Language is persecution. The essay looks at the semantic structure of our languages and the linguistic dilemma of learning a foreign language over and above our mother tongue.
Updated: 11 Sep 2022 11:18 am
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, advanced by Edward Sapir in 1929 and developed by Benjamin Whorf explores how the structures of a language determine the native speakers’ perceptions, thoughts and categorization of experience. I suspect being educated primarily in English from our preschool days has caused a propensity on our part, to think, organize our thoughts and even dream in English. By “our”, I refer to many seventies and eighties convent or English medium-educated Indian kids.
My mother read to us in Bengali and taught it to us side by side with English. (The first language at our English medium school). So I can still swing it, switch my thinking to Bengali with a conscious effort, when required. If at a gathering or event in our own cultural milieu, at our festivities, religious or cultural ceremonies, the process is often organic, rooted in childhood precedents, and requires less effort. The presence of expectant elders of grandparental age, who are most often monolingual, groomed in the cultural mores of mother tongue plays a huge role in this morphing of roles so to speak. When you want to hear your grandmother’s reminiscences, or that of a favourite great uncle you get into the habit of segueing into the mother tongue world, lured by the enchantment of Thakumar Jhuli, (Fairytales from Granny’s Bag of Tales), fascinated with the adventures of Lalkomal, Neel Komal and the Indian equivalent of the Unicorn or the snow white winged Pakshiraaj.
Other than fairy tales you also want to absorb every horrifying detail of India’s Partition trauma, twice, once for Bengal in 1905, and the wider more horrifying Partition of the subcontinent itself, into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in 1947.
The hardships, the terror-inducing riots and how despite the polarization, neighbours and friends from different communities hid each other’s families to save lives, is another sort of grim fairy tale that births our chaotic and complex reality, and yet holds out hope. We need and crave the real, and yes, our minds shift into one hundred percent Indian gear in the face of a crisis. We carve out an identity for ourselves from the trauma, that was the unique experience of Indians in the wake of British departure. There is an irony in describing this indigenous experience in English, and my Dida’s broken shaky voice, narrating how they had been hidden in the emptied dried out tank on the terrace of a Muslim friend, has to be heard in the timorous soft accents of the mother tongue. How below, a raging mob rushed down the streets raising horrendous cries and scythes in the air. But this will have to do.
Once the tale is over, however, we resurface, into a quite different reality, of a tech-savvy developing democracy with high ambitions and a tendency to ignore its ground realities of extreme poverty, burgeoning illiterate populace and a soul-crushing gap between Haves and Have Nots. The Great Indian dream apes the Great American Dream without much common ground or correlation between two differing sets of situations. Our real worlds, continue to accommodate two sets of language, favouring the powerful foreign one as a tool for material advancement, (if your parents can afford to pay for it), and the mind bifurcates to take refuge in the values of two cultures. Two sets of ideas mean two different versions of life, The things that are our go-to, for comfort and consolation can then come from alien shores.
The financial and educational glass ceiling permeates all through, and this bifurcation of thoughts and mental processes is uniquely an anglicized Indian middle class phenomenon. The well-educated Indian, conversant in English, with cosmopolitan exposure. The Other India, of rural or blue collar populace is not so dichotomous and still eats, sleeps and dreams in their own language, though this is changing. Without a wholesome understanding of what can be safely borrowed from the West and what can be incongruous to our own set of circumstances.
But I want to stick to the linguistic dilemma of learning a foreign language over and above our mother tongue in this essay. How it shapes the map of our very minds, our likes, dislikes, perceptions, values and propensities.
Most Indian kids are used to co-sleeping with parents till the age of seven at least. I got my own bedroom at eight, true, but that was the exception rather than the norm. Daddy’s job entitled him to a commodious company bungalow. In India’s crowded cities, sometimes an eleven or twelve year old child from even an affluent upper-middle-class family, still sleeps in a single cot in the parents’ bedroom, if space is cramped. Or, the child is attached to a parent and refuses to be thrown out! We Indians don’t cut the apron strings early. I fondly recall co-sleeping every chance I got with visiting grannies, aunties, and cousins, all in a straight line on the terrace or the front hall, exchanging quips, or listening to fairy tales from the elders.
This not only fired our imagination, it also made us empathetic, and nourished our souls. The hugs and cuddles, the bonds forged by casual intimacy of tucking an arm over a snoring grandmother’s chest may be a reason for our soft sentimentality, a clannish adherence to kinfolk!
