I was born into Hindi, and brought up in it. It was the language of my parents and siblings, my cousins and friends, all our neighbours in the Dalit ghetto in the small town in Bihar where I spent my childhood. It is still the only language I use with them. I studied for ten years in a Hindi-medium school that followed the curriculum of the Bihar state board. After a two-year intermediate course in Patna, I moved to a journalism college in coastal Karnataka. There the classes were in English, and the students spoke it on campus; the locals outside spoke Kannada or Tulu. I was not good with either. Stranded, I worked hard on my English.
I was 28 when I read BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, in English. It was my first introduction to his work, which articulated and explained so much of the caste humiliation I had suffered, and that I had seen inflicted on Dalits everywhere I had been in the country as a journalist. All I have read of Ambedkar has come to me in English—the language he himself wrote in. It is also in English that I have since learnt about Jotirao Phule, Periyar and Malcolm X. These discoveries, and others like them, opened my mind to anti-caste thought, progressive politics and the history of struggles against inequality.
With every sporadic controversy over the imposition of Hindi, I remember what I have learnt in which language. This time the storm was over a draft national education policy, which called for compulsory instruction in Hindi, English and a regional language for all. Many in the non-Hindi-speaking states protested the attempt to force Hindi upon them, and the government withdrew its proposition. Now the winners of this latest skirmish rest, happy to have forced back a threatened incursion, but I cannot rest with them. I still worry about what is left to the many who already live and think in Hindi.
Once, I wondered why my awakening did not come in Hindi. But the more I learn about the language, the less I am surprised that it never did. I realise now that my upbringing in Hindi did not just delay my discovery of Ambedkar, it kept me from understanding the very concepts of justice and equality. It is not that discovering these things in Hindi was absolutely impossible—Ambedkar is translated into the language, for instance, and it has some thinkers and writers of its own concerned with social justice—but, growing up in a Hindi home with a Hindi education in the Hindi belt, the chances of me finding them were impossibly small. This was not an accident. It had everything to do with who created the language, who developed and propagated it, and whose stamp remains deepest upon it today.
The early texts of what is now called Hindi literature were written in Braj, Bundeli, Awadhi, Kannauji, Khariboli, Marwari, Magahi, Chhattishgarhi and numberous other such dialects that, in many cases, Hindi has since subsumed. What we know as Hindi today, written in the Devanagari script, is a relatively recent creation. The poet Bharatendu Harishchandra, celebrated as the father of modern Hindi literature, lived in the second half of the nineteenth century.