Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Social media apps are 'deliberately' addictive to users

Social media companies are deliberately addicting users to their products for financial gain, Silicon Valley insiders have told the BBC's Panorama programme.

"It's as if they're taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that's the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back", said former Mozilla and Jawbone employee Aza Raskin.

"Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting" he added.

In 2006 Mr Raskin, a leading technology engineer himself, designed infinite scroll, one of the features of many apps that is now seen as highly habit forming. At the time, he was working for Humanized - a computer user-interface consultancy.

Aza Raskin says he did not recognise how addictive infinite scroll could be
Infinite scroll allows users to endlessly swipe down through content without clicking.

"If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses," Mr Raskin said, "you just keep scrolling."

He said the innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary.

Mr Raskin said he had not set out to addict people and now felt guilty about it.

But, he said, many designers were driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employed them.

"In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up," he said.

"So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you're going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked."

Mr Raskin has set his handset to work in a monochrome mode to
minimise its apps' addictive powers
Lost time
A former Facebook employee made a related point.

"Social media is very similar to a slot machine," said Sandy Parakilas, who tried to stop using the service after he left the company in 2012.

"It literally felt like I was quitting cigarettes."

During his year and five months at Facebook, he said, others had also recognised this risk.

Mr Parakilas made headlines when he wrote a newspaper column in 2017,
saying that Facebook could not be trusted to regulate itself
"There was definitely an awareness of the fact that the product was habit-forming and addictive," he said.

"You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers."

Facebook told the BBC that its products were designed "to bring people closer to their friends, family, and the things they care about".

It said that "at no stage does wanting something to be addictive factor into that process".

Like's legacy
One of the most alluring aspects of social media for users is "likes", which can come in the form of the thumbs-up sign, hearts, or retweets.

Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook's Like button, said she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of "likes" she had.

Leah Pearlman worked at Facebook between 2006 and 2010
"When I need validation - I go to check Facebook," she said.

"I'm feeling lonely, 'Let me check my phone.' I'm feeling insecure, 'Let me check my phone.'"

Ms Pearlman said she had tried to stop using Facebook after leaving the company.

"I noticed that I would post something that I used to post and the 'like' count would be way lower than it used to be.

"Suddenly, I thought I'm actually also kind of addicted to the feedback."

Vulnerable teens
Studies indicate there are links between overusing social media and depression, loneliness and a host of other mental problems.

In Britain, teenagers now spend about an average of 18 hours a week on their phones, much of it using social media.

Ms Pearlman believes youngsters who recognise that social media is problematic for them should also consider steering clear of such apps.

"The first things I would say is for those teenagers to step into a different way of being because with a few leaders, it can help others follow," she said.

Last year Facebook's founding president, Sean Parker, said publicly that the company set out to consume as much user time as possible.

He claimed it was "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology".

"The inventors", he said, "understood this consciously and we did it anyway."

But Ms Pearlman said she had not intended the Like button to be addictive.

She also believes that social media use has many benefits for lots of people.

When confronted with Mr Parker's allegation that the company had effectively sought to hook people from the outset, senior Facebook official Ime Archibong told the BBC it was still looking into the issue.

"We're working with third-party folks that are looking at habit-forming behaviours - whether it's on our platform or the internet writ large - and trying to understanding if there are elements that we do believe are bringing harm to people," he said, "so that we can shore those up and we can invest in making sure those folks are safe over time."

Recent reports indicate Facebook is working on features to let users see how much time they have spent on its app over the previous seven days and to set daily time limits.

The Panorama programme also explores the use of colour, sounds and unexpected rewards to drive compulsive behaviour.

Twitter declined to comment.

Snap said it was happy to support frequent creative use of its app, Snapchat. But it denied using visual tricks to achieve this and added that it had no desire to increase empty engagement of the product.

(Source: BBC)

Monday, 30 July 2018

Surging Hindi, shrinking South Indian languages

Nine charts that explain the 2011 language census. So ascendent is Hindi that the data suggests even some Urdu speakers are now identifying themselves as Hindiwalahs.

All countries like to think of themselves as special. But when it comes to language, a fairly good argument could be made that India is objectively so. Most states in the world are monolingual or have a clearly dominant language. This trend is so common that in the Old World, the names of many countries are simply a variant of a language – France, Mongolia, Turkey. But India has as many as 22 official languages. Moreover, there are at least 41 more languages demanding inclusion in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India, which accords a tongue official status.


In the midst of this linguistic cornucopia, the census conducted by the Union government every decade provides a way for policy makers, political watchers and language nerds to make sense of it all. The Centre released data on language from the 2011 census last Tuesday (after an inordinate, unexplained seven-year delay).

Here some findings.

Hindi is exploding
Hindi is India’s most spoken language. It is one of two languages used by the Union government (the other being English). As a mother tongue, Hindi is found mainly in North India and Central India, although there are significant urban pockets of Hindi speakers in most states of the Union.

Currently, nearly 44% of India speaks Hindi (this figure, however, includes languages such as Bhojpuri that are fighting to be accorded separate status). Between 2001 and 2011, Hindi grew at a rate of 25% to add close to 100 million new speakers. Among the 10 largest languages in India, Hindi is the only one that saw the proportion of its speakers rise.

But the growth of Hindi is not just confined to this decade. It has been growing at a good clip since 1971, driven mostly by high population growth in the Hindi-speaking states.


Proportion of South Indian language speakers falling
While high population growth in North India has helped Hindi surge, lower population growth in the five Dravidian language-speaking states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – has resulted in the proportion of Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam falling.

While Hindi grew by 161% between 1971 and 2011, for example, the four largest Dravidian languages grew at half that rate – 81% – over the same period.

Note: The 1981 census data for Tamil was lost in a flood and is unavailable. The 1981 data for Tamil has, therefore been extrapolated by assuming a linear rate of change between 1971 and 1991.

Hindi is growing even in South India
In addition, growing migration from north to south has meant a greater presence of Hindi in the five southern states. In Tamil Nadu, for example, the proportion of Hindi speakers nearly doubled from 2001 to 2011. In some cases, like in Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, this north to south migration has caused political ripples and resulted in an agitation to remove Hindi signages from the city metro. That said, absolute numbers are still small and it remains to be seen if the trend continues in the 2021 census.

Note: Andhra Pradesh here refers to current-day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana since the Census was carried out before the state's bifurcation in 2014.
Urdu numbers falling
Only two scheduled languages have seen a fall in absolute numbers, Urdu and Konkani. There are 5,07,72,631 Urdu speakers in India, a fall of about 1.5% since 2001.



Urdu speakers are spread across India but the language’s strongest presence is in the modern-day Hindi belt: the two largest Urdu-speaking states are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, it is precisely here that the fall in Urdu numbers has been significant.


Since Urdu in modern India is associated only with Muslims, this fall is unusual given that the Muslim population in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has grown between 2001 and 2011. What this might, therefore, mean is that a new generation of Muslims is turning to Hindi since Urdu education has nearly ceased to exist in much of North India.

According to the 2011 census, the decline in Konkani speakers is 9.5%.

Bengali spreading to south, west
As Hindi spreads to other states with migration, so does Bengali. While states bordering West Bengal and Bangladesh have always had a significant Bengali population, the 2011 census counted 4.4 lakh Bengalis in far-off Maharashtra and 2.2 lakh in Delhi. While numbers are small in the south, they are growing. In Kerala, the proportion of Bengali speakers has grown nine times, driven by the movement of a large number of blue collar workers from rural Bengal to the coastal state.


