I was eight when my grandmother died. For the next 15 days, the extended family reunited and huddled together in our house – the family’s ghai ghor (ancestral home) in the village where my grandmother lived and died. People called to commiserate with the family, my mother dutifully narrating to everyone the last moments in the life of the deceased. The cousins – all of them older than me – played rummy, and when asked, rode the Bajaj Super to the town to buy more mithais for guests.
It was one such nondescript afternoon when a cousin, born and raised in Guwahati, asked me to get a knife to cut some fruit. Not the nimblest myself, I beckoned and requested a neighbourhood friend to run the errand. He went to the kitchen but came back empty-handed. In standard Assamese, the word for the knife he was looking for is pronounced kaw-taari, and in the language spoken where we lived, it is kaatri. When my friend informed the cousin that the knife was nowhere to be found, everybody laughed. In his failed attempt to inform her in her language, he used a word for knife that existed in the vocabulary of neither: kaa-tawri. I don’t know how humiliated he felt and how he spent the rest of the day. But many years later, when I read Frantz Fanon, I imagined my friend ‘listening to himself speak and not trusting his own tongue, an unfortunately lazy organ, locking himself in his room and reading for hours—desperately working on his diction’.
It was as an MA student at Delhi University that I got a chance to study how linguistic purism operates and is intrinsically connected to the construction and maintenance of a national identity. The class size was notoriously huge, and professors had to use microphones to ensure audibility. But, for internal assessment, the batch was divided into small cohorts and each cohort worked with a professor for presentations and academic essays.
In one of the four semesters, I was part of a group mentored by Hany Babu and over the next six months, we read works written or edited by James Milroy, Lesley Milroy, Deborah Cameron, Janet Holmes, Miriam Meyerhoff and Andrew Simpson as we saw language ideologies slowly unsnarled in a classroom.
Everything that I learnt – how standardisation occurs, how super-linguistic identities are created and invoked, how sub-national regional identities based on a language sometimes impede the march of a national language and sometimes coexist with it, how grammatical correctness gets associated with behaviour, how scripts generate not just emotion but sometimes a distinct language – gifted me moments of epiphany where I could now explain to myself – and confidently question – so many events in history and in everyday life that I earlier accepted as indubitable realities.
If it was not for a lasting association with Hany Babu that began at the Arts Faculty of Delhi University and continued until Sunday – when he spoke to me from Mumbai before his arrest by the National Investigative Agency, I would not learn to be proud of my mother language Kamrupi, use it without shame in public, and develop a lifelong academic and journalistic interest in language, region and culture.
If helping a student historicise his experiences of linguistic discrimination and educating him in a vocabulary to object is an offence, if emphasising that the impact of language policy has to be gauged based on the testimonies of subjects occupying non-hegemonic locations is an unlawful act, if asking whether the prioritisation of Hindi over other scheduled languages goes against the fundamental right of equality is a crime, Hany Babu is guilty and I am ready to testify.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a senior writing fellow at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University.