Indian families are not uber expressive or obviously demonstrative in physically affectionate gestures. We don’t say we love each other before leaving for work, or at any time of the day. Our parents probably said it a few times in their whole lives, in moments of great intimacy and solemnity. Probably our grandparents did too, but in absolute privacy, never casually in a room full of friends, family or strangers. We don’t hold hands in the park so much, except when, with our western education, we consciously rebel against our conservative upbringing and want to express our affection, take pride in it. That is not the same really as casually draping an arm around your girl because you are in a great mood, not really even thinking about it, or labelling it PDA.
But we are attuned to expressing love through performance of duties. We won’t hug and kiss in public, but we share rooms. Sharing physical space being both a necessity and by extension an expression of intimacy. Of trust and a letting down of our guard. Maybe the famed lack of reserve of Indian families meeting strangers from the west on a train or plane and immediately volunteering personal details, asking probing questions stems from our life habits? We are cooped together in a coupe, ergo, we are temporarily, all family?
However, an English education, an early anglicized upbringing, puts such a premium on privacy and individual space that we start simultaneously craving it as impressionable children. It is that strange duality in our nature, an intriguing dichotomy that we are pulled constantly by two sides inside, that are quite in opposition.
Our private space, as sacred and uninfringeable, is deemed a favourable outcome, a right we are justified to, and not a privilege. Those fortunate enough are proud to have a room of our own. To ourselves, because we realise it is a luxury. Not a necessity, we have enough cousins, and friends, who sleep three to a bed, even in their teens. And we enjoy the midnight giggles, the muffled chuckles at anyone who decides to serenade us with snores.
Whereas in the countryside pre-teen children unpretentiously prefer co-sleeping, even hugging or cuddling up against the mother as a security blanket. A little older ones might occupy a separate corner of the room or a separate charpoi/cot in the same room happily enough.
But for many of us, an early precept of autonomy shapes our preference for personal space and so, we hanker for it, feel deprived without it, in our daily lives. Yet as visiting guests we segue effortlessly into our inner Indian avatars, packed 13 to a bulky ambassador, sitting on each other's laps, and filling up motel rooms, rest houses and dak bungalows to full capacity. In our weddings, a few honoured guests are provided a separate sleeping facility. The rest of us happily lie on a white cloth, spread over a thick red carpet in a huge hall, laughing and joking into the night. In fact the night the bride and groom solemnize their vows, is spent in full company of cousins and kin folk, exchanging raucous jokes, and impromptu and planned performances by the younger kids. It is fun, it is an organic and spontaneous way to integrate the new bride into the groom’s family. With a few of her cousins in tow too, to keep the boy's side in check. This is called Bashor Raat in my mother tongue, Bengali, and it ends with the groom having to pay each of the bride’s sisters and cousins as handsome an amount as his pocket will allow. Or her skills in dancing or singing merited.
Yes, their actual wedding night, is the next night, in the groom’s house and called, “Phool Sojjya”, or the bed of flowers.
You can see we are a boisterous rambunctious lot, as spirited and lively in a group as we are reserved as individuals or as a couple. It is not two individuals, but their social milieus that really celebrate the relationship. The couple get to celebrate in private, but we are very close, very ambient in their personal lives and celebrations. A common Bengali saying is that our life partner is not ours but belongs to the whole family, to friends, and to society equally, and a happy union is one that shares itself in an unstinted manner.
And so we overshare and over-enquire gratuitously in an innocent effort to show we are indeed concerned, involved in your lives. Sometimes of course it is plain old human curiosity, and gossip-mongering, but not always. Sometimes it is the cultural vantage point we see you from.
In my grandparents’ generation when there were four to five to even twelve offspring, born to a single set of parents, with joint family cohabitation under one roof, with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, physical space was not regarded as essential for mental space. Children lined up dormitory fashion in bedrooms accommodating three or even four in a single king size bed, or a double bed and a cot on one side.
Even in our parents era, nuclear families had relatives over, for long stretches, there being only one spare bedroom, cousins slept on a mattress piled over the carpet in the front hall, blissfully happy for the entire summer. Oh! The chuckles and the giggles in the night, as whispered jokes, confidences and tall tales were exchanged, or as an elder sibling tried to frighten us with a sotto voce narration of a ghost story! Sometimes a beloved grandmother, a real life Dida/Thakuma, would be the tale teller, and we would all cosily snuggle up to her. We didn’t invite only as many of our kin over, as we could comfortably accommodate, that is, provide separate rooms for. I remember reading with wonder, in Wodehouse and Austen books, of the Blue room, the Rose room etc to be prepared for Lady “So and So” or Aunt “That” with fascination. Then quickly assimilating this as normative and upgrading my expectations to this new norm.
This was the change that also forges our mind via media of an education that was outsourced from another continent.
