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From the Polyphonic World of Hindi Fiction

A contemporary Indian novelist explores the question of why she chose Hindi over English

By GEETANJALI SHREE | 1 February 2011

THE STORY OF MY DEVELOPMENT as a writer of Hindi fiction is a personal story, but like all stories about the self, it includes many other people as well.The modern Hindi language—the insatiably expansionist Khari Boli—and its literature evolved coevally with the emerging nation. And I, born a decade after the historic midnight, fell right into the midst of the ferment. Even as the relationship between the nation and the Hindi language and its literature was being worked out, Khari Boli was establishing its own relationship with north India’s other languages and dialects.

In post-colonial India, unlike when we were struggling for freedom, the choice of language comes laden with peculiar attitudes and it’s these attitudes that I’d like to explore. To the educated, English is the lingua franca and using it is almost more natural than using their mother tongue. To this day, I am asked in wonderment why I write in Hindi when I can do so in English.

There begins my story as a writer.

I spent my childhood and early adolescence in small and not-so-small north Indian towns. My mother spoke Hindi, which makes Hindi, quite literally, my mother tongue. Hindi was also the language of regular exchange with the cook, the sweeper, the gardener, the peon and, more intermittently, with the tailor, the barber, the priest, the newspaper boy. The latter also brought us children’s magazines and comics—I recall the eager wait for every new issue of Chandamama. Add to this the bedtime stories that my siblings and I heard from our mother, grandparents and ayahs. A world opened up to us replete with lore in which the religious and the secular, the extra-mundane and the mundane were inextricably woven. Ramayana, Betal Pachisi, Alif Laila, Vikramaditya, Mahabharata, Sindbad, Panchatantra, Katha Sarit Sagar, Scheherazade, Alha-Udal, Akbar-Birbal, Alibaba and jinnats flooded our childhood and formed our language and imagination.

This was within the compound of the home. Outside were lanes full of shops and their keepers, fruit and vegetable vendors, rickshaw-pullers and tonga-drivers. Their shouts and songs floated across the boundary in colloquial splendour and classical resplendence, in full-throated expletives as well as in sage-like, quiet tones. Because I happened to live in a series of provincial towns, big and small, to which my father was transferred every two or three years, I was subtly, and not so subtly, exposed to an array of ‘languages,’ tones and idioms—Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Baiswadi, Braj Bhasha.

These provincial towns were not the flattened hinterland of today’s metropolises. The mofussil had its own cultural hubs and a proud, self-confident Hindi intelligentsia that read and spoke English but as a foreign language. There were formal as well as informal gatherings for the recitation of Hindi and Urdu prose and poetry. The likes of Firaq Gorakhpuri and Sumitranandan Pant educated us, informally. We attended their recitations at kavi sammelans and mushairas, which were part of the revered and popular cultural life of these towns. Moreover, we belonged to the same educated middle class, and our parents gathered for social evenings to which these luminaries also flocked. This dimension of cultural life inculcated in us a respect for our languages, as well as a love for their expressiveness and variety.

English is a language that I encountered in school: the ‘convents,’ to which we were willy-nilly sent, represented the snobbery integral to the assumption of the cultural-intellectual superiority of English vis-à-vis the vernacular. Talk English, think English, pay a fine for speaking Hindi except during the Hindi period, when we learnt only elementary Hindi. In school, we often picked up ungrammatical English spoken in conventy accents, became snooty towards Hindi, and in the process ‘lost’ both Hindi and English.

That is how most people of my background have grown up, surrounded by at least two languages, unsystematic, skewed, uneven in both, continuing to believe in the invidious colonial divide between them. Yet, at least for some of us, this lopsided education has meant freedom from the incubus of conventional training and a chance to learn anew, in adventurous ways and inventively, either or both of these languages.

IS IT BY ACCIDENT that some of us choose Hindi and others English? In my own case, my exposure as a child to the Hindis spoken by people from different regions, classes, professions—from the classical to the colloquial, from the humdrum to the poetic—made it a richer language than English. The educated, sober, middle-class, well-mannered English which we learnt in school was one-dimensional. The realisation, much later, that in the contemporary world Hindi was ‘politically’ weaker in comparison to the more ‘snobbish’ and market-affluent English, made me happy with my decision. The challenge of writing  in Hindi seemed that much greater. Both these factors have led to my choosing—or being chosen by—Hindi.

