Tharoor Line | Malayalam as link language for India: Why not?

Representational image

It was interesting that, after the uproar in the South over the clumsy efforts at Hindi imposition by Amit Shah and a clutch of misguided Bollywood stars, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself tried to quieten the furore by saying that all Indian languages are worthy of respect and should be honoured. That is all very well, but the real issue is this: Hindiwallahs just cannot understand why, if South Indians want a link language, it should be English, a foreign import in their view, and not their beloved Hindi.

I have tried, in many articles and speeches (including on a few occasions in Hindi), to explain this to them very simply: all Indians need a link language to deal with officialdom. We all need government services, and so need to understand easily what our government is saying to us. When the government does so in our mother tongue, it is easier for us. But when it does so in someone else’s mother tongue with which we are less familiar than our neighbour, our incomprehension is made worse by our resentment. As I have asked before: Why should Shukla be spoken to by the Government of India in the language that comes easiest to him, and which he has acquired with his mother’s milk, but not Subramaniam?

The solution to this question is a practical one: use Hindi where it is understood, but use English everywhere, since it places all Indians from all parts of our country at an equal disadvantage. Hindiwallahs keep saying that Hindi is the language that expresses their soul. I agree that English does not express Subramaniam’s soul any more than it does Shukla’s, but it serves a functional purpose for both, and what’s more, it helps Subramaniam to understand the same thing as Shukla. It cannot be that some Indians are given a linguistic privilege that others are not; hence English over Hindi for us in the South.

But today I am going to take the argument a bit farther, courtesy my brilliant friend Joseph Zacharias, who sends me such ideas from time to time: if our government wants a link language other than English, and they feel that it must be an Indian language, then why Hindi, whose gender rules and locutions are unfamiliar to a majority of Indians? Indeed, take it two steps farther: why not Malayalam?

I know that North Indians find Malayalam difficult to learn, but so do many South Indians scratch their heads about why common objects in Hindi take a gender identity: why, for instance, in Hindi is a table female and a bed male (or is the other way around)? Malayalam not only has no such inconvenient problem of gender; it is the perfect mix of Sanskrit and Tamil, the two ancient and classical languages of our land. Indeed, Malayalam’s descent from both makes it all the more appropriate, since Sanskrit and Tamil are unarguably the two languages from which all the major languages of the Indian subcontinent are derived. Some linguists, in fact, argue that Malayalam is a perfect 50:50 mix of Sanskrit and Tamil. Why can't it be encouraged as the perfect link language for the country on that ground alone?

Malayalam is a perfect mix of Sanskrit and Tamil: our kids can say “vidyaarambham” and “vazhakola” with equal ease.

Shashi Tharoor

Indeed, Malayali children are capturing the imagination of the nation by their performances in popular television shows such as Sony's 'Super Star Singer' and the like. Some astonished Northern friends have asked, how can kids whose mother tongue is not Hindi, sing so perfectly in that language? The answer probably lies in the unique quality of Malayalam as a perfect mix of Sanskrit and Tamil: our kids can say “vidyaarambham” and “vazhakola” with equal ease.

Some northerners might complain that our Malayalam script is too complicated to learn. In that case, the link language can be implemented in a three-script avatar – in the original Dravidian script, in Devanagari, and in the Roman script, which was Subhash Chandra Bose’s recommendation for promoting Hindustani written in English! That could be the perfect compromise, Joseph Zacharias argues, between the Hindiwallahs and the Dravidian objectors. Something for the advocates of a national link language to think about?

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