Even as an adult, when I had a foreign guest over, from Canada, I cringed because the room I provided her was not a bedroom per se, but an in-between space on route to our main bathroom, in our tiny apartment. It felt bad to infringe upon our guest’s privacy. I would have had less reservations had it been an Indian friend, and none at all, if it were a cousin, or kin visiting from our villages. We would all just fit in and even revel in such shared spaces. The trifling discomfort of a bit of a crush and squeeze would be compensated in the joys of reunion. To our way of thinking, objecting to temporary inconvenience was being a poor sport and not very welcoming. My Canadian friend was a real sport about our cramped space, but I still felt like a poor hostess.
I give this as an example of how linguistic structures can mould mindsets on a very obvious level, casual statements read in PG Wodehouse, Austen, Eliot, Bronte or other English novels, of “Show him to his room”, “Take it up to her room”, or “Oh no! I have to share my room with my cousin, he snores”, seeping into the subconscious, as both legitimate occurrences, and justified causes for concern. There are also subtle effects inherent in the very grammatical structures of languages that affect one.
I once read a hilarious article in a Reader’s Digest compilation, called Laughter is the Best Medicine, of how a nouveau French learner dreamt of cars and tractors, pulling their colours behind them! As in French, certain adjectives come after the noun. I have seen this phenomenon first hand in both my boys, who spoke their first Bengali phrases in the structure of English sentences. I am married to a Tamil man and we both speak in English at home, never having fully mastered each other’s language.
So they said “Khabo Jol” (Drink water) instead of the usual Bengali usage of the noun followed by verb, “Jol Khabo”, (Water drink).
Here I cannot help but mention a cute incident. My Bengali maid from the village took it upon herself to teach my boys English, when I was not around, albeit with a heavy accent. I was certainly puzzled why my boys insisted on saying "SayBain" for seven, and "Aa-pail" for apple. When I succeeded in correcting that, (both my sweetheart of a big hearted maid, and my two precocious boys), I had another hurdle to face. In Bengali, we preface names with an Ei/Aai as a sign of affection. My son Luke was often addressed as Aai Leu, (Luke is a difficult word to pronounce for many Bengalis. And he has been alternatively called Lau, which means bottle gourd in Bengali, Lay-Euk, Laa-Euk etc.) Funnily enough, our word for potato is aalu, and I never caught on to why my two year old would adorably pick up a potato from the kitchen in his hands, look at me lovingly and coo, “Aai Leu!” Soon after, the penny dropped as to why Luke kept mentioning a potato, whenever he met new people! In kindergarten, his friend asked me, “Aunty, I told Luke my name is Roshan, but he won’t say his name. He only says Aalu, why is he so fond of potatoes?” The other shoe dropped.
My smarty pants toddler was actually introducing himself! This early imbibing of a tongue not our own, influences the accents that govern and dominate our speech as well. The harder phonetics of English with a stress on the first syllable has played havoc with my own Bengali, causing hard core Bengali speakers to giggle, when I pronounce, Madras, (The prior name of the city Chennai), with a stress on Mad, swallowing up the Ras. Oh the fun they had imitating me, “Oooh! Amrita wants to go to Mad-Rs, shall we enquire if there is room for her in Ranchi?” (A city known for its lunatic asylum.)
I regret to this day that I don't dream in my beloved Bengali. Especially after my mother, a honours student of linguistics, passed away in 2019.
I was horrified to discover that the depths of emotion inside me had a richness and desolation that came solely from its Bengali core, dormant inside. It sprung from the deep well of my mother’s fond influence and it urgently, desperately sought expression.
It was near impossible to express that exclusive and internalised Bengali experiential emotional template using English alone.
Being fluent in English, knowing its finer, deeper nuances did not help throw light on nuances and experiential paradigms that were so foreign to its realms. Just like the grey moors with purple heather blossoming is a charming but distant Blyton-ian landscape to our indigenous green lushness and the soft vermilion-clayed verdure of Bengal.
The Bengali ethos, the generational rooted legacy of being born into a certain family at a certain time and place, with ancestors who lived in a nation that was not independent, ancestors who both worked under the British in an administrative capacity, and fought bravely for freedom from them generated an unique degradation, a Stockholm syndrome, which our forefathers finally fought to rise above, though at a cost.
Today we are encouraged by these same Anglophile predecessors to hone and nurture and polish our English skills, yet we are simultaneously repeatedly reminded not to forget our mother tongue, that roots us in our formative years, instills a love for motherland, a sense of identity.
Or at least, it should have, had it not been withheld from us to a great degree, even as toddlers.
Yet this bifurcation of thought and contradiction of mind is also an unique treasure, an in conjunction oppositorum, (unity in opposition) if you will. An accommodation, a rich synthesis of opposite thought processes that can only broaden the mindscape infinitely.
