption, which is a running theme in Guha’s essay, is the equation of English with the “cosmopolitan” and Indian languages with the “parochial”. This one, too, deserves a quick burial. In India, those who choose to have English as their only language are automatically in a state of disengagement with the world around them. This disengagement masquerades as cosmopolitanism, which term is understood coarsely as an all-weather virtue and applauded as such. Cosmopolitanism is, in fact, a virtue only in contexts which require such approaches and perspectives – for instance, collective measures to address climate change or elimination of hunger worldwide. Entire societies cannot aspire to the kind of free-form “cosmopolitanism” which happens to be the sole recourse of the monolingual Anglophone. Nor is natural engagement with one’s community and its destiny – of the Gandhi and Ambedkar variety, using an Indian language – to be condemned reflexively as parochial.

Separation of Discourses

Finally, we must commend Guha for his reference to “a separation of discourses,” even if he does not elaborate on it. It is indeed true that the English language discourse is separate from discourses in other Indian languages. It is equally true that in the public sphere, the former is privileged over the latter. While the English language

Economic & Political Weekly

october 10, 2009

discourse is accessed by other linguistic communities as an integral part of their epistemic strategy, no such osmosis is feasible or permitted in the English language discourse. Seldom do we encounter articles or columns translated from Indian language magazines and newspapers in the English language press. This fails to happen even if the event in question is the siege of Lalgarh or Tamil Nadu’s expression of anguish over the lost cause of Eelam or the post-Godhra riots. Nor does it seem feasible to make the work of Indian language scholars readily available in English translation. Therefore, the “separation of discourses” is largely put in place and maintained by the community of monolingual Anglophone Indian intellectuals for their own reasons. As someone who seems to want to take a different path, Guha could contribute to the promotion of such bi-directional exchanges, instead of writing this lament for bilingual intellectuals, based in large measure on dubious premises.

Guha’s article could also be construed as the recognition of a crisis in the monolingual Anglophone community of intellectuals in India. The arena of their engagement seems increasingly limited to metropolitan life, affairs of the central government, commerce and industry, the Anglophone diaspora and an endless parroting of voices and ideas from the western world. Beyond this, they have no means of participating in – or influencing – contemporary political, cultural and intellectual currents which would be inevitably shaped by the subaltern classes in the natural course of our quest for a more democratic society. The time is perhaps right for this community to recast not only their epistemic strategies, but also the politics of their praxis in this country. To hanker for “bilingual” intellectuals may not be the best way to begin. Instead, they could focus their energies on devising other ways and means by which to learn more about their own society.


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