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!).


Anand said...

There are many "serious" thinkers who write in regional languages in India. Guha himself mentions Venkatachalapathy who also writes in Tamil. People like Kancha Ilaiah and G. Haragopal write extensively in Telugu. Shivarama Padikkal writes mainly in Kannada. I can think of many many "serious" thinkers in my own language -- Malayalam. Of course those who write only in the vernacular are less visible than those who write in English.

electrostani said...


Thanks for the objections. I've read Kancha Ilaiah's "Why I am not a Hindu" in translation, and I agree that it is serious. (Though it's interesting that his arguments have not been widely embraced outside of the Dalit community)

But do you think Guha is wrong in arguing that intellectual bilingualism is declining?

Anand said...

Thanks Amardeep.

My objection was to your sentence "the only serious thinkers writing today are writing in English", and not to Guha's claim on bilingual writers. Now that you ask about Guha's claim, this is what I think.

First, bilingualism hasn't declined in the field of creative writing. Guha does not claim that there were bilingual writers even earlier, as "creative writing calls for an attention to language that is total". So bilingualism in this field only means contributing in a serious fashion in one language and having the ability to engage effortlessly in a second language, Guha's examples being RK Narayan and Anantha Murty. If this is the definition of bilingualism, then I guess there are many such writers even today.

Second, the area of political discourses. Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Rajaji. Here we need to talk about Manmohan ingh, LK Advani and Sitaram Yechury. Now they may not actually write long articles on their thoughts (btw Yechury does write a lot), but today with 24 hour newschannels and newspapers updating online editions round the clock, the question is whether they communicate effortlessly in more than one language. Answer is a resounding Yes. Incidentally, Yechury is young, "not on the wrong side of 50", has 'intellectual traits', and handles at least four languages with great style.

Third, history and social sciences. Nirmal Kumar Bose, Iravati Karve etc. I do not know whether or not bilingualism has declined here. What I do know is that there are serious people who think about these topics and write in regional languages. Are they bilingual? Some of them are. For instance, T.M. Thomas Isaac. He does political economy, publishes scholarly articles and books both in Malayalam and English, and "not on the wrong side of 50". Perhaps people of this sort are rare in social sciences. But then one might also argue that there are not many original thinkers in social sciences based in India and "not on the wrong side of 50". At least compared to the Nirmal Kumar Bose-Iravati Karve era. If that's right, percentage wise, bilingualism hasn't declined here too.

I must admit that I do not have a first hand knowledge on any of these topics. I was just trying to argue in one particular direction.

Let me also point out a couple of things that I did not like in Guha's column.

(1) "B.R. Ambedkar wrote major works of political criticism in both Marathi and English. Mahatma Gandhi wrote his autobiographies originally in Gujarati, but much of his journalism -- which, unlike the journalism of you and me, was timeless -- was written in English -- very good English. C. Rajagopalachari was an acknowledged master of English prose, and also a pioneer of the Tamil short story."

I thought Gandhi's English is great and does not need that second endorsement -- "very good English" -- from Guha. That sounded as if Guha himself doubts what he writes.

(2) "Anantha Murty taught English literature, and even had a Ph.D from a British university; yet he chose to write in Kannada."

To argue that one has mastery over the English language, do we still need a British University certificate?

Incidentally, Anantha Murthy's version is this: "I was in England as a student, and fatigued with speaking the English language most of the time. I needed to recover my mother-tongue, living in the midst of
English ..."
Thus Anantha Murty wrote in Kannada because of his British Ph.D. experience, and not despite it, as Guha seems to suggest.

Anonymous said...

You can't possibly believe that Kancha Illiah is a serious scholar. His book 'Why I am not a Hindu' fails, even as a polemic to any standards of rigorous scholarship. It is SLOPPY, meandering and entirely unobjective.

Anonymous said...

I am one with bilingual skills in Malayalam & English. Many of the articles that I get to read in some of the Malayalam publications are superior to most similar in Indian English publications. This comparison also includes research journals and is mostly based on depth of analysis and not on whether I agree with what is written.

This was something that I noted long ago (to my surprise) when I started reading English seriously at the age of 17. Now I am 34. Honestly I cannot agree with Guha when he says "the only serious thinkers writing today are writing in English".