East can indeed meet the west, and the twain can overcome polarization, despite what the respected Mr. Kipling had famously penned. if we can properly assimilate the power tool that English is, in a worldly sense, as a labour of love, a treasure trove of rich experiential stimuli, rather than just a way to acquire money, status and privilege. If we can do it without forgetting what should have been our primal instinct, our first love, the language of our ancestors and forefathers.
We are fast losing sight of a balance, that we must synthesize and assimilate ourselves, as parents, for the sake of our impressionable children. In chasing job security we inculcate a wealth seeking mindset, that apes the West crudely, for no good reason, but false optics. We think we look good, but do we? We cannot genuinely, comfortably put up our sneakers clad feet on our furniture, we cannot just toss away our old ways to fit an image or mold. Opening our shoes at the door may bring a few condescending grins on the faces of the neo-westernised, but why let it faze us?
The famine of our minds is greater than that of our great grandparents who witnessed horrifying poverty, partition and famine and rose from it to embrace, even cling to the English sense of honour and fair play, in their everyday lives, to justify earning their bread and butter from the British. Seeking honour, and receiving nothing more than an occasional condescending, if affectionate pat on the head. Then they watched how these self-same notions crumbled under the imperialism of colonial and empire building objectives, how race and colour determined the judicious and convenient application of these defining values and principles.
My purpose is not to condemn, but expose the always unbalanced equation between conqueror and conquered. To discuss how the minds of the conquered subject race are both proud and craven, submissive and rebellious, noble and honourable, despite their need to stoop to conquer, to sacrifice some ambition for the daily compromise of coexistence. Which is not the same as peace and justice among equals.
So yes, my Bengali dreams would have been richer, more poignant, if I had a chance to develop earlier usage, command and fluency in my mother tongue, but I had learnt only their basic tools of communication. I am ill qualified to reveal the pathos and angst, the affectionate heart of a section of humanity which throbs in my blood but appears only as a pale spectre in my dreams.
Perhaps even within this cage of limitations, it reveals itself fully in the brilliant minds of our age, who are far more fluent polyglots, greater cosmopolitans than I.
But I am speaking for the average well educated Joe/Jai or Jane/Jaya, who aspires to write here.
All I wanted to do was write to her, for her, about her in Bengali. To make her proud.
The ordinary self-effacing modest woman that my mother was. Ma, whose linguistic brilliance was clouded and suppressed by early onset of illness, leading to near senility.
And I did pen many pensive pieces, missing her, lamenting her demise. With a childlike despair at my limitations.
I am not confident in the exactitude of my Bengali expression, in the written form. I know what I want to say, with my heart pounding, my blood beating against my veins, but as I pen the words, I know I did not nail it, nor come close to nailing the thought or feeling.
The delivery is of a ten years old girl. Give or take five years. The age when she was the one I went to, for confidences, and advice, and comfort in moments of heartache. And mother was benevolent and noble in her dispensations, slightly detached and aloof, to teach me to take my tribulations lightly, often making me sit in front of our alcove of gods and goddesses and pray or meditate, or accompany her in singing a bhajan, a devotional hymn.
Comfort was never delivered physically in a hug or kiss or embrace, the way I do with my two boys, but there was spiritual sustenance, a silent show of grace and grit, bravery and renunciation under pressure. And if I laid my head down on her lap, she would run her fine veined fingers upon my forehead, and cool my feverish thoughts with her soft yet comforting strokes. Every trouble washed away in an instant, and her bent bangles with crooked safety pins adhering to them charmed bracelets of motherly protection. There is high octane power in that protection, that comes from both closeness to mother, and intimate familiarity with one’s mother tongue.
When I realised that I was unable to voice the exact nuanced feelings the emotions evoked, it was another reason to be sad. To weep in shame. A second death of my sweet undemanding mother.
That is why when the boys were babies, I sat and learnt every Bengali lullaby that I could beg off from my parents live-in help or my own sweet village girl maid. I badgered every aunt and great aunt for tales, stories, nursery rhymes, even doggerels, and of course our beloved Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol nonsense rhymes. I tried to steer my kids in my mother tongue’s cultural paradigms, side by side with their more frequent ingestion of Hollywood fare on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
If their superheroes are from Gotham and Krypton alone, I fear they will not be able to lift their weights to fly under the gravity of an Indian sun. Imperfect metaphor, I accept that, but it will have to do to express the urgent need to fall in love with what one has at hand, over what one perceives as greener grass on the other side.
I recall ma only ever making one plea to us. Entreating us with tears in her eyes, when we binge watched Hollywood movies, sitcoms and listened almost exclusively to Western music… her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes gently remonstrating.
All she said however was, "If you don't use your matribhasha, (mother tongue), then it will die with you."
It was a neutral assessment, but it made an impact. Children are intrinsically fair and honourable beings. I had read this quote somewhere: “Children are innocent and crave justice while adults are guilty and crave mercy.” I was around thirteen. I decided to give what my mother asked, a try.
I watched a ton of Bengali movies, liked all the ones by Satyajit Ray, (who was incidentally awarded an Oscar in the nineties, as he lay on his deathbed.)
This actually supports my position. Real genius does shine brightly in any language, not losing its universal appeal and flavour, except what is lost in translation to a foreign audience. But should native speakers of a language lose its flavour in translation too, or write in it as if it were a foreign medium? Should we watch Satyajit Ray and get less or more out of his work than a foreign audience? It is my feeling we should get far more than we actually do. And some of us do, by the dint of their brilliance. But many of us are handicapped to approach even indigenous work as an outsider, a foreigner.
The Oscar ironically felt like a validation of his worth, and that should not have been the case. We can be proud of our local homegrown heroes for winning foreign plaudits of course, but had he received none, his work would still have been our privilege to read and watch, needing no authentication from the West. Global, especially Western recognition cannot be our measure of excellence, however welcome it is for providing a work with a global platform and context. We crave western recognition, a colonial hangover that shapes our mindset.
Watching feel good Hollywood romantic comedies, (I had not yet graduated to dramedies), I remember complaining to ma, "Why do they cry so much in Bengali movies?"
Today I can understand why.
I can relate to the helplessness bred in generations of submissive women, “Abala Nari”, (Disempowered woman), who wept from despair, from frustration, pleading silently for understanding. It is a cultural thing, tears are the power tool of the disenfranchised as much as it is their therapy and catharsis.
It irritated me so much as a teenager, to see our on screen heroines break down in tears of compromise, to shame and plead patriarchy into correct behaviour.
The fight I had in me was commendable but I had been allowed it from infancy. The women our actresses portrayed on screen were those sheltered souls educated at home, within the domestic paradigm. Empowerment is a far cry, from the lives they led.
I recall scoffing at the Hindi movies of the eighties for making the heroine dance around a tree, nine times out of ten, emerging in a bright new flouncy costume after every turn! Boy did those colourful costume changes hurt my eyes! I associated tasteful dressing with neutral shades and tones, teaming and pairing up complimentary colours. Where did I get that?
Pastel shades, complementary tones, as opposed to garish contrasting shades paired with blithe abandon?
Today I rejoice in our Indian ensemble which is festive and vibrant, pairing hot pink kameezes/blouses with parrot green salwars/balloon leggings, and zari/brocade encrusted bright dupattas( scarves).
With our Indian skin tones, it works!
In the same way that a cobalt blue formal shirt teamed with a bright orange pleated skirt may look too much on a pale white alabaster skin?
But perhaps not. In the end, I believe in autonomy of choice of couture amongst many other things, again in opposition to the Indian way of thinking, “Aap ruchi se khana, par ruchi se pehna.” (Eat as per your taste, but dress as per others taste.)
“Others,” code word for husband, in Laws, patriarchy, in that order for women.
I was castigated for wearing my hubby’s old cargo shorts outside, by an old fashioned elderly lady once. Upon pouring my heart out one day to a smart twenty-something young bank executive, dressed in size zero skinny jeans and a midriff top, I was told, “ Toh? Aap Ka husband ke parwa nahin toh unko ya?” (So? If your husband does not object, then what is her problem?)
This was the only support I was entitled to, patriarchy still held my reins.
I looked at her, born at the end of the eighties, in silent astonishment.
But, western ideas permeate slower than western wear and make up. It will get there eventually, synthesizing in a fortuitous manner. Hopefully without a loss of some great Indian values.
To continue with my flirtation with Hindi films, if there was a seaside scene, I remember cringing and counting the seconds till the heroine got dunked in water, invariably wearing a flimsy white dress, or sari, so that she emerged in all her dripping wet, see-through translucence.
It was how our movie directors cannily catered to the sexually repressed Indian male gaze. Teenager-me attributed it to bad taste and sexism.
It was sexist, and it was also inescapable in our Indian context. If you wanted to appeal to the broadest section of the masses. This was the only safe outlet to repressed sexuality, male or female, and our directors did it with full awareness, to sell tickets, knowing our Indian censors would tone down anything considered too bold or risqué.