Assam’s language divide
The sharpest linguistic divide in India possibly exists in Assam, where the National Register of Citizens – a project that aims to create a definitive list of citizens of the state and identify illegal immigrants – and a proposed citizenship law has divided the state’s Assamese and Bengali speakers.

Assam is no stranger to linguistic conflict, a pattern that might be driven by the state’s highly fragmented language demographics. Assam is the only major state in the Union (population more than 1 crore) that does not have any language group in a majority. Assamese speakers, the largest group, make up 48% of the state – a number that is, in fact, decreasing even as the proportion of Bengali speakers went up in 2001-2011.


On Friday, Assamese nationalist organisations expressed concern over these trends.

More Indians are speaking English
A carry over from the British Raj, English is the link-language between India’s various states and the language of its upper crust elite. However, in absolute numbers, there is a tiny number of people who speak the language as a mother tongue, with only the Anglo-Indian community historically identifying with it.

In spite of that, English seems to have registered a 15% jump since 2001, making it one of the fastest growing languages in the decade.


Since this rise cannot be explained by a rise in the population of traditional English-speaking communities, it might point to more Indian elites not only speaking English but identifying with it as a mother tongue – data that backs up this piece on Scroll.in from February.

Wild cards: Sanskrit, Arabic and Pashto
Sanskrit is India’s smallest official language with 24,821 speakers. However, Arabic – with no official status – is double its size with 54,947 speakers. Since neither language has any active speakers in India, these numbers probably represent people who misreported their mother tongue given the high status Sanskrit and Arabic enjoy as liturgical tongues in Hinduism and Islam.

Speakers of Pashto – spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan – have, meanwhile, doubled in size in India from 2001. The absolute number, however, is tiny: as of 2011, India has 21,677 Pashto speakers. Jammu and Kashmir accounts for 83% of the Pashto-speaking population while Delhi has 8%.

(Source: Scroll)

Sunday, 29 July 2018

In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?

Text of The W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation by Arundhati Roy - 5 June 2018, The British Library, London.

At a book reading in Kolkata, about a week after my first novel, The God of Small Things was published, a member of the audience stood up and asked, in a tone that was distinctly hostile:

Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?

I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier. “Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.

The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.

Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously,

The very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.

Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And whether all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.

The night of that reading in Kolkata, city of my estranged father and of Kali, Mother Goddess with the long red tongue and many arms, I fell to wondering what my mother tongue actually was. What was—is—the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write? It occurred to me that my mother was actually an alien, with fewer arms than Kali perhaps but many more tongues. English is certainly one of them. My English has been widened and deepened by the rhythms and cadences of my alien mother’s other tongues. (I say alien because there’s not much that is organic about her. Her nation-shaped body was first violently assimilated and then violently dismembered by an imperial British quill. I also say alien because of the violence unleashed in her name on those who do not wish to belong to her (Kashmiris, for example), as well as on those who do (Indian Muslims and Dalits, for example), makes her an extremely un-motherly mother.

How many tongues does she have? Officially, approximately 780, only twenty-two of which are formally recognized by the Indian Constitution, while another thirty-eight are waiting to be accorded that status. Each has its own history of colonizing or being colonized. There are few pure victims and pure perpetrators. There is no national language. Not yet. Hindi and English are designated “official languages.” According to the Constitution of India (which, we must note, was written in English), the use of English by the state for official purposes was supposed to cease by 26 January 1965, fifteen years after the constitution came into effect. Hindi, written in the Devanagari script, was to take its place. However, any serious move toward making Hindi the national language has been met with riots in non-Hindi speaking regions of the country. (Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe.) So, English has continued, guiltily, unofficially, and by default, to consolidate its base. Guilt in this case is an unhelpful sentiment. India as a country, a nation-state, was a British idea. So, the idea of English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself. Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire, as the British imperial historian had tried to suggest to me, it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it.

Baptist Mission Linguistic Map of India (1846)

Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and administered from Delhi, which, for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole. If India had broken up into language republics, like countries in Europe, then perhaps English could be done away with. But even still, not really, not any time soon. As things stand, English, although it is spoken by a small minority (which still numbers in the tens of millions), is the language of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press, the legal fraternity, of science, engineering, and international communication. It is the language of privilege and exclusion. It is also the language of emancipation, the language in which privilege has been eloquently denounced. Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the most widely read, widely translated, and devastating denunciation of the Hindu caste system, was written in English. It revolutionized the debate on perhaps the most brutal system of institutionalized injustice that any society has ever dreamed up. How different things would have been had the privileged castes managed to contain Ambedkar’s writing in a language that only his own caste and community could read. Inspired by him, many Dalit activists today see the denial of a quality English education to the underprivileged (in the name of nationalism or anticolonialism) as a continuation of the Brahmin tradition of denying education and literacy—or, for that matter, simply the right to pursue knowledge and accumulate wealth—to people they consider “shudras” and “outcastes.” To make this point, in 2011 the Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad built a village temple to the Dalit Goddess of English. “She is the symbol of Dalit Renaissance,” he said. “We will use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.”

Angrezi Devi, Goddess of English as imagined by Chandrabhan Prasad
As the wrecking ball of the new global economic order goes about its work, moving some people toward the light, pushing others into darkness, the “knowing” and the “not knowing” of English plays a great part in allocating light and darkness.

It is onto this mind-bending mosaic that the current Hindu nationalist ruling dispensation is trying to graft its “One nation, one religion, one language” vision. Since its inception in the 1920s, the rallying cry of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), Hindu Nationalism’s Holding Company—and the most powerful organization in India today—has been “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.” Ironically, all three are words derived from the Arabic and Persian “al-Hind”—Hindustan, the name of the “stan” (place)—not to be confused with “sthan,” which also means “place” in Sanskrit—that lay east of the River Indus. “Hindus” were the peoples (not the religion) that lived there. It would be too much to expect the RSS to learn from other country’s experiences, but when the Islamic Republic of Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on its Bengali-speaking citizens in East Pakistan, it ended up losing half of itself. Sri Lanka tried to impose Sinhala on its Tamil citizens, and paid with decades of bloody civil war.

All this to say that we live and work (and write) in a complicated land, in which nothing is or ever will be settled. Especially not the question of language. Languages.

Susan Sontag was surely aware of some of this complexity when she delivered the W. G. Sebald lecture in 2002. Her lecture was called “The World as India: Translation as a Passport within the Community of Literature.” What I’ll talk about is “Translation as a Writing Strategy in a Community Without Passports.”

***

Twenty years after the publication of The God of Small Things, I finished writing my second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if a novel can have an enemy, then the enemy of this novel is the idea of “One nation, one religion, one language.” As I composed the cover page of my manuscript, in place of the author’s name, I was tempted to write: “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy.” The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it (and here I don’t mean the translation of the inchoate and the prelingual into words). Regardless of which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written in, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe would had to be imagined in several languages. It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish—swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some outright carnivorous. But they are all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other. For them, translation is not a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folks’ survival kit. And so, in this novel of many languages, it is not only the author, but the characters themselves who swim around in an ocean of exquisite imperfection, who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realize that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been—is being—translated into forty-eight languages. Each of those translators has to grapple with a language that is infused with many languages including, if I may coin a word, many kinds of Englishes (sociolects is perhaps the correct word, but I’ll stay with Englishes because it is deliciously worse) and translate it into another language that is infused with many languages. I use the word infused advisedly, because I am not speaking merely of a text that contains a smattering of quotations or words in other languages as a gimmick or a trope, or one that plays the Peter Sellers game of mocking Indian English, but of an attempt to actually create a companionship of languages.

