One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
“Aamir Khan mahodayasya abhinayam sameecheenam aasit atet sampreshyintu yatam andh-vishvasho maa kartayavamam. Sushant-mahodayasya Anushka-mahodayayashra abhinaya api sameecheenam aasite. Tathapi gitani samayanya aasan.”
Aamir Khan’s film PK has been talked about endlessly since its release in early 2015 — but not like this. Here’s the translation: “Aamir Khan acted well to communicate his message not to have blind faith. Sushant and Anushka also acted well. Though the songs were just average.”
Shagun Sinha, 22, offers her short film review in fluent Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language long relegated to the scholar’s domain, its connection with the current generation limited to a couple of years’ optional learning in school.
In October 2014, the state-run Kendriya Vidyalaya schools stirred up a hornet’s nest by abruptly replacing German with Sanskrit as the third language. “The decision has been taken in the interest of the nation,” said Smriti Irani, Union human resource development minister.
Pure Sanskrit is barely comprehended in multilingual India, though — like Latin — it is the mother of major languages spoken here, and Sanskrit words, mixed with Urdu, Arabic, English and other languages, pepper our conversation every day. According to the 2001 census, only 14,000 Indians called Sanskrit their mother tongue. Yet almost every intellectual worth his or her column has an opinion on the teaching of Sanskrit, especially after the new right wing government came to power in 2014. Incidentally, three cabinet ministers took their oath as members of Parliament in that language — not a first in India.
Within a month of Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) asked its schools to celebrate Sanskrit Week, which “would provide a medium for popularizing Sanskrit and stimulating interest in the language by increasing awareness about the close relationship between Sanskrit and other languages and the cultural heritage in India”. The then Tamil Nadu chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, responded immediately: “Tamil Nadu has a rich cultural heritage based on the ancient Tamil language. There has also been a strong social justice and language movement in the state. Hence, any official celebration of ‘Sanskrit Week’ in Tamil Nadu is highly inappropriate.”
Since then, volatile views have flooded our newspapers and TV channels supporting or opposing the mass revival of Sanskrit. An MP from Tamil Nadu described it as a Hindu language. A retired Supreme Court judge said 95% of Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion. A US-educated academic said Sanskrit is in the clutches of Brahmin exclusivists. A Nobel laureate said that it is not just the language of priesthood. A poet in Uttar Pradesh insisted to The Delhi Walla that Sanskrit would introduce our children to ancient India’s erotic poetry.
This noise makes it easy not to hear Shagun Sinha. A master’s student, she is in the second-year final semester at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
While disputes about Sanskrit in modern India rage in a lofty sphere, how is the language altering life on the ground?
Ms Sinha’s story will not change established positions in the war of ideas, but her young mind, trying to build a future in the old language, adds a different perspective.
After talking about PK in fluent Sanskrit for 10 amazing minutes, Ms Sinha explains in confident English how it feels to know Sanskrit. “It’s like being Harry Potter,” she says, referring to the young wizard whose adventures she grew up reading, alongside the novels of Enid Blyton. “I feel magical because I am able to speak a language that many look up to with awe.”
Dressed in blue jeans and a pink overcoat, Ms Sinha walks down a shrub-lined pathway on the JNU campus. Pointing to a hillock, she says: “Parthasarathy Rocks are over there. I love sitting there at sunset.”
Ms Sinha, who is staying at the university’s Godavari hostel, grew up in Noida, adjacent to the Capital. She is the eldest of two daughters, her father is a software professional, her mother manages the house. Her sister studies philosophy. Nobody in the family has anything to do with Sanskrit.
But Ms Sinha graduated in Sanskrit from south Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College (LSR). There she was introduced to classical works by Kalidasa, Bhasa and Panini, as well as portions of Indian philosophy from the Upanishads, Sankhya Yog and Purva Mimamsa.
“While reading Enid Blyton’s mysteries, I always tried to imagine England, a place I’ve never visited,” says Ms Sinha. “When I was reading our Sanskrit classics, then too I tried to imagine the place described in those works. Gradually, I was able to see India’s past.”
Ms Sinha remembers being moved by a passage in Kalidasa’s epic poem Raghuvansham, where Ram is accompanying wife Sita on Pushpak, the flying chariot. “Kalidasa writes of Sita looking down at the earth in wonder and I was struck by the poet’s description of the scenes below… they could be of a frequent flyer looking out from his plane window.”
Ms Sinha, who has never taken a flight, says, “I have reasons to believe that ancient India was very developed and we could have had airplanes, if not in the form they exist today.” She pauses, adds “Maybe they didn’t require seat belts”, and laughs.
The homepage of Ms Sinha’s English-language blog, Namam, describes it as “An amalgam of all the ‘khurafaat’, philosophy and the little sensibility of my mind”. In one post, she wrote, “Ever since my third-year undergraduate study at LSR, JNU has been the postgraduate dream destination. In February 2013, I visited the Convention Centre for training. The Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies lay opposite. Every day I would notice the signboard that pointed towards the Sanskrit centre. The very thought of the existence of the centre gave me goosebumps. ‘Will I be able to make it here?’, ‘How tough shall the entrance be?’, ‘I have to be here! A Sanskrit heaven it must be!’”
