Hindi Medium Type

2017 Number 1 - Songs of the Shattered Throat

What can we hope for when a language and its people face so much disrespect? How many translators will a language attract when it faces a crisis amongst its own readership? How to fight this perception that ‘if it is in Hindi, it is not good’?

English here in India is not just any language but a language that signifies status and one-upmanship. Sure, it is a language of communication in many cities and a means of employment. But it is also a matter of a superiority complex. Concomitantly, the vernacular is often looked down upon. Everywhere, in schools, corporates, government offices, we are told: ‘Even if you write poorly, write in English. It will make an impression. If it is in Hindi, even when extraordinary, nobody will pay heed, neither the manager, nor the officer, nor the government, nor the media.’

I worked for twelve years in the largest media house of this country which publishes the largest circulated Hindi daily, and I have seen it there, too. The employees were asked repeatedly to write all communication, either in-house or external, in English. The reason? It will improve the company’s brand image. I still remember the words: ‘Although we produce a Hindi newspaper, we don’t work in Hindi because we don’t want to encourage the “Hindi psyche”. What we communicate is what we think. We want our people to think in English, but make a product that is in Hindi.’ And it is true with almost every sector. Bollywood makes Hindi movies but behind the scenes, they work in English. Hindi TV, one of the biggest industries, produces Hindi serials but it works in English. The bureaucrats, the politicians, the policy makers, all think and work in English. English is the language of the ‘successful’ people.

In government offices, applications in English move faster. Even if you are highly educated in Hindi, if you don’t know English, your chances of employment are bleak. Even for the post of a Hindi teacher in the Hindi-speaking belt of India, fluency in English is a requisite.

This is a situation which has filled the Hindi-speaking people with a kind of inferiority, discontent and a kind of shameful annoyance towards Hindi, and English also. And this is reflected in everything, in their psyche, in their lifestyle, in their thinking. I have watched this ‘Hindi-won’t-give-you-any-success’ notion very closely. In my adolescence, I saw a friend of mine beaten brutally by his father in a city like Mumbai. His crime: he was reading a Hindi literary novel. It triggered his father’s ire, ‘Why are you reading Hindi? If you really want to read a book that is not in your school curriculum, read an English novel. At least, it will improve your English. It will help you get a job. Hindi won’t give you anything.’ His father who was very good in Hindi, but had very little English himself, had faced many problems in his life because of his ignorance of English. According to him, his poverty and failures were directly related to his ‘not-knowing-English’. His father resembles many fathers in my country. This was twenty years ago and the situation is no better now.

The majority in India see people who work, write and speak in English achieve every kind of success. What has this resulted in? A widespread infatuation with English. It has created a society without pride in its own language. At a very subtle level, India is going through a very idiosyncratic linguistic problem, almost unseen at the surface but working at the psychological level. A linguistic class struggle. A problem which is a by-product of the colonial legacy and its fossils.

It has fostered a few generations perfect in neither Hindi nor English. Nor are they much into literature. But thanks to them, it has become a widespread perception that whatever is in Hindi, literature or other, is no good. They watch Hindi films, sing Hindi songs, but for them, reading books in Hindi (or any other Indian language) is not a great idea because Hindi books are no good. Needless to say people prefer a language that gives them a sense of pride and money. Hindi media has helped to increase this perception. One doesn’t find Hindi book reviews even in Hindi newspapers. Their columnists are not Hindi writers. They are English writers whom the newspaper translates into Hindi and publishes on their editorial page everyday. The Hindi papers publish reviews of English books only because ‘the stuff in Hindi is not good’. Yet they think they themselves are ‘good’, albeit Hindi. It sounds like a joke.

This perception deters many from taking Hindi seriously. The books and their writers don’t get the respect they deserve. This linguistic tussle of superiority and inferiority, Hindi psyche and English psyche is evident in the term ‘HMT’. HMT used to be the most popular brand of wristwatches in India. But now this acronym has a different connotation. English-speaking elitists began to use it to ridicule and deride the Hindi speakers by calling them ‘HMT’ or ‘Hindi Medium Type’, the people who received their education in Hindi medium schools. ‘Oh come on! Don’t take him seriously, he’s just an HMT.’

What can we hope for when a language and its people face so much disrespect? How many translators will a language attract when it faces a crisis amongst its own readership? How to fight this perception that ‘if it is in Hindi, it is not good’? It automatically connects with the writer. I have heard it many times, ‘Oh that man? He writes in Hindi, is he any good?’