I fell to Hindi and Hindi to me. English was systematically, and seriously, taught and learnt. It formed part of the conscious mind. Hindi was largely acquired subliminally (except for the peremptory schooling in the elementary Hindi language—not literature—in a milieu where a ban on its wider use was rigorously enforced). As a writer, I needed to retrieve Hindi from those hidden depths and resonances. I needed to translate into Hindi those ideas and thoughts that initially occurred to me in English.

My background had shaped my ear in such a way that I was able to tune into the tonalities of various Hindis; English, even if more uniformly toned, remained with me, too.

I learnt on the job, as many in India do. You get the licence first and learn through practice afterwards. The driver,
the engineer, the doctor all kill a few and then become experts. Thankfully, I killed no one. Except, some might say, the language.

Writing began for me as a kind of double translation. To the translation that precedes all writing, that is, the translation into words of that requiring articulation, was added the frequent need to translate into Hindi that which tended to occur to me in English. That need has diminished over the years. It has been a very enriching experience, facilitating what now feels like natural receptivity to bilingualism. Confined in the beginning to English, I now know no linguistic barriers. My bilingualism tends to be especially alert to possibilities of borrowing from other Indian languages, especially from what we condescendingly call ‘dialects,’ not seeing how the expansionist Khari Boli has been in the process of devouring them. I mix Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi with spontaneity in expressions like ‘shadeed vedana (intense suffering), and combine words like the Hindi ‘chori’ and the English ‘stealing’ to create ‘chorying.’ ‘Langda bahana’ (from the English ‘lame excuse’) also meets with my approval.

My confidence in using Hindi my way has grown with time. I should not pretend that there has been no internal resistance, no received conventions to surmount. But there was always an element of audacity that helped. A senior Hindi writer once ticked me off for putting any word along with any other. There is something called ‘shabda-maitri’ (friendship between words), he said, and only two friendly words make a couple. It was a relaxed evening and there were drinks and I was young and enthusiastic. I pointed out to him the clothes he was wearing—a pair of Western-style trousers with an Indian kurta. That is my generation and moment, I said, and we look good. Sound good, too—even when we translate from one tongue to another or couple unlikely partners with élan. If there is impurity in my language, then that is something I live and swear by. In my latest novel—Khali Jagah—I use Punjabi, Gujarati, French and Mizo phrases and words in the middle of all that Hindi with great pleasure.

Today, I am confident of using Hindi well and in new ways. One of the most exciting discoveries in the process of writing is the unexpected, miraculous recall from the reservoir that had formed during the early years of my exposure to the language. In the course of the translation of my novel Mai and some of my short stories, for instance, there were queries from the translator about metaphors and sayings that I had used, including ulatbansis (koans) from Kabir. I realised that I knew the sense of these intuitively and not academically.

Today’s bilingualism, however, is different from the one that marked Hindi fiction from the time of Munshi Premchand to Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu,’ for whom English was the ‘other’ language. These writers wrote in a language formed from a fusion of the Indian languages and dialects in their immediate surroundings. In our time, writers like Nirmal Verma and Krishna Baldev Vaid have brought into their writing linguistic streams from even farther afield but not necessarily in the rich, organic way of earlier times. In this changed bilingualism, the equation between English and the mother tongue is often reversed. Many of us have grown up ‘knowing’ only English, and possessing just the modicum of Hindi needed for everyday transactions. But it is precisely this bilingualism that writers like me are using for a new kind of eclectic borrowing and literary adventure.

Another important legacy must also be noted. Fiction in Hindi, as in other Indian languages, started to develop in a colonial milieu. This made it self-consciously nationalist. And because Hindi fiction came of age around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was also powerfully influenced by socialism. There were dissenting voices as well who countered the shibboleth of ‘art for life’ with the slogan of ‘art for art’s sake.’ This created a sharp division, which, to an extent, continues even today.

The euphoria of freedom, already tempered by Partition, soon gave way to disenchantment. Renu’s Maila Anchal and Parti Parikatha lay bear that disenchantment. As did, a decade later, the vitriolic humour of Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and the tragic irony of Rahi Masoom Raza’s Adha Gaon.

