Monday, August 2, 2010


India is a multilingual country; by a rough estimate more than two hundred languages are spoken here, not counting the dialects, which can be viewed as potential languages. These languages belong to a number of language families. Such linguistic diversity is not found elsewhere in the world. As for the people, quite a few are bilingual and some are multi-lingual, even when we fairly strongly define the concept of “knowing a language”: one can be credited with “knowing a certain language” when one demonstrates that one has the ability to use that language creatively in some domain of activity. People are multilingual in interesting ways; for one instance, one person from, say, Odisha, might know, in addition to his mother tongue, Odia, English, and Tamil, and another, from the same state, the first three languages and Manipuri. This is not an unusual phenomenon in the country. This, hopefully, is a fairly representative picture of the Indian multilingual scenario.

There is an aspect of our linguistic consciousness that deserves attention. Generally one asserts one’s linguistic identity in terms of a single language, although the person concerned may be a truly competent multilingual, being fluent in three or even four languages. It is always like, “I am a Bengali, but I can speak English, Hindi and French too”. A speaker of Marathi or Tamil might be using English in his professional life and also for creative purposes, but he would still identify himself (or herself) as a Marathi or a Tamilian, as the case may be. There would hardly be any who would declare their linguistic identity in terms of two or three languages.

Most states of India have only one official language: the language of the majority of that state. Some states, like Bihar and UP, do have a second language, but that does not seem to have altered the situation very much. Odisha (at that time, Orissa), during Mr. Biju Patnaik’s administration, had declared all the fourteen (at that time, fourteen) Scheduled languages as the official languages of Odisha (then Orissa), but such a decision had no real impact. It couldn’t have been intended to, in all probability. Governance in Odisha even now is carried out in English and Odia, although the official language is Odia. Use of English is considered to be undesirable and demands from various quarters, including the intellectuals, have been made from time to time to conduct administration in Odia alone. There seems to have been no demand in any state by any group for a certain state to use three or four (even two!) languages for purposes of administration, in the true spirit of multilingualism. In this scenario, what has been recognized, probably informally rather than formally, is that one has the right to reach the State or the Union government in any Indian language and has the right to receive the government’s response in the same language. This is arguably the only significant implementation of multilingualism at the level of law and administration.

No language movement in India has ever been organized to demand privilege for more than one language (currently in use): according official / second language status to a language, inclusion in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution, according the status of “language” to a “dialect”, according classical language status to a language, among others. There are linguistic minorities in every state, but how often have the linguistic majority in a state demanded that the same privileges that they enjoy in say, education, be accorded to the minority population in the state? How often have the speakers of a language (really the “standard dialect”) asked for similar linguistic privileges to be given to the speakers of a dialect (of that language)? In fact, the “linguistic” relation between the so-called dialect and language speakers is never very relaxed.

Despite our multilingual reality, are we then temperamentally monolinguals, irrespective of how many languages we know? It is reminiscent of the “‘us’ versus ‘them’” attitude. “Them” we can respect, and live comfortably with, but they are still “them”. Is multilingualism in harmony with this attitude?


It is often said in one language or the other that the present has to pay for the sins of the past. That is some form of justice. “Only connect”, as E.M.Forster put it, and you will see how justice works in the world of football. Think of just the World Cup!

Brazil was playing Turkey at the league stage in WC 2002. Rivaldo, who eventually had a great WC, did some mean acting that directly led to the Turkish international, Hakan Unsal’s dismissal. The referee was deceived into believing that Rivaldo was badly hurt on his face. The player later admitted his pretension, and said that he had wanted Unsal out. He was lucky; he escaped with the relatively mild punishment of a fine. The teams played again in the semi-final; it was a tough but incident-free match, which Brazil won by the narrowest of margins. In WC 2010, Kaka, the creative midfielder and a gentleman footballer, who was expected to play a pivotal role for Brazil, had to pay the penalty that Rivaldo had escaped paying. Kaka was the victim. Abdul Kader Keita of Ivory Coast did some acting to get the Brazilian red-carded.

Still on Brazil, the equalizing goal against Brazil by Holland in the quarter-final match was clearly a self-goal. It was the first ever self-goal scored against Brazil in the eighty year history of WC, in every edition of which this country had participated. It was of course later credited to the Holland midfielder Sneijder, but many thought it was only a technical award. Now whether Brazil was spared the disgrace of a self-goal or not became a matter of opinion. Now was that self-goal an act of justice for Luis Fabiano’s double hand goal in Brazil’s match against Chile?

WC 1966 gave football narrative a term: “Wimbley goal”. A Wimbley goal is a “strike which bounces down on or over the goal line”. In WC 1966, England won the final match against Germany by a disputed (as far as the Germans were concerned, a dubious) goal – a Wimbley goal, scored by Hurst. Incidentally, the relevant rules have changed: for a goal, the whole of the ball must cross the line. The Germans never got over their hurt. Until recently, to some measure at least.

