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September 21, 2007


I doubt that the death of a language is going to be cause for grief among anyone other than linguists who specialize in exotic, little-spoken languages. There's a poetic poignancy, I'm sure, to be faced with the last 2 or 3 wrinkled speakers of a tongue now repudiated by the younger generation, scrambling against time to make recordings and diagram the grammar of the flickering prose. In languages, as in the case of species, Darwinism seems to hold sway. A language must evolve, change its form to move with the times and mores of its speakers, or face a natural death.
On my trip to India, I was astounded to discover the level of infiltration of English terms into the pop culture magazines in my mother tongue, Tamil. A purist would frown, but may well end up having to dig for pearls of linguistic purity in the dustbin of history.
Just as the average man-in-the-street struggles to comprehend lines written in Tamil from 300, years ago, so too will somebody 300 years from now marvel at the incomprehensibility of written Tamil of the late 20th century.

Here is a thoughful,6121,1143193,00.html>review of a book on disappearing languages by Mark Abley. While I do not favor doomed attempts at preserving a disappearing language (or a "pure" fossil form; I am definitely for evolution of languages), I am less blasé about the passing away of each. It reduces human>diversity and that is a mixed blessing. A language is not just an interchangeable vehicle to give expression to a peoples' myths -- this view is excessively mechanistic, like the view that mind and body are wholly separate. Language is woven into a culture in inextricable ways, nourishing it and being nourished by it. The impact of its disappearance cannot be plumbed by fuzzy measures of "progress" and "creative genius". And so I lament their passing and can relate to Abley when he says:

... linguistic diversity should be taken as seriously as biodiversity. He argues fervently, and convincingly, that the battle to save languages may even 'be part of a wider war, perhaps the central one of our time: the fight to sustain diversity on a planet where globalising, assimilating and eradicating occur on a massive scale.'

After my comment above, another analogy struck me. Language is akin to music, which too has a huge diversity of forms and expressions. Sure I don't like all or it, or even much of it, or have even heard most of it, but I sure want to live in a world where musical expression is both organic and diverse. The comparison with Darwinism is only partially right, Sujatha. Natural evolution does not lead to a systematic reduction in diversity. Individual musical forms evolve, come, and go (like languages) but what if musical diversity shrinks to 5% of current levels in two generations (as # of languages might)? Pause and reflect on this impoverishment. Can we still say: "No big deal"? I know the forces are large and this outcome perhaps inevitable. But one can still lament it.

My parents and other older relatives spoke an east Bengali dialect in private, switching to the "normal" Bengali mode with outsiders. My sister, cousins and I understood but never spoke the dialect. And now that most of those elders are gone, we will most likely not hear it either. A loss? Sure. A big deal? No.

I understand where you are coming from, Namit. While I love languages and can speak a few myself, I am not being cold hearted - just realistic. I feel the same way about "culture" which is interchangeable with language. Losing a language indeed might impair a way of thinking but whether that is an overall negative or positive is hard to pass a judgement on.

It is more important to ponder why some languages disappear. If it is due to coercion as has often been the case in history, then it is an artificial pressure. But if it is happening due to pressures of employment, economic progress and mobility, that surely is an "organic" change.

Although I agree with the natural evolution theory for "why" languages live or die, I do not agree with Ably's contention that their loss is akin to the loss of bio-diversity. As some commenters suggest on Razib's blog, losing a language is essentially a loss of data but culture doesn't bleed, living organisms do.

There is a lot of concern among anthropologists about "lost" ways of life. ( I am more concerned with "lost lives" due to poverty, malnourishment and disease.) The educated and prosperous elite sometimes lament the loss of innocence and purity among indigenous cultures. I have seen that here and in India. Mostly the people whom they wish to see hold on to their culture are poor, uneducated and their quaint way of life is a curiosity for us. I wouldn't go as far as to draw the harsh parallel to a zoo but sometimes I wonder.

In his excellent book Into Thin Air Jon Krakauer says something very similar in the preface. He points to prosperous mountain climbers from all over the world who descend at the Himalayan foothills with their state-of-the-art climbing gear, computers, satellite phones and numerous other modern day "necessities" (much of it left as garbage on the pristine mountains). He expresses his impatience with their kvetching about the disappearing "simplicity" of the Sherpa way of life. With the boom in organized "tourism" on Mt. Everest, the Sherpas now earn money and are no longer the bedraggled villagers they were a few decades ago. Their villages boast modern houses with satellite TV. This annoys some. Yet, as Krakauer notes, if you ask the Sherpas, that's exactly what they want - a shot at owning the modern gadgets and appliances of their clients and a chance for their children to have a future other than carrying heavy equipment for foreigners on a treacherous and backbreaking journey. Jon Krakauer to his credit, has created a fund from his own publishing profits which helps bring modern amenities to Sherpa villages. A disappearing culture? Of course. But good for the Sherpas.

Languages of the elite survive by adopting and adapting to whatever the progressive trend is. I have seen that happening in Bengali as did Sujatha with Tamil. Perhaps when everyone in a society gains fluency in that elite language, it indicates disappearing cultures as well as disappearing inequalities?

Japan, one of the least multilingual among the first world countries, has been doing that for several decades. Much of early and mid-twentieth century medical terminology in Japanese was appropriated from Germany, a country with whom Japan had a lot of scientific exchange. The recent words and expressions in science and technology are in English - the technical lingua franca of today. They just modify it enough to make it sound Japanese. One of the most hilarious terms (non-scientific) I recall is parasito shinguro. It means "parasitic singles" - a jibe at the prosperous young in Japan who don't marry, earn a lot but choose to live with their parents to save on living expenditure. A uniquely Japanese societal trend but a very English expression.