Yet the fierceness of those battles over the meaning and function of literature is now gone. Even so, the daily ‘theatre’ of our kind of society and polity is hardly conducive to letting any space—literary or otherwise—easily be. External social drama, consequently, continues to figure prominently in Hindi fiction. At the same time, the human interior, with its dark recesses and secret pains and desires, is now as much the centre. Alongside, we have the remarkable fiction of Krishna Sobti, in which this duality collapses.

IT WAS IN THIS EXPANDING, accepting and adventurous environment that I became a storyteller in Hindi. My first novel, Mai (1993), generally followed a realistic narrative mode in describing domestic life in a small town. The novel also, I should like to believe, managed to transcend its local milieu to tell a universal story. Its language derived from the dispersed Hindi world of my childhood and also from the modern feminist idiom of my conscious adulthood.

The years following the completion of Mai were frenetic years in our national life. They brought to the fore certain cataclysmic changes that had been brewing subterraneously. Those changes began surfacing obtrusively with LK Advani’s Rath Yatra, which culminated in the first unsuccessful assault on the Babri Masjid, and a spate of violence against Muslims in several cities. Eventually, these events climaxed in the demolition of the masjid and the eruption of unprecedented cruelty against Muslims in Surat and Mumbai. The best the nation had upheld lay shattered.

As a writer, I felt paralysed. Could I possibly write about anything but this? How could I write about this? Would it not be vulgar to think of aesthetics in writing about this? Aesthetics apart, could one understand what one was condemned to witnessing? It seemed that something beyond settled habits of thought, familiar categories and received modes of saying things was required to make sense of, and articulate, the events of this period. Instead, every time I sought to think and say something differently, it ended up being expressed in the same hackneyed way.

Yet, it was impossible not to write. Finally, my second novel, Hamara Shahar Us Baras (1998), started taking shape in the voice of an unnamed narrator who was witness to the paralysis of the likes of us. She, the narrator, decided to take charge. She would simply record—copy—the thoughts and doings of four central characters without any pretensions about understanding or analysing what she recorded. Some day, she hoped, there would be time and an environment propitious for analysing her unpretentious, unvarnished testimony.

With its form having suggested itself, Hamara Shahar Us Baras went on to chronicle, in a series of fragments ranging from a line to a page, life in a city during a tumultuous year. The city, the reader begins to realise as the novel proceeds, threatens to be everywhere, and the year never-ending.

This novel can be read as explicitly political, even didactic. And yet it moves away from the conventional realistic mode. There is no divide between art for art’s sake and art for life’s sake. Also, I believe, it tells its ‘truth’ not merely in the tale being told, but rather in the language in which it gets told. That derives from my background, richly pluralistic in linguistic, religious and cultural terms.

Indeed, ‘religious’ and ‘cultural’ are often overlapping terms in our context. I remember with joy our regular visits to the aartis at the local Barahji temple, even though I did not know till much later that the deity was the boar incarnation of Vishnu. Alongside, I remember the celebration during Id-ul-Fitr and Bakr-Id or the sounds and images during the annual Muharram procession, which halted at the homes of influential Hindus who joined their Muslim comrades. I mention these because without necessarily knowing the intricacies of many religious rituals, we participated and picked up their languages to live in a very healthy, pluralistic way.

If Hamara Shahar Us Baras materialised under external pressure, my third novel, Tirohit (2001), owed its inspiration to something as pedestrian—or poetic—as terraces: a feature of small-town homes, within mohallas or neighbourhoods, which are often connected by a sprawling terrace composed of many contiguous terraces. The walls of the houses below kept respectable, conservative middle-class life contained within them, but once you escaped to the top—having only the sky above and the roof beneath you—what rules could not be broken? What barriers remained? Where were the custodians of respectability?

Tirohit became the story of love between two women and their flight into freedom from class and gender exploitation, from the tyranny of societal expectations and obligations, from various inherited and enforced inhibitions.

My fourth and latest novel deals with a new intruder in our lives: the terrorist bomb. Entitled Khali Jagah, the novel opens with a real incident, a bomb blast in a university café, then turns into a meditation on pain: the pure, unrelieved pain that can suddenly and without any cause or warning seize any one of us, and take away from us the chance of a simple, undemanding, ‘normal’ life.

Ostensibly, I move away from real life every time I seek to (re)create it in my writing; move away from the concrete to the abstract; minimise events and plots and what is believed to be narrative; and fudge beginnings and ends, as also past, present and future. Fiction is always more than its content. It is structure, it is texture, it is cadence, it is language.