Part of the author’s bookshelf of translations – Photo by Mayank Austin Soofi
Of the forty-eight translations, two are Urdu and Hindi. As we will soon see, the very fact of having to name Hindi and Urdu as separate languages, and publish them as separate books with separate scripts, contains a history that is folded into the story of The Ministry. Given the setting of the novel, the Hindi and Urdu translations are, in part, a sort of homecoming. I soon learned that this did nothing to ease the task of the translators. To give you an example: The human body and its organs play an important part in The Ministry. We found that Urdu, that most exquisite of languages, which has more words for love than perhaps any other language in the world, has no word for vagina. There are words like the Arabic furj, which is considered to be archaic and more or less obsolete, and there are euphemisms that range in meaning from “hidden part,” “breathing hole,” “vent,” and “path to the uterus.” The most commonly used one is aurat ki sharamgah. A woman’s place of shame. As you can see, we had trouble on our hands. Before we rush to judgment, we must remember that pudenda in Latin means “that whereof one should feel shame.” In Danish, I was told by my translator, the phrase is “lips of shame.” So, Adam and Eve are alive and well, their fig leaves firmly in place.

Although I am tempted to say more about witnessing the pleasures and difficulties of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness being translated into other languages, more than the “post-writing” translations, it is the “pre-writing” translation that I want to talk about today. None of it came from an elaborate, pre-existing plan. I worked purely by instinct. It is only while preparing for this lecture that I began to really see how much it mattered to me to persuade languages to shift around, to make room for each other. Before we dive into the Ocean of Imperfection and get caught up in the eddies and whirlpools of our historic blood feuds and language wars, in order to give you a rough idea of the terrain, I will quickly chart the route by which I arrived at my particular patch of the shoreline.

My mother is a Syrian Christian from Kerala—the Malayalam-speaking southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. My father was a Bengali from Kolkata, which is where the two met. At the time, he was visiting from Assam, where he had a job as an assistant manager of a tea garden. The language they had in common was English. I was born in the Welsh Mission hospital in the little town of Shillong, then in Assam, now the capital of the state of Meghalaya. The predominant hill tribe in Shillong is the Khasi, their language an Austroasiatic one, related to Cambodian and Mon. The Welsh missionaries of Shillong, like missionaries all over India, went to great lengths to turn oral languages into written ones, primarily in order to translate and print the Bible. As part of their own campaign to preserve the Welsh language against the tidal wave of English, they ensured that while Khasi is written in Roman script, its orthography is similar to that of Welsh.

Welsh Mission Hospital now called H Gordon Roberts Hospital, Shillong. A panoramic image prepared by the mission to raise funds for the hospital in 1939

The first two years of my life were spent in Assam. Even before I was born, my parents’ relationship had broken down irretrievably. While they quarrelled, I was farmed out to the tea plantation workers’ quarters, where I learned my first language, which my mother informs me was a kind of Hindi. The tea workers, living on starvation wages, were (and are) among the most brutally oppressed and exploited people in India. They are descendants of indigenous tribespeople of Eastern and Central India, whose own languages had been broken down and subsumed into Baganiya, which literally means “garden language.” It is a patois of Hindi, Axomiya, and their own languages. Baganiya was the language I first spoke. I was less than three years old when my parents separated. My mother, my brother, and I moved to South India—first to Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu and then (unwelcomed) to my grandmother’s home in Ayemenem, the village in Kerala where The God of Small Things is set. I soon forgot my Baganiya. (Many years later, when I was in my twenties, I encountered my cheerful but distressingly alcoholic father for the first time. The very first question he asked me was,

Do you still use bad language?

I had no idea what he meant. “Oh, you were a terrible, foul-mouthed little girl,” he said, and went on to tell me about how, when he had accidentally brushed a lit cigarette against my arm, I had glared at him and called him a “choo…ya”—an expletive in several languages, including Baganiya, whose etymology derives from the Latin word pudenda.) When I was five, my utterly moneyless mother started her own school by renting, by day, a small hall that belonged to the Rotary Club in the town of Kottayam, a short bus ride away. Every evening we would pack away our tables and chairs, and put them out again in the morning. I grew up on a cultural diet that included Shakespeare, Kipling, Kathakali (a temple dance form), The Sound of Music, as well as Malayalam and Tamil cinema. Before I reached my teenage years, I could recite long passages of Shakespeare, sing Christian hymns in the mournful Malayali way, and mimic a cabaret from the Tamil film called Jesus (which Mary Magdalene performs to seduce Jesus at a cocktail party in zero BC—before things began to go badly wrong for both of them).

Rotary Club in the town of Kottayam – Photo by Dayanita Singh
As her little school grew successful, my mother, anxious about my career prospects, decreed that I was to speak only in English.1 Even in my off time. Each time I was caught speaking Malayalam, I was made to write what was called an imposition—I will speak in English, I will speak in English—a thousand times. Many hours of many afternoons were spent doing this (until I learned to recycle my impositions). At the age of ten, I went to a boarding school in Tamil Nadu founded by Sir Henry Lawrence, British hero of the 1857 “Indian Mutiny,” who died defending the Lucknow Residency. (He who authored a legal code in the Punjab that forbade Sati, self-immolation by widows, infanticide, and forced labor. Hard as it may be to accept, things aren’t always as simple as they’re made out to be.) The motto of our school was “Never Give In.” Many of us students believed (with no real basis) that what Lawrence had actually said was, “Never Give In—to the Indian Dogs.” In boarding school, in addition to Malayalam and English, I learned Hindi. My Hindi teacher was a Malayali who taught us a kind of Hindi in a kind of Malayalam. We understood nothing. We learned very little.

At sixteen, I finished school and found myself alone on a train to Delhi, which was three days and two nights away. (I didn’t know then that I was leaving home for good.) I was going to join the School of Architecture. I was armed with a single sentence of Hindi that I somehow remembered. It was from a lesson called Swamibhakt Kutiya about a faithful dog who saves her master’s baby from a snake by getting herself bitten instead. The sentence was: Subah uth ke dekha to kutiya mari padi thi. “When I woke up in the morning, the bitch lay dead.” For the first few months in Delhi, it was my only contribution to any conversation or question addressed to me in Hindi. Over the years, this is the slender foundation on which, as my Malayalam became rusty, I built my Hindi vocabulary.

The architecture school hostel was, obviously, populated by out-of-towners. Mostly non-Hindi speakers. Bengalis, Assamese, Nagas, Manipuris, Nepalese, Sikkimese, Goans, Tamilians, Malayalees, Afghans. My first roommate was Kashmiri. My second Nepali. My closest friend was from Orissa. He spoke neither English nor Hindi. For most of our first year, we communicated in shared spliffs, sketches, cartoons, and maps drawn on the backs of envelopes—his extraordinary, mine mediocre. In time, we all learned to communicate with each other in standard Delhi University patois—a combination of English and Hindi, which was the language of my first screenplay, In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, set in a fictional architecture school during the dope-smoking, bell-bottom-wearing era of the 1970s. Annie was the nickname of a male student, Anand Grover, repeating his final year for the fourth time. “Giving it those ones” meant “doing his or her usual thing.” In Annie’s case. that meant peddling his pet thesis about reviving the rural economy and reversing rural-urban migration by planting fruit trees on either side of the hundreds of thousands of miles of railway tracks in India. Why the railway tracks? Because “general janta” (ordinary folks) “shits near the railway tracks anyway, hai na? so the soil is bloody fertile, yaar.” Directed by Pradip Krishen, the no-budget film was made on what must have been the cost of backup clapboards for a modest Hollywood movie.

