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GN Devy: A Portrait of the Linguist as a Humanist

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The civilisational mission of GN Devy

‘WHAT MAKES US human?’ is a question that has challenged and tormented scientists and laypeople alike down the ages. While the answer would be the stuff of numerous theses, we can agree that language, tool-making and laughter—with language heading the list—would be the top contenders. Few people in the country have done as much for the cause of language as activist, professor and linguist GN Devy. And even fewer know as intimately as he does what makes us human.

Devy’s explorations began back in the 70s as a literature professor at the University of Baroda. His wife Surekha Devi (a Chemistry professor at that time) and he would set out on his Lambretta scooter every Saturday morning to a neighbouring village to spend time with the people there to try and understand them. “I never went there as a scholar or linguist,” he says, when we meet in Delhi, “I just went there as a human being.”

This absence of an agenda and belief in equality among people—nullifying traditional hierarchies between the observer and observed, scholar and subject—won him not only the trust but also the faith of Adivasis. During these weekly interactions and explorations, spread over 100-200 km, he noticed patterns and decoded trends. He realised that there was a large concentration of tribals in the central band of India, running in a straight line from west to east, from Surat to Howrah. “It struck me as lightning,” he says, “Suddenly I started to understand why the Dravidic languages had remained separate from the Indo-Aryan languages. Why they did not merge after a co-existence of 3,000-4,000 years. I realised that the languages in the buffer zone seem to be having a good life.”

These communities piqued his interest. The seeds of a passion had been sown and he would go on to prove that “when a language disappears, a worldview disappears”. And more importantly, “it is not just the death of some human beings that maims languages, it is the death of livelihood that harms the life of a language.” By linking development with the health report of a language, he shifted the focus from the social to the economic. If people had work opportunities in their own villages, they would not be forced to migrate and pick up another mode of communication. To preserve a language, people needed to find employment in their own areas—it was as elementary as that.

Over the span of his career, this 66-year-old has taught English Literature at the University of Baroda, started the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh, Gujarat, been the founder-director of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara, headed the Peoples’ Linguistic Survey of India (PSLI) and has most recently embarked upon the Global Language Status Report.

The Global Language Status Report (GLS), which he plans to complete in the coming seven-eight years, will be an attempt to move away from mathematical modelling and sociological parameters that have previously been used to deduce the survival rate of languages. It is useful to remember that it has taken us about half a million years to evolve language. But we risk losing most of it. In A Nation Proud of its Language Diversity, Devy writes, ‘Some of the predictions maintain that out of approximately 6,000 existing languages, not more than 300 will survive in the 22nd century.’

So Devy wants to create a community-sensitive way of assessing the potential of languages. He says, “It is easy for a lab set up by an IT industry to certify that a language is endangered. But in our rush to certify them, we must not tread upon the sensitivities of the community and must not cancel them out of our development spectrum.” In the coming years, he plans to travel to Australia and Africa to study the languages found there, as, in terms of diversity, along with Asia, they account for 90 per cent of languages.

“Global Language Status Report is a mammoth task,” he says, “If I fail in doing it, no one is going to hold me responsible. Because I am not accountable to anyone. Nobody has asked me to do it. In Sanskrit and Hindi, there is a very good word—anahuta, meaning ‘uninvited’. I am doing this uninvited. If I fail, someone else will do it in the future. If I succeed… I am just going to humans who are already interested in their culture, society and ask for their help in a completely voluntary way.”

That is what he did with PSLI as well, involving over 3,000 volunteers, from academics to school teachers, linguists to nomads over a five-year project started in 2010. Considered the first survey of living languages in independent India, it studied 780 languages, of which around 300 have never been documented by anyone outside of the community.

He was awarded a Padma Shri in 2014 for his work with denotified and nomadic tribes; and dying languages. He was also the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992 for his English book After Amnesia, which is to be reprinted next year to commemorate its 25th anniversary. Devy subsequently returned the award in 2015 and provided a stirring justification, reminding us that the ‘great idea of India is based on a profound tolerance for diversity and difference…that far surpasses everything else in importance.’

While his list of awards and achievements is impressive, it doesn’t reveal the essence of the man. In our gilded times, when arrogance is the norm, humility a weakness, and politeness a rarity, Devy is an exception. In an essay, The Eye Sees, The World Is, he dismisses flattery and gently reprimands scholars and fans who deem his work ‘insightful’. ‘…Every time I have heard the epithet, my mind has recoiled,’ he writes, ‘I clearly know in my heart that I never had any insights, nor will I have any. ‘Sightful’ would have been a more realistic description of whatever I have done. For, all my life I have done nothing at all, except for allowing the eyes to be superior to my mind and head. Life to me has been seeing, and the life was worth living as I could never see my own seeing.’

When a language disappears, a worldview disappears

It is this seeing with the eyes and without judgement that makes him deeply humble about his own achievements, profoundly curious about people, and elevates his interactions from the mundane to the authentic. He approaches people as a confidant with time on his hands rather than a professional on a mission.

Devy’s ‘sightfulness’ can be traced back to 1978, when he first came across a linguistic report based on the Census of 1971, which listed mother tongues. 108 were names of languages and the 109th item said ‘all others’. What was this mysterious 109th item, he wondered. He dug out the 1961 Census of India and found that it listed 1,652 ‘Mother Tongues’. Devy then realised that only the 108 languages that were spoken by more than 10,000 people were officially acknowledged in the Census of 1971. “Nearly 1,500 ‘mother tongues’ had been silenced in the span of a mere decade.” It became his mission to document these languages and to understand what happens to a community when they lose their language.

