Caste In A Casteless Language


by Rita Kothari


Neerav Patel’s farewell to his mother tongue gujarati for the“foster-mother” English opens up a gamut of questions, not only about the relationship between caste and the English lan-guage, but also larger questions about the linguistic economy in India.


This includes the relationships between what are considered“standard registers” of language and forms of vernacularisa-tion, the hegemony of the written over spoken languages, the construction of the “mother tongue” and how some languag-es have come to occupy places of pride, assertion, and (there-fore?) territory, while some bring exclusion and unease.


For instance, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor mentions in atestimonial, “When I refused to speak Hungarian anymore, my parents co-operated” (Epstein 1988). The loss of Hungari-an, perhaps as much of a mother tongue as gujarati would be to Neerav Patel, is not always a source of joy and coherence to a displaced person.


For those wishing to erase sullied pasts,language is an obstruction. It carries unwanted memories. The post-Partition Sindhi migrant refuses to speak her language and her parents cooperate with her in shedding not only her language, but also her Sin-dhi identity. The reference to Sindhities in with the location of Sindh in Pakistan, evoking an unacceptable lineage in India(Kothari 2007: 47).


Language is a marker of identity and iden-ti?cation. Accents, vocabulary, syntax, diction are indices of knowing who you are, where you are from, which gender andclass you belong to, and in many cases, which race and caste,too. Caste produces, through specific material practices and demography, its own vocabulary.


It is this combination that is described as “dialects” employed by the dalits. Dalit dialects have hitherto formed an important part of dalit protest, as weapons undermining the elitist registers of the “standard” language used and institutionalised by the upper castes.


However, the terms of this communication continue to be unequal. Patel recognises how the absence of standard Gujarati marks him out as a dalit. His protest persists without allowing him to be fully free of the memory of caste. By bringing English into this communication, Patel seeks to shift the terms and use a currency that upper castes aspire towards.


Patel’s gesture rejects a refusal to Sanskritise or vernacularise, and thus be bound by the old terms of exchange. His gesture of giving up a language is rooted in what would appear as dalit “betrayal” of Indian languages (see, for instance,Ravikant 2006), in the way that NRIs , for instance, move away from their languages.


The question is whether “mother tongues”generate the same meaning for everybody, and the discussiona bove shows that they do not. They are, in some cases, painfu lreminders of origins. Such narratives of language loss seldomform part of language scholarship, focused as it is on languageassertion rather than abandonment (Mitchell 2010; Rama-swamy 1993).


Moreover, dalits in India speak different languages, and so asserting one language would yield neither a territory nor a representation of all forms of dalit identities. English helps redefine identity and imagine a pan-Indian dalit unity, while also allowing a vocabulary of human rights. Many meanings of translation – translation into another language (linguistic translation), into other realities (transla-tion in an anthropological sense), from experience to expression, appeared as sub-themes.

Translation is one of the many consolidations that show a dalit subject as an active partici-pant in Indian democracy – one who has changed the grammar of electoral politics, or one who wants caste discrimination to be acknowledged as a human rights issue, and one who is grappling with both the stigma and the assertion of her/hisidentity.


As far as the English language is concerned, its ideological potential to “translate” the dalit life from fatalism to an identity of rights outweighs considerations of its distance from Indian reality. The process is as much about manuvaad (casteism) as it is about anuvaad (translation). Not surprisingly, translation has increasingly come to be referred to (Sakai 2009) as “the metaphor of the metaphor”




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