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The loss of inheritance
The approach of another festival season raises the old question of the place of myth and classical culture in our contemporary lives. This is not an idle question—it forces one to confront the difficult problem of what it means to be fully and richly human. For millions of young Indians who have risen in recent years and are now part of the confused, upwardly mobile, post-reform internet generation, the question has a new urgency. With a degree of prosperity has come the luxury of being able to face up to one’s inheritance, even though the answer might be frightening.
Akhilesh Yadav, the young chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is typical of this generation. Unlike his father, Akhilesh finds no votes in the old bashing of English and “angrezi hatao andolans” especially when English medium schools are flourishing in the poorest Muslim mohallas of U.P. Yes, young Indians are more relaxed about the place of English in their lives, and gone is the earlier anxiety over “Indian-ness” or the belief that one has to read and write in one’s mother bhasha to be authentically Indian. Moreover, no one could have imagined the intellectual ferment that would come with the flowering of Indian writing in English. Yet, despite the new cosmopolitanism, Akhilesh and his generation cannot conceive of exchanging it for a riotous celebration of Dusehra, Diwali, and Ramzan, even though the significance of the festivals has receded from their consciousness.
What will shock Akhilesh Yadav and his friends in the political class is the sobering truth that an Indian who seriously wants to study the classics of Sanskrit or ancient regional languages will have to go abroad. “If Indian education and scholarship continue along their current trajectory,” writes Sheldon Pollock, the brilliant professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, “the number of citizens capable of reading and understanding the texts and documents of the classical era will very soon approach a statistical zero. India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the hands of scholars outside the country.”
This is extraordinary in a country with dozens of Sanskrit departments in all major Indian universities, along with network of maths, pathshalas, and vidyapeeths. The ugly truth is that the quality of teaching in these institutions is so poor that not a single graduate is able to think seriously about the past and critically examine ancient texts. They are parrots who can only repeat words without converting them into true knowledge. Politically motivated appointments have also ruined the few centres of excellence that once existed at Pune University, Deccan College, and the Banaras Hindu University. Fifty years ago, India had great scholars like P.V. Kane, V.S. Sukhthankar, S.N. Dasgupta, S. Radhakrishnan and many more. The tradition of pandit learning is also disappearing. Where is India’s soft power when there are fewer and fewer Indians capable of interrogating the texts of Kalidasa or the edicts of Ashoka?
The gift of economic growth is that for the first time parents are beginning to be freed from earlier middle class insecurities and their children are beginning to take risks in the pursuit of unusual careers. One of these is driven by a natural curiosity about one’s past. The proud discipline of making sense of ancient texts is called philology which is practically dead in India. But as academic salaries have improved in recent years, it is increasingly possible once again to make a scholarly career. No one, however, will be able to study in India unless our institutions improve. Akhilesh Yadav and leaders in other states have in their power to stop the rot and reform our third rate institutions so that young Indians can one day help to recover our historical memory.
To be worthy of being Indian does not mean to stop speaking in English. It means to be able to have an organic connection with our many rich linguistic pasts. To be truly ‘whole’ is to realize that mythical themes are universal and portray eternal truths of mankind, and can help us to cope with life at different stages. What separates man from beast is memory and if we lose historical memory then we surrender it to those who those who will abuse it.