We had a different audience for our movies, very unlike the casually dating scenario of countries in the West. End of the day, our movies sold not so dissimilar dreams in different packaging. They made mistakes, portraying women as fair game for eve teasing and conquest, yes, but on the other hand, they did not have the luxury to show an Indian truck driver asking the cute salesgirl out on a date, let alone brushing her lips with his own!
The camera closed up lingeringly, lovingly on her pouting lips, and then…cut! To the birds, bees and flowers. Much was left to the imagination.
So Like Ursula Andress, our belles rose like sirens from the waves and that much, and that much only was allowed, to sate our appetites. Anything more, and the girl would not be seen as a desirable respectable object of male affection, but as scandalous and depraved.
I did notice, among those cousins and kin, who were brought up on a steady diet of Hindi flicks, a preference for this cinematic mode of communication. As opposed to the more direct physical contact in western movies, which were something to watch on the sly. This coyness was in fact considered normal and respectable.
It is all about values, mindsets and boundaries that a culture has assimilated over years of traditional upbringing, which is introduced to us primarily through the medium of communication.
Language is the vehicle of this communication. Handicapped in my mother tongue, I ridiculed these coy affectations, because they were foreign to the literature I read in English.
Instead of finding them endearing and perhaps in better taste, than showing the silhouettes of two bodies humping under a blanket accompanied by harsh guttural grunts and moans.
In fact today I find both extremes unnecessary!
Show me a woman sexily undressing as the bare chested hero closes the bedroom door and I will get the full picture! I really do not need to see Al Pacino’s butt for an extra dose of gritty realism. Just like I hate my time being wasted by ten unnecessary costume changes followed by a near miss kiss, and umpteen cloying love songs of our own movies.
I do not deny some movies may need the full Monty, like our Hindi movie Black or say, Pretty Woman. In fact I loved them both. But unnecessary skin shows are unnecessary skin shows.
Those days you could count those moviemakers who strived for authenticity in Hindi or Bengali movies on the ten fingers on your hands. Most of it was parallel or art house cinema which a fourteen or fifteen years old could not relate to in entirety. The result was I gave up on our movies, back then, but kept devouring our wonderful home grown literature.
I had finished Bankim Chandra’s Bengali novels by the time I was fifteen, no mean feat. His language was not at all colloquial but formidable. Yet the love of a gripping tale kept me hooked, making semi educated guesses at word meanings, or running to ma for help! I still remember the joy in her eyes when I asked her for complicated agglutinated word meanings like Kingkartabyobimud or Shailshikharabat. I had also read a smattering of Tagore's works and a very small amount of Sharat Chandra, the sacred trinity of Bengali literary figures.
But most of my acquaintance with Tagore was through music. For which I am forever grateful. I consider myself fire and water proofed from every hurt and trepidation in life because of my familiarity with the profound wisdom and lyrical philosophy of his songs.
These are the early gifts of the Magi that I had been fortunate enough to give myself, and it has probably kept me grounded in the spiritual ethos of my origins.
Souls need the succour and nourishment of their own soil. To imbibe the depth and profundity of the whole wide world beyond. If we are to expand our gaze upon the whole of humanity, we must lovingly linger and embrace ancestral essence.
Being amputated too early from proficiency in my mother tongue I suspect causes incomplete expression and depression.
Beautiful though it is to write in English, I feel as though you cannot ever be as good in English as a natural born native English speaker, who from cradle onwards has negotiated his way around his tongue, using it to navigate through his joys and sorrows.
We have Indian English as a whole genre. As do many other English speaking erstwhile colonies of the British Empire. But I feel the greater the familiarity, with the weight and volume of knowledge of our own literature, in our own language, the better our finesse, depth of emotional expression, the ability to be true to ourselves, in Indian English.
And there is always a personal dilemma, a soupçon of instinct inside that asks, this same thought, this same feeling, would I have expressed it even better? Really and truly nailed it had I been proficient in my mother tongue, writing about my experiences in India in an Indian tongue? Would my heart have been better revealed?
I feel just a little handicapped, occasionally using foreign idioms born of foreign experiences for an Indian thought or happening. It still works because we can relate, draw parallels, and understand contextuality. Human beings are after all the same species, part of the same family but something, a richness of flavour, an unique vantage point is lost in translation. Some though, not all.
That intangible soupçon, that inexpressible smidgen, that would satisfy and carry a native reader to a different, more nuanced and complex place.
There are of course exceptions.
Individuality is a strange thing that can reach out and find its soul doppelganger at the other end of the world. Or in a more understandable instance, if you're actually an expatriate or NRI living abroad, it would then be natural to use the language of the land where you grew up.
