Mind the Dot

By Seema Chishti

In a telling moment for those who follow language and its altering usage in everyday life, in a promotional for Gujarat Tourism, its ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, says; "Kuch aur din gujaro Gujarat mein." The 'z' in "guzaro", as this man with an impeccable diction would have otherwise pronoun-ced, has been replaced knowingly with "gu-jaro" to rhyme with the 'j' sound in Gujarat.

The nuqta, a bindi-like small dot below a letter in Devanagari, differentiates the 'j' from the 'z' or the simple 'kh' from the guttural 'kh' as in Khan or "khwab".

The nuqta has a symbolism that goes well beyond the innocuous small bindi. It was first introduced in the 17th century when Devanagari was being developed, ("as old as Fort William," says a nuqta enthusiast) in an environment where Persian and Arabic were used extensively. The purpose was to absorb sounds from other languages, and enlarge the Hindi vocabulary.

The nuqta, especially in the early 20th century, got embroiled into issues related with Hindu nationalism. As one of the fallouts of the virulent debate on Hindi versus Urdu versus Hindustani, a strong plea was made to disband it altogether. Madan Mohan Malaviya wrote forcefully in his magazine Abhyudaya in 1930, "Hindi mein bindi kyon?" Later, as the country headed to Partition, and in the words of historian Shahid Amin, as the India-Pakistan boundary became a linguistic "LOC", Hindi and Urdu had people batting for them, but Hindustani, or the language that grew out of cross-fertilisation, got no patronage from either India or Pakistan. This, in fact, became a big political issue. Mahatma Gandhi took the middle ground between Hindi and Urdu and held that Hindustani must be recognised as a language, rather than the isolating ideas of pure Hindi or Urdu languages.

The nuqta became symbolic of this larger battle, and for several decades disappeared from newspapers and even Hindi textbooks. So, pronouncing words like "khandaan or zabardasti" correctly started to be regarded as an elitism, which the popular Hindi discourse didn't want to be part of. Sevanti Ninan, a media watcher, in her popular book on the Hindi press, Headlines From the Heartland, discusses this exceptional phase in pushing Hindi as the language of popular politics with the emergence of Jayprakash Narayan.

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