Ruchira: Your main point is interesting but a tad orthogonal to mine. You ponder why some languages disappear, whereas I noted the loss of diversity to inject a wrinkle in your "big picture of human progress". :-) I think the perils of losing human diversity should not be brushed under the carpet ("no big deal") by calling the loss "organic" and a sign of progress. Uniformity raises certain risks and, all else being equal, cultures with much diminished diversity are susceptible to a unique and significant set of ills.

The reasons for the diminishing cultural diversity today are plain enough: there are benefits to giving up diversity (as your examples show). But even "organic" reduction in diversity has both costs and benefits -- it's a mixed blessing, as I noted above and in my post on diversity. No half-way decent anthropologist longs to preserve diversity against a peoples' wishes; his concern with "lost" ways of life need not imply unconcern with "lost lives" (why the conflation?). Furthermore, are voluntary changes to be all equally and unconditionally applauded? Is vox populi, vox dei? The Chinese Cultural Revolution (to destroy old culture, monuments, and traditions) was an enthusiastic product of the people. Women "organically" sign up for narrow ideals of beauty. We voluntarily consume more and recycle less. You get the drift here. Examples can work both ways. It depends.

I think it is entirely rational to recognize the inherent worth of human diversity, recognize that people do willingly trade diversity for other benefits, and still worry about the rate at which cultural diversity is disappearing today (at least in this respect, you will agree, it is similar to bio-diversity). I see no "sentimentality" in this attitude.

Lament is okay. But what else are you going to do about it? It has to be the affected communities who need to take steps to preserve their heritage if they find that worthwhile - for sentimental reasons, national pride, practicality or whatever. If a community figures out how keep a foot in the past and go forward, they will do so. The Israelis resurrected an ancient and basically a liturgical language and made it the mother tongue of a brand new country which is modern and forward looking by every yard stick. Consequently, another "Jewish" language, Yiddish, rich in history, drama and the heritage of east European Jews was left to languish and die a graceful death. Except for a few sentimental">,M1">sentimental souls, not many Jews shed tears.

You cite the pathologies of a homogenous society and I recognize them fully. But there are arguments on the flip side of the coin also. India is a very good example. Compare Bihar with Karnataka. Four years ago, a friend from our college days visited us. He is from Karnataka. During chit chat, he let it slip, "We have higher standards of education in our state. The Biharis who have nothing but lawlessness in their state, are flooding our institutions of higher education. Why should we take responsibility for them at our expense and at the expense of local students losing seats to them?" So much for diversity! Separate AND unequal is more like it. Which is why Biswajit commented that rather than being a truly "mixed and diverse" society, India on an operational level consists of very "homogenous" pockets lying side by side, interactions among whom decreases in direct proportion to the distance between them. A mosaic, not an oil painting, in other words. India has maintained a public face of diversity not because it celebrates it with open arms or even tolerates it with glee but because it has meticulously followed the age old taboos and Lakshman Rekhas (a line you must not cross) regarding intermarriage and social commingling across caste, religious, regional and linguistic divides. Would you regret the loss of diversity in India if one mythical day, repeated and widespread intermarriage and cultural exchange gave rise to an "organic" but more or less uniform Indian culture which at the same time would erase all discrimination, sectarian hatred, suspicion and strife?

Look, if a society takes it upon itself (as Israel and Japan have) to live by a defintion of a distinct culture and still moves forward with developing economic, scientific and progressive societal trends for the benefit of its members, all power to it. But if a culture is fighting a losing war and tenaciously clings to tradition for sentimentality, identity or for merely providing an appetizing flavor to the global potpourri, it will die a rather "unlamentable" death, as it should. And that end will come "organically," believe me.

Ruchira, I'm stumped by the choice you offer as a thought experiment, between giving up cultural diversity and erasing "all discrimination, sectarian hatred, suspicion and strife". Is this how you fundamentally see diversity: an obstacle to achieving the good society? I suspect not but feels like we are arguing over two different words.

To sum up, I fully understand and appreciate cultures and individuals choosing what they must and evolving to survive. But if that transforms the world into a more homogenous place, it happens at a price (independent of the gains of homogeneity). It strikes me that at the end of the day, we may also differ substantially on our estimates of that price. Freshly back from China, perhaps the most homogeneous large nation in the world (the opposite of India), the price seemed to me quite steep and the gains not commensurate; a real eye opener. It struck me that I was taking so much of India for granted.

It has to be the affected communities who need to take steps to preserve their heritage if they find that worthwhile - for sentimental reasons, national pride, practicality or whatever.

Ruchira, you make it sound as if communities always have a choice in this matter and it's a level playing field where they can make a conscious decision by comparing the pros and cons of what they have and what they're about to acquire. I can give you two examples - Native Americans in the US and Aborigines in Australia. I'm not for artificially preserving a culture and language just for the sake of it, and there's not much I can do to stop the loss of languages, but I can't help but wonder how much of that loss is really "organic."
Regarding people making their own decisions to lose a language, decisions can also be short-sighted, as many parents push English on their kids in today's world while forgetting to pass on their native tongue. It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, especially if the kids love to read.

Is the difference between China and India due more to differences in the political philosophy, freedom of ideas and economy or "diversity?" If a system is oppressive and repressive, "diversity" doesn't count for much. The erstwhile USSR was quite "diverse."

No, I am not offering a choice between diversity and the eradication of injustices and suspicions. Willy nilly, human nature being what it is, those are some of the salubrious outcomes of erasing, or at least fuzzing the bright, hard lines of diversity. More common ground than celebrations of differences bring societies together. We gasp and sigh about the lack of social dialogue, including intermarriage, among blacks and whites in the US. Would you admit that it is perhaps a bit more than what transpires among Indian Hindus and Muslims, although the latter have a history going much further back ? Have you ever wondered why after thousands of years of living side by side, Indians still rarely marry outside narrow community allegiances? At what cost is this diversity being nurtured?

