Oh, Antiquity

Why did Malayalam cross the road? It’s a ‘classical’ question.
Oh, Antiquity
Sunil Menon

Mercifully, it’s been quite the vogue to tell the state to get out of this sector of life or that. Maybe we can add to that burgeoning list of no-go areas an esoteric one: language policy. It may seem a lightweight demand, in these fraught times, and deliberately flip. But lan­guage is no innocent, inert tool in the hands of the scholar or fishmonger. Its gross and subtle weapons can kill and maim—the casualties can include people as well as ideas. It can also generate meaning beyond its ordinary use—belonging, or its negative, exclusion. Or a self-image, set against all its negati­ves. Gods have been partial to languages. The whole economy of identities through which Indians transact with each other too rests, to an indecent degree, on linguistic facts. So it seems reasonable to say to the government: if you can’t do any good, don’t mess around.

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But alas, it never ceases to do so. News is that Malayalam has been conferred with the status of a classical language, making it the fourth—and last—big Dravidian tongue to be thus pampered. This when the fashionable thing in Kerala, it seems, is to not quite speak it well (that Remittance Kid chic) and everyone is half-fascinated by the idea of deracina­tion. Its literary history spans a few cent­ur­ies, or a millennium, like all its counterparts. So how to greet this news? A touch of incredulity is rife, not just outside Kerala. If Malayalam is classical, what is Tulu? Semi-classical? Will pop be banned?

The prequel unfolded like a new-fangled linguistic thriller, with many possible contingent endings. And plenty traces of the experimenter’s bias, a tendency to write your own des­ire into research. Perhaps the only value-free act was the accide­ntal discovery of an inscription in a mass of cave paintings that set it off. Edakkal, in a section of the Ghats where Way­anad, the Nilgiris and Mysore meet in a trijunction, is a Bhim­betka of the south, with Stone Age figures on its walls teasing moderns with a ghost dance of clues and runes about life in prehistoric India. In 2012, next to a human-like figure with a big phallus, seemingly much older, an engraved scrawl was found in mixed Brahmi. Tentative dating: 400-600 AD.

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What did it say? Here’s where the actors improvise, and alphabet-crunchers earn their bread. The only point of con­sensus: one sign was in Tamil-Brahmi and denoted the sound that, represented by the English pairing ‘-zh’, mystifies everyone outside south India. (Linguists call it a retroflex approximant; say ‘flirt’ the American way, and you sort of ‘flu-zhhh-t’ with the sound.) The epigraphist who found it, M.R. Raghava Varier, offered the reading ‘Sri Vazhumi’, a possible Old Tamil rendering of ‘Brahma’. The gloss is, literally, a leap of faith: the man with the phallus is from an ancient fertility cult, and the later inscription depicts a transitional imagination that is morphing or merging it into the creator-god figure. In other words, the sort of Sanskritic fusing that unfo­lded a millenn­ium later, with the intermediate idiom Manipravalam. It was a reading that would touch multiple erogenous zones in the modern imagination, as it stirs an ancient melting-pot.

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The language gold rush has moved east. Oriya and Bengali are now vying for classical status. This was inevitable, and it won't stop here.

In recent years, Edakkal’s walls had yielded Harappan-like motifs. Iravatham Mahadevan, grand old man of the Dravidian Indus thesis, had cited it to burnish his theory of Harappan culture’s link to south India. This had already tied Edak­kal to a fertile line of speculative research that’s been brimming over for well nigh half a century, and whose documents are themselves starting to look like monuments. To be sure, Indus-like objects have been found in Tamil Nadu and Harappan residues hyp­othesised in neolithic sites like Maski in the Deccan; however, nothing more than trade needs to be assumed. (The Indus script is famously still to be decryp­ted; the Dravid­ian hypothesis of Mahadevan and Asko Parpola is a fascinating idea, but despite the valiant and methodical work, nothing more than that yet. And the south has other mysteries, like its megalithic cultures, full of dolmens and menhirs.)

