Words are a mystery. No one knows why humans alone carry words with and within them. Words are the tapestry that makes us believe that we are alive, as fact or fiction, as form or rumour. An affair with words is the most engaging, most bewitching, and most terrifying affair with the world. A word is a symbolic token made of thin air. As material, it is neither animate nor inanimate. Yet, it has a throbbing heart. It can be made warm or cold. It can be soaked in emotions or be produced dry as a rock. Words can smile and make you smile. Words are like glowworms, momentarily lighting up the darkness surrounding you. They are like the proverbial life-saving raft in the middle of the tossing waves of an ocean. Words allow us to discover the universe; sometimes, as William Blake said, even in a grain of sand. Words endow a semantic life to all that is non-living and an aesthetic form to all that is formless or yet unformed. Words make their homes in your minds and live there, almost forgotten, to rise again suddenly when you expect them not to. Or else, they have no homes. If not spoken by you, they wander in exile. They live in you, live through you, live beyond you, and live even after you are gone.
Scriptures say the word is the world. I say the world within the word is the abode of faith. I am thinking of the fire in the belly of a word as well as of the frailties that a word is beset with by its very immateriality as I write this column today. It is my sixtieth piece to appear in The Telegraph. It is now exactly fifty years since I started giving public lectures and publishing my observations on India through books and articles. Through these decades, I have had to deal with numerous editors and publishers. I can say in no uncertain words that among them, the editorial desk of The Telegraph stands unmatched. Of the some 70,000 words I wrote for this column over the last five years, The Telegraph has never asked me to change a single syllable, never re-oriented my opinion by introducing editorial cuts. If at all, the edit-page desk has helped in correcting a few typographical errors and factual inaccuracies to make the pieces I wrote flawless. The media used to be considered as one of the supporting columns of democracy. And, therefore, any self-respecting column writer has to think of democracy as his or her first article of faith. I was asked to contribute to The Telegraph precisely when the idea of democracy had started receiving serious dents all over the world. Hence, I chose topics that I thought would shore up the idea and enhance its importance for the happiness of the people. Without malice towards anyone, I wrote about the arrogance and the hubris of the ruling regime and pointed out its paradoxes, untruths and insensitivity. When I started publishing my youthful articles fifty years back in literary periodicals, the most overpowering desire used to be to see my name in print. During the last five years of my writing career, the most urgent desire has been to see that hope is not extinguished altogether and to keep the spirit of fearless questioning alive. I love India as much as I love the rest of humanity. I wrote in order to share this love for all that is humane. I have no claims to any intellectual distinction; but I have faith in the power of words, particularly words that are spoken out of anguish with no self-interest or ulterior agenda. I have decided to sacrifice the privilege of writing in The Telegraph as I turn my limited energies to a large mission of reviving conversations between civilisations that stand today in clashing positions. Out of love for the readers of this column and in humility, let me recount a story in the last paragraph of my last article for The Telegraph.
Hundreds of kilometres outside mainland India, on a group of islands, the Homo sapiens found its habitat — genetics tells us — some 65,000 years ago. The ‘out of Africa’ man had walked tens of thousands of kilometres braving rain and heat through dense forests inhabited by millions of creature-species. All that the earliest migrants may have carried with them, apart from their bodies, apart from their sweat, blood and smells, was language. They had made words. They knew how to reassure themselves, how to protect themselves from the surrounding density of danger and darkness, by uttering those words. They continued through the millennia to live, survive and thrive well until the twentieth century. By then, the rest of the world had been cut into nations, into religions, into classes. The inhabitants on the island had no clue about the changes that their kith and kin of prehistoric times had gone through or had invited upon themselves. They were not able to cope with the viruses and germs the new arrivals brought with them. They did not know how to cope with the laws and land-rules the outsiders brought with them. The language of the ancients said, ‘I belong to the earth and the ocean.’ The language of the new man said, ‘Earth and the ocean belong to me.’ One after the other, the ancient folk of the island fell victim to the lies, laws and lust of the new people. They resisted the lure of medicine, the fear of law, and refused to be ashamed of their intimacy with nature. In the end, all but one eighty-year-old woman had died. She remembered how many full moons she had seen, how many generations of birds breeding on the branches of the forest trees she had seen. She recalled the names of the constellations known to her and her mother and to mothers of all her foremothers. She wanted to share all of that with someone. But none was there to understand her speech. So she sat next to bird nests on the sea shore, next to the swirling fish. Then she started uttering word after word — all her memory, all the memories of the world that had been — and the bird and the fish listened to her. She sang, bemoaned, whispered, ranted, and spoke words of great love. The eighty-year-old was talking to birds, to fish, in the hope that the rich tapestry of words created by her forefathers would remain alive even after she was gone. Then one morning, having uttered the very last word of the 65,000-year-old language, she closed her eyes. She was no more. Her language was no more. It had gone, leaving humans far poorer than they can imagine. The Gregorian calendar that measures our days and numbers our months declared that it was January 26, alas, the Republic Day for India. The year was 2010.
I cannot convey in words the pain I experienced to learn the demise of a 65,000-year-old language. And so, I gathered people from all parts of India to collect as many words, as many living languages, in the country as possible. That gave birth to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a compendium of over 700 languages. Words, even after they vanish in silence, can generate new words. I stop in hope.
G.N. Devy is a cultural activist