The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual

In case you were wondering what's so great about Ram Guha (the Indian historian recently refused entry to the U.S.), read his recent piece in The Hindu on the decline of India's bilingual intellectuals. [Via Kitabkhana]

He argues that early and mid-20th century Indian intellectuals -- people like Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Anatha Murthy, and R.K. Narayan -- were "effortlessly" bilingual. Many of them wrote extensively in both English and their native languages, depending on context and intended audience. What's interesting about this is not so much that they were able to do this, it's what they chose to write in a given language. Also interesting is that the key centers of bilingual intellectualism were in Bengal and Maharashtra:

Arguably the most developed of these bilingual cultures were located in Bengal and Maharashtra. This is where the most sophisticated conversations were taking place, simultaneously in two languages. Here, the scholar had a real choice as to which language to use for what purpose. Thus the Bengali anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose wrote his important works on Gandhism in English, but published his pioneering analysis of the structure of Hindu society in Bengali. His Marathi counterpart Iravati Karve chose to print her landmark studies of kinship and caste in English, yet wrote marvellous, and equally enduring, essays on myth and pilgrimage in her own tongue.

Between 1920 and 1980, or thereabouts, Bengali and Marathi were the only bilingual intellectual cultures in the world. The French write, think and speak exclusively in French; the English, in English. Yet in Pune and Calcutta, original works of scholarship were being written and discussed both in English and in the language of the bazaar.

A couple of objections. First, in South Asia, what about Madras? What about Colombo?

Secondly, in Europe, I think someone like Samuel Beckett, who wrote both in French and in English, might challenge Guha's thesis. Other challengers might be people like Jacques Derrida, who spoke (and often interviewed) in English, though he only wrote in French. Also worth considering are Latin American writers like Ariel Dorfman, who write literature in Spanish, but journalism in English. And there is a large number of scholars whose first language is not English, who are currently located in the United States. They write scholarship in English, but more than a few of them send Spanish-language Op-Eds and such home to Argentina, Chile, Colombia, etc. for publication 'at home'. Globalization has, perhaps, opened a new window on bilingualism.

That said, Guha is surely right that within India, the only serious thinkers writing today are writing in English.

But Guha does make a good point about some of the great modernist writers -- Conrad, Nabokov -- from non-English backgrounds who moved to English, and didn't go back:

The historian and social scientist can make best use of this bilingualism — he, and she, can operate simultaneously in more than one tongue. The creative writer, however, is forced to choose one language over the other. With the historian or critic, it is the message that is more important; for the novelist or poet, it is the medium. Creative writing calls for an attention to language that is total. Thus Tagore never wrote fiction or poetry in any language other than Bengali. Likewise, when they switched to writing in English, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov were compelled to discard their mother tongue. Theirs was a choice forced upon them by exile and migration. The choice facing the creative writer in mid-20th Century India, however, was a voluntary one. R.K. Narayan could have written in Tamil; he preferred to write in English. His fellow Mysore novelist U.R. Anantha Murty taught English literature, and even had a Ph.D from a British university; yet he chose to write in Kannada.

Great piece, well worth reading and discussing (maybe with one's students!).