Our publicity brochure for the film (which no one was really interested in) had the following quotes:

“You’ll have to change the title, because ‘Giving It Those Ones’ doesn’t mean anything in English.”

—Derek Malcolm of The Guardian, waking up suddenly in the middle of the film.

“Obviously, Mr. Malcolm, in England you don’t speak English anymore.”

—Arundhati Roy, later, wishing she had thought of it earlier.

The film was shown just once, late at night on Doordarshan, state television. It went on to win two National Awards. One for the Best Screenplay and the other, my favourite award of all time, Best Film in Languages Other Than Those Specified in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution. (I should say here that, in 2015, we returned both awards as part of a protest initiated by writers and filmmakers against what we saw as the current government’s complicity in a series of assassinations of writers and rationalist thinkers, as well as the daylight lynching of Muslims and Dalits by mobs of vigilantes. It didn’t help. The lynching continues, and we have run out of national awards to return.)

Publicity Still from “In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones” – Arundhati Roy as Radha and Roshan Seth as Yamdoot
Writing screenplays—I wrote two—taught me to write dialogue. And it taught me economy. But then I began to yearn for excess. I longed to write about the landscape of my childhood, about the people in Ayemenem, about the river that flowed through it, the trees that bent into it, the moon, the sky, the fish, the songs, the History House and the unnamed terrors that lurked around. I could not bear the idea of writing something that began with Scene 1. Ext. Day. River. I wanted to write a stubbornly visual but unfilmable book. That book turned out to be The God of Small Things. I wrote it in English, but imagined it in English as well as Malayalam, the landscapes and languages colliding in the seven-year-old twins’ Esthappen and Rahel’s heads, turning into a thing of its own. So, for example, when their mother, Ammu, scolds the twins and tells them that if they ever disobey her in public she will send them somewhere where they learn to “jolly well behave”—it’s the well that jumps out at them. The deep, moss-lined well that you find in the compounds of many homes in Kerala, with a pulley and a bucket and a rope, the well children are sternly warned to stay away from until they are big enough to draw water. What could a Jolly Well possibly be? A well with happy people in it. But people in a well? They’d have to be dead, of course. So, in Estha’s and Rahel’s imagination, a Jolly Well becomes a well full of laughing dead people, into which children are sent to learn to behave. The whole novel is constructed around people, young and old, English-knowing and Malayalam-knowing, all grappling, wrestling, dancing, and rejoicing in language.

For me, or for most contemporary writers working in these parts, language can never be a given. It has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow-cooked.

It was only after writing The God of Small Things that I felt the blood in my veins flow more freely. It was an unimaginable relief to have finally found a language that tasted like mine. A language in which I could write the way I think. A language that freed me. The relief didn’t last long. As Estha always knew, Things can change in a day.

The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like an old hat…” The God of Small Things – Photo by Dayanita Singh
Less than a year after The God of Small Things was published, in May 1998, a Hindu nationalist government came to power. The first thing it did was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. Something convulsed. Something changed. It was about language again. Not a writer’s private language, but a country’s public language, its public imagination of itself. Suddenly, things that would have been unthinkable to say in public became acceptable. Officially acceptable. Virile national pride, which had more to do with hate than love, flowed like noxious lava on the streets. Dismayed by the celebrations even in the most unexpected quarters, I wrote my first political essay, “The End of Imagination.” My language changed, too. It wasn’t slow-cooked. It wasn’t secret, novel-writing language. It was quick, urgent, and public. And it was straight-up English.

Rereading The End of Imagination now it is sobering to see how clear the warning signs were, to anybody, just about anybody, who cared to heed them:

“These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests,” we were repeatedly told.

This has been hammered home, over and over again. The bomb is India, India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just anti-national, but anti-Hindu. (Of course, in Pakistan the bomb is Islamic. Other than that, politically, the same physics applies.) This is one of the unexpected perks of having a nuclear bomb. Not only can the Government use it to threaten the Enemy, it can use it to declare war on its own people. Us….

Why does it all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black-and-white images from old films—scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps? Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless col­umns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no soundtrack? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right?

The mayhem came. On 7 October 2001, three weeks after the attacks of 11 September 2001(9/11), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in power in the state of Gujarat, removed its elected chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, and appointed Narendra Modi, a rising star in the RSS, in his place. In February 2002, in an act of arson, sixty-eight Hindu pilgrims were burned to death in a train that had stopped in Godhra, a railway station in Gujarat. Local Muslims were held responsible. As “revenge,” more than one thousand Muslims were slaughtered by Hindu mobs in broad daylight in the cities and villages of Gujarat. More than a hundred thousand were hounded out of their homes and herded into refugee camps. It wasn’t by any means the first massacre of members of a minority community in post-independence India, but it was the first that was telecast live into our homes. The first, that was, in some senses, proudly “owned.” I was wrong about there being no soundtrack.

The End of Imagination was the beginning of twenty years of essay writing for me. Almost every essay was immediately translated into Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Urdu, and Punjabi, often without my knowledge. As we watched mesmerized, religious fundamentalism and unbridled free-market fundamentalism, which had been unleashed in the early 1990s, waltzed arm-in-arm, like lovers, changing the landscape around us at a speed that was exhilarating for some, devastating for others. Huge infrastructure projects were displacing hundreds of thousands of the rural poor, setting them adrift into a world that didn’t seem to be able to—or simply did not want to—see them. It was as though the city and the countryside had stopped being able to communicate with each other. It had nothing to do with language, but everything to do with translation. For example, judges sitting in the Supreme Court seemed unable to understand that, for a person who belonged to an indigenous tribe, their relationship with land could not simply be translated into money. (I was arraigned for contempt of court for saying, among other things, that paying Adivasis, indigenous tribespeople, cash compensation for their land was like paying Supreme Court judges their salaries in fertilizer bags.) Over the years, the essays opened secret worlds for me—the best kind of royalty that any writer could ask for. As I travelled, I encountered languages, stories, and people whose ways of thinking expanded me in ways I could never have imagined.

Somewhere along the way, slow-cooking began again. Folks began to drop in on me. Their visits grew more frequent, then longer, and eventually, pretty brazenly, they moved in with me: Anjum, an Urdu speaker from Old Delhi, came with her adopted daughter, Zainab, and a laconic, cloudy dog called Biroo. A young man who called himself Saddam Hussain showed up on a white horse he introduced as Payal. He said his real name was Dayachand and that he was a Chamar, a skinner from Jhajjhar in Haryana. He told me a terrible story about what had happened to his father. He spoke in a sort of Mewati-Rajasthani that I found hard to understand. He showed me a video of the execution of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, that he kept on his cell phone. It was Hussein’s courage at the moment of his death, he said, even if he had been a bastard, that had made Dayachand convert to Islam and take the name Saddam Hussain. I had no idea what the connection between the video and his father was.

