Since I am too lazy at the moment to edit my two draft posts waiting in the wings, I am going to post an essay I wrote some years ago about language. I wrote it as a blog post during an early and mostly unsuccessful experience with blogging, at a time when my stories were just starting to be published. I still stand by what it says, although it is somewhat fancifully written.
I’m posting it because I have been thinking of SF written in India in different languages and the tension between English and other Indian languages (and yes, by now English is an Indian language) and the nastiness of language politics often obscuring the real issues — all this partly as a result of an email conversation with SF Hindi writer and fan Dr. Arvind Mishra (who also very kindly directed me to a marvelous device: the Google Hindi transliteration tool जिसकी सहायता से मुझे अब हिंदी में लिखने का मौका मिल रहा है).
While I ponder the implications of that conversation I thought it might be fun to post the aforementioned essay (very minimally edited). It appeared some years ago in a very interesting Indian ezine (will post link when I remember what it was called). So here goes.
Two Near-Drowning Experiences
Once, I nearly drowned. My near-death experience took place several years ago when I was a graduate student in the U.S. Eleven of us Indian graduate students had decided to go canoeing in a local river. I remember at first I hesitated because I did not know (then) how to swim, but my friends assured me blithely that with ten other people around there was no way I could drown. So I went.
It was a lovely afternoon and the river was small and surprisingly swift. We got canoes from some kind of rental place and I found myself in a two-seater with the aforementioned friend’s boyfriend, a rather awkward situation. I think they had had a spat and she walked off with some other guy, and since I was the odd one out and the only non-swimmer, I ended up with Friend’s Boyfriend and a cooler filled with beer bottles. At first the going was smooth and exhilarating, and we sped swiftly between tall banks overgrown with wildflowers and mossy earth. Taking a swift turn around a bend, we did not see the tree branch that hung low over the water. It neatly swept us off the canoe.
As I went down I saw the beer cooler floating away and my friend’s boyfriend swimming frantically after it. The next thing I knew, the water had closed over my head and I was being carried by the current. Time slowed; I willed myself not to breathe. I seemed strangely detached from that part of me that was screaming silently in terror; as I went down, I saw, in the clear depths, the pebbly bottom of the river. When my feet touched bottom I used all my strength to push off. My head cleared the surface; in that blessed, frantic moment I breathed. In that instant I saw the river’s surface at eye-level: the sweep of the water, a low, sandy beach on the opposite side, and a high bank not far from me — then I was going down again into the luminous depths of the river. I used the technique of bouncing off the river-bed — and flailing my arms — until I reached the bank, where I held on desperately to shrubs growing on the vertical rise. The river gurgled and breathed, chuckling to itself with its watery tongues, as I waited for rescue.
They eventually remembered me and rescued me. The guys formed a chain across the river and helped me across to the sandy beach, cracking jokes and trying to reassure me that I was all right. But I no longer trusted canoes, or certain kinds of men. Having acquired this unexpected intimacy with the river, I chose to sit in the middle