By the early 80s, at the behest of writer UR Ananthamurthy, Devy (who is fluent in English, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, several varieties of Bhilli, has a working knowledge of Sanskrit and is now learning Kannada) started work on series on folklore in tribal languages for Sahitya Akademi. Eighteen volumes appeared, edited by different communities. This spurred the creation of Dhol, a quarterly magazine in tribal languages edited by the communities and meant to be read aloud. In two years, this ‘oral magazine’ was published in ten Adivasi languages (such as Knukna, Ahirani, Bhantu, Pawari, Rathwi, etcetera). The stories in the magazine— covering songs, epics, autobiographies and folklore—were suggested by tribals, written in their language and then translated into the state language (Gujarati or Marathi) and Hindi.

When the Chaudhari language edition was launched, an event was organised just outside Padma-Dungri village (south Gujarat) on a hill at dusk. Devy says, “In order to organise these events in the evening, I got a moonlight calendar prepared. I had no money to arrange for Petromax lamps or generators.” He carried 700 copies (each with Rs 10 printed on them) to this launch that was lit only by the glow of a full moon. He left the magazines in a basket, expecting people to take a copy for free. When he returned home to Baroda (300 km away) he saw that all the magazines had been taken and money filled the basket. Crunching a napkin into a paper ball he says, “All the notes were like this… it was somebody’s hard-earned money. It was money coming out of real hard labour from a person for whom that currency means a lot. People who earned Rs 70-80 a day had given away Rs 10 to pick up something that they could not even read… I cried that night. I realised if people have so much attachment to their language, it should be saved. It should be used for their development.”

Human memory is undergoing a radical transformation. We have outsourced the function of memory. Humans today no longer want to remember

Devy spent the following years working with tribals in and around Baroda, which led to the founding of Bhasha Trust in 1996 for the study, documentation and conservation of marginal languages. In 2006, Devy said one trustee would resign every year, so that the Trust would return to the people of the community. In 2011 he resigned. And earlier this year, his wife and he left Baroda for Dharwad (Karnataka). He says, “If I went for a meeting, they took my opinion as God’s truth. So we decided the best thing is to leave Baroda, so that Bhasha and the Adivasi Academy could run independently.”

Devy’s own life story is little known but tells of deep resolve and uncommon persistence. The son of paddy farmers, he grew up in Dhor village near Pune. He used a telephone for the first time when he was 15. And touched a television only at 28. Always interested in the written word, he would visit the public library in his village, borrow a book and read it on his way home. He learnt the art of reading books with rapidity and concentration, even though his exam results did not betray this skill. He consumed pages in a photographic way, imprinting the subject matter (even the page numbers) into his memory, and recalling it years, even decades later.

When he graduated from school, he decided to pursue Maths, but finding English difficult, he dropped out. He soon realised that there were few job opportunities available for a 16-year-old who only knew Marathi. He moved to a village in Goa where he worked as a labourer in a mine.

There he became a member of a public library which had a monthly fee of Re1. One day he picked up a copy of Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth and realised that he could struggle through it with the help of an English-Marathi dictionary. He had better success with the next English book of his choice – RK Narayan’s The Guide.

Enthused by the revelation that he could understand English fiction, he enrolled in college, but this time to study English Literature. At the age of 17, he made a rule for himself: he would read 300 printed pages of English every day. He says, “I kept to that rule very religiously, without exception. Even on the day I got married, I did not miss my reading. I did that till I was 43 (the year he won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his book in English).” He read all the English, Russian and French classics, immersed himself in Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati literature, and even embraced books on Philosophy, Science and Sociology.

His voracious reading impaired his eyesight, and by 45 he decided that in order to work with tribals in Tejgadh, he needed to make himself “un-literate to understand the mind of the tribals, to enter the oral tradition”. If from age 17 to 42 he read for four-five hours every day, from 42 to 65 he stuck to newspapers and the occasional essay or chapter. He adds, “I got more interested in sound. I started looking at the world with my ears, rather than my eyes.”

Devy narrates these shifts without the slightest hint of drama or bravado. When commended on his reading habits, he merely says, “So many people have strange reading habits. It’s not a big deal.” But the bedrock of all his stories is a determination and diligence that first made him a master of English and then a scholar of Adivasi languages.

While he has spent the last few decades creating the status report of languages as they are, Devy is now interested in the future of languages. He believes that we are now moving out of the language phase towards a different signalling system. He says, “The general conclusion is that the reading brain has reached a point of fatigue. The coming generations will not be interested in reading. And human memory is undergoing a radical transformation. We have outsourced the function of memory. Just as a point in history when we did not want to do physical work, humans today no longer want to remember. Everything is outsourced to an artificial memory chip.”

This outsourcing of memory will collapse our understanding of time and tenses. At a future time, we wouldn’t be able to transact effectively with languages that are built on an understanding of the past, present and future. Devy explains, “We will start thinking like a machine, and move towards image-based communication (perhaps similar to the emoji). That is why languages are dying rapidly around us. Humans want to move outside of language, to another phase of evolution that will allow us to think of multiple times and spaces at the same time.” His next book The Question of Silence, to be released in 2017, will examine how networked societies have driven us to silence.

His mission now is to ensure that in this transition from language to silence, we do not lose what we have learnt over 500,000 years. He says, “When we moved from ape to humans, we lost the skill of jumping. That should not happen this time.” Reporting and documenting thus becomes essential to its perpetuation. Devy’s work is important as it liberates us from amnesia and reminds us what makes us human.

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