The biggest common ground occurs at the intellectual / economic level. Which is why no matter what one's cultural background, people don't just tolerate but appreciate each others diversity of outlook more fully, the more educated and economically well off they are. Which is why also, most (nearly all) intermarriages in India occur among the city dwelling elite. What I hope for is more homogeneity at those levels. If the adherents care enough about their cultures, those will survive the onslaught of homogenization of the social structure.

I am curious. What exactly do you predict will happen if we lose some diversity in our cultural eco-system?


I not arguing that "voluntary" always means "happily going along." Sometimes it means "survival." Given the choice between adamently proud "extinction" and adapting to survive, I will take survival any day.

Human history has been repeatedly shaped by war, oppression and involuntary submission to conquering powers. I am not passing moral judgement on those events. I am just pointing out that the forces of history have obliterated and will obliterate many a language and culture. After all, as recently as 1947, millions of Indians lost their homes on both sides of the border. (Part of the reason why I don't speak my parents' choice of Bengali dialect) Did they move "voluntarily?" No, but that they decided to get on with their lives in altered circumstances is the human spirit I applaud.

You talk about Indian parents teaching their children English at the cost of neglecting native languages. I am fully aware of that. Why is that happening? Are the British making them do it? What is India doing to correct that situation? Is it possible any more to create a common language in India other than English that will be acceptable to all? Has anyone tried seriously, other than enforcing ridiculous measures? I was in school when Hindi was made compulsory for all. When non-Hindi speakers suggested that this created the onus of learning one extra language on them and that Hindi speakers should reciprocate by learning another Indian language, it was rejected with contempt. So who is the guardian of cultural heritage if not the Indians themselves? BTW, why was India conquered by the Brits in the first place? Why couldn't a huge resident population repel a tiny invader? Did that have something to do with the militant diversity of identities of Indians or not?

It is very difficult to predict who or what will survive before the forces of history. Take Iran and India - both deeply cultured and ancient societies. One got swept over by Islam with hardly any vestiges left of their ancient religious identity. Yet India remains majority Hindu after having been invaded and ruled by the same forces. Why? What was at play here? And then there are the Jews, a community that should, by most calculations of the odds, have been obliterated, had external pressure alone determined their destiny. But they are still here, having retained their heritage, books and sense of identity.

I am acutely aware of the Native American situation as well as the fate of the aborigines in Australia and New Zealand. Well, would you rather see them integrated into mainstrem society or let them languish in "reservations" for the sake of nurturing ancient cultures?

Ruchira: I think the primary differences between India and China stem from diversity. It is precisely Indian diversity that would've thwarted any attempts to setup communism on Indian soil. For a billion+ people, India has been relatively free of both political and religious extremisms that have plagued a lot of countries -- no mean feat. The idea that I have my life, you have yours, and we have differences but we will live with those differences is deep rooted in India. Such tolerance amidst diversity underlies the syncretic nature of its beliefs and its embrace of foreign ideas. Without diversity and the debates it engenders, the quality of Indian metaphysics would have been vastly poorer. Without cultural diversity, we are less challenged by others. Diversity has a direct bearing on our sense of wonder and inspiration, and on the kinds of innovation we can come up with to solve problems. And so on. (Now I feel like a corporate brochure on diversity :-)

The diversity in India is not "being nurtured"! Nobody is tending to it with strings. It exists as it does, and it will change as it will. Yes, it has positives and negatives, limits and excesses. Too bad the country is not 200 years old. Can Indians trade some of their diversity for something else? Sure. They're doing it.

Listen, my strong initial reaction was to your casual "no big deal" to half of the world's languages disappearing in short order. You see it as a byproduct of progress; I see it as a mixed blessing. I have not argued for artificial preservations or romanticized indigenous cultures. I had to point out that while there are gains, there are also costs. I have no idea why you are so resistant to this proposition?

Ruchira, my example of Native Americans and Aborigines was to show that they didn't have a choice when they ended up on "reservations." As for future steps, I think it's best their choice (self-determination), but given that so much of their culture and way of life has been destroyed, how much of a choice is that? But no, I do not for a moment think that they should stay on reservations or adopt their old ways of living to satisfy some romanticized idea of "preservation."

Regarding languages in India, as I said, it's not a zero-sum game. Actually I am in favor of north Indians learning one more language in schools other than Hindi. If I had that opportunity, I probably would have. I'm not against teaching English - I think in today's world, it's essential for Indians to learn it and I'd challenge anyone who says it's not in India's interests to teach English.

What Namit said in his last paragraph. :)

Actually, I won't even claim that it is necessarily progress - just people assuming that it is progress when they choose to jettison something in favor of another. But that's the best human beings can do without having the attribute of 20/20 hindsight. Every social movement including communism, democracy, capitalism, socialism is launched on the assumption that it will bring "progress." Some succeed and others fail. Only history tells us if it is or "was" an overall gain. But life goes on and people adjust with bumps and bruises. I don't think a whole lot of thought goes into "loosing" cultures. On the other hand, a lot goes into preserving one with vibrancy as I pointed out in the examples of Israel and Japan - very traditional but modern countries by any standards.