Mahadevan’s intervention on the Edakkal engraving was decisive in a way. He proffered the reading ‘pazhama’, meaning ‘antiquity’ in Tamil and Malayalam. Coincidentally, just about then, Kerala had set up an experts’ panel to make a case for classical status. Besides litterateurs like O.N.V. Kurup, it included linguist Naduvattom Gopalakrishnan. Now, he had just what he wan­ted. Zeroing in on ‘pazhama’, he ext­ended it, saying the prefixed string was not ‘Sree’ but the Malayalam ‘Ee’ (‘this’). Most advocated caution, Varier even called it a “dangerous interpretation”. But who was to argue against the tide of provisionist history! If you’re looking to prove your antiquity, what could be more fortuitous than to come across a petroglyph that proclaims, precisely, “O! This Antiquity” and putatively joins you to Indus cultures? It’s almost pluperfect: a past that talks of an older past. One neat standing jump on an Indus Valley zebu over the 1,500-year cutoff.

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Things moved fast. Edakkal became the panel’s prime exh­ibit, Dr Manmohan Singh was impressed, and an India that fails to see the existence of fine literary canons in, say, Marwari elevates Malayalam, which should, without any sense of belittlement, share the same room with all its peers—literate or otherwise. Besides pride, there’s a purse of Rs 100 crore, to ‘promote’ a language that’s already in robust health and spoken by millions. To be sure, language scholarship needs all the support it can get. A few years ago, when Kannada and Telugu were seeking classical status, the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock had pointed to the irony. A “cultural ecocide” was around the corner, he warned, for no one would be left in India who could read its vast treasures of non-modern texts in any language outside Sanskrit. This game of competitive chauvinisms, with linguists at the head of the army, behaving like rival cartels, won’t get us out of that destitution.

The Edakkal engraving with the crucial 'zha'

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Like a preordained karmic tale, all of this was scripted at the outset. The irony is, it’s in struggling against the same historical circumstance of colonialism that all modern Indian languages fashioned themselves anew. That residue of anxiety and self-doubt could be seen in the martial assertiveness of the new, gleaming entities that emerged from the foundry. Language policy in India saw a litany of fraught moves. It fed the narcissism of big languages by making them central to identity in the division of states, linking language to power in such a way as to seem almost natural to us now. In this charged field, it entered one of them—officially—as the master language. Hindi went from an anti-colonial idiom to a proselytising, colonial one without a hiccup. The violence this did to its own family was the maximum; in one stroke, most of northern India save the urban/savarna lettered elite became second-grade citizens of their own linguistic world. (The Hindi ‘belt’ still goes without examination. In 2002, an inside page news listed the abysmal pass percentage in Hindi in UP schools. Last month, we heard about bilingual glossaries between Hindi and the five ‘dialects’ of Bihar. Think about it, why would they need Hindi to be translated?)

But it was in old Tamizhagam that it touched a raw nerve, producing one of the strongest strands of dissent in modern India. Tamil was coming off a half-century-old movement for a return to a pure, de-Sanskritised past. One of its initiators, ironically a Brahmin who had Dravidianised his name, had even sought classical status for Tamil in 1902. By the time it was granted a century later, the arguments had all but been settled; the ideologues, pacified by long stints in power, occasionally raking it up in token form. Classical status was just Tamil’s parting shot to Hindi: buzz off, son, pick someone your size, my fight’s with your daddy. (Sanskrit was becalmed retrospectively; it got classical status a year later, in 2005.)

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Now, there is a centrality that Tamil stakes claim to in the south, an umbrella quality to the Tamil > Damila > Dravida etymological equation, that causes discomfiture to others. Its emancipatory zeal easily spilt over into a mirrored chauvi­nism, to which inevitably its peers started responding with their own mini-versions. In this hall of mirrors, family resemblances begat not empathy but sibling antipathy. The domino effect didn’t take long. Telugu and Kannada—with their own hist­ory and self-image, and always slightly raw on the question of Tamil—sought parity. (Granted, 2008.) And now Mal­a­yalam, in eager me-tooism. Now history has almost become farce, and we only need to wait for the counter-counter-wave, for language chieftains north of the Vindhyas to point out one by one, justi­fiably, that they all have a history as old and voluminous. Once we have finished stoking and feeding the endless appetite for self-valorisation our literate elites seem to have, we will be presented with a country rippling with classical languages!