That is why I love Jhumpa Lahiri's stories of the Indian immigrant experience in the USA, because really, what other language could she have written in, except in English? Or Sunetra Gupta's evocative scintillating novels. But I am primarily speaking from personal experience, about Indians living in India writing in English.
English is still exclusive to certain berths of society, our economic divides leading to educational divides, leading to cultural dissociation. This tends to turn our gaze into that of pseudo outsiders, not quite in, not quite out either.
Like a half-foreigner, looking in.
Yet not truly of foreign genesis either, as in we do get nuances of our culture that say an European wouldn't get. How we translate it into our ink is what determines our effectiveness or authenticity. We can inject Indian colloquialisms all we like, to infuse our native spirit, but only a talented and brilliant few can bring it all together authentically, ontologically, yet creatively, not pedantically.
It is a huge challenge which does not exist for truly talented native born writers in their own language.
A lot of the times when I just started writing I had wanted to use Western names like Tom and Pip, Mary and Jane. Or stick to idyllic, (in my world view), Blyton-like locales, Cornish seaside and not our own Puri or Digha beaches complete with Batata poori and pani poori sellers. Beautiful, in a “hot messy” Indian way.
The need for order, a neat and clean beach, a pristine seashore with silent overhanging cliffs, where on earth does it stem from?
Our parents are cool about popcorn shell strewn overcrowded Indian beaches, with vendors of piping hot pakodas/ batter fries and Masala muri/ puffed rice hawking their wares stridently. They have no knowledge of any other, but for a brief passing glimpse in a movie shot or a magazine.
Why do we crave the steep chalk white cliffs of Dover, or Enid Blyton’s Kirrin Cottage by the sea experience? Because from our formative impressionable years, our minds have been geared to accept that as normal and desirable. Our acquaintance, even through the medium of actual language in books, and the cinematic language of movies, is far more intimate.
Our earliest acquaintance, awareness, preferences and proficiency was developed, in a language from another continent, climate and culture.
This was gradually dealt with as I matured and realised that you can't be halfway here and halfway there. What you're describing is entirely different from what Louisa May Alcott or Enid Blyton was describing.
You have to describe what "You see and hear", but to do it, first, you also have to "feel it.” A deep inside visceral gut feeling.
I feel sad that I had to deal with it. That I had to push myself to observe, enjoy and depict my own country, with love. Embrace the beautiful living heart at the centre of the hot mess. Without hankering after macaroons and hot scones dripping butter at teatime or pancakes and waffles. But really knead that unfermented dough and get down to our own unleavened rotis and sesame and coconut laddus, our own delicacies. Taught and prepared by generations of grandmothers and great aunts.
This is of course just one example of how while we mash up and pop roundels of Indian rice dal and vegetables into our mouths with our fingers, with relish, our preferred imaginary feasts are those of cakes and buns of English boarding school midnight feasts and hearty British breakfasts of sausages, eggs and bacon.
But we were invaded, willy-nilly, in every aspect of our day to day lives, not just cuisine.
We were inundated, immersed in books from other lands and other cultures in far greater excess compared to the literature of our own Asian Indian heritage. Thankfully again, it was ma’s influence that brought about my life long love affair with Tagore, Sharat Chandra and Bankim Chandra, after an initial mandatory brush with our own epics Ramayana, Mahabharata, our fairy tales, Thakumar Jhuli, and Amar Chitra Katha comics and the slew of Bengali magazines she subscribed to. Desh, Anandamela and Sandesh for her, Shuktara and Chandamama for us.
Here I would like to go back for a quick peek at our present Indian movie scene.
We have pretty much wonderful small budget independent Hindi flicks now, which I can comfortably watch without cringing too often, though stereotypes still play out predictably in far too many of them. Like a modern urban Indian bad ass woman must be portrayed these days as sputtering the F word in each sentence that spouts from her angry red gash of a mouth, however culturally inappropriate it may be! Say in a heated exchange with her mother, her in-laws or a doctor at the hospital. Over acting still seems the norm for acting. But nowadays I have grown a more universally ironic mind, and it amuses me to predict the exact split second in which a Hollywood hero and heroine will exchange saliva, or at least brush lips. I am willing to bet men and women in the west don’t kiss just because it’s a Kodak moment either. Stereotypes are another form of tropes, though less indulged in in Western movies. I am digressing pretty heavily here, to bring home the point that there are universal thematics that our art, cinema and books often fail to portray as realistically, and as sensitively as could be desired, so what gives? Why my discontent at my less than perfect expression of my own socio-cultural moorings?
It is possibly because it is way less than perfect, far more flawed than the mother tongue fluency levels of a literate well educated person should be. I remember, when I was new on social media, I befriended a rag picker from a first world nation and he wrote me a sensitive and stylish troubadour poem, of a noble knight serenading his fair lady, without possessing a college degree. And I recall thinking, but how? Then rationalizing,
“Because after all it is his mother tongue.”