I am not sure what to read in India's diversity as a political force. What Namit says is probably right - resistance to a philosophy forced upon them. Which may answer my question of why Hinduism survived in India but Zoroastrianism did not in Iran. But this mentality also contributes to lax law and order, lack of unified vision, social injustices and exploitations. "What do I care if so & so & so is getting screwed?" The political fallout from such existence is often fractious, identity ridden and localized as is the case now and easily and repeatedly vulnerable to aggressive forces puny in size compared to the residents, as was the case in the past. Perhaps to exist in this separate, hands off, loosely federated, "to each his own," diverse manner is the only way India can be held together. May be that's why the post-independence leaders had the sagacity to envision a nation that is actually "divided" within - drawing of state lines along linguistic borders. So, as Biswajit and I both pointed out, India's "unified diversity" is an image which does not hold up to close scrutiny. Tolerance with aloofness - people keep to themselves and cultures survive.

I am married to a Punjabi. My husband's aunt could never end a phone conversation (we spoke in Hindi) with me without quipping, "Ruchira, I can't believe you are a Bengali. Your Hindi is so perfect!" It was cute at first but became rather tiresome eventually. You see, most Indians don't expect each other to have much cross-cultural knowledge or appreciation. "Hands off" as you said.

I may have given you some false impressions in the matter of vanishing cultures and diversity.

First, the matter of disappearance of languages and cultures. It is important to note that most of the "disappearing" does not happen in a traumatic and precipitous manner. It happens more in the way I described -"organic" as you termed it. My sister and I forgetting (having no use for) my parents' specialized dialect. My own children growing up in the US, not gaining (having not much use for) fluency in the languages of their parents and so on. The changes occur to suit changed circumstances of life and demands of the work place. Yeah, occasionally, I feel a momentary pang of regret that my kids will never read Tagore in Bengali. Then I remind myself that neither did my husband who grew up in India as a non-Bengali. But we have found harmony and common ground despite that lacuna and our kids have grown up with an amalgamation of both parents' habits and outlooks. Yet, they are quite different from us in their world views, sharing much with their own contemporaries of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That is what I mean by "no big deal" if the purity of a culture is diluted with successive generations. To bring up Native Americans and Australian aborigines (Amit did that, not you) in this context focuses on one narrow side of the bell curve. The slippage of weaker, native cultures and their merging with others is now a global phenomenon. A relentless force against which we may put up a wall of resistance but are unlikely to succeed. We could try - like N.Korea and Myanmar. Or like China to some extent, by banning websites and installing "internet cops." But who is losing in this scenario, do you think? And it is not a strictly one-way street. The powerful cultures of science and technology also learn from the weaker ones at other levels - food, language and courtesy, softening the sharp edges. On the whole, a beneficial two way traffic. When I shopped for groceries in the early eighties, I had to go to faraway Indian, Chinese or Korean grocery stores to find items like eggplant and okra. Two decades later the regular suburban grocery stores carry not only those vegetables, but also coconut, raw tamarind, bitter melon, guavas and mangoes in their produce shelves, as also "chana aaloo," "chicken tikka masaala" and "mattar paneer" in the frozen section.

As for diversity, I am all for it but I also seek a "common vision" within the society at large. I disagree with your (and Amartya Sen's) relentless celebration of India's diversity of race, language and points of view as an unqualified positive force. While I agree that it makes India an interesting place, I don't necessarily buy into the notion that the clashing voices of interest groups and identity ridden public policies make it "better." India's progress is better described as "despite" not "because" of its diversity. And that is my opinion, strictly, due to my own observations of parochialism and suspicions of the "other" that exist among "diverse" communities in India. (Lack of intermarriages after thousands of years of sharing a territory is the sharpest indicator). After all, there is not a very good record of co-existence, wouldn't you agree? Peace prevails when communities live separately (forget big cities).

Beginning with the partition, when a large number of Muslims (mostly the elite) decided that they could no longer live side by side with Hindus with whom they had lived for seven centuries and the creation of Indian states based on language, these were the earliest indications of the distrust and lack of comfort level with "others" even in an India which had opposed a foreign rule under a unified national leadership of Gandhi, Nehru et al. When I was in the sixth or the seventh grade, further fractures occured. Punjab was divided into Punjab and Haryana, Assam was broken up to add Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram to the states' roster. Periodic, small and large scale ethnic cleansing (sons of the soil) based on caste and language in various parts of the country. Recently, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have been carved up into smaller states along narrower community/tribal allegiances. Not a stellar example of sharing and tolerance. And let's not of even bring up Kashmir. But that is the fault of Pakistan, right? As I said, this "diversity" without a unified national vision bothers me. It is a bit like the tendency of many Indians to keep a meticulously clean house and throw garbage on the street. And two prime ministers assassinated within a decade qualifies as political violence of considerable scale in my books. Could India perhaps, benefit from a bit of "homogenization" at the cost of losing some "culture?"

Have you ever wondered why Indians do very well in individualistic pursuits - business (preferably family/community owned), academic excellence in pockets of the country, sports like snooker, chess and badminton but tank miserably in international team sports and the Olympics which require a national effort? No, poverty or malnourishment do not hold water in a country where the physical diversity of the occupants spans a whole spectrum of fitness and strength and the middle class numbers in hundreds of millions. Could it be that too much diversity of caste, religion, linguistic allegiances trump a national identity?

As for what is meant by the negative implications of nurturing and preservation of culture, let me give you a couple of examples. During my days in college, I knew several ethnic Indian students from countries like Mauritius, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and Guyana who routinely came to India for higher education. Although you couldn't tell them apart by physical features, you could pick them out by the way they dressed, talked and behaved in social settings. They were a throwback to the generation of our grandfathers in some of their "cultural" outlooks. So, technically they were more "Indian" than me and my contemporaries who had left behind most of the traditions of our forefathers. Similarly, when I lived in Germany, I met some Germans from South American countries like Brazil and Argentina. As we know, many Nazi sympathizers had found haven in Latin America. These German families had held on to old German customs tenaciously in a foreign land by segregating themselves from the native populations. Their view of Germanness was preserved in amber, I liked to say. They lamented the loss of German values in Germany proper and shook their heads at the spectacle of their venerable ancestral land "going down the drain." Even some local Germans spoke admiringly of them for maintaining "traditional values." Made me want to puke.