Ms Sinha got admission the same year, and joined a batch of 28.
The Sanskrit centre is half a mile away from Ms Sinha’s hostel. It is a red brick building surrounded by an unkempt garden crisscrossed with hedge pathways. According to the JNU website, the centre was set up in 2001 to train “students and researchers through carefully evolved teaching and research programmes at MA and MPhil/PhD levels”. It began with 10 students and now has more than 200.
One afternoon, a lecture was under way in one classroom. The half-open door showed a dozen students. One of them was a middle-aged foreigner.
Ms Sinha’s syllabus includes a selection from Pali and Prakrit literature. One subject is computational linguistics, taught by Girish Nath Jha, a former software engineer from Illinois, US. Explaining its place in a Sanskrit institute, associate professor Jha says, “As the root of almost all Indian languages, Sanskrit helps minimize cost and effort while building technology for any of those languages. My subject deals with that.”
Currently, Mr Jha is also teaching a special course on science and technology in Sanskrit, in partnership with a visiting biochemist from the US.
“Many of my former students have found jobs in industries that need research on language technology projects,” he says.
Mr Jha says that each year the centre invites applications for 30 seats in the master’s programme and 18 in MPhil. As many as 400 graduates apply annually for the master’s programme; the number has increased steadily over the years.
Of course, the same master’s programme is also available in the University of Delhi, where the Sanskrit department was set up in the same year that the university was founded.
Being a sensitive literature student, Ms Sinha has been affected by scenes in Sanskrit dramas and poems. “There’s a part in (Kalidas’ drama) Abhijnanashakuntalam, where the heroine is leaving her home to go to her husband’s place. Before she walks away, Shakuntala’s father asks the trees, the flowers and the herbs — all the things that she cared for — to give her permission to go. This scene has stayed with me. The other afternoon, while waiting for a bus, I looked at the trees and suddenly felt as close to them as I imagined Shakuntala was with hers.”
Ms Sinha doesn’t make a big deal about knowing Sanskrit; neither does she bemoan its supposed neglect. Her initiation into Sanskrit happened almost by accident. As a math-loving student of a Kendriya Vidyalaya school, she had dreamt of becoming a civil engineer — but she also studied “normal CBSE-type Sanskrit” from classes VI to VIII. “While English was compulsory, we had an option to choose either Hindi or Sanskrit,” she says. “I opted for Sanskrit because it helped me score better in exams. Gradually, I began to trust the grammar rules in Sanskrit. They are as logical as math formulas. I did not have to rattofy (learn by rote).”
Ms Sinha scored 98% in Sanskrit in her class X exams. She would have liked to continue with it, but the subject was not on offer. Instead, Ms Sinha, “like everybody else”, settled down to prepare for entrance exams to engineering colleges. She had to struggle with subjects like physics and chemistry and decided to take up Sanskrit. “During those three years in LSR, my engagement with Sanskrit classics ran parallel with the modern world on the college campus,” she says. “I took part in debates, organized festivals.” Recently, Ms Sinha was invited to her old college to judge a Hindi debate.
Until she arrived at the politically charged and predominantly leftist JNU, Ms Sinha was barely aware of the prejudices that privileged castes have for those lower down the social ladder. “It was here that I started seeing pamphlets about the debates questioning the ancient varna system,” she says.
Ms Sinha defies quite a few stereotypes of a Sanskrit student. She is a Kayastha by caste, though her subject is seen as the hegemony of Brahmins. In fact, the Sanskrit centre’s small faculty has a string of Brahmin surnames like Shukla, Mishra and Jha. “It’s demeaning to talk about caste,” says Mr Jha. “All Indians get an opportunity to grow and develop. We have been working very hard to build this centre and have students from all sections of society.”
It is in her politics that Ms Sinha conforms to the stereotype. Her sympathies lie with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In 2014, Dheerendra Kumar Jha, president of the Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh, an RSS-affiliated association of Sanskrit teachers, was reported as saying: “Learning Sanskrit gives you true happiness, decreases the chances of suicide. It increases patriotic spirit. Acquisition of wealth is a secondary aim, but Sanskrit can help in that, too.”
Ms Sinha also happens to be a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the RSS’ students’ wing.
It’s tempting to paint the Sanskrit centre in a single colour. Its elected student representative, too, is a member of the ABVP.
Would Ms Sinha have chosen Sanskrit if she were a Dalit or a Muslim?
“Sanskrit tells me about the people who lived in India many many many years ago,” she replies. “As a person born in this land, I have them as my ancestors, no matter what my caste or religion. Therefore, I have a curiosity to find out about their lives, beliefs, ethos and world view. One way to understand that is through the language that connects us to them.”
Seated on the Parathasarthy Rocks, Ms Sinha looks up at a jetliner preparing to land at New Delhi airport, and says, “Most of my seniors are either teachers or computational linguists… some are trying to enter the civil services. I plan to go to the education sector.”
Shubha-kaamanaa. That’s Sanskrit for good luck.
[This is the 98th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
The Sanskrit survivor