Hindi fiction today is exceptionally vibrant, catholic and confident. It is home to an astonishing range of ‘languages,’ voices, inflexions, styles and techniques. This variety, by and large, reflects the coming together of individual writers with their own distinctive signatures, such as Manzoor Ehtesham, Mridula Garg, Uday Prakash, Sara Rai, Alka Saraogi, Akhilesh and many others from an emerging generation. And me.

THE STORY OF MY DEVELOPMENT as a writer of Hindi fiction is a personal story, but like all stories about the self, it includes many other people as well.The modern Hindi language—the insatiably expansionist Khari Boli—and its literature evolved coevally with the emerging nation. And I, born a decade after the historic midnight, fell right into the midst of the ferment. Even as the relationship between the nation and the Hindi language and its literature was being worked out, Khari Boli was establishing its own relationship with north India’s other languages and dialects.

In post-colonial India, unlike when we were struggling for freedom, the choice of language comes laden with peculiar attitudes and it’s these attitudes that I’d like to explore. To the educated, English is the lingua franca and using it is almost more natural than using their mother tongue. To this day, I am asked in wonderment why I write in Hindi when I can do so in English.

There begins my story as a writer.

I spent my childhood and early adolescence in small and not-so-small north Indian towns. My mother spoke Hindi, which makes Hindi, quite literally, my mother tongue. Hindi was also the language of regular exchange with the cook, the sweeper, the gardener, the peon and, more intermittently, with the tailor, the barber, the priest, the newspaper boy. The latter also brought us children’s magazines and comics—I recall the eager wait for every new issue of Chandamama. Add to this the bedtime stories that my siblings and I heard from our mother, grandparents and ayahs. A world opened up to us replete with lore in which the religious and the secular, the extra-mundane and the mundane were inextricably woven. Ramayana, Betal Pachisi, Alif Laila, Vikramaditya, Mahabharata, Sindbad, Panchatantra, Katha Sarit Sagar, Scheherazade, Alha-Udal, Akbar-Birbal, Alibaba and jinnats flooded our childhood and formed our language and imagination.

This was within the compound of the home. Outside were lanes full of shops and their keepers, fruit and vegetable vendors, rickshaw-pullers and tonga-drivers. Their shouts and songs floated across the boundary in colloquial splendour and classical resplendence, in full-throated expletives as well as in sage-like, quiet tones. Because I happened to live in a series of provincial towns, big and small, to which my father was transferred every two or three years, I was subtly, and not so subtly, exposed to an array of ‘languages,’ tones and idioms—Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Baiswadi, Braj Bhasha.

These provincial towns were not the flattened hinterland of today’s metropolises. The mofussil had its own cultural hubs and a proud, self-confident Hindi intelligentsia that read and spoke English but as a foreign language. There were formal as well as informal gatherings for the recitation of Hindi and Urdu prose and poetry. The likes of Firaq Gorakhpuri and Sumitranandan Pant educated us, informally. We attended their recitations at kavi sammelans and mushairas, which were part of the revered and popular cultural life of these towns. Moreover, we belonged to the same educated middle class, and our parents gathered for social evenings to which these luminaries also flocked. This dimension of cultural life inculcated in us a respect for our languages, as well as a love for their expressiveness and variety.

English is a language that I encountered in school: the ‘convents,’ to which we were willy-nilly sent, represented the snobbery integral to the assumption of the cultural-intellectual superiority of English vis-à-vis the vernacular. Talk English, think English, pay a fine for speaking Hindi except during the Hindi period, when we learnt only elementary Hindi. In school, we often picked up ungrammatical English spoken in conventy accents, became snooty towards Hindi, and in the process ‘lost’ both Hindi and English.

That is how most people of my background have grown up, surrounded by at least two languages, unsystematic, skewed, uneven in both, continuing to believe in the invidious colonial divide between them. Yet, at least for some of us, this lopsided education has meant freedom from the incubus of conventional training and a chance to learn anew, in adventurous ways and inventively, either or both of these languages.

