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Altered dictionary

Disappearing words and new winds

G.N. Devy   |   Published 14.09.22, 03:42 AM

After spending full five decades in understanding the power of words, I am at a complete loss of words to express my thoughts and feelings on what I hear and see today. As a member of the speaking species called humans, I feel defeated. One reason for me being so overwhelmed is that the words in our time are rapidly changing their meanings. The next is that many words are being rusticated from their normal domain of circulation. Finally, there has been an exponential growth in the number of dysfunctional ears.

For several decades, I held the view that the term, ‘trauma’, meant pangs of unbearable pain, a sense of being grievously wounded or hurt. Going by this settled semantic belief, I wanted to use the term to capture the experience of Zakia Jafri, who had to witness her helpless husband being gruesomely murdered. ‘Traumatic,’ I thought, was an apt word. The long wait for justice, one felt, added to the trauma. But the wisdom of the highest court in the country dispelled my misapprehension. The learned judge dealing with the case told the country that a great conspiracy had been hatched to malign people in the highest positions and that those helping Zakia Jafri were agents of a political party. The honourable dispenser of justice expressed the view that such plotters must be put behind bars and dealt with in a severe way. So what I had thought to be ‘trauma’ was, in the learned judge’s opinion, pure drama.


My use of the term failed on several occasions in recent times. Bilkis Bano, whose experience of having to face gang rape and see her young child being slaughtered, I thought, deserved the use of the term, ‘trauma’, in its strongest sense. But I heard it officially said that the case was not so, and that the convicts, who were from a privileged caste, had acquired good sanskar and, therefore, could not have committed what they were charged with. Her desire to see them put in jail for life, the verdict surmised, was misplaced.

When powerful politicians torment their domestic servants for years, or drive cars on crowds and maim humans, or shout slogans asking for blood of minorities, or run bulldozers on the houses of poor people, the term, ‘trauma’, can no longer be used. The official version always has the other side of the story to tell the thoughtless ‘liberals’ that siding with the victims is anti-national, anti-Hindu, anti-law. The term, ‘trauma’, now means being criticised for allowing riots and minority massacres to take place when it was your duty to stop them, for forcing migrant labourers to walk hundreds of miles by announcing an ill-prepared and sudden lockdown, for ruining the economy with whimsical decisions. ‘Trauma’ means being criticised for dishing out lies being delivered in the name of information.

In question is not just one word. So many other words and expressions have suddenly changed their meanings. I have believed for the seven decades of my life that Jawaharlal Nehru was a ‘freedom fighter’. I used to believe that his having spent several long and short terms in jails and his having created several institutions to stabilise democracy were facts of history. His not being mentioned in the list of illustrious freedom fighters on August 15 tells me now that my impression was completely baseless. I used to believe that Subhas Chandra Bose gave the highest importance to secularism in his thought, speech and action. Now, I learn that Netaji sacrificed all in his life and fought the British hoping that he would one day become the hero for communal forces. For all my naive life, I used to believe that Parliament is the place where people’s representative can voice the concerns of the people. But recently, the Speaker enlarged the list of words that cannot be used in Parliament. These included words that suggest — remotely — censure and criticism of the prime minister.

There was a rather simplistic notion that if certain words are disallowed inside Parliament, they can still be used outside it. That used to be so in the past, but no longer. For instance, if one recites the sentence from the Preamble of the Constitution, “India, that is Bharat, is a union of states,” an instant troll-army attack is mounted. A few days back, the Union home minister, Amit Shah, was seen addressing a public rally during which he read out from a text this very sentence, uttered by Rahul Gandhi in Kanyakumari. Having read it out, Shah roared, in the most contemptuous tone, “Rahul Baba, you must read some history.” I grew up believing that Babasaheb Ambedkar, who headed the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly, had chosen the expression, “India, a union of states.” But it appears that the expression has now been rusticated by the proclamation of the home minister. The word, ‘Parliament’, is still in use, except that the institution indicated by it is about to change its physical location. The term, ‘justice’, oscillates unpredictably between presence and absence of compassion. ‘Constitutional rights’ is an expression that is on hold. ‘Democracy’ is a term that is on a long vacation. ‘Poverty’, ‘inflation’ and ‘unemployment’ are terms that no longer indicate pain and suffering. They are now understood as ‘negativity’, as a hindrance, and as malicious propaganda against India’s widespread glory and fame.  

When I think of the past of these and many such other terms and I look around for semantic certainties, an ancient Greek myth flashes in my mind. It is about King Midas, who was obsessed with the idea of accumulating all the gold in the world. Towards the end of his life, as the myth goes, the ears of Midas grew in length. They became hairy too, like the ears of a long-eared animal. In order to conceal them, he took to wearing heavy headgears. No one except his barber knew the secret. Under severe threat of punishment, the barber kept it guarded until he can no longer hold it. A time came when he dug a deep pit, put his mouth in it, and whispered the truth about the king’s ears. Slowly, weed and reed grew over the pit and as the wind blew, the reed started spreading the word.              

On the eve of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, I was at Kanyakumari where the three seas meet. The sea breeze was strong and it carried far beyond the venue of the meeting words like ‘Tricolour’, ‘Union of states’, ‘Constitution’, ‘Parliament’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Inflation’, ‘Poverty’, ‘Unemployment’, ‘People of India’. The applause was thunderous. Standing there on that historic moment, I could clearly feel that the winds are changing direction in Indian politics.

G.N. Devy is a cultural activist and Chair, People’s Linguistic Survey of Indi

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