Shoaib Daniyal is right: many of those who mocked Rahul Gandhi’s parliamentary “cheat sheet” were guilty of conflating language and script. Some of Gandhi’s detractors, predictably, took his use of Roman script as further evidence of the hold of Rome over the Congress party’s First Family. Too much was made of a trivial issue. But Daniyal’s eccentric quest to prove that the country should follow Rahul Gandhi’s choice of script was too free with both facts and logic.

Language, script, literature

Daniyal makes a number of errors. “Hindi”, as we know it today, is an invented language, that was standardised only in the 20th century. "Hindi-Urdu" literature goes back centuries before Chandrakanta (unless one ignores all literary forms other than the novel), written in a number of scripts, but not in Roman. If what is meant is literature in modern Hindi-Urdu, rather than other, older variants, then one can hardly claim that Kaithi was the dominant "Hindi" script before 1900 –  since Hindi, as we know it today, didn't exist at the time. It is not true that Sanskrit had died out as a spoken language by the time it became a written one – how else did Kalidasa write his plays for performance? Daniyal accuses Hindi of clinging “to all that is old” while acknowledging that its use of Devanagri is comparatively recent. Most absurd is the claim that Hindi is becoming a “kitchen language” used informally rather than officially: the official use of Hindi has, in fact, grown rapidly since Narendra Modi took office – and certainly not in the Roman script.

Is the Roman script crowding out Devanagri in popular use? Daniyal cites a number of examples to support this novel argument. What an individual Facebook message in the film Masaan proves is doubtful – to me, all it shows is that the character didn’t have the Hindi font installed. It is certainly true that the younger generation of Bollywood actors generally prefer Roman to Devanagri. But the majority of these actors are, like Rahul Gandhi, more comfortable speaking English than Hindi, and their spoken Hindi tends, like the contemporary lingua franca of much of urban India, to combine Hindi verbs with English nouns, the adjectives being roughly equally split. This is, increasingly, the language of Hindi films themselves, especially those set in the metros or abroad. What this shows is not that Devanagri is dying out, but that people who aren’t fluent speakers of Hindi tend to write in Roman – hardly surprising.

What of literature? Hindi literature is “minuscule”, according to Daniyal, and Hindi “has almost no intellectual space”. He cites as evidence the fact that Srilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari – a literary novel published in 1968 – has only 27 reviews to the 1,700 of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend, a popular bestseller published in 2014. This is not so much comparing apples and oranges as comparing apples and pork vindaloo – even the Hindi/Devanagri edition of Half Girlfriend has a higher sales rank than Raag Darbari.

Online, offline

Where Roman Hindi is undeniably dominant is online, whether via computers, tablets or smartphones. But there are a number of reasons for this – the preponderance of Roman keyboards and fonts, the disproportionately small number of internet users in the Hindi belt, and the use of Bollywood-style Hinglish rather than shuddh Hindi. And the use of Devanagri on social media is growing – Bollywood stars might all use Roman, but Ravish Kumar and Manish Sisodia prefer Devanagri. Even the highest estimates of internet usage suggest that only 25% of Indians are (even occasional) internet users. Set this against the overwhelming popularity of Devanagri offline. Five of India’s eight most circulated newspapers are Hindi papers in Devanagri. The top two– Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran – have higher circulations and readership than any Roman-script newspaper in the world.

There are a number of very good reasons for why Hindi has thrived with Devanagri. It is true that the language–script relationship need not be monogamous, but it does need to be symbiotic. And few scripts anywhere in the world could be better fit for purpose than Devanagri is for Hindi. The choice of Devanagri over Nastaliq was anything but random – it was the natural consequence of developing a new, highly Sanskritised variant of Hindustani. One might prefer the more organic and fluid Hindustani language to Raghu Vira’s Hindi – I certainly do– but that is to critique the entire project of Hindi as a language, as we know it today, not Devanagri as its script. The characters of Devanagri map almost perfectly on to the speech-sounds of Hindi, which is why it is one of the easiest languages to learn to read – spelling and pronunciation errors are far rarer, for any proficient reader, than in any Roman-script language.

Why downgrade?

Kemal Ataturk did not replace the Arabic variant script used by Ottoman Turkish with Roman merely as an exercise in Westernisation, but because it had long been thought that the Turkish language and script had grown apart. If Hindi were to replace Devanagri with Roman, it would swap an ideal script-fit for a particularly poor one. Roman Hindi spelling is anarchic – Daniyal’s own, unobjectionable transliteration, “Raag Darbari, spells the same Hindi vowel-sound in two different ways. Roman Hindi and Sanskrit, like Roman renderings of other Indian languages, are notoriously difficult for non-speakers to pronounce. With Tamil, Roman transliterations often flummox even Tamil speakers – the hilarious consonant misrenderings known on social media as #kogul.

Roman does not distinguish aspirated consonants, and the use of the letter “a” to represent all manner of vowel sounds is confounding. Most native English speakers, for instance, read the “a” of words like “Ramesh” as the English short “a” of “cat” – a sound that does not exist in Hindi. Devanagri Hindi spelling, by contrast, is helpfully exact. It’s only in Roman Hindi that numerologists can make a living out of adding silent vowels to words – Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham doesn’t work in Devanagri.

An official version of Roman Hindi would, of course, attempt to draw up spelling rules. Roman script functions differently for different languages – the Turkish “c” is prounounced “j”, while German depends upon the umlaut. But it could never replicate the accuracy of Devanagri. It might do for Hinglish advertising catchprases or Bollywood titles, but not for complex ideas or, God forbid, novels. And teaching students both English and Hindi in the same script would lead to more, not less, confusion. The use of a common script is why French speakers habitually drop the letter “h” when speaking English.

A Roman script for Hindi would be a disaster. Fortunately, Devanagri is not on the decline, except perhaps in the Nehru–Gandhi family: Jawaharlal Nehru, the last truly bilingual member, certainly did not read his Hindustani or Hindi in Roman. Unlike his father, the prime minister of “Hum jeetenge ya losenge” (or is it "haarenge ya losenge"?) fame, Rahul Gandhi is a passable speaker of Hindi – his linguistic competence is the least of his worries. His “cheat sheet” reveals only that in his choice of script, as in most matters of lifestyle or culture, Gandhi does not resemble the majority of Hindi speakers.