Triumph of Hinglish: How shuddh Hindi lost its groove
Purists complain that our national language has been reduced to a 'khichdi bhasha.' But they are the ones to blame for its rise.
By Trisha Gupta
In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s comedy classic Chupke Chupke (1975) language purist Raghavendra Sharma (Om Prakash) is given a taste of his own medicine in the form of deliberately abstruse shuddh Hindi thrown at him by his Hindi-premi Ilahabadi chauffeur Pyare Mohan (Dharmendra). Of course, in reality, no Hindi speaker ever talks of travelling by lauhpathgamini agnirath (the fiery chariot that travels on an iron path), smoking a dhoomra-shalaaka (smoke-emitting stick), or wearing a kanth-langot (neck-loincloth).
These super-Sanskritic words — said to have been coined by Hindi’s guardians to combat the onslaught of English words like ‘train’, ‘cigarette’ and ‘tie’ — have long been mocked in popular culture. As the late comedian Johnny Walker once famously said of Doordarshan, “They should not announce 'Ab Hindi mein samachar suniye' (Now listen to the news in Hindi); they should say, 'Ab samachar mein Hindi suniye' (Now listen to Hindi in the news)”
Yet in 1975, when the film's dialogue writer (the wonderful Gulzar) made fun of shuddh Hindi for its distance from the speech of the common man, it was (like Dharmendra’s treatment of his jijaji) a gentle, almost affectionate form of trip-taking. For in the world of Chupke Chupke – the educated North Indian middle class world – speaking shuddh Hindi still had a certain cachet: a sense of national-cultural authority backed by Doordarshan, All India radio and school textbooks.
But by 2011, in the world of Bheja Fry 2, speaking Hindi without interruption marks Bharat Bhushan not as erudite or well-educated, but merely as ridiculous.
How has this come about?
Tyranny of the Hindi purists
It is clear that in post-globalisation India, English is an essential component of upward mobility. It is the only linguistic status-marker that counts. In this deeply screwed-up world, the adoption of English words into spoken Hindi is thus an indisputable way to display status – to establish yourself as not being a Hindi-medium-type.
But Hindi, too, has done its bit to aid the rise of Hinglish.
One of the crucial problems faced by India immediately after Independence was of creating a common language of communication and official discourse. If there was to be a national language, it could not be English, which was perceived as colonial and elitist.
In the shadow of Partition, the Hindiwallas in the Constituent Assembly managed to press their claim for the first official language of the Union to be Hindi, written exclusively in the Devnagari script (rejecting the original recommendation of “Hindustani written… either in Devnagari or the Persian script”). This Hindi was characterised by a Sanskritic uniformity that deliberately rejected the hybridity of the people’s vernacular.
“Pure Sanskrit words are used in the same form everywhere. Therefore only that language can be acceptable all over India which is rich in pure Sanskrit words,” declared the President of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, KC Chattopadhyaya, in 1949.
As Alok Rai decribes it, the years “between the unconsummated triumph of 1950 and the anticipated climax of 1960, when the enforced cohabitation with English… would come to an end” were spent by Hindiwallas like Dr. Raghuvira in grooming Hindi for its exalted “national” role. In 1960, the Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology was set up, to provide an expanded lexicon that would match that of English.
While the non-Hindi regions’ staunch opposition to Hindi’s hegemonic claims meant that English could not possibly be dropped (it was retained post-1965 as “associate additional official language”), a lot of this new Hindi lexicon gained acceptability via the school system, bureaucratic use and state television: for example, words like ‘prayojak’ for ‘sponsor’.
But this strategy left stranded the poor who did not have a school education and whose spoken language never encompassed the high Sanskritic Hindi of the state. And it had no hope of gaining traction with the educated middle class in the rest of the country, who gained access and familiarity to Hindi mainly through the movies. On the other hand, there was the metropolitan elite – and increasingly, a wider middle class – who had easier access to that other status marker: English.