Going by some press reports, Germans seemed to have rejoiced over Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal more than England’s humiliating defeat by their national team. Jorge Larrionda, the referee and his assistants, had failed to see the ball having crossed the goal line. Lampard believed, as did the English team’s coach, Fabio Capello, and many others that had that goal not been disallowed, the results of the match might have been different. It is this view, rather than the English captain Steven Gerrard’s (that the goal would not really have made any difference in the outcome), that warmed the German hearts so much. They had felt cheated, more than forty years ago, and felt compensated that a legitimate goal that was disallowed, showed the English the exit gate of WC 2010. “Now we are quits” is what Westdeutsch Allgemeine and Welt newspapers reportedly said.

An Iranian minister is supposed to have seen some justice in the fact that those who had worked for sanctions against Iran had an early exit from WC 2010. If one does not subscribe to this view, then one might consider the case of France in this WC. France had come to South Africa by elbowing out Ireland unfairly through Gallas’s goal from Henry’s double handball pass, unnoticed by the Swedish referee Martin Haussoon. They had usurped Ireland’s place at the WC. Quite understandably, the Irish rejoiced at France’s early exit. But early exit was only the less important aspect of France’s predicament in South Africa. There was indiscipline in the team, the players and the coach were at loggerheads with each other, they refused to practice, they were not playing as a team, and one or two players were later found to have indulged in sexual misdemeanour. The team brought their country disrepute, and was thoroughly condemned by the country.

Cristiano Ronaldo manipulated the dismissal of Rooney in WC 2006. There was no room for doubt about his complicity in it - after Rooney was shown the red card, he winked at the Portugal bench, and got caught in the camera. England lost the match and was out of the WC. Ronaldo became the World Footballer of the year in 2008, and he went to WC 2010 as a celebrity footballer, and as the captain of the Portugal team. He was expected to sparkle in the tournament. He did nothing of the sort; his performance was a shining example of a “damp squib”. He scored just one goal, which arguably was the silliest in the competition. Now, in this WC, was he paying for what he had done to Rooney in the last?


Some narratives have only a beginning, their end not in sight. These are the narratives that seem to grow as the world they depict develops. The hand goal in FIFA World Cup is arguably one such. Whether Maradona’s “hand of God” goal in the 1986 edition of WC was the first hand goal ever in the eighty year history of this celebrated tournament or not we do not know, but it is certainly the most talked about and written about hand goal of the competition.

The world did not see another hand goal in the following five editions of WC. However, the just concluded WC amply made up for the lack. The play-off match between France and Ireland to decide which of these would play WC 2010 finals saw something close to a hand goal: a goal that resulted directly from the pass from the French captain Thierry Henry – the great footballer with a fairly clean record - who had handled the ball twice, not once. This was the goal that put paid to the aspirations of the Irish, and left the country dejected. The French President apologized to the Irish people, as had Henry done before. He had regretted his handball, but insisted that it was not deliberate.

Continuing with the theme of double handball, the WC finals saw something worse: in the match against Ivory Coast, Luis Fabiano handled the ball twice before scoring what was Brazil’s second goal. This did not affect the results of course, and in that sense had no material consequences, but what was hilarious was that the referee had seen it, and even during the match had reportedly asked him (that too, laughingly) why he did what he did. Socrates, the captain of the Brazilian team in WC 1986, was perhaps right when he said that the team that brings crowd to the stands would receive indulgent treatment from the referees at the WC. Far from being apologetic, the player said in a post-match interview that there was a certain attractiveness about things illegitimate! Maradona would not grant him a hand of god goal; that attainment was his alone, he asserted; as far as he was concerned, Fabiano was only a pretender, having scored only an “arm goal”! Fabiano must have felt disappointed that his goal did not inspire must talk; not many cared to censure either him or the referee. In fact, Kaka’s red card in the same match invited more media attention.

Then happened Luis Suarez’s handball that doomed Ghana, and with that the entire continent of Africa. For the first time in the WC history an African team would have been in the same final. That was not to be. The Uruguayan stopped the goal bound ball with his hand in the final minutes of extra time. Instead of a goal, Ghana got only a spot kick, which they missed, and winning the penalty round, Uruguay went to play the semi-final, after many years. Suarez was red-carded, but that hardly mattered to anyone, including Suarez, who celebrated his country’s victory (rather Ghana’s defeat, as some put it), and proudly proclaimed that his was the “hand of god” goal. But Suarez is Suarez, and Maradona is Maradona, so the former’s remains only a hand goal, whereas the latter’s, the “hand of god” goal.