The language he said “Mommy” and “Daddy” in, the first letters he learnt, the first emotions he expressed was in his own tongue. What a beautiful natural ownership that is, compared to how our generation grasped English, by the dint of some genetic linguistic flair, some family background of our parent or both parents, possessing an English medium education and the rest was environmental exposure or lack of it. We learnt to excel in English despite the lack of a natural backdrop, by choosing it consciously over our own tongue, by cutting out and dropping certain influences and chasing others. Sometimes, our parents did it for us, though not mine, except in choosing English as the medium of our instruction.
We did the rest, by preferring to watch Different Strokes, Scooby Dooby Doo, Silver Spoon and Small Wonder over reading Bengali comics, like Batul the great, Nonte and Phonte or adventure series like Tenny-da, Professor Shonku and others. We dabbled in them briefly as novelty, but our mainstay was always Marvel comics, Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, and English translations of Asterix and Tintin. How can we then not dream in English of first kisses and dates, or idolize burger and fries as the ultimate fast food? How can we write about the joys of popping Dida’s home made Moa, or a laddu in our mouths with equal conviction? It was a poor second cousin, a second choice, and yet Moa, or puffed rice smashed into delicious balls dipped in molten jaggery is truly mouth-watering. But it is a taste to be acquired, if you leave it till too late.
I have two more hilarious memories to share in this regard of natural assimilation of tastes and experiences.
When we fed our new chauffeur, a boy, fresh from the village, authentic Chinese cuisine from a posh restaurant, we expected him to be gratified. On the contrary, he was indignant.
“Saab, never feed me such worm like food again, I thought they might start moving!” As for the lightly sautéed sweet and sour vegetables, he dismissed them as undercooked and raw.
My maid too complained on being fed a generous scoop of Vanilla ice cream straight from the freezer:
“I will catch a cold now, and miss a day or two of work because of you Boudi! All my other employers will scold me!”
Food tastes have gone global and eclectic, yet you will hear how the white man had to drink tons of water to douse the raging fire of chicken masala, just the same way our rural Indian folks griped about food foreign to them. It is an entirely natural phenomenon, a healthy sense of identity and roots tied to familiar cuisine. While of course, willingness to experiment, as an educated Westerner with global exposure does, is equally desirable, note that they do know that this is not a food that their palates are, or should be used to.
Now ask any urban Indian kid about his favourite food, and he will mouth off hamburger, hot dog, pizza and French fries, without a second thought, conceding our own fiery Biriyanis, or sweet pulaus, (Pilaf) a distant second place. The familiarity professed is with pale approximations of
Mediterranean/European and American cuisine, a far cry from what their grandparents ate. And it does have an impact on Indian health, In a hotter climate where heavy consumption of meat is unnecessary, leading to clogged arteries and high cholesterol. But I am not talking about health issues or dietary issues here again, but how we are almost like in Plato’s Cave, gradually but inexorably getting “twice removed from our own reality.”
The second wave of colonial imperialism has been soft sold to us, and we have bought into it, The great American Dream, The Rags to Riches Success Story, The flaunt it if You have it Consumerism et all.
Even as I write this, I realise, we italicize our own produce, costumes, cuisine and names as foreign, to be placed under quotes in a discrete ethnic bracket.
As I have done throughout the essay. We accept what is unfamiliar to us as global and universal, and that which is our own as the unknown, the other, in need of an explanatory note.
That is how our minds have been programmed to work, by assimilating a foreign language before our own. And ultimately to both accommodate this mindset, and retrain it, I have provided brief explanations besides the italicized words, without lengthy accompanying footnotes. Caveat Emptor, Let the reader beware and aware he is reading a mind from another land, perhaps do due diligence? That is also the best way to read a foreign work, extract more from it.
I promise you, the effort of finding out about Abol Tabol or giving Tagore a listen, will be worth your time.
To go on, how then, shall we, in our Janus like situation, be original? Or know ourselves, truly independent of extraneous paradigms fed to us from infancy?
To quote my beloved T S Eliot in a scandalously cherry picked manner:
“…Do I dare disturb the universe?
…And should I then presume? And how should I begin?
…Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
…I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
… in short, I was afraid.”
But it fits my mood, of uncertainty, really. How as a writer, I may not be expressing my best self, the highest truth I could have been capable of, if I had been more authentic and rooted.
( Amrita Valan is known for her short stories.)
Language is persecution. The essay looks at the semantic structure of our languages and the linguistic dilemma of learning a foreign language over and above our mother tongue.