In the 1930s and ’40s, many members of the migrant Marwari community became actively involved with the freedom movement. The community went through a process of embracing a “national” identity, for which it would have to leave behind its regional one. Devaki Jain writes about how her mother-in-law gave up her traditional Rajasthani attire to join Gandhi’s freedom movement along with her husband. Aparna Vaidik writes about her grandfather giving up his caste surname and adopting the surname “Vaidik” – to signify that he belonged to the Aryan tradition of the Vedas.

These community stalwarts also became proponents of Hindi and the role it could play in becoming the lingua franca of a newly formed country. In the years leading upto independence and in the years immediately after, Hindi newspapers and libraries were set up by Marwaris. Seth Govind Das, from a prominent Marwari family settled in Jabalpur, became one of the leaders of the movement to declare Hindi as the national language of India, along with the likes of Hazariprasad Dwivedi and Maithili Sharan Gupt. These efforts bore fruit with the adoption of Hindi in the Devanagari script as an official language in 1949.

A mother tongue project

Exactly a decade later, Vijaydan Detha, sitting in a remote desert hamlet a hundred kilometres away from Jodhpur, was planning his own project, which was in sharp contrast to what other sons and daughters of Rajasthan were dreaming up. In a state where language has otherwise remained a political non-issue, Detha gave up Hindi in 1959 and decided that if he must write, it would be in his mother tongue. Even more radical, perhaps, was his act of deciding that he would address the most pressing and contemporary issues of our times by looking towards the oral traditions of the common people of his village.

The Marwari diaspora of Rajasthan continued to play a key role in the nationalising project throughout the 20th century, and in the building of a consciousness of a Hindu India and the imagining of a golden classical past. In the 1920s, the Gita Press in Gorakhpur was founded by Jay Dayal Goyanka, Hanuman Prasad Poddar and Ghanshyam Das Jalan, all Marwari businessmen, and it is a trust run by Marwaris to this day. The Birla Mandirs, a network of magnificent modern temples across the country, built over several decades starting from the ’30s, are built to deities ranging from Ram and Shiva to Lakshmi Narayan.

In Rajasthan, however, the original home of the migrant Marwaris, one finds a different kind of faith. The faith of devotees is vested in small and large shrines to folk deities. To my knowledge, with the exception of the temple at Pushkar, almost none of the major centres of pilgrimage is dedicated to Puranic or Vedic deities. Instead one finds the worship of Ramdevji, Gogaji, Tejaji, Rani Sati etc.

Many of the Veers are also worshipped as Pirs and have a following among both Hindus and Muslims. In my own work with Rajasthani folklore, I found very easy processes of deification and an intimate and everyday access to them, which does not require a priest’s intermediation. Detha’s stories are replete with ponds that become pilgrimage sites, marriage pheras that are taken around trees which are divine, benevolent snakes which emerge as deities....

A language without recognition

It appears that in the Marwari community’s zeal to aspire to an identity that was national, the national and the regional were established as mutually exclusive of one another. And so, ironically, even as the diaspora from Rajasthan successfully lobbied for the adoption of Hindi as a national language, Rajasthani to this day remains a language without any Constitutional recognition. Among the diaspora, the language is today spoken almost exclusively by older members of the community, if at all. The mother tongue has become a casualty of the nationalising project.

One’s mother tongue is really one’s oral inheritance – a collective repository of our cultural memories: Stories, songs, legends, lore and sayings – an ever-growing, ever-mutating mass of shared knowledge that exists only in minds, memories and words – in our language. The existence and transmission of this knowledge is fragile – and depends on the ability of different generations to have conversations with each other. Taking away language is to take away memory, to take away identity, to take away continuity.

Many subnational movements have made and continue to make language their rallying point. The Dravidian movement, the Assam Agitation and the Gorkhaland movement have all had a central focus on language – not only on language as an emblem of culture and identity, but on language as culture and language as identity.

When we get cut off from our mother tongues, it also cuts us off from these memories and histories which give us a sense of place in this world. And then we must find entirely new ways of making sense of ourselves. Is it this kind of deracination that cuts us off from our immediate pasts only to leave us hankering for a distant classical golden past, maybe because there is no other sort of past that we can access?

It is this void of cultural memory and identity perhaps, that the community has sought to fill in with memories of a distant past that is classical and golden. A past that is textual, and derived from the canons and hence, inevitably, privileges the narratives of the privileged. Our “folk” pasts, on the other hand, are diverse, plural, often living and contain within them a multitude of voices and narratives. The loss of mother tongue is also a loss of these ‘folk’ pasts – so often contained in tenuous oral traditions. And it is, perhaps, the loss of these pasts that lays the ground for the syndicate to step in.

Vishes Kothari’s book of Rajasthani to English translations of folk stories originally collected and written by Vijaydan Detha has recently been published in a book titled Timeless Tales from Marwar.