In 1757, on the eve of the historic Battle of Plassey, a merchant called Amir Chand threw in an alarming demand at Robert Clive’s table. “Omichund”, as the English knew him, had served the East India Company, assisting in their shaky relationship with the nawab of Bengal. Now, however, as war looked inevitable, he also made himself indispensable, helping hatch that infamous plot by which the nawab’s commander, Mir Jafar, was to betray his sovereign and join ranks with the Company. At the last minute, however, Omichund put forth an ominous clause—he wanted Rs30 lakh for his services, failing which he would (regretfully) divulge the scheme to the nawab himself. Colonel Clive was upset. But he was also shrewd: two copies of the pact with Mir Jafar were prepared. The counterfeit carried Omichund’s clause, while the actual agreement said nothing about his reward. And when everything was over and the English had prevailed, the old merchant was summoned and simply told: “Omichund, the red paper is a trick, you are to have nothing!”
It is said that Omichund died a broken man. Two of his sons left colonial Calcutta to do business in Varanasi instead, where prosperity came to them soon enough. But it would be some generations before one of their line could redeem the reputation of their perfidious ancestor. To be sure, this great-grandson, Harishchandra, often referred to as Bharatendu (Moon of India), was not a vengeful nationalist—before he died this day in 1885, many were the occasions when he hosted gatherings to demonstrate affection for the Raj that betrayed his forebear. But even as he sang of “the Western rays of civilization” and the “progressive policy of the British nation”, Harishchandra’s contributions to the development of Hindi carved for him a place in the eyes of posterity. He might have composed panegyrics when births and weddings took place in Queen Victoria’s household, but it was also his pen that helped propel a movement to transform a neglected language of mixed origins into a mass cultural campaign that culminated in that famous cry, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”.
Harishchandra began life in 1850 in a combination of tragedy and grandiosity. He lost his parents young but grew up so rich that all his life his greatest difficulty was how not to mismanage more of his money. He founded and edited one of India’s first women’s journals, Balabodhini, but to his own wife all he offered was neglect. If an object caught his eye—a camera perhaps, or new perfume—he required it at once. “This money,” he laughed, “has eaten my ancestors; now I am going to eat it.” But even as he reduced life into an oscillation between debt and extravagance, he also left behind a mark that endures to this day. His Kavivachansudha (founded 1868) and Harishchandrachandrika (founded 1873) emerged as iconic platforms for literary exchange in northern India. Featuring Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory as well as news from the local Dharma Sabha, it was through these publications that Harishchandra, as the scholar Vasudha Dalmia notes, “veritably created literary Hindi” even as he gently voiced his support for Hindu consolidation. He became a catalyst for a vernacular nationalism that would achieve full force in the following century, rising simultaneously as the “Father of Modern Hindi Literature and Hindi Theatre”.
If modern Hindi is today well entrenched, where it comes from is an issue that still provokes debate. As Prof. Harish Trivedi writes, “Hindi was commonly perceived to be an underdeveloped and underprivileged language, fragmented into several competing dialects, backward and dusty by association with its largely rural constituency”. The British recognized Urdu as the north’s language of government. Since it was spoken primarily by elite Muslims, however, this stirred resentment among others who competed for jobs but did not know Urdu. As Harishchandra argued, thanks to this official bias, Muslims enjoyed “a sort of monopoly” where employment was concerned, which was not only “injustice” but also “a cause of annoyance and inconvenience” to masses of Hindi speakers who also happened largely to be Hindus. The matter was not black and white, but the message carried resonance. Both languages were cousins derived from the same roots—one was truer to Sanskrit, while the other had gained much from Arabic and Persian. Now they became rivals.
But this time also coincided with an urge to make new literature—something modern and fitted to emerging feelings of cultural and political nationalism. Much of the poetry in Hindi was in the Brajbhasha and Avadhi dialects, traditionally considered prestigious but thought to be encumbered by an excess of devotion and piety. Khariboli, the dialect spoken around Delhi and present-day Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, was an open vessel for literary innovation. “The progress of one’s own language is the root of all progress,” Harishchandra argued, and page after page in his magazine was devoted to plays, poetry, satire and essays, all of which combined to create a new corpus for speakers of an increasingly standardized Hindi. Khariboli was swiftly invested with pride and disseminated widely through Harishchandra’s energy and enthusiasm. Only he could have pulled it off—wealthy, flamboyant, and with personal networks stretching from British officials to Bengal’s reformers, he was noticed in the right circles. That he also centred his activities in Varanasi, a city of special significance for Hindus in a time of political consolidation, further legitimized his ventures.
In 1885, not yet 35, Harischandra died, by now less convinced of the Raj and its goodness for India. But what he had helped launch assumed a life of its own, becoming the Standard Modern Hindi of today in the course of a few decades. By 1893, a Nagari Pracharini Sabha emerged to lobby for official recognition of Hindi and Devanagari—the request was granted in 1900. By 1910, a Hindi Sahitya Sammelan was born, of which Gandhi remained a member longer than he was of the Congress. Poets and writers raised to think of Urdu as the language of culture, invested increasingly in Hindi. As Premchand wrote in 1915, “Urdu will no longer do. Has any Hindu ever made a success of writing in Urdu, that I will?” This “Hindi Renaissance” was infused with nationalism and some even drew links to 1857—seeds of a standardized Hindi were sown when speakers of various dialects united for the “First War of Independence” and recognized themselves as one people. Harishchandra, however, did not live to see the fruits of his work—but for many, by helping Hindi rise to its feet, he had more than paid off his ancestor’s debt. Omichund may have erred by siding with the British, but by creating a vehicle for cultural and national aspirations, Harishchandra had earned only honour.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.