A couple of times a year, I act as facilitator at study-abroad programs here, where I talk to students traveling to India for a few quarters in a study-abroad program. These students come from various majors, and go to different cities in India with different subjects or areas of study in mind.
In my last counseling session, I met a rather interesting student.
He was Chinese-American, but was deeply interested in Indic studies, especially Indian languages. He told me of some of his experiences.
He first wanted to study Tamil (Tamizh), and get a better understanding of Tamil Classical literature, ideas and philosophy (he’s of course a philosophy major). He was fascinated by what little he had read about early Sangam literature (200 BC-300 AD), and wanted to learn the language itself.
So, he went down to India, and spent time in Madurai (Madurai Kamraj University), then Trichi, and then three months in Chennai. And he struggled. There were no programs that allowed him to enter at an interested novice level, and allow him to learn. Nor were there useful resource centers or libraries for him to access information. The professors he met were largely unhelpful. And there aren’t any good translations or commentaries in English of the Silappadikaram and other such Tamil classics. He was surprised, and extremely disappointed His quest for this knowledge was largely futile, but he wondered why if he could so easily learn any European language, or Chinese, or even Tibetian classics, was it so hard for Indian languages. And why weren’t there good university systems in place to enable that learning or research? I clearly had no answers.
His present effort (this time) is to go to Jaipur, and study Hindi, and medieval Rajasthani literature. He’s apparently had a little more success in finding a good teaching, study and resource center, and I hope his quest is successful. But he’s not being too optimistic this time, and hopes to at least have a good time traveling (he’s a smart kid, and now pretends to be Assamese to avoid paying the ridiculous “foreign tourist” fees at various tourist places, since he knows some broken Hindi).
But this made me think of a deeper issue. In Tamil Nadu, the “Tamil” revival movement (and the Dravida movement) dominates the political scene. For over 40 years, the state has been ruled by one Tamil party or the other. They shout hoarse about Tamil being denied it’s classical rights and pride of place. But if someone wants to come in and learn Tamil, there’s hardly any place he or she can go to, and there’s mighty little these so called champions of Tamil have done for Tamil language or culture (except shout hoarse that if girls wear jeans or if girls and boys talk, it’s ruining Tamil culture. Sorry, I couldn’t help that dig). If it is to study Tamil classics, it’s even harder. To the best of my knowledge, there are no dedicated centers for research and study on this area of priceless history. There are no dedicated university departments, or endowed chairs in universities for academics to pursue this research (if there are some, I haven’t found them). The few language departments have no incentive to teach, publish or research this area.
I’ve found this true for almost any major Indic language (Sanskrit’s priceless legacy at least has a few study centers of excellence).
Contrast this to the situation here, far away in the States. Some of them have outstanding programs in Indian languages, and carry out excellent research. They publish not only in scholarly journals, but also publish high-quality books available in various bookstores and almost all libraries. The University of Washington library has complete sections on Indian books, with shelves after shelves lined with books in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and many other languages, ranging from reprints of classics, to commentaries and translations (in English). When the movie Pinjar released, not only did I find and read the Hindi original, but I also found (in the library search, as related books) other books in Indian languages, related to partition.
It is one thing to shout hoarse about culture or language. But there does need to be incentives and resources to enable this education or research. And even at a basic level, for just spoken or written language, when it’s so easy to learn French or German (which is fantastic, I think) in India, shouldn’t it be the same for vernaculars?
Or shouldn’t that be the case?
postscript: Also read Vikrum’s excellent post on Orientalists, here. Incidentally, this is the 101th post on Balancinglife. That’s more blogging than I ever thought I’d do.
postscript 2: Vikrum "responds" to this post, with another excellent post, here. Bang on.