A delightful chapter in Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s autobiography, In the Afternoon of Time, sensitively translated into English by the Hindi scholar Rupert Snell, deals with the late poet’s travails as a Hindi officer in Nehru’s government. Bachchan, whose thankless job it was to “help and assist in the progressive use of Hindi” in the ministry of external affairs, paints a vivid picture of the emerging world of official Hindi in a new nation. Translators churn out Hindi versions of English documents that are absurdly literal and therefore incomprehensible. Committees set up to expand the vocabulary of Hindi produce one Sanskrit-based coinage after another, like ‘vidyut prasaran yantra’ for radio and ‘sima shulka sadan adhikari’ for customs house officer (“a perfect Tulsidas chaupai line,” exclaims the poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, who chaired the committee that conjured up the second term).
And yet, senior central government babus stonewall Bachchan’s efforts to promote Hindi in the workplace. “I eventually came to see,” writes Bachchan, “that the Hindi section itself was a cunning diplomatic subterfuge: as long as the section existed, nobody needed to learn Hindi.”