Also, I would like to note that "culture" does not entail only music, dance, linguistic nuances, dress and food. It spills over into the area of human and civil rights, often resulting in systematic injustices based on religion, caste and gender. Female genital mutiliation (and male circumcision), employment discriminations based on gender, race and religion and polygamy to name a few. Women are specially short changed by "culture" - curtailed rights to education, economic freedom, health care, the right to appear in public and as in Saudi Arabia, even the freedom to drive. How many of these practices are we ready to tolerate for the sake of diversity and preservation of cultures?

If "diversity" were just about a choice between tandoori chicken and Gyro, sitar or guitar and sari vs trousers, I am all for it. But too many "cultural" considerations in political and civic matters give rise to cacophony and discord and yes they are a roadblock to "progress." A quick and final "disappearance" of some cultural practices does not deserve even the whimper of a nostalgic lament.

First, I understand well why individual languages (or other forms of diversity) disappear and that this is often the accretive result of lots of individuals making choices. I respect that. As an itinerant Indian like you, I too have seen instances of this all around me. I also understand the global forces at work today that seek to homogenize the world. I am not calling for preservation or heroic resistance. I am calling this super fast disappearance of diversity worrisome, lamentable, and risky for humanity. That's basically it.

My goal now is to try and convince you that diversity is not just "interesting" but vital to our survival as a species. I also detect -- what I can only call a misplaced -- sense that diversity is somehow to blame for a vast number of ills (particularly in India), and that reducing that diversity will tend to usher in a better world. There is no real correlation between lack of diversity and a more civilized life, as I will try to show.

Yes, India has lots of social injustices, exploitations, superstitions, corruption, etc. I have discussed this in other posts. Are you seriously blaming diversity for them? More generally, they spring from poverty and illiteracy -- they also plague other, much less diverse nations. Kerala is perhaps the most diverse state in India but also perhaps the least socially unjust or strife-ridden. Gujarat is more homogeneous but with far worse results than Kerala (and a worse UN human development index than Kerala). Europe today has more diversity than the US but not more strife. Colombia is more homogenous but has a lot of strife. In summary, diversity != strife/social injustice/exploitation.

Law & order is a problem (bribes, apathy, slow courts, police corruption but no "fascist creep ups" :-) but is that because of diversity? Lots of countries less diverse have this problem. On the other hand, law & order in China feels well oiled at all hours of day and night. For this the Chinese pay with 27 heads a day. Yes, China averages 27 executions every day. No independent judiciary. Not presumed innocent until proven guilty. Among large countries, China is also the most irreligious and most free of organized religions -- this was true even before commie times; Confucianism avoids the god question. China is the perfect place to witness the curiosities that rise to fill the God-shaped hole in the human consciousness. Should be sobering to those who cherish the idea of a world with no religions. But I digress. I have no interest in going down this track here.

Many Indians I know in the US complain about India's anarchy and general disorder (reminds me of Mexico). It's true, but this is not the full picture. It has advantages too. If you can't get the masses to form queues and follow driving rules, the flip side is that they also won't rally behind political utopias, or warm up to dictators, or support invading other countries. Likewise with "lack of unified vision". The one thing the worst regimes in the world have always possessed is a unified vision (the neocons had one). India will do well to muster enough vision for a modest sustainable development, but I doubt it will excel at it. It is okay not to be the neatest, most driven high-school kid with his career all planned out (think Singapore). He is insufferable anyway. :-) Islamic and Catholic nations of the third world, with sharply lower diversity, have nothing much to show for their "unified visions". Be careful what you ask for -- you might get it and come to regret it! Blaming diversity for lack of a unified vision is backwards. On the contrary, diversity should enable a more holistic vision to emerge as it becomes a priority. You see glimpses of it in the stirring and principled stands India has often taken on global issues.

As for the identity-ridden politics of India, yes, there is a lot of it. Holding it up as a problem is the standard refrain. For all that is wrong with identity politics, it is also the means by which historically victimized people organize and seek redressal -- again, a desirable flip side that every liberal should support. Violated communities are at the center of it. Dalits ("the untouchables") and others may have identity-ridden political agendas but they also frequently seek greater justice for their communities (sometimes also lining their pockets en route, or pulling strings for a nephew). The US civil rights movement grew out of identity ridden politics (later got broader). Hey, it is no small blessing to be able to setup a party of your own, champion a community's cause, pitch your ideas, and ask for their votes. Clashing voices and interest groups are not all bad! Only zombies don't clash and argue for their interests. In fact, in this respect, democracy is far more dynamic in India than in the US. I don't have to tell you about the convergence and inbreeding of ideas in the two political parties in the US. No such thing in India, and that's a good thing.

As I did earlier, I will continue to disagree with how you (and possibly Biswajit) see Indian diversity: homogenous linguistic-regional pockets existing side by side. The pockets are anything but homogenous. An average square km of a mid-sized Indian city is enormously diverse, owing to its many faiths, castes, classes, economic and educational spreads. Micro-groups there don't intermingle any more than the ethnic communities in Los Angeles do, or intermarry any more than blacks and white do in middle America (really, for all its tolerance and diversity, I am astonished at how few black-white unions exist in the US even today. Further, do white Germans and Turkish-Germans intermingle and intermarry at rates that please you? Or white Dutch with Indonesian-Dutch in a country famed for its tolerance and progressiveness?). As for apathy and aloofness, isn't American culture often discussed in those terms too: the demise of community, atomization of the individual, the isolation of modern life? How aloof were people when Bush began his war? How aloof are people when less then half of them vote (far more vote in India)? Many ways to slice and dice this baloney, you see.

