The State of Hindi's Burgeoning Digital Media

Can we provide our Hindi readers with a media that was at the heart of India's political struggle? Can we describe events unemotionally and truthfully, so even the most simple-minded cannot evade the truth any longer?

Saakhi is a Sunday column from Mrinal Pande, in which she writes of what she sees and also participates in. That has been her burden to bear ever since she embarked on a life as a journalist, writer, editor, author and as chairperson of Prasar Bharti. Her journey of being a witness-participant continues. 

“Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings? Why should I mourn the vanished power of the usual reign?” asked T.S. Eliot in ‘Ash Wednesday’.

What drives an ageing Hindi writer to such unfurling of wings is, perhaps, the state of Hindi’s burgeoning digital media. Truth be told, most of what it presents to us, by way of news and comments, appears indifferently edited drivel, full of angry rants, bad grammar, and poor spellings. And this is true today not only of the short messaging platforms but also the much-read portals of old and crusty legacy print media that caters to the largest number of digital consumers in India.

Mrinal Pande

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Despite fine writers like Geetanjali Shree, Mridula Garg, Ashok Vajpeyi, Kashinath Singh, and Asad Zaidi, few Hindi editors are willing (or even have the courage) to invite such writers of standing to write on current affairs and our threatened freedoms at the risk of being dragged to courts.

In the US, England, and even much-maligned Russia, Iran, and certain Latin American and small Asian countries, it is expected that editors bear the responsibilities of being both an editor and a writer. The position is definitely demanding and carries with it a risk factor for making their news portals the voice of all those who have been silenced and support the case by strong writing from veterans in the field.

Of course, those who live safe from midnight knocks, but are active on Hindi social media, routinely demand senior journalists, activists, and radical writers to use their writing to usher in revolutionary change! “Hindi writers have such a vast access to the ignorant and superstitious voters across the cow belt,” they say. “So why don’t we see them using their pen to enlighten the voters?”

This projection of their own unspeakable desire for change onto writers and media in the Hindi belt has bred some strange and unpleasant distortions. Truth be told, such responsibility also lies outside of the proveribial garden of Eden. But those that urge them to create that with carefully crafted and edited pieces forget that the act of serious writing requires a long and responsible handling of not only thought but also language and grammar from both the writers and the editorial staff manning the portals.

Demanding readers and wannabe citizen journalists also need to be aware of how a mellifluous spoken Hindi has been crafted out of many dialects grafted upon the official Khadi Boli version, by great writers and media practitioners, in Hindi, in the last century. From Premchand to Ashok Vajpeyi, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthy, Madan Mohan Malviya, and Rahul Barpute to Prabhash Joshi and S.P. Singh – all of them, among others, were politically active and frequently incarcerated for their views.

Today, when I (frequently and not too politely, I confess) underscore some gross mistakes in writing on digital platforms, including excerpts from government notifications and editorials, all hell breaks loose. Given my age, several options are closed, so the Bhakts troll me using ageism  and ‘Videshi’ learning, dubious left leanings. (They call me Vaami that nicely rhymes with Mami). The list is endless. This pure creative act, let me tell these conscientious objectors, is a myth like a virgin birth.

History, ideology, and society, all begin to breathe down your neck as you write and they demand a cold professional exactitude. The writer and the desk, and finally the editors, all bear in greater and lesser degrees a congenital responsibility for the language that they display; a language which Roland Barthes calls a “corpus of prescriptions and habits common to all the writers of a period.”

It is through this corpus of a guild of good writers through the ages that a Hindi writer worth his/her salt will step into the world of readers who are not writers but common citizens with empathy, or Sahridayas, as ancient grammarians labelled them. And the writers owe it to the Sahridaya readers, to serve them thoughts in a language shaped by the great writers in the last century and a half: Nirala, Mahadevi, Dharmvir Bharati, Kamaleshwar, Raghuvir Sahai, Srikant Verma, Agyeya ,and many many others.

All of them meant much more than creative writers and editors. They were often socio-political activists, who rubbed shoulders with major politicians and political parties of their time, fearlessly on an equal footing. Many of them like Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthy, Agyeya, Srikant Verma and Raghuvir Sahai also chose to become actual members of political parties.

Also read: Paid News, Ads and the Question of Priorities in Non-English Indian Journalism

The status of Hindi media

In the north today, most media practitioners are poorly trained and must work as poorly paid stringers for reputed newspapers and portals, who have cut back drastically on inevitable costs for newsgathering by seasoned hands. As informal workers for the media, these newsgatherers face a miscellany of threats from the mafia, the bureaucracy, and the bulldozers. But they get little to no legal cover from their principal employers.

Creative writers in Hindi likewise remain financially vulnerable despite the large sales of Hindi books. All of them are struggling in a market that is flying on the wings of digital algorithms. They subsist from day to day on whatever news they can forage along with gathering ads for their employers in which they get a percentile cut.

In the age of fake news and morphed videos, aided and abetted by artifical intelligence, true social criticism must begin with these sordid facts, otherwise, neither words nor grammar will be able to re-establish the true meaning of news and information. The task before all writers today is purging the contaminated Hindi of the poisonous ideologies being fed into the news. This is what Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass did in the post-Nazi era.

Most of those using the internet today were toddlers in 2014. They have not been privy to the extreme horrors and deprivations marginalised groups have been deliberately subjected to by a polluted ‘Hindi’ propped upon digital media and the TV by mean-spirited and servile hands drooling over governmental grants and freebies.

Can we provide our Hindi readers with a media that was founded at the heart of India’s political struggle? Can we just, for heaven’s sake, describe events unemotionally and truthfully, so that even the most simple-minded people cannot evade the truth any longer?

The impartiality of a good writer, said Flaubert, equals the majesty of the law. Kabir would have smiled and nodded.

Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.