When a language dies, something irreplaceable dies: Ganesh N. Devy

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The scholar’s quest to document languages began as an intellectual one but went on to take a strong emotional turn

“I’m this angry person,” Ganesh N. Devy tells my photographer colleague, but his eyes are mild, and what might be a smile touches the corners of his lips. If the scholar is indeed ever upset about anything, it rarely shows. All through our conversation, on the lawns of a Goa conference centre where, the next day, he is to speak about murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, his voice does not rise above a conversational tone, his expression stays genial.

I begin by asking the literary critic and linguist about his academic journey and his evolution into a public intellectual. Devy tells me he dropped out of his first attempt at college because “everything happened in English, and I did not understand all of it properly, I felt inadequate.” He had read in Marathi, but not in English, which he could write but hadn’t spoken. He moved to Goa and did manual work before giving higher education another shot.

There’s a little story about how he turned his weakness — the lack of familiarity with English — into a strength. (He has a B.A. in English literature, two M.A.s and a Ph.D., and was professor of English literature at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.) As a 17-year-old, he chanced upon a book by Nobel prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck — The Good Earth. “I found I could actually understand it fully. With the help of a dictionary, I read two or three other books. Then I decided I like literature, enjoy it. I found my natural inclination.” He then decided to read at least 200 to 300 pages every day. “Even if it took eight or 10 or 12 hours. Even on the day I got married, I read my quota. I continued without any exception for the next 25 years, till I was 42.” Then, he won a Sahitya Akademi Award, for After Amnesia, a book in English, “I said to myself, now I do not have to learn any more English. I decided not to read books at all.” He says he covered most of the literature worth reading in those 25 years, and now only reads challenging books: something disturbing or highly philosophical, some obscure book.

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