A rail-thin man with his right arm in a plaster cast, his shirtsleeve flapping at his side, slid in like a shadow. He refused all offers of food and drink. The man handed me a piece of paper that said:

My Full Name:
Dr Azad Bhartiya. (Translation: The Free Indian)

My Home Address:
Dr Azad Bhartiya,
Near Lucky Sarai Railway Station, Lucky Sarai Basti,
Kokar,
Bihar

My Current Address: Dr Azad Bhartiya, Jantar Mantar, New Delhi

My Qualifications: MA Hindi, MA Urdu (First Class First), BA History, BEd, Basic Elementary Course in Punjabi, MA Punjabi ABF (Appeared But Failed), PhD (pending), Delhi University (Comparative Religions and Buddhist Studies), Lecturer, Inter College, Ghaziabad, Research Associate, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Founder Member Vishwa Samajwadi Sthapana (World People’s Forum) and Indian Socialist Democratic Party (Against Price-rise).

I offered him a cigarette. He went outside to smoke it, and returned only after a few weeks. That was the beginning of Dr. Bharatiya’s drifting in and out of my home. It continues to this day. The next to come was the opposite of a drifter. Biplab Dasgupta, from the Universe of English, was an officer of the elite intelligence services currently posted in Kabul. He asked me to call him what his friends called him—Garson Hobart—the name of the character he had played in a college play. He arrived with an expensive bottle of whiskey from which he drank steadily. He seated himself at my table and, without so much as asking, used my pen to start writing something, from which he never looked up, except to occasionally enunciate the Latin name of a bird, as though he were checking the spelling by saying it out loud. Later it occurred to me that he might have been doing it to trouble future translators in whose languages the scientific taxonomy of birds and trees, with their genus and species names that identified each of them as unique, did not exist. Hobart’s expression changed—in fact, almost everything about him changed—when my doorbell rang, and I found a man and woman standing outside. The woman turned out to be Hobart’s tenant, who had apparently gone missing. Her name was Tilotamma, and the man with her was Musa, her Kashmiri lover who seemed to know Hobart, too. They came in carrying cartons of papers and files, and towers of dusty documents. She put up a few sheets of paper on the ’fridge and secured them with a magnet. It was a word list, an alphabetically organized lexicon:

Kashmiri–English Alphabet

A: Azadi/army/Allah/America/Attack/AK­47/Ammunition/ Ambush/Aatankwadi/Armed Forces Special Powers Act/ Area Domination/Al Badr/Al Mansoorian/Al Jehad/Afghan/ Amarnath Yatra
B: BSF/body/blast/bullet/battalion/barbed wire/brust(burst)/ border cross/booby trap/bunker/byte/begaar(forced labour)
C: Cross­border/Cross-fire /camp/civilian/curfew/Crackdown/ Cordon­and­Search/CRPF/Checkpost/Counter­ insurgency/Cease-fire/Counter­Intelligence/Catch and Kill/ Custodial Killing/Compensation/Cylinder (surrender)/ Concertina wire/Collaborator
D: Disappeared/Defence Spokesman/Double Cross/Double Agent/Disturbed Areas Act/Dead body
It went on to cover the whole of the English alphabet, all the way to Z. When I asked what it was for, she said it was to help innocent Indian tourists in Kashmir to communicate better with the locals. She betrayed no signs of sarcasm or irony. Musa said nothing. He melted into the surroundings so quickly that I forgot he was there.

After a while Tilotamma’s ex-husband, Nagaraj Hariharan, came by, looking for her but pretending not to. For some reason, he had brought his mother-in-law Maryam Ipe’s fat medical file from a Cochin hospital. He showed it to me, even though I made it clear that I had no interest in the blood profiles and oxygen saturation charts of complete strangers. It was only much later that I saw the notes that contained Maryam Ipe’s ICU hallucinations. I could not have imagined that, if you study people’s hallucinations long enough, they tell you more than volumes of sentient conversation ever could. Major Amrik Singh, a tall Sikh officer of the Indian Army, arrived, denying several extrajudicial killings that I hadn’t even accused him of, insisting that he was being made what he called an “escape goat.” Once he picked up on the generally non-accusatory atmosphere of his surroundings, he began to boast about his counterintelligence operations and how he had passed himself off as a Hindu, a Sikh, or a Punjabi-speaking Pakistani Muslim, depending on what the particular covert operation demanded.

From the Author
A baby girl appeared on the doorstep, unaccompanied. Anjum moved in with astonishing speed, swooped her up, and would not let anybody else come close for at least two weeks. A hand-delivered letter arrived from the forests of Bastar. It was written in cramped, tiny handwriting. English, as far as I could tell. It was addressed to Dr. Azad Bharatiya, who, for some reason, read it aloud to Anjum, translating it into Urdu on the fly:

Dear Comrade Azad Bharathiya Garu,

I am writing this to you because in my three days’ time in Jantar Mantar I observed you carefully. If anybody knows where is my child now, I think it might be you only. I am a Telugu woman and sorry I don’t know Hindi. My English is not good also. Sorry for that. I am Revathy, working as a full­timer with Communist Party of India (Maoist). When you will receive this letter I will be already killed…

My home became a commune and a confederacy of languages. Over time all of us housemates learned to talk to each other, translate each other.

The new slow-cooking recipe involved considerable risk. I had to throw the language of The God of Small Things off a very tall building. And then go down (using the stairs) to gather up the shattered pieces. So was born The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

It is not necessary for readers of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to know or understand the complicated map of languages that underpins it. If it were, if readers needed a field guide in order to properly understand the book, I’d consider myself a failure. To see it in bookshops sitting side-by-side with pulp fiction and political thrillers gives me nothing but pleasure. The fun and games with the Language Map is just that—an extra layer of fun and games. In truth, the Map of Languages of The Ministry, and their intertwining histories, could become a rather large book in itself. So, all I can do right now, just as an illustration of what I mean, is to drill below the surface of the first few chapters. I’ll start with the opening sentence:

She lived in the graveyard like a tree.

“She” is Anjum. She’s middle-aged now, and has left her home in the Khwabgah (the House of Dreams) where she lived for years with a group of others like herself. The Muslim graveyard where she now lives is close to the walled city of Delhi. The first time she gives us a hint about who she really is begins at an intersection between two languages. The traffic policeman is none other than William Shakespeare himself.

Long ago a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. ‘You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?’ she asked. ‘What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?’ The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he’d made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn’t a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.’ The Man Who Knew English said it was clever of her to come up with that one. He said he’d never have thought of it himself. She said, ‘How could you have, with your standard of Urdu? What d’you think? English makes you clever automatically?’

Anjum is born to Shia Muslim parents in Old Delhi, in the years soon after Independence. Her father, Mulaqat Ali, who traces his family’s lineage directly back to the Mongol Emperor Changez Khan, is a hakim, a doctor of herbal medicine who works for the family that makes the legendary sherbet Rooh Afza, which is Persian for “elixir of the soul.” Her mother, Jahanara Begum, supplements the family income by stitching white Gandhi caps that she supplies to Hindu traders in Chandni Chowk. She is already the mother of three girls when Anjum is born. In the second chapter, “Khwabgah,” we witness Anjum’s birth. In addition to her mother and the midwife, her mother tongue, too, is present. And found wanting:

Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother’s arms wrapped in two shawls, said, ‘It’s a boy.’ Given the circumstances, her error was understandable…

…The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-­parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-­part. Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was.

… In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language. Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.

