How to think plurality?

We gratefully receive these thoughts from Professor Ipshita Chanda. They feel very relevant to the season, and we share them on Christmas day.


Put some salt in water – and look! Watch the fun
What name will you give salt, when the mixing’s done?
Thus guided by the Prophet submit your self to god
What name will you call self, when self and god are one?

The poet is the Sufi master Khwaja Banda Nawaz GesuDaraz, who lived in the early 15th century and is credited with introducing Sufi tariqa to the Deccan in southern India. This verse can easily be interpreted as referring to the state of fanaa, the union with god towards which the Sufi practitioner is journeying through living this life following the way of a master. In the state of fanaa, the seeker abandons the self and becomes one with god. The state of erasing difference, however, must needs be preceded by acknowledging its existence – hence the need to see it in its infinite variety in every grain of salt. That is the ground for the question, “how to think plurality?”

And so, we may begin with the writer of the lines quoted above.

GesuDaraz wrote in Persian and in Dakkhni, a language used in the southern part of India. It spread over a vast area thanks to teachers and seers of various Sufi orders who crafted and used this language to spread their message to the common people who did not understand Persian. The local languages of the South belong to a language family unfamiliar in the northern part of India, and so, the language developed across the area of influence of the saints and seers combined at least two language families, or to put it more exactly, variations of two language families. Dakkhni combines vocabulary, cultural references and usage from Persian with the same from languages of the Indo Aryan and of the Dravidian families. GesuDaraz travelled across the Deccan and spent his last years in Gulbarga, now in Maharashtra, close upon the border with the neighbouring state, Karnataka. The variety of Dakkhni he used combined the local languages Marathi and Kannada, Hindustani, common to Northern India, and the philosophical and spiritual vocabulary of Sufism in Persian.

Dakkhni, however is not an “official” or scheduled language, that is, it is not recognised by the Indian constitution’s VIII Schedule, where 24 official languages are listed. Why is this so?

The idea of having no single language as official or national when a variety of languages was spoken and the languages were so closely related, indicates a desire on the part of the policy makers to foster this natural plurality, thus acknowledging and preserving both the systemic relations and the difference between the languages and cultures included within the geopolitical area demarcated as India. But perhaps under the influence of the colonial idea of language standardisation, instead of taking cognisance of the relational dynamics between plural languages characterised by “fuzzy boundaries”, an atomist model of languages prevailed. In this model, each language was seen as a complete unit, closed off from other languages, even while they all coexisted within geographical space. Dakkhni could not be thus standardised. It does not fit into an atomist model as it remains a confluence of many language families and cultures, and it cannot be ascribed to any specific linguistic state as it is spoken across three states.

If, indeed, we had been able to think of plurality as entities-in-relation rather than as many self-contained discrete entities, we would have begun to question the very idea of single- language literary systems as sealed off from each other. Literature as a human activity would then be constituted by our relation with the world and with others through language, the “medium of our intersubjectivity”, the medium of our “intentional relation to the world” (Syed A. Sayeed, “Dismantling the Political”, in Mangesh Kulkarni ed., Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Political Theory, SAGE India, 2011).

If we are ready to grant this as a perspective, a place from where we see, a sensible and conceptual world coordinated through language, let us call our perspective pluralist. From this perspective our existence is seen as a set of relations to a plural world, in which there are others, entities and objects of endless variety. Our lives comprise expressions of our own and translation of others’, thoughts and feelings into actions and responses. Our actions cannot be absolute or isolated, they are directed and intentional – as acting embodied consciousness, we each take responsibility for our actions. A relational perspective is, therefore, a dynamic one. It means a concrete, continuous engagement, much like existence itself.

The necessity for understanding becomes even more urgent and commonplace when we think of our existence as being in relation with: therein lies the radical irreducibility of an other: any and every other. So, thinking plurality entails thinking that alterity is irreducible, but essential to human existence.

Thereafter, the choice is ours.

If we intend to willingly make that choice, thinking plurality requires that we look at two objects in relation within a frame, a perspective, without introduction of a value hierarchy. This is a pluralist perspective, from which we can see the relation between entities rather than entities alone.

And this brings us to the ethical question which underlies any relation between subjects: how to understand the other without reducing it to our assumptions, our obsessions and our prejudices? What becomes of these in the encounter with an other?

And who can predict that, infallibly or even randomly?

The very being of difference demands that the enigmatic remain so, inciting in us the sense of wonder and perhaps discomfort and adjustment that all human encounters have to surmount or contain in order to occur.

So to think plurality we have travelled from language to world view. With little effect. Because at least where I am located, despite this being a daily reality, we have yet to see it clearly enough to start recasting our thinking towards it, though we live immersed in it.

And to thank you for walking through my thoughts with me, I offer you some lines from the introduction to Padumavat. Malik Muhammad Jaysi wrote the Padumavat in1540. Jaysi followed a Sufi master, but he uses allegorical imagery drawn from the beliefs of the Gorakhpanthis, a sect of yogic practitioners based in northern India. They are followers of Gorakhnath, who learnt the truth of creation from his master Matsyendra, who overheard Shiva himself telling it to his wife Parvati. Jaysi was the first known poet of Awadhi, part of the collection of linked languages prevalent in west and central India, known as Hindustani and used by Tulsidas to write Ramcharitmanas, his retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayan. After the hamdnaat, or introductory invocation marking his obeisance to Allah, Jaysi writes:

Turki, Arabi, Hindawi, whate’er be the tongue you speak
All the world will praise your words, if the path of love you seek.

In a world burdened by the ravages of identity, can we consider his exhortation?


Ipshita Chanda is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Department of Comparative Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, and translates between Hindi, Bangla, Urdu and English