About a decade ago, a niece in high school in Chennai was speaking near-fluent Korean with her friends. They had taught themselves—with help from the Korean students in class—because they wanted to get the lyrics of the K-pop songs they loved and read more about the boybands that had them fainting away.
For years, K-pop, Korean dramas and art have been making their way to India, a careful infusion of cultural capital alongside investments in business and industry. When Hyundai started production in Tamil Nadu, in the late 1990s, little did Chennai realise that commerce would bring a new culture to the city. Over time, more than 200 small Korean businesses found space in and around the city, catering not just to the factories but also to the families that came from Korea. Tamil author Perumal Murugan, performers from Bengaluru’s Attakkalari dance centre, musicians from Delhi travelled to Seoul, while Korean painters, potters, theatre troupes and hip hop artists toured India. In Delhi, Korean representatives proudly shared words that “sound like Hindi”; in Chennai, they found roots with Tamil. Our cover story this week explores this cross-cultural exchange, and how Korea is using its popular culture to underpin trade.
While on the topic of crossing cultures, our big interview this week is with author Amitav Ghosh, whose latest novel, Gun Island, has been translated into Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam. Ghosh speaks about the rich diversity of language that Indians are exposed to, and how this finds its way into his writing. His books often have the argot of various communities—from the nautical Laskari dialect to the pidgin English of traders to his native Bengali and of course, English, and he attributes his deep interest in etymology to the range of tongues one hears on Indian streets. Korean slang is perhaps the latest we will end up adding to our “systematically” encouraged polyphony. “In etymology one encounters history, one’s past,” Ghosh says, but in our case, it could also be an encounter with the future.
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