To live outside language—for a family whose lives are intricately, obsessively, wrapped up in language—is the crisis that Anjum’s birth creates. For the first few years, Jahanara Begum manages to keep her secret. But then a time comes when she has to tell her husband. Mulaqat Ali is a man whose real passion is Urdu and Persian poetry. He has a formidable repertoire of couplets, and can produce one for every occasion, every mood, every subtle shift in the political climate. He believes that poetry can cure, or at least go a long way toward curing, almost every ailment, and prescribes poems to his patients instead of medicine. When he hears the secret that his wife has kept from him for so many years, and cannot find a poem to comfort himself with, he loses his moorings. He does his best to steady himself, to come to terms with it, but eventually is unable to.

It is when we meet Mulaqat Ali that we get our first hint of the fraught history of language that mirrors the fraught history of the Indian subcontinent. The churning that eventually culminated in the bloodshed of Partition partitioned not just land and people, but a language, too, making one part “Muslim” and the other “Hindu.” This is a description of how Mulaqat Ali conducts himself with the shallow young journalists who from time to time arrive to interview him for various newspapers’ weekend supplements about the exotic culture and cuisine of Old Delhi:

Mulaqat Ali always welcomed visitors into his tiny rooms with the faded grace of a nobleman. He spoke of the past with dignity but never nostalgia. He described how, in the thirteenth century, his ancestors had ruled an empire that stretched from the countries that now called themselves Vietnam and Korea all the way to Hungary and the Balkans, from Northern Siberia to the Deccan plateau in India, the largest empire the world had ever known. He often ended the interview with a recitation of an Urdu couplet by one of his favourite poets, Mir Taqi Mir:

Jis sar ko ghurur aaj hai yaan taj-vari ka
Kal uss pe yahin shor hai phir nauhagari ka

The head which today proudly flaunts a crown
Will tomorrow, right here, in lamentation drown

Most of his visitors, brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own youthful hubris, did not completely grasp the layered meaning of the couplet they had been offered, like a snack to be washed down by a thimble-­sized cup of thick, sweet tea. They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realized that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.

The language known variously as Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani, and, in an earlier era, Hindavi, was born on the streets and bazaars of North India. Khari Boli, spoken in and around Delhi and what is now Western Uttar Pradesh, is the base language to which the Persian lexicon came to be added. Urdu, written in the Persian-Arabic script, was spoken by Hindus and Muslims across North India and the Deccan Plateau. It was not, as is often made out to be, the high language of the court. That, in those days, was Persian. But neither was it, as it is often made out to be, the language of ordinary people everywhere. Urdu was the language of the street, but not necessarily the language spoken in the privacy of most ordinary peoples’ homes, particularly not by the women. It came to be the formal language of literature and poetry for Hindus and Muslims alike. Urdu varied from region to region. Each region had its own high priests staking their claim to true pedigree. In fact, it saw its brightest hour as the Mughal Empire faded.

A ghazal by one of the earliest poets of Hindavi,
Amir Khusrau (1253 – 1325). Ghazal with alternating
lines in Persian and Hindvi

The partitioning of Urdu began in earnest in the second half of the nineteenth century, after the 1857 Mutiny, when India ceased to be merely an asset of the East India Company. The titular Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was formally deposed, and India was brought directly under British Rule. Muslims, seen as the main instigators of the Mutiny, came in for severe punishment and were treated with great suspicion by the British administration. Power bases began to shift, hierarchies changed, releasing suppressed resentment and new energies that began to seep through the cracks like smoke. As the old ideas of governing by fiat and military might began to metamorphose into modern ideas of representative government, old feudal communities began to coalesce into modern “constituencies” in order to leverage power and job opportunities. Obviously, the bigger the constituency, the greater the leverage.

Demography became vitally important, so the first British census was a source of huge anxiety. “Hindu” leaders turned their attention to the millions of people who belonged to the “untouchable” castes. In the past, in order to escape the stigma of caste, millions had converted to Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. But now their religious conversion was viewed by the privileged castes as catastrophic. Reformists rushed in to stem the haemorrhage. Hinduism became an evangelical religion. Organizations of privileged caste Hindus, who believed deeply in caste and believed themselves to be Aryans, descended from the European race, sought to keep Untouchables and indigenous tribespeople in the “Hindu fold” by performing Ghar Wapsi (Returning Home) ceremonies, a farce that was meant to symbolize “spiritual cleansing.” In order to clearly define itself and mark itself off from other competing constituencies, the newly emerging Hindu constituency needed cultural symbols—something to fire the imagination of its evangelists and its potential recruits. The holy cow and the holy script became the chosen vehicles for mobilization. Gau Rakshak (cow protection) societies proliferated, and simultaneously the demand was raised that Devanagari (Deva as in Dio/God—the script of the Gods) be officially accepted as a second script for Urdu. Devanagari, originally known as Babhni, was the script of Brahmins 2and had, like Sanskrit, been jealously guarded, its purity protected from the “polluting influence” of lower castes, who had, for centuries, been denied the right to learn Sanskrit. But the changing times now required that it be promoted as the indigenous script of “the people.” In fact, the more widely used script at the time was a script called Kaithi. But Kaithi was used by non-Brahmin castes like the Kayasthas, who were seen to be partial to Muslims. Extraordinarily, in a matter of a few decades, Kaithi was not just discarded, but erased from public memory.3



To turn a battle for a new script into a popular social movement wasn’t easy when the literacy rate of the population was in single digits. How is it possible to make people passionate about something that doesn’t really affect them? The solution was simple but ingenious. In his erudite tract, Hindi Nationalism, Alok Rai writes in some detail of how the mobilization for Devanagari came to be fused with the call for Hindu Unity, cow protection, and Ghar-Wapsi. The Nagari Pracharani Sabhas—Committees for the Popularization of Nagari (the God-part, “Deva,” was added later)—and the Gau-Rakshaks and the Ghar-Wapsi evangelists shared the same offices and office-bearers. They probably do today too. The campaign for Devanagari had immediate and practical goals, too, such as eligibility for jobs in government offices, for which, at the time, reading Persian was a basic qualification. The campaign gained velocity and was buoyed by the resistance to it from the Muslim elite, including Muslim leaders with a vested interest in the status quo, such as the best-known reformist and modernizer of the time, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Here is his defense4 of retaining the Persian-Arabic script as the only official script:

Would our aristocracy like, that a man of low caste and insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A. and have the requisite ability, should be in a position above them and have power in making the laws that affect their lives and property? Never!
It’s extraordinary how sworn enemies can find common ground in each other’s worst prejudices. As always, it was a battle of old and new elites lobbying for opportunity, the new ones, as always, disguising their own aspirations as the will of “the people.”

The Devanagari Movement’s first victory came in April 1900, when Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant-governor of North-Western Provinces and Oudh, issued an order allowing the use of the Devanagari script in addition to the Persian script in the courts of the province. In a matter of months, Hindi and Urdu began to be referred to as separate languages. Language mandarins on both sides stepped in to partition the waters and apportion the word-fish. On the “Hindi” side, anything seen as Persian influence, as well as the influence of languages thought to be unsophisticated vernaculars, was gradually weeded out. (Somehow the words Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan escaped the dragnet.) Sanskrit began to replace Persian. But Sanskrit was the language of ritual and scripture, the language of Priests and Holy men. Its vocabulary was not exactly forged on the anvil of everyday human experience. It was not the language of mortal love, or toil, or weariness, or yearning. It was not the language of song or poetry of ordinary people. That would have been in Awadhi, Maithili, Braj Bhasha, and Bhojpuri and a myriad other dialects. Rarely if ever has there been an example in history of an effort to deplete language rather than enrich it. It was like wanting to replace an ocean with an aquarium.