Suarez reportedly became a celebrity in Uruguay (and a villain in the entire African continent) for what he had done. A country needing an occasion to celebrate, celebrated its fourth place in WC 2010. Many would of course condemn him for having brought disrepute to the game. Unlike Maradona, Henry and Fabiano, he justified his hand goal, and did not hesitate saying it was intentional. He said that it was the only way to stop the goal-bound ball. The situation was dealt with by the referee according to rules that punished the player, and gave Ghana a chance to score. But Suarez knew, as everyone does, that the penalty taker would be under tremendous pressure at that stage, and might fail to score, which was precisely what happened. Suarez’s gambling brought Uruguay to the penalty shoot out stage. From his point of view, what he had done was a perfectly rational act, which he had done for his country. He had chosen between loyalty to his country and loyalty to the game. Suarez’s case would remain a classic example of the limits of both rationality and nationalism.


In Shimla last week, a good friend of mine gave me a collection of ghost stories connected with this lovely hill station: Ghost Stories of Shimla Hills by Minakshi Chaudhry. It’s more like a documentation of tales the author heard from the locals; she did not try to interpret what she heard, which is fine for a collection of ghost tales, because this way the stories are not twice removed from the original. One pleasant afternoon during my week-long stay in the city, he was kind enough to show me around some of the places associated with ghosts (most of them British, both male and female): the Ridge, Scandal Point, Lovers’ Lane, the road from Boileauganj junction to Chakkar, among others. The driver of our car was amused at what we were doing; “maybe there were ghosts in Shimla years ago (he said this more for reasons of politeness than conviction), but there are none now”, he said. I didn’t tell him that ghosts have to exist for the ghost stories to sound authentic and therefore exciting. Has anyone heard an interesting ghost story with its author saying that his story was false, and that ghosts do not exist? If one has either heard or read such a story, hasn’t he, honestly, feel cheated in the end by such a fake ghost story?

This apart, variety is always more interesting and exciting than uniformity. At least this is why a world in which bhuta, pishaca, brahma rakshasa, churail, (ghosts, ghouls, goblins, etc. in another culture, another terminology) etc. exist along with human beings has to be more interesting than the one which is inhabited by humans alone. Many ghosts in Chaudhry’s tales have their own life; at least they have their exclusive get-togethers, from which the non-white ghosts are excluded. Death has brought no attitudinal change. Interestingly, ghosts in these stories as well as in others do not always shy away from the humans; they sometimes seek to communicate with the humans or at least look for their company. But most often humans run into them by chance, which is entirely within the range of possibility, since they share the same space, and then if one is alone and the ghost is malevolent, the consequences of a chance meeting could be disastrous for the former. It is of such material that the ghost stories are made. Existence without communication or even desire for communication, gives rise to no tales; Shiva’s ghosts offer no possibilities for innovative ghost narratives.

The more malevolent the ghost, the more gripping is the story. Harmless ghosts do not always yield absorbing tales. Quite understandable; why read a ghost story if it does not give goose-pimples? Now a harmless ghost could become the subject of a fascinating tale if it left behind a colourful life while in the world of the mortals. Most of the ghosts in Chaudhry’s collection are (unfortunately) harmless. One of them in fact is so considerate that he consciously avoids his favourite haunts when humans are expected there. But if a human encountered one of these inoffensive ones and fell sick or unconscious, the poor ghost is not to blame; it is the fear of the living towards the dead and the prejudice of the former against the latter, formed, in part at least, from listening to horrifying (and unempathetic) stories about malicious ghosts, whose malice was often due to the far worse malice he had suffered from some human when alive.

As someone put it, some live as though to become example for others – what others should be or should not be. One can generalize it so as to include ghosts as well; so some ghosts exist to become examples, but “examples” of course for the living, not for their fellow ghosts. For a story teller, ghosts are the stuff of tales, not on account of themselves (remember Shiva’s ghosts?) but of their interaction with the humans. Many ghosts in Chaudhry’s collection have their home in Shimla because while alive, they were deeply attached to this quiet, scenic place, with a friendly, English climate. Unlike most, they did not leave Shimla after India’s independence, and it is because of their attachment to the house they lived in, the avenues they frequented, the Club they liked, etc. that they stayed on and continued to do so even after they slipped to another existence. When alive, they were probably simple, ordinary people who quietly and happily lived their days in that lovely hill town. When dead, they suffered the changes the city underwent after independence: filth all around, loss of greenery on account of reckless cutting down of trees to build ugly concrete houses, renaming of streets after locals and the collapse of landmark English structures because of sheer neglect, a general lack of discipline and order seen all around, etc. They moved around only in the darkness of the midnight, in the cold, the rain, and the mist, unwanted and even hated by humans, feared by humans, being the cause – sometimes unintentionally - of suffering to humans. All this because of their sick attachment to some material things when they were in the mortal world.