This has turned Hindi literature into a ghetto, an inferior kind of ghetto, though this ghetto is greater than many other ghettos in this country. This inferiority has its own superiority complex, a rather peculiar one.


In India, there is almost no institutional or academic support for translation. Most translations are done voluntarily. People start by translating a couple of poems by a poet, do another ten to fifteen poems and then stop. Mostly the translators are poets themselves, either English or Hindi, and at some stage they feel that it would be better to concentrate on their own poetry instead of translating others. I haven’t seen a Miłosz or Ted Hughes working here. Miłosz was a celebrated bilingual, he spent a great deal of time translating others. I remember he was known in the US primarily as Zbigniew Herbert’s translator until the mid 70s. Ted Hughes worked hard on other people’s literal versions, published and promoted them widely. I don’t find such dedication here, although India has many great bilinguals. In the last two decades, use of English has increased and it has, in fact, increased the possibilities of translation into English. In the last five years, every major Indian publisher has published books in English translations, but they are primarily for the Indian audience. Most of these translations don’t cross borders. The European and the US markets show no interest in these titles.

Here is another thing – there is a strong sense of disapproval for Indian translators in the West. I have heard many people saying Indian translators don’t have ‘an ear’ for writing in English. They translate in an English that is fine for the Indian audience but not the West. I don’t know how many Indian translators have submitted for the PEN Translation award, but in the 13-year history of PEN/Heim Translation Awards, only two Indian translators have been recognised, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, a poet himself (in 2009, for his translations of Kabir, a medieval Hindi poet) and Anita Gopalan for her translation of my work of fi ction, Simsim. The PEN award win has made Anita Gopalan a big inspiration for the Hindi literary world as I have seen many younger people taking up the challenge to translate Hindi writers into English after her win.

If you look at the archives of literary journals available online, Hindi (or any other Indian language) barely registers. Hindi is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, but I have never seen any Hindi writer making headlines in European or US publishing. Let’s leave that aside (since they don’t make it even in India), I seldom find Hindi authors in western magazines.

What my language needs is support. The quality of a translation is very subjective and always disputed. You and I, we both know the case of Constance Garnett, her legendary works and the further revised editions of the same books by different translators. Dostoyevsky is still translated into English and every translator claims his version to be better than the existing ones.

The most important factor (or maybe the problem) is the emergence and increasing importance of ‘Indian Writing in English’. It lessens the urgency to translate. I have many anthologies of world poetry. They don’t feature any Hindi poet or poets from other Indian languages. Most of the time, they include a couple of Indian English poets, because they are easily available and accessible. So if readers in the US or the UK want to read literature from India, they will end up reading Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth and so on. Whatever India is, in the West it is written by Indian writers writing in English. In the late nineties Salman Rushdie wrote in an article words to the effect that Indian writers working in English have produced stronger literature compared to the other Indian languages.

What were the consequences of Rushdie’s article? Indian writers working in English started making more news at the international level. But that didn’t help Indian literature. I’ve read somewhere that in the last five years, more than two thousand books in English translation were published in the US. Only 19 among them were translated from South Asian languages, and among those 19, only 3 were from Indian languages, one each from Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. Why do Indian writers writing in English have such success in the West? It is not because they ‘truly’ write India, but because they write an idea of India that the West has itself developed. The whole world including India has convinced itself of the ‘fact’ that English is the only writing that represents India.

Hindi writers are successful in their own language, but nobody notices it outside their language. Hindi still is the most widely spoken language here. It produces the highest numbers of books each year. Sales of these books are on the increase. Most Hindi writers either don’t know or don’t realize the situation I have described. They almost have confined themselves to the mayhem of their ghetto and are quite happy there. It has its own advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is they don’t feel any extra pressure and write what they want to write. The disadvantage is their writing, sometimes, lacks an ambitious, competitive, modern edge. I usually describe it in the language of cricket: they play in smaller grounds and hence their sixers are never huge.

In this scenario, the life of a Hindi writer is quite difficult. A Hindi writer’s struggle is peculiar. It is quite different from a Polish or Spanish or an Italian writer’s struggle. They don’t face the plurality of languages. A Hindi writer does. They have the support of history. A Hindi writer doesn’t. Their literature is historically accepted worldwide. The literature of my language doesn’t even find a proper mention in the history of world literature. Their languages still carry a strong sense of pride. The pride of my language is brutally wounded. They have a legacy of great writers, well known to the world. My language has a legacy of great writers, who are unknown to the world. In the international market, their languages produce a hundred-odd books in English translation each year. My language produces none. It seems the value of my language is very low.

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