The other notable impact of cultural diversity is on the vibrancy of art, music, literature, and scholarship (compare the Indian scene with that of significantly less diverse nations). Personally speaking, real diversity anywhere, not just in India, stimulates me greatly. Do I celebrate all manner of objectionable customs in the name of diversity? Obviously not. Indian legal institutions have outlawed lots of them and such customs are receding as they should (many are bound up with poverty and illiteracy). But there is an awful lot of diversity that inflicts no obvious moral damage, or is quite hard to pronounce on with clarity. During my recent two year sojourn in India, when I traveled through 20 states and 110 destinations, I was more alive, alert, and challenged each day. I might end this note with a quote not by Amartya Sen (you might call that self-serving :-) but by Naipaul, that harsh and relentless "brown babu" critic of India who you can't accuse of celebrating Indian diversity (from "An Area of Darkness"):

Afternoon now, and the train's shadow racing behind us. Sunset, evening, night; station after dimly-lit station. It was an Indian railway journey, but everything that had before seemed pointless was now threatened [by the advancing Chinese in the '62 Sino-Indian war] and seemed worth cherishing; and as in the mild sunshine of a winter morning we drew near to green Bengal, which I had longed to see, my mood towards India and her people became soft. I had taken so much for granted. There, among the Bengali passengers who had come on, was a man who wore a long woolen scarf and a brown tweed jacket above his Bengali dhoti. The casual elegance of his dress was matched by his fine features and relaxed posture. Out of all the squalor and human decay, its eruptions of butchery, India produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy. Producing too much life, it denied the value of life; yet it permitted a unique human development to so many. Nowhere were people so heightened and rounded and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves so fully and with such assurance. To know Indians was to take delight in people as people; every encounter was an adventure. I did not want India to sink; the mere thought was painful.

Ruchira and all,

This is a wonderful discussion, thanks to your--dare I say, diverse?--experiences and capacious intellects. I'm not up to it, but I want to chime in, anyway. Like you, Ruchira, your post shortly reminded of the recent one about books never published. The loss of a language, or even dozens of languages, is similarly no big deal by my reckoning. But I think my point is slightly distinct...and perhaps also wildly so, inasmuch as I enjoy cacophony and discord, sometimes especially when they impede so-called progress.

A book here, a language there, so be it. Those aren't commensurable, however, with the loss of an entire literature, which I would lament. Nor should preserving a literature--by segregation, in amber, if necessary--be viewed in any way as analogous to a sentimental, dogmatic nationalism. In this respect, anyway, I'm in accord with Namit's ambivalence.

I want to turn your last comment on its head to make a point. Human and civil rights are vague, general notions absent the particulars you subordinate to them. Music, cuisine, and clothing are ordinary, innocuous cultural categories, I suppose. They're also feminized ones, and I wonder if this doesn't play into their easy marginalization vis-à-vis politics and the hard sciences and their march to progress. Besides, famous and symbolically effective demands for civil rights in the United States took place over lunch counters. I acknowledge our insipid tendency to depict cultural diversity as a smorgasbord, but I also resist relegating food and music and the like to mere pleasantries.

Thank you Dean and Namit for your input.

Lest I have given the impression that I am not up for some fun and ferment, the body of my blog posts here should disabuse everyone of that notion.

My argument with Namit has really been on the edges of one question - cultural diversity by itself being a prescription for many cures of the human condition - and therefore the more the better. I dont' agree - not without the caveat of a halfway decent vision of what constitutes common good. There is always a critical mass of cacophony after which things do get out of hand. It is also wrong to argue that India has always been this way (it has also paid a steep price for it in many ways) so it will stumble along. If stumbling is all India aspires to and if a functioning anarchy is an end result one can live with, then there is no problem I suppose. But I am a little too old for that much fun.


Many Indians I know in the US complain about India's anarchy and general disorder (reminds me of Mexico).

I had a very vigorous argument with my BIL a few years ago. After a particularly hairy journey I complained about the absolute jungle on the streets of Delhi. He quipped that only "Americans" complain about that. I had to gently but firmly remind him that I used to complain about the same things when I lived in India with no aspirations of ever leaving. My frequent fights with rude bus conductors, taxi drivers, pedestrians who pawed me in a crowd, bank employees and post office workers who drank tea instead of attending to the businsess of customers were legendary and my BIL knew it. So, this is not a new "outsider looking in" attitude for me.

You have presented many false choices and "throw the baby out with the bath water" scenarios, none of which was my intention. A couple of points though.

India does not have to be like anyone else - China, Singapore or Colombia. A vast nation with much brain power can figure out what is good for it "organically." Colorfulness is okay but callous stupidity is not. I never found chalta hai (anything goes) a particularly intelligent expression.

If you can't get the masses to form queues and follow driving rules, the flip side is that they also won't rally behind political utopias, or warm up to dictators.

You see, very few people have the luxury of enjoying the "drama" that you describe and so enjoy in your travels. The truth is that the majority of people work grueling long hours, come home and put food on the table. It is already a stressful day for ordinary souls, especially those without the wherewithal of drivers, chaprasis or servants to take care of menial tasks. For the old, the poor and the infirm, it is particularly draining, to say nothing of the man hours going down the man hole just dealing with needless chaos. Indeed if people did queue up and followed driving rules, the unnecessary mental stress and the perils of physical injury will most certainly be reduced without necessarily increasing the probability of a posssible takeover by a dictator. Your philosophical leap from the lack of common quotidian courtesy to protection against fascist creep up is a romantic notion of "desirable chaos" I have heard before - mostly from people whose daily lives are not much affected by them. Talk to the ordinary householder - the stress and the drudgery is limitless.

