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Of Intellectuals and Writers

Another comment on bilingualism in India, as discussed in Ramachandra Guha's article "The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual" (EPW, 15 August 2009). Who is an intellectual? Is it the college professor - as wrongly presumed - rather than the broader category of "man thinking"? This comment also highlights the importance of looking at the issue from the point of view of linguidexterousness.

DISCUSSION
Of Intellectuals and Writers Himansu S Mohapatra The literature in every Indian language boasts of multilingual writers who, even if they have worked in the vernacular, are remarkably adept in at least two Indian languages, one adjacent and the other mainstream,

Another comment on bilingualism in India, as discussed in Ramachandra Guha’s article “The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual” (EPW, 15 August 2009). Who is an intellectual? Is it the college professor – as wrongly presumed – rather than the broader category of “man thinking”? This comment also highlights the importance of looking at the issue from the point of view of linguidexterousness.

Himansu S Mohapatra (h_mohapatra@yahoo. com) teaches in the Department of English at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
OCTOBER 31, 2009

T
here is a curious foreshortening in Ramachandra Guha’s treat me nt of the question of the intellectual. He starts out with the inclusive and broade ned category of the writer, as shown by his reference to Gandhi and Tagore. But then there is a narrowing of the field to the aca demia when he discu sses the contemporary Indi an intelle ctual scene from the standpoint of bilin guali sm.

An intellectual or scholar, as Emerson chose to call him in his essay “The American Scho lar”, is “man thinking”. Emerson expres s ly denied this role to the college professor. In the present scenario, how ever, that role has b een bagged by the coll ege or university professor. I remember reading a lead article by Anil Dharker in the edit page of Times of Indi a sometime ago that also gave this critical and thinking function to the intellectual (of the non-professorial variety), but then went on to differentiate the intellectual from the creative writer. There is, of course, no reason why the function of thinking should be hijacked or monopolised by the former. Guha’s essay unfortunately seems headed in that direction and hence this rejoinder.

It is best to see the writer as an intellectual. The reverse proposition holds, eq ually, namely that an intellectual is a writer. In Guha’s article, however, the meaning of intell ectual has largely been construed in professorial terms. This is what Sudhanva Deshpande’s response t0 Guha’s article (5 September 2009) harps on. He cites as examples theatre personalities of India who have done such a tremendous job of mirroring the contemporary Indian soci ety in their excellent plays.

What is at stake for Guha, of course, is the decline of bi/multilingualism of the Indian intellectual. A little later in the ess ay he reads this under the sign of the decline of the “linguidexterous” individuals who are “emotionally” and not just “functionally” bilingual. Though not obvious at first sight, these two things are not alike. Linguidexterousness as a category surpasses the category of the bilingual intelle ctual, while also containing it.

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besides being proficient in English. I can only cite examples from O riya literature. If we take into account the three Jnanpith awardees, Gopinath Mohanty (year of awa rd: 1975), Sachi Routray (1986) and Sita kan ta Mo h apatra (1994), and the three Sarasw ati Samman awarde es, Ramakant Ratha (1994), Manoj Das (2000) and Jagannath Prasad Das (2007), this fact will be evident. All of them have access to writing in Bangla (adjacent) and Hindi (national) and all of them have mastered English (inter national), but they have chosen to do their creative work in Oriya. Sudhanva Deshpande has rightly said in his piece that the vernacular work can be the true locus of cosmopolitanism. This is cer tainly true of the vernacular works of the se Oriya write rs. However, some of them ha ve not been averse to producing quality writing, but mostly of the non-litera ry variety, in English.

With the exception of Gopinath Mohanty, Sachi Routray and Ramakant Ratha who have written almost exclusively in Oriya, the rest have interspersed their creative career in Oriya with intermittent publications in English, which have taken the form primarily of scholarly and historic al writings and of translations from Oriya into English.

Manoj Das can, in fact, be compared to Samuel Beckett in that he has chosen to produce some of his fictional works bilingually, in Oriya and English. Then there is the singular phenomenon of the internationally reno wned poet from Orissa, Jayanta Mahapatra. Famo us for his contributions to poetry in En glish, Mahapatra has in the last two decades been alternating between English and Oriya and has brought out till date six volumes of poetry in Oriya. It is they or their ilk among the younger generation that should have found a mention in the list of “linguidexterous” persons from Orissa, one would have thought, in addition to Jatindra K Nayak who is the lone person in that list at the moment.

In closing I will say this: Guha’s catchment area from which to recruit bilingual intellectuals of Indian society would be considerably wider than it now is if he were to extend the term “linguidexterous” to the writer.

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