An early votary of 'pure Tamil', ironically a Brahmin, had sought classical status in 1902.

What would that epiphanic moment be like? Will no one utter obscenities, will streetside slang disappear, will people walk about in a state of permanent exaltation, like in period films? Will there be posses of lexicographers patrolling the borders, committees to probe impurit­ies? Will everyone hew close to a normative centre, that specious standard of ‘goodness’ in language? Will it again be the self-consciously dulcet tones of a ‘high culture’ built on class/caste elitism? As it is, the eighth schedule is an instrument of built-in elitism. By giving languages a strange second life on paper, the state colludes in setting up a chain of value and prestige. Hindi/Tamil is an old story, the violence moves to a new level—structural and abstract—where the overlordship is shared federally between sat­raps. For the vast map of small language forms that make up India, the state had always created a hostile linguistic ecol­ogy against which to survive. Now, this is accentuated.

A thing can be classical only in relation to another that is not. What is that? The ‘spoken’ languages, seen—erroneou­sly—as frozen in retardation, in a ‘state of nature’ (to use an Indianism, prakrit), with higher- order forms supervening on a stratum of pure physicality. It’s crude anthropology, and self-delusional. All higher reasoning flows from the mental properties of language itself, not from its writing. It’s ironical one has to labour this point in India, with its defiantly enduring monuments built on the most fleeting of material: verbal utterance. The Vedic corpus, the subtlest axioms of Pan­ini, unopened vaults of bardic lore, Bhakti/Sufi poetry—all stood on their aural (not scribal) strength. And a ceaseless random access memory. (If a ‘tribal’ language seeks ‘classical’ status, we will have richly deserved the categorial confusion.)

Why should the law consecrate unequal status anyway? Scr­­­ipt is an accident of history, a technological artefact; writing a special subset, not the source code. (Tulu and Malaya­lam once partook of the same script before one lapsed back into ‘nature’ and the other fash­ioned itself as an epitome of literacy.) On what grounds do you keep out scriptless langua­ges that possess a rich lode of, say, epic poetry from the roll of honour—besides saying you are blinded by the cult of the book? This is the nub of it. Our attitudes to literacy show this. Ever wondered why literacy is always a “mission”, bringing “enlightenment”? We have uncritically adopted the metaphors of colonial-era eva­ngelists, so that modern literacy is built on a grain on inverted self-loathing that transmits not just knowledge but self-loathing itself. That’s why education now equals deracination; it distances its victim from traditional cultures. This breeds an anxiety that finds solace only in chauvini­stic affirmations, or tokenisms like the status of a language. It’s this whole complex loop of attitudes that comes to roost here.

What suffers ultimately is the prospect of a sane language policy. One that recognises a tribal language is as well-formed as Sanskrit, which too is a tribal language if you go back long enough; that apabhramsas are not ‘corruptions’ but evolutions; that human genius lies behind every linguistic act. If a new culture of scholarship is to be instituted, the state has to depoliticise education at that subtle level, so that India’s children do not grow up being taught to hate their mot­her tongue, whether it’s Mullu Kurumba or Kurukh or Garhwali. Or a non-standard language form, like Sylheti or Bagri. (I can never forget the gent who told me, quite disarmingly, we speak bad Telugu, they speak good Telugu.)

Language and politics are so co-embe­dded, it’s blooming naivete to demand, in town-hall tones, that the two be “kept apart”—as if some genome surgery can be performed to detangle the knot. But a sane policy could inter alia liberate Sanskrit and its resour­ces—from a worldview that still implicitly div­ides the world into arya/mleccha/pisaca, with its latter-day meritocrat apol­ogists, and from the reverse racism of the other side. The mysterious movements of language do not lend themselves to facile readings of power and domination. Indo-Aryan and Dravidian met not at war but at barter. The lesser known part  of the deal: Indo-Aryan also borrowed from Dravidian (more structure, though lexical borrowings too are proposed from the Rigveda on). Both borrowed from Munda. Linguistic exch­anges often mask their trail, or we’d have always known that the Bangla plural marker -ra has a Dravidian provenance, as has the first name of Fred Astaire’s dancing partner.

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