Also, unlike you, I don't equate discipline and efficiency with "boring" and "anal retentive." The "bright young man who does his homework" (take Amartya Sen for example) is often also the most interesting one. The analogy therefore is false. One doesn't have to hark back to Nazi Germany to run trains on time. A decent infrastructure, predictability of public services and a safe environment don't have to come at the cost of fun and drama.

As for no fascist creep up in India, there is no need. Fascism is out in the open. The corrupt and bully politicians and the police force in certain parts of India are to be feared as much, or perhaps more than the criminals themselves. (see here, here, here and here for a small sampling)

Nothing - good or bad, that goes on in China, the US, Germany, or anywhere else has or should have any bearing on how India ought to conduct itself.

India will do well to muster enough vision for a modest sustainable development.

That's all I was really saying.

Fascism is out in the open.

The issue of police brutality in India is indeed a serious one. Well known is the case of Modi regime's fascism in Gujarat, especially in 2002. Manoj Joshi also raises good points about police high-handedness, POTA and discrimination against Muslims. Good thing BJP support has waned in recent years. I should point out that two of the four stories you link to are not fascist in import -- police brutality is convincingly not linked with administration policy -- note the strong official condemnation there.

I agree that "nothing - good or bad, that goes on in China, the US, Germany, or anywhere else has or should have any bearing on how India ought to conduct itself." You had pulled in examples from Israel, Japan, Iran, Germany, S Arabia, etc. I was trying to reciprocate with counter examples. :-)

About the luxury of my enjoying the diverse panorama of India on my travels, I can only say that I am blessed. I wasn't suggesting that not forming queues or not following driving rules is nice or desirable (I drove during those two years and stood in queues, much to my annoyance and often fighting with people). I was pointing out that there is also a flip side to that attitude -- which again, does not stem from diversity. Killing diversity may not lead to queuing etiquette and better driving. Likewise about your important point on "culture" often shortchanging women: Instead of being hostile to diversity per se -- without knowing what might take its place -- I would simply support activism for greater justice, workplace fairness, gender-equality, anti-discrimination, education, job creation, healthcare, etc., and let these do what they will to diversity.

It was amusing to me that you lumped me with Sen. In another exchange with college friends, I got lumped with Naipaul. The spread between their attitudes on India is rather wide, so I am glad I remain hard to pin down.

This discussion has led off into such interesting directions that I've been reading on, fascinated, rather than attempting to expand on my earlier comment. But I did want to mention a few more thoughts on the linguistic aspect that occurred to me, even though it might be a bit off-tangent in the current discussion on diversity.

When you've lived a long while with blurred boundaries between mother tongue and lingua franca ( I was a Tamilian brought up in Southern Kerala), there's a certain amount of language evolution that you are routinely faced with. I spoke the mid-TN brand of Tamil learnt from my mother, and still do. (Like Ruchira, but in a weirdly opposite way, I am complimented by relatives on the non-Malayaliness of my Tamil.) My mother, on the other hand, has changed her Tamil to include generous doses of Malayalam, which is more accepted among our friends and neighbors. It's very evident to me and my sister. My sister, surprisingly, has picked up on the same brand of Tamil as me, despite having been raised in part by a Malayali ayah. She speaks excellent Malayalam (mine is barely adequate), reasonably good Tamil. When two languages subsist along borders, as Malayalam and Tamil or Telugu and Tamil, there is a certain erasure of hard boundaries that occur.

Let me try presenting another perspective on language, as well. As a mother, I watched my kids start off developing baby language of their own, which metamorphosed into Tamil and English as their exposure to these took over their burgeoning baby brains. In a way, it was witnessing the birth, life and death of a brand new language. From a personal perspective, I have no cause to lament the death of the infant language and the switchover to a more understandable lingua franca.

While I understand that loss could be lamentable (whether for a cultural practice or music or literature or craft or ______ ), my question is why should it necessarily be a loss? Dead languages can be brought back to life (and provide a life's quest for those driven to do so), dead arts resurrected, old paintings reconstructed and what not. New cultural practices or groups seeking to emulate the 'golden days of yore' are hardly unusual.
An interesting example that I came across recently was the revival of a practically lost form of temple dance in Andhra now termed Vilasini Natyam, which has now been accorded the status of a dance form in its own right. There are currently maybe a handful of practitioners, but they have hopes that eventually, it will have more and more young dancers willing to try it. The fact was that this form of dance, because of its emphasis on the more sensuous and erotic aspects of dance was killed by denigration and the ostracizing of its practitioners. Now, in a changed media-driven Indian culture where the gyrations of the latest underclad MTV remix group commands hours of airtime and prurient interest, the 'sringara rasa' of the temple dancer would barely raise any eyebrows. A dancer who saw a single performance by one of the last practitioners took it upon herself to learn its details and is trying to resurrect it. Will she succeed? Maybe yes and maybe no. It apparently took over 40 years for the resurrection of Bharatanatyam, one of the most widely hailed Indian danceforms.

I am glad you appreciate where I was going with my indifference to too much attachment to culture / diversity etc.

As for bringing up Israel and Japan, I did so in the context of successful language preservation - models to consider if language preservation is a concern. I wasn't suggesting that others should necessarily emulate them. I am neither particularly admiring nor dismissive of their efforts - it is up to the Israelis and the Japanese. The Israeli success in resurrecting a very old liturgical language and transforming it into a spoken language as well as the medium for modern education is a feat that required utter dedication. It is comparable to bringing back Sanskrit as common vernacular of the masses in India and teaching physics, chemistry and math in it. Worth it? I don't know. The cost-benefit ratio of such an undertaking must be decided by the affected population. (In case India makes an attempt in this direction, P.G. can help I am sure, what with his feet comfortably in the realms of science and the vedas:-)

Sujatha makes the same point in her comment. While many languages do die an irreversible death, some dead languages are not quite "dead as a Dodo." If someone wished to breathe life into them, they will revive.