IS IT BY ACCIDENT that some of us choose Hindi and others English? In my own case, my exposure as a child to the Hindis spoken by people from different regions, classes, professions—from the classical to the colloquial, from the humdrum to the poetic—made it a richer language than English. The educated, sober, middle-class, well-mannered English which we learnt in school was one-dimensional. The realisation, much later, that in the contemporary world Hindi was ‘politically’ weaker in comparison to the more ‘snobbish’ and market-affluent English, made me happy with my decision. The challenge of writing  in Hindi seemed that much greater. Both these factors have led to my choosing—or being chosen by—Hindi.

I fell to Hindi and Hindi to me. English was systematically, and seriously, taught and learnt. It formed part of the conscious mind. Hindi was largely acquired subliminally (except for the peremptory schooling in the elementary Hindi language—not literature—in a milieu where a ban on its wider use was rigorously enforced). As a writer, I needed to retrieve Hindi from those hidden depths and resonances. I needed to translate into Hindi those ideas and thoughts that initially occurred to me in English.

My background had shaped my ear in such a way that I was able to tune into the tonalities of various Hindis; English, even if more uniformly toned, remained with me, too.

I learnt on the job, as many in India do. You get the licence first and learn through practice afterwards. The driver,
the engineer, the doctor all kill a few and then become experts. Thankfully, I killed no one. Except, some might say, the language.

Writing began for me as a kind of double translation. To the translation that precedes all writing, that is, the translation into words of that requiring articulation, was added the frequent need to translate into Hindi that which tended to occur to me in English. That need has diminished over the years. It has been a very enriching experience, facilitating what now feels like natural receptivity to bilingualism. Confined in the beginning to English, I now know no linguistic barriers. My bilingualism tends to be especially alert to possibilities of borrowing from other Indian languages, especially from what we condescendingly call ‘dialects,’ not seeing how the expansionist Khari Boli has been in the process of devouring them. I mix Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi with spontaneity in expressions like ‘shadeed vedana (intense suffering), and combine words like the Hindi ‘chori’ and the English ‘stealing’ to create ‘chorying.’ ‘Langda bahana’ (from the English ‘lame excuse’) also meets with my approval.

My confidence in using Hindi my way has grown with time. I should not pretend that there has been no internal resistance, no received conventions to surmount. But there was always an element of audacity that helped. A senior Hindi writer once ticked me off for putting any word along with any other. There is something called ‘shabda-maitri’ (friendship between words), he said, and only two friendly words make a couple. It was a relaxed evening and there were drinks and I was young and enthusiastic. I pointed out to him the clothes he was wearing—a pair of Western-style trousers with an Indian kurta. That is my generation and moment, I said, and we look good. Sound good, too—even when we translate from one tongue to another or couple unlikely partners with élan. If there is impurity in my language, then that is something I live and swear by. In my latest novel—Khali Jagah—I use Punjabi, Gujarati, French and Mizo phrases and words in the middle of all that Hindi with great pleasure.

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Geetanjali Shree writes fiction and theatre-scripts in Hindi and discursive pieces in both Hindi and English. She has published four novels and five collections of short stories and a book on Hindi literature in the nationalist era of the early 20th century. Her works have been translated into French, German, Serbian, English and various Indian languages. Based in Delhi she travels widely.

READER'S COMMENTS

5 thoughts on “From the Polyphonic World of Hindi Fiction”

I strongly recommend Geetanjali Shree. She’s one of my oldest friends but that’s not why i recommend her…its because of her writing, and her insights, of which you now have some idea…

perhaps if we (I) had adopted the phonetic script (as the turks did) maybe we (i) wouldn’t have been wadig in the quicksand of the aftermath of our shared loyalties to the languages.. for so long, and so ineffectually. aur billi chaat gayi kheer to main kya karu.

Thanks Geetanjali for this article. It made me think of all those other Hindis that belonged to a more confident me in the past! It is also good to read about different aspects of writing in Hindi, without bringing in how people writing in Indian languages are treated unfairly compared to those writing in English …

What a thoughtful article, written with such penache! It is a pity that I have not read Geetanjali Shree’s novels, but I feel deeply moved to do so. I have known the emergence of women writers in Canada – Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields – and how they have enriched our understanding of a different reality – a woman’s reality, if you wish. I hope to discover Shree and her insights about India; it seems obvious that she could reveal them in English with great aplomb, but it would be far sweeter in Hindi I am sure. Please write on and illuminate.

I wish writers themselves were reasonably unsure of their intent and what they could achieve. Geetanjalee shree ,a notable writer more so.

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