As the positions on both sides hardened, even the literary canons came to be partitioned. The “Urdu” canon erased the sublime, anti-caste Bhakti poets such as Kabir, Surdas, Meera, and Raskhan, a Muslim devotee of Krishna. The “Hindi” canon erased the greatest of Urdu poets Mir and Ghalib. (Something similar is at work in the world of Hindustani classical music, although it hasn’t yet had the misfortune of being formally divided into Hindu classical music and Muslim classical music.) Fortunately, progressive writers and poets, the very best of them, resisted this pressure. They continued to produce literature and poetry that was rich and deep and fully alert to what was being done to their language. But gradually, as the older generation passes, the newer one, whose formal education comes from “new” Hindi books and textbooks that have to be approved by government committees, will find it harder and harder to reclaim an ineffably beautiful legacy that is rightfully theirs.

It is for all these reasons that when Anjum’s father, Mulaqat Ali, recites his Mir couplet, his warning wrapped in mourning, he is confident that his young guests—who belong to the generation of “new” Hindi—will not grasp its true meaning. He knows that his straitened material circumstances mirror the straitened vocabulary of his visitors.

Today, many of the younger generation of Urdu speakers in India cannot read the Persian script. They can only read Urdu in the Devanagari script. Urdu is seen not just as a Muslim language, but as a Pakistani language. Which makes it almost criminal in some peoples’ eyes. In March 2017, two Muslim members of the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh were prevented from taking their oath of office in Urdu. A member of the Aligarh Municipal Corporation was charged with “intent to hurt religious sentiments” for trying to do the same.

Although Hindi’s victory has been a resounding one, it does not seem to have entirely allayed its keepers’ anxieties. Perhaps that’s because their enemies are dead poets who have a habit of refusing to really die. One of the sub-themes of the 2002 Gujarat massacre was poetry. As Anjum discovers to her cost when she travels to Gujarat with Zakir Mian, who was a friend of her father Mulaqat Ali.

He suggested that while they were in Ahmedabad they could visit the shrine of Wali Dakhani, the seventeenth-­century Urdu poet, known as the Poet of Love, whom Mulaqat Ali had been immensely fond of, and seek his blessings too. They sealed their travel plans by laughingly reciting a couplet by him—one of Mulaqat Ali’s favourites:

Jisey ishq ka tiir kaari lage
Usey zindagi kyuun na bhari lage

For one struck down by Cupid’s bow
Life becomes burdensome, isn’t that so?


A few days later they set off by train, first to Ajmer and then to Ahmedabad. And then there’s no news from them.

Nobody disagreed when Saeeda (who loved Anjum and was entirely unaware of Anjum’s suspicions about her) suggested that the soap operas on TV be switched off and the news be switched on and left on in case, by some small chance, they could pick up a clue about what might have happened to Anjum and Zakir Mian. When flushed, animated TV news reporters shouted out their Pieces‑­to‑­Camera from the refugee camps where tens of thousands of Gujarat’s Muslims now lived, in the Khwabgah they switched off the sound and scanned the background hoping to catch a glimpse of Anjum and Zakir Mian lining up for food or blankets, or huddled in a tent. They learned in passing that Wali Dakhani’s shrine had been razed to the ground and a tarred road built over it, erasing every sign that it had ever existed. (Neither the police nor the mobs nor the Chief Minister could do anything about the people who continued to leave flowers in the middle of the new tarred road where the shrine used to be. When the flowers were crushed to paste under the wheels of fast cars, new flowers would appear. And what can anybody do about the connection between flower-­paste and poetry?)

Why should a twenty-first century mob be so angry with a poet who lived more than three hundred years ago? Wali Dakhani, the Wise Man of the Dakhan (Deccan), was a seventeenth-century poet who also came to be known as Wali Aurangabadi and Wali Gujarati. He wrote in Dakhani Urdu, an idiom that was not familiar to the court poets in the north, who wrote mostly in Persian at the time. Although he wrote in Urdu, Wali Dakhani was the first poet in the subcontinent to present his poetry as a Diwan—a collection that was formally arranged in the Persian tradition in which poems were presented in alphabetical order in three mandatory sections: Masnavi (narrative poems), Marsiya (elegiac poems commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain), and Kasida (the tradition of singing praise to warriors). Wali Dakhani’s Diwan took the elite circle of poets, who all wrote in Persian, by storm. He became a cultural bridge between the north and the south, and the founding father of Urdu poetry.

The modern-day mob that destroyed his shrine, so high on nativism, could have just as easily valorized Wali Dakhani for being the man who influenced poets who wrote in Persian to write in Urdu, who turned the writing of Urdu into high literature. Because Urdu is nothing if not a language born on the streets of Hindustan. But, sadly, that’s not how the story goes.

The destruction of Wali Dakhani’s grave during the 2002 Gujarat massacre was not the only incident of its kind. During those same weeks, in the city of Baroda, a mob attacked and damaged the grave of Ustad Fayyaz Khan, one of the most accomplished singers in the Hindustani classical tradition. Many years earlier, in a riot that took place during the 1970s, a mob burned down the house of Rasoolan Bai (Garson Hobart’s favorite singer).5The only good thing to be said of this contemporary mob tradition is that it understands the dangers posed by art. And it has impeccable taste.

I will end this very long lecture with a short note about slogans and mantras in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Anjum survives the Gujarat massacre because the mob that finds her lying over the corpse of Zakir Mian, feigning death, believes that killing Hijras brings bad luck. So instead of killing her, they stand over her and make her chant their slogans:

Bharat Mata Ki Jai! Vande Mataram!

She did. Weeping, shaking, humiliated beyond her worst nightmare.

Victory to Mother India! Salute the Mother!

They left her alive. Un-killed. Un-hurt. Neither folded nor unfolded. She alone. So that they might be blessed with good fortune.

Butcher’s Luck.

That’s all she was. And the longer she lived, the more good luck she brought them.

Bharat, Hindustan and India are names that are used interchangeably for the country we live in. ‘Akhand Bharat’—undivided India, which contains the territories of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, is the ideal of Hindu Nationalists. Chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai! (Victory to Mother India) is seen by many as being patriotic and not necessarily Hindu Nationalist. In less extenuating circumstances, Anjum would surely have shouted down, perhaps even beaten up those controversialists and unimaginative literalists who ask how King Bharata, whose Kingdom was called Bharat came to be a Mata (mother), and why India is a motherland and not a fatherland.6

The second slogan she was forced to chant, Vande Mataram, usually translated as “Praise Be to Thee, Mother,” is from a poem written by the popular Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay that appears in Anandamath, his novel about the Sanyasi rebellion, first published in the 1880s. It is a novel that is, and always has been, greatly favoured by Hindu nationalists because it created a template for the ideal Hindu warrior, the fantasy Hindu warrior, who rises in rebellion against his degenerate Muslim oppressors. Anandamath is a wonderful example of how, in the process of its telling of the past, literature can also mould the future. In the poem, the motherland is conflated with the Hindu Goddess Durga. However, the first two stanzas came to be the unofficial anthem of the National Movement because they only mention “the mother,” which lent itself to being interpreted by both Hindus and Muslims as a reference to Mother India. Although it was a much-loved song during the struggle against British colonialism, in today’s atmosphere of a very different kind of nationalism, a bullying, coercive nationalism, people, Muslims in particular, many of who are not unaware of the provenance of the poem, are often forced to chant “Vande Mataram” as a form of ritual humiliation. Ironically, the modern version of the song was hugely popularized in the 1990s by the Sufi singer A. R. Rahman. Sadly, a once loved slogan has become controversial.

Bollywood version of Vande Mataram from the
film adaptation of Anand Math

It is not unusual to have a Bengali slogan being chanted in non-Bengalis speaking states. Slogans in the subcontinent—whether they are being chanted by lynch mobs or protestors, by the right-wing or the left, by people in territories under military occupation, or protestors against big dams—are a performance directed outward, for the rest of the country and the rest of the world to hear, and therefore, quite often, are not in the local people’s mother tongues. In Kashmir’s massive protests, you will hear chanting in Urdu and in English, rarely in Kashmiri. The chant of Azadi! Azadi! (“Freedom! Freedom!”) is Urdu—originally, Persian—and has probably traveled east from the Iranian Revolution to become the signature slogan of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, as well as, irony of ironies, the women’s movement in India. At the opposite end of the country, down south in Kerala, I grew up to the resounding roar of Inquilab Zindabad! (“Long Live the Revolution!”) in Urdu, a language that local people neither speak not understand. The other Communist Party slogan was Swadandriyam, Janadhipathyam, Socialism, Zindabad! (“Freedom, Democracy, Socialism, Long Live!”) That’s Sanskrit, Malayalam, English, and Urdu in a single slogan.

I’ll end with the journey of a mantra through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Two months after Anjum and Zakir Mian go missing, and the murdering in Gujarat has begun to tail off, Zakir Mian’s son, Mansoor, goes to Ahmedabad to look for his father. As a precaution, he shaves off his beard, hoping to pass as Hindu. He does not find his father, but finds a terrified Anjum, who has been enrolled in the men’s section of a refugee camp, dressed in men’s clothes, her hair cut short, and brings her back to the Khwabgah. She refuses to tell anybody what happened to her, but—haunted by memories of “how the men were folded and the women unfolded”—she takes a wailing young Zainab, her adopted daughter, to a barber, has her hair cut off, and dresses her in boy’s clothes. “In case Gujarat comes to Delhi.” The other precaution she takes is to teach Zainab to chant the Sanskrit Gayatri Mantra that she says she learned while she was in the camp in Gujarat. She says that many of the other refugees had learned it because they believed that, in mob situations, they could recite it to try to pass as Hindu. Neither Anjum nor Zainab has any idea what it means, but Zainab takes to it happily, chanting as she dresses for school and feeds her pet goat.

Om bhur bhuvah svaha
Tat savitur varenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yo nah pracodayat

O God, thou art the giver of life,
Remover of pain and sorrow,
Bestower of happiness,
O Creator of the Universe,
May we receive thy supreme sin ­destroying light,
May thou guide our intellect in the right direction.


The Gayatri Mantra appears three times in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The first time, as a talisman against mob violence. The second time as promotional material in a British Airways commercial to attract customers from India’s new and exponentially expanding middle class. And the third time in a fast food restaurant in a shopping mall. Zainab has grown up now, and is betrothed to Saddam Hussain. Saddam tells them the story of how years ago, his father was beaten to death by a mob outside a police station. The mall they were in, Saddam says, was exactly where that police station used to be. Zainab says she knows a Hindu prayer, and recites the Gayatri Mantra as a gesture of love for her future (as well as late) father-in-law.

Such are the ways in which Sanskrit has been finally been indigenized.

A few months after Anjum returns from Gujarat, ravaged and broken, unable to continue living her old life, she moves in to the old graveyard, where she sets up home. Over the years, as she gradually recovers, she builds the Jannat (Paradise) Guest House. When Saddam Hussain joins her, they expand their business to include funeral services. The graveyard becomes a place where anybody—any body— that has been denied the grace of a funeral by the Duniya (the outside world) is given a dignified burial. Under the auspices of the Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services, depending on what the occasion calls for, prayers for the dead include the Fateha, singing the Internationale in Hindi, and reciting from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. In English.

So, how shall we answer Pablo Neruda’s question that is the title of this lecture?

In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?7

I’d say, without hesitation, in the Language of Translation.


Text © Arundhati Roy : Featured image © Carlo Buldrini 

(Source: Raiot)

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Lots of successful women are freezing their eggs

“Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career,” announced the headline of a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story in 2014. It was the year that Facebook and then Apple began offering egg freezing as a benefit to employees. Hundreds of think pieces followed, debating the costs and benefits of “postponing procreation” in the name of professional advancement.

In the years since, many more women across the world have frozen their eggs. Many are highly educated. But the decision may have very little to do with work, at least according to a new study. In interviews with 150 American and Israeli women who had undergone one cycle, career planning came up as the primary factor exactly two times.

Instead, most women focused on another reason: they still hadn’t found a man to build a family with.

“The stereotype that these ambitious career women are freezing their eggs for the purposes of their career — that’s really inaccurate at the present time,” said Marcia Inhorn, a medical anthropologist from Yale University, and one of the authors of the study, which was presented Monday at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology’s conference in Spain.

Most of these mid-to-late 30s women were already established in their careers by the time they got to the clinic, the study found.

“They weren’t freezing to advance; they were facing the overarching problem of partnership,” she said. This was the case, even among those who worked for companies that offered to pay for the procedure.

Though a single woman, headed toward 40, may feel like a freakish anomaly as she freezes her eggs because she hasn’t found a partner, she’s not. This finding echoes other studies in the United States and Britain that have similarly found that it’s the absence of a partner that drives most women to freeze their eggs.


The subjects in this particular study, which has not yet been published, came from seven different fertility clinics. In the United States, the women generally lived in cities along the East Coast or in the Bay Area. They ranged in age from 29 to 42, with three-quarters falling between 35 and 39.
The research approach taken by Dr. Inhorn and her co-authors Dr. Pasquale Patrizio, director of the Yale Fertility Center, and Daphna Birenbaum-Carmeli of the University of Haifa, involved asking women — both single and those who had partners — to share their egg freezing stories and then analyzing their responses to try to understand their primary motives.

Of the participating women, 85 percent were single and most were heterosexual. For about half of these single women, it was uncertainty about when they would meet a man to build a family with that brought them to the clinic, they told the researchers. The next largest group was driven there by a divorce or breakup. (Egg freezing was actually covered by several of these women’s divorce settlements.) This was followed by a smaller group of women who were deployed overseas and felt it was wise to freeze their eggs first and then a handful of women who were preparing to have a baby on their own. Career planning was the least common reason.

Among the 15 percent of the subjects who were in relationships, the reasons for freezing their eggs were not unlike the single women’s: though they had a partner, he was not yet ready or not interested in building a family.

Why are so many women having a hard time finding men to have children with? One hypothesis that researchers often cite is that it’s related to demographics. Women in many developed countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan, Norway and Australia, are now more educated then men. This could be creating a dearth of appealing male partners for these women.

An American doctor in Dr. Inhorn’s study voiced this concern, saying “Most men don’t want relationships,” and are willing to date uneducated women, whereas most educated women will not. “So I think I have about a .09 percent chance of meeting someone.”

While a number of her subjects seemed to feel empowered by their decision to freeze their eggs, this sense of frustration was common.

“Why me? Why did I end up this way?” was a question that came up a lot. Yes, they had focused on their careers — but they had relationships over the years as well. Neither they, nor their friends, had expected to find themselves without a partner at this stage in their lives.

“It’s not something you’ve done,” Dr. Inhorn said she found herself wanting to tell them. “It’s you and thousands of other women.”

(Source: NYT)