As a person from a "small culture"-- from the Kumaon Himalaya-- I am reconciled to seeing a slow erosion of our culture at the hands of the larger plains cultures. It is a matter of numbers and the general backwardness of the region which compels us to leave our habitat and seek employment in the plains-- mostly in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.There some of us marry out and others are simply assimilated into the larger Hindi-speaking culture.The Kumaoni dialect could be preserved when the region was geographically isolated by the terai forest. Now you can reach there in 5 hours from Delhi. Nothing surprising. When I was studying school in Nainital, I would see the Christian Brothers who are from Ireland reading Gaelic newspapers. Now Gaelic is on its way to becoming a defunct tongue. Most Irish speak, and are expected by others to speak English. All this is not good, because there is something rich and unique in each tongue and culture. But you cannot have a linguistic or cultural zoo.

Manoj, many others at Razib's blog to which I have linked have commented on the Gaelic issue. Mostly it is a "voluntary" decision on the part of the Irish. They see English as the way to upward mobility.

It is in the final analysis, voluntary.But is you live it like I do, you cannot but have a lingering regret. What philologists have to say about it is quite another thing.There are perhaps aspects of my culture/dialect which can contribute to the greater good, but will not because of circumstances beyond our control.

Another view appears among today's NYT letters. The closing paragraph:

I cringe at the thought of Western scientists and activists descending upon indigenous (indigent) populations around the world to preserve botanical knowledge for the sake of “science” (a code word for Western pharmacology) and to impose their view of linguistic and cultural diversity in an effort to persuade the speakers of disappearing languages to reverse their choices about which language best serves their socioeconomic needs.

By this account, the terms of the argument are pretty much dictated by an empowered Western civilization. "Voluntary" indeed requires the scare quotes provided by Ruchira.

I repeat : most languages disappear because of parallel phenomena unfolding outside the control of the speakers - the juggernaut of global forces. (Whether that is good, bad or indeed indicates "progress" can be debated) No one sets out to obliterate one language or the other. It happens by accidents of history. If the explosion of modern scientific discoveries and developments from the 18th century onwards to the present had occured in China, the middle east or in East Africa, most of us would be speaking Chinese, Arabic or Swahili. It is a business decision people make - to get on the boat or miss it.

The main reason that is currently cited for Gaelic losing ground to English in Ireland is that the Irish decided to shed their image of a depressed and backward nation and plunged headlong into the shining world of IT and Biotech. English plays better in those two realms than Gaelic. Ireland now is doing splendidly in both those fields. Good or bad? Well, we need to ask the Irish who (at least the younger folk) seem very satisfied.

Manoj, when we were much younger, I used to enjoy the Kumaoni songs that you sometimes hummed (usually after a couple of pegs of Scotch had warmed your belly and trachea). You also voluntarily created some distance from the Kumaoni milieu when you married my sister and not within your community. Your children may not relate to that language and culture as closely as you did. But in your case, you must admit that the cultural exchange happily involved embracing a "higher culture" :-)

I agree that there is a bittersweet angle to the loss of a language. We all feel that lingering regret when something that had existed for a long time, disappears. I feel bad when I have to get rid of my old cars. But we move on. For me, what is paramount is that we understand each other, sometimes a hard enough undertaking even when we speak the same language.

Ruchira: From the start, you have been right about why languages disappear and why nations are driven to homogeniety. No one here, as far as I can tell, is debating that. Indeed, oppressive cases aside, individual adaptations to larger than life forces cause most such changes. No one here has said that individuals should not make their choices and adaptations. No one has judged them. We all make such choices. This far we are mostly in sync.

But how to react to the change itself? Responses here have varied: we have lament for lost literatures, a personal sense of regret, the idea that some "lost" cultural expressions can be resuscitated, etc. Here you seem to be more detached, eager to "move on", and that's just as well. These are elements of human diversity, after all. :-)

However, my argument from the start has been that a drastic reduction of diversity in human affairs is dangerous, and on this we seem to hold divergent viewpoints. We will probably have to revist this again elsewhere, for I still have to convince you that I am right :-). For now, let me point you to an excerpt from an essay I wrote many years ago. Here I contrasted Enlightenment ideas with that of Romanticism, and presented a synthesis that appealed to me. This has a bearing on our debate and might provide further food for thought.

(Your dig at Manoj about "embracing a higher culture" was too funny. How much poorer the world would be without supercilious bongs!)

My impatience and lack of regret for what "was" or "may have been" is largely a product of my age though not entirely. Although I was more of a romantic in such matters in my youth, I was always a rationalist. I have not gone through any major catastrophes in my life and most things have gone the way I had planned and expected. But I find that I have become much more accepting of things over which I have little or no control - my venting against Bush may be one exception. Having lived through deaths (parents, friends and beloved animals), multiple relocations and making and breaking of new and old alliances, I have learnt to not dwell on the past - my own or the world's. I have learnt to "move on."

You may be right about the ill effects of a "drastic" drop in diversity, if "drastic" indeed is the operative word. If the same occurred gradually, "organically" and without anyone getting overtly screwed (giving rise to forever simmering resentments), I don't see that it will be such a loss to human happiness and even resourcefulness.

I actually brought to this post the same sentiments I had expressed in a previous one.

P.S: I corrected the link in your last comment and FYI: having married out, presumably, into a "ruffian culture," I myself have been the frequent target of supercilious Bongs (Bengalis, for those not in the know).

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