Ganesh Narayan Das, aka GN Devy, defies labels, monikers or even plain descriptions. A former professor of English at University of Baroda, Devy is a maverick linguist among educationists and an intrepid ethnomusicologist among anthropologists. He is also a feisty activist-academic who led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. He opposes the growing fascism of a national language that thrives on antagonism with languages of the regions. He promptly returned his Sahitya Akademi award to protest the killing of Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi and rising intolerance in the country. As author of After Amnesia, he is hostile to all forms of hegemonic knowledge. He is unsparing on imperialism of western knowledge and caste-ridden knowledge systems in India. No wonder, The Crisis Within by Devy is an ominous read, an apocalyptic warning about the crisis in post-memory education in India. We all know that education in India has failed us. It needs urgent reforms. There is a lack of infrastructure, adequate funding and genuine autonomy within educational institutions in India. But very few of us are aware that the larger crisis in education comes from the erasure of our indigenous memory and our complicity with race, caste and gender discrimination in institutions of knowledge. With clinical audacity, Devy exposes the deeply entrenched colonial knowledge systems and Varna-divide in education in India. That is why the book lacerates you with a rare honesty of purpose and is of gripping relevance to anyone who is interested in saving the future of education in India. At a time when authoritarian rulers have become the order of the day, this book also reminds us about the impending crisis of democracy in India.
Written as a revelatory novella, the book unfurls—syllable by syllable—the precious lives of forgotten, marginalised languages and knowledge traditions of oppressed communities in India. Devy’s narrative of crisis of education is mostly introspective. In a deftly delineated prose, his arguments are spare, agile and resonant, drawing upon or alluding to the works of major Indian philosophers and social reformers. The pint-sized book is like a low-calorie fruit—juicy and delicious—letting every bite linger on the tongue in many languages. So feast on this book. The book is structured around four distinct yet interrelated themes: the idea of ‘knowledge’ in Indian tradition(s), the trajectory of ‘memory’, the patterns of social exclusion and their effects on knowledge construction, and the impact of technology on the forms of knowledge.
Looking at the rapidly shrinking fortunes of what Devy calls ‘natural memory’ in Indic traditions, he argues that the imposition of superiority of western knowledge by colonial powers and the racial segregation of Indian languages (bhasha) by caste Hindus led to amnesia about the informal, oral and folk knowledge systems in post-colonial India. The deep collusion between the master narratives of colonial modernity and Brahmanical bourgeoisie is at the heart of the crisis of education in India. To quote him, “The non-canonized classes were seen as incapable of ‘minds’ and, therefore, incapable of rationality. This denial has been at the heart of the crisis of knowledge in India. It began in ancient India and persists in our India”.
Actually, the idea of knowledge has become a haunted house in India because of the horrendous practices of caste society. Citing Babasaheb Ambedkar’s trail-blazer text, Annihilation of Caste, Devy suggests that denial of equality to lower castes led to the suppression of mythic and mimetic forms of indigenous knowledge in India. You wonder if we were condemned to this fate. Devy disagrees. He cites the example of ancient Sanskrit linguist Panini, who commented in his Sutrapatha that “Alas, there is nothing like a low speech and high speech; it is all a matter of your social mobility”. Thus, Devy in a saintly tone says, “For India to become an equal member in the community of nations in this ‘knowledge century’, Ambedkar’s prescription of creating space for those whose memory traditions Indian knowledge systems never acknowledged in the past, should be India’s non-negotiable priority.”
We learn from him that Indian languages (bhasha) are “pagan’s aspirations/setting the prophet’s palace on fire”. However, we also learn from him that Indian languages are rapidly dying in the knowledge-century characterised by the “irreversible merger of the physical and the digital”. In India, as against the 1,652 ‘mother-tongues’ listed by people in the census of 1961, there appear to be no more than 800 now in existence. Nearly ‘300 languages’ seem to have disappeared during the past 50 years, Devy informs. Terms like ‘language-death’, ‘endangered languages’ and ‘threatened languages’ greet us with a bleak, claustrophobic tale of our culture and civilisation.
Wait, I am not kidding. If this is not chilling enough, then consider this: Devy warns that “physical university, school and classroom will soon be only part physical and largely digital. Libraries and books will be less physical and more digital. Phenomenon such as nations, societies, animal and plant species, planets and stars, matter and movement, will increasingly be seen as digital realities more than physical realities… This image of the things to come—call it a utopia, call it a dystopia—is profoundly unnerving… because many communities—ethnic, linguistic, cultural—and innumerable groups on the economic fringes will have to pay the cost of the transformation by having to face misery, deprivation and extinction.” Horror, horror. This seems like a re-run of what Gandhi called ‘Satanic civilisation’.
In this grim scenario, the perverse effects of the English language in an exclusionary market economy are far more serious than imagined, Devy notes. He supports early education in the mother tongue for cognitive and transactional purpose of memory—sequencing and linking language to the pursuit of freedom and equality. For this, the English language has to free itself from colonial grammatology and sacrifice perks of power and privileges. In other words, the English language has to become a genuinely ‘memory-based’ Indian language of creativity, achieving what Sri Aurobindo called ‘chitt-vistar’, the idea of aesthetic and spiritual ascension. Devy warns that if India has to become a more humane society, it has to escape the tyranny of the tuition class and the tyranny of the dehumanising entrance test regime. Or else, every city in India will become a copycat of famously-infamous Kota, the ‘suicide city’.
Here, I have a minor grouse with Devy. Perhaps, he has forgotten that sky-high expectations of the over-educated elite and neo-middle classes are the undoing of education in India. The super-rich and neo-middle classes have turned education into a Trojan horse of greed and lust. Though the education system is rotten, all is not lost. Being an eternal optimist, Devy believes that “in post-memory education in India, we have the opportunity to heal the wounds caused in the past by the Varna-divide and colonialism”. Not surprisingly, he passionately evokes Gandhi, Tagore and Ambedkar to promote what he calls ‘diversity institutions’ rather than ‘university institutions’.
Let me conclude with an autobiographical snippet. I am an émigré Indian English language poet in Mumbai. “I was wounded early,/and early I learned/ that wounds made me” (Adonis). These wounds are a result of violence of double selves, the repressed native and the dominant ‘other’. In other words, there are predictable and unpredictable ways of belonging to multiple forms of creativity. Languages are living creatures. They are like extended family, gossiping, quarrelling most of the time. Rivalries, betrayals and redemption are routine. But they are happy together, simply happy. Thus, let’s build more inclusive mythic and mimetic playgrounds with a virtual merry-go-round of memory in educational institutions in India. And save our languages and cultures from extinction.
Ashwani Kumar is an author, most recently of Banaras and the Other (2017). He is a poet and professor of development studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai