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If we neglect our mother tongue cultures, we’ll weaken ourselves

Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at:
Published : Nov 30, 2017, 1:48 am IST
Updated : Nov 30, 2017, 1:48 am IST

For years literatures in Indian languages, trapped within the walls of each language, have not got their due.

Kunwar Narain
 Kunwar Narain

“I do not wish to flee life/ I wish to connect to it/ To jolt it/ On its imaginary axle/ At that very point where/ It is most vulnerable to poetry.”

True to his word, Kunwar Narain engaged with life with a passion that allowed him to tame it with his poetry. His poet’s vision could magically change the present and reveal it as a moment in time carved out of history, myth or memory, poised to be chiselled further by the future. He held in his eyes the tenderness and wisdom of centuries, and in his palm the promise of an eternal universe. He made you think. Author, translator, editor, critic and passionate aficionado of films and music, Kunwar Narain was one of the greatest poets of our time. And a loyal keeper of our conscience.

Yet when he passed away earlier this month, the English-language media was strangely silent. Except for a couple of articles, there was nothing. Could it be our ignorance? But he was no unsung, unheard, brilliant recluse. Narain had got all the big awards, from the Jnanpith to the Padma Bhushan, and he lived in Delhi. But he had one big handicap — he wrote in his mother tongue, Hindi.

So while the Hindi press widely lamented his passing, the English press was almost silent. As if what happens in the Indian languages is of no concern to readers of English publications. As if we, the people of India, are one-dimensional beings defined by the language we read our news in.

This ghettoisation of our own literatures, while aspiring to be citizens of a global village, is deeply depressing. In most areas we have got over our colonial hangover, so what makes our media so different? Is it the race memory of the colonial hangover? Or does this English bias have more to do with overwhelming American cultural influences?

The media plays a crucial role in shaping identity. We develop our sense of self through what we learn from newspapers, magazines, the radio, television, film and theatre, through the books we read, the music we hear, the cultures we are exposed to. In fact, the media moulds not just our individual identities but also our national identity.

Historically, the Indian media has been responsible, balanced and a positive force in our democracy. It has scrupulously stuck to the principles of equality and secularism when other language media failed. But it does have its drawbacks. While some of these lapses are deliberate, prompted by financial and political expediency, some are simply due to lack of thought. The marginalisation of Indian language literatures is probably one such indiscretion.

For years literatures in Indian languages, trapped within the walls of each language, have not got their due. Sadly, as global corporates rule the publishing industry, even mediocre voices in English can elbow out exceptional talents in the other Indian languages. Literary festivals feed into this corporatised literary performance, and remarkable writers may fall off the radar. So the media now has a bigger responsibility to wade through the cacophony and focus on quality literature in the two dozen literary languages of our country.

Because the exclusion of important facets of our literature blanks out chunks of our reality which can strengthen our sense of self and an inclusive Indian identity. For Indian literatures in our many languages open up new ways of thinking. By neglecting the roots of our mother tongue cultures, we weaken ourselves.

As Kunwar Narain said: “When a language dries out/ Words begin to lose their poetry/ The sparkle of sentiments/ The value of ideas/ There begin to widen amid people/ The wilds and voids of disconnect.” And this disconnect is dangerous, because “in the ravaged ecology of a language/ If fire struck, it would first strike there/ Where lay reduced to stumps/ The powers that could draw sap from their earth.” (Translations by Apurva Narain.)

Kunwar Narain’s was an inclusive Indian voice, informed as much by Indian tradition as by European culture. His work draws significantly on Hindu scripture, epics and mythology while remaining unwaveringly secular, guided by a deep humanism which was also his personal philosophy. He had more questions than answers, and he encouraged you to think. “An ancient man looks a bit new/ In a nameless alley/ In front of a burnt house/ Standing distraught/ Was this indeed his India?”

But there were certainties too. Like the quiet assurance that you could always stand up to injustice, however scared you may be. “At even the most wrong of times/ The most right of things can be said/ … our hands can tremble,/ we can cry out, “No,/ All these are not outsiders but my own…”

Kunwar Narain’s progressive ideology and vast scholarship never got in the way of his simplicity of diction and imagery, or his untiring empathy and humanism. His voice is particularly important today. Let me leave you with what he says to Ram in Ayodhya, 1992:

Hé Ram, /Life is a bitter truth /And you are a poetic epic! /You don’t have it in you /To vanquish the ungodly, /Who no longer number in tens or twenties /But are now million-headed — million-armed, /Besides, who knows whom Vibhishan /Sides with now. /Could our misfortune /Be greater? /Your empire has dwindled /To a disputed site. /Today, Ayodhya is not your warless kingdom /It is the Lanka of yoddhas, of warriors /The Ramacharitamanas is not about you /It is just a call to elections. /Hé Ram, how distant this time /From your glorious Treta Yuga /How remote the Best of Men /From this political neta yuga. /I humbly plead, dear God, that you return forthwith /To a Purana or a religious text /In good health, with your wife in tow… /Today’s jungles are not the forests /That Valmiki walked.

(Translation by Pratik Kanjilal)

The writer is the editor of The Little Magazine. Email:

Tags: indian languages, kunwar narain