Official Hindi’s insistence on purity – a positive suppression of the Hindustani word in favour of the Sanskritic equivalent (I remember a succession of school Hindi teachers in ’80s Calcutta and ’90s Delhi insisting on samay instead of waqt, kathin instead of mushkil, deergh instead of lamba, with no explanation) – left the Hindi-speaking public two choices: they could either learn the Sanskritic words, or adopt words from English.
But as Ruper Snell has argued, the more Hindiwallahs coined ever-more-difficult words in higher registers, disdaining Hindustani, the more effectively they drove the Hindi-speaking public towards pre-existing English words, and therefore towards Hinglish.
And it is a vicious cycle: the more the literary custodians of Hindi retreat into an ever-more-shuddh Sanskritic bastion, the more the language of popular culture appears to them too informal, too uncouth.
The age of Delhi Belly
So Hindi today is a beleaguered bastion. The democratisation of the Hindi cultural sphere has been greeted by its upper-caste, upper-class custodians with deep ambivalence.
On the one hand, they have to acknowledge that the spread and increasing visibility of Hindi owes much to the mass media. As lyricist Prasoon Joshi put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, “Film aur vigyapan ki duniya ne Hindi ko nayi izzat bakshi" (The world of film and advertising has given Hindi a new respect). Another speaker on the JLF panel ‘Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi’ said, “If the language is now on the tongues of those who have never before pronounced a Hindi word, then something very powerful is happening.”
On the other hand, however, there is the recurring lament that this filmi and media Hindi has a severely depleted vocabulary and no longer accords importance either to the literary, or to what Javed Akhtar calls “the softer emotions”. “Tameez kam ho gayi hai, dignity has become outdated,” said Akhtar, talking of the changing Hindi film lyric.
Most Hindi sessions at JLF seemed disproportionately concerned with whether the Hindi of hit songs, films and popular blogs had, in the name of “janta ki bhasha”, opened the floodgates to crudity and vulgarity. “Nowadays it is being said that saala is not even a swearword,” said one speaker sarcastically, referring to Sudhir Mishra’s response to the Censor Board’s objections to naming his film Yeh Saali Zindagi.
The discussion of badtameezi has recently come to a head in the heated debates around the language of the film Delhi Belly. While some are celebrating the film’s unexpurgated dialogues, complete with swearwords, many are either appalled at the Censor Board, or dismiss the film’s colourful language as a juvenile shortcut to cheap laughs.
What’s fascinating, though, is that the original dialogue of the film – described by its producers as 70 percent English, 30 percent Hindi – has been deliberately “toned down” in the “all-Hindi” version. “This was a conscious decision taken to make the Hindi version more acceptable to a wider adult audience,” said Aamir Khan’s spokesperson.
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What conclusion can one draw from the producers’ decision? Is the audience for the mostly-English version supposed to be more comfortable with colourful language – more English abuses, but ironically also more Hindi swearwords – because they’re imagined as the younger and hipper ‘new India’? Or are they assumed to be more evolved simply because they’re English-speaking?
Hindi blogger Mihir Pandya has pointed to a crucial moment at which the English dialogue veers from its Hindi version. The original dialogue in the build-up to the ‘Ja Churail’ fantasy song is: “Yeh shadi nahi ho sakti, because this girl has given me a blow job – and being a 21st century man, I have also given her oral pleasure.” The dialogue in the ‘100 percent Hindi’ version is “Yeh shadi nahi ho sakti, kyonki is ladki ne mera choosa hai – aur badle mein maine iski li hai.” So in Hindi, oral sex can be spoken of when performed by a woman, but when a man returns the favour, it is erased to say “I took her”?
In a panel on Imperial English at JLF, writer Mrinal Pande spoke of how Hindi had never given her the freedom to speak of sex that English had. If the gatekeepers of Hindi – even in the world of popular cinema – are able to keep at bay what might be truly radical to shield Hindi’s denizens from the very possibility of transformation, then is it any wonder that they should turn to English?
Even before Delhi Belly made a song about it, could bhosdi ke ever be A-OK? Watch S. Nirupam and Mrinal Pande have an exchange about gaalis and whether they could actually help a language grow in this excerpt from the session Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi at the 2011 Jaipur Literary Festival.
You can watch the entire session here.
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