Borrowed words

  • Those in power and those who seek equality must borrow only good things that help expand their vocabulary—and their horizon
- Pramod Mishra
In the Tarai-Madhes, the UML and Nepali Congress are playing language politics; instead of letting people in Province 2 decide on their language, parties are using elected members to sow seeds of division

Feb 15, 2018-While watching a Hindi TV series, Razia Sultan, on Netflix, one of the things that struck me the most was the similarity between the courtly vocabulary used in the series and many of the words used in legal, official and aristocratic or aspirational Nepali. Obviously, the series makers, in order to show the Islamic culture of the Mamluk dynasty to which Razia belonged and to make the 13th century Indian past intelligible to its 21st century Indian audience, used a heavily Persianised Hindustani vocabulary that itself had absorbed words and expressions from the Arabic and Turkic languages. “Look! They are using Nepali words!” someone watching the series with me said. “Not, quite,” I said. “Nepali has been using their words.”  

Indeed, Nepali language experts know that the language was first spoken by a peasant community of hill Hindu tribes. Then, the language was known as Khas Kura. In a bid to give the Nepali language official status and legitimacy, and in order to make it the language of the ruling circles, Khas Kura was modified by borrowing heavily from the official and courtly language of Muglan. The name of the language was also changed from Khas Kura to Nepali. I have not read any accounts of how this occurred. It might have been as a result of a fiat by the ruling Ranas, Jung  Bahadur prominent among them, to showcase their supremacy through the use of a language superior to the other Khas Kura-speaking hill castes. But it might also be the result of the Kayastha Patwaris, who had cross-border professional practices and were experts in Persian, the official language of the Mughal empire. It is likely that this pervasive, multi-faceted borrowing was a result of a combination of both theories described above.

Setting precedents

Almost three decades have passed since the advent of democracy, and Nepal has also seen a decade of republicanism, yet the aspirational classes among Nepali speakers still cultivate this elevated language in order to show class distinction and linguistic sophistication. What this clearly shows is that Nepali culture is flexible and capacious. It can adapt itself to new changes and circumstances. But it also suggests that Nepali ruling classes can adopt undesirable habits, too, if they perceive these habits to be serving their interests. Hence, the expression—self-serving.  They can do anything fair or foul to serve their interests.  

For a moment, let’s say that the Mughal courtly language influenced the Nepali courts and the official language, thereby giving it legitimacy and official weight. This influence implies that those who ruled the Nepali courts and kingdom also kept an eye on the power struggles of the Muslim courts in India. And if you read the dynastic succession of the Mamluks (1206-1290), the Khaljis (1290-1320), the Tughlaqs (1321-1414), the Lodis (1451-1526), and the Mughals (1526-1857), you can see that succession was almost always accompanied by bloodshed. If there were multiple princes who were aspiring for the throne, the one who survived the strife became the emperor. Peaceful succession to the throne was the exception rather than the rule. It is no wonder, 

then, that learning lessons from the Mughal courts, King Prithvi, King Jung Bahadur and King Mahendra used brute power to establish their dynasties and systems at the expense of other aspirants, whether they were the Malla kings for Prithvi, the Pandey, Basnyat, and Thapa courtiers for Jung Bahadur or the Congress leaders for King Mahendra. We can say that even King Gyanendra tried to copy that model of succession during his brief kingship when he suspended the constitution and the parliament, and thus paved the way for the undoing of the Shah monarchy.

Out with the bad

But that was when Nepal was a monarchy. Has the habit of sticking to state power changed now after almost a decade of republican dispensation? GP Koirala stalled the process of prime ministerial succession for four months when the Maoists became the largest party in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Sher Bahadur Deuba, Koirala’s successor, seems to be doing the same. One can understand that he can’t just hand over the reins when the UML-Maoist leaders are not officially ready to stake their claims, but what is preventing him from resigning and running a caretaker government? Instead, he has not only appointed governors of the seven provinces but also made many other appointments despite losing his majority in the recent parliamentary elections. Are these parties digging a grave for the democracy that the people fought so hard for? And this is only a small part of the failure of the present parties in designing a constitution that would have guaranteed linguistic, cultural and proportional representational rights of various linguistic and cultural communities.    

In the Tarai-Madhes, the UML and Nepali Congress have begun to play language politics.  Instead of letting the people of the Madhes in Province 2 decide on their language without interference, these parties are using their elected members to sow seeds of division among the Madhesis. And Madhesis, like all long-subjugated people, are falling victim to this divide-and-rule tactic. As long as the marginalised remain divided and do not learn to work together to establish equal rights for all, they will continue to squabble and will remain marginalised.  

The challenge, therefore, for both those who are now in power and those who seek equality is to learn to borrow only good things that help to expand their vocabulary as well as their horizon, and to shed the bad habits that they might have borrowed from both their ruling class predecessors and outsiders. Indeed, the challenge is to cultivate a new culture, new habits, and a new mind-set that is suitable for the new, emerging realities of diversity, multiplicity and good cross-border lessons.


- Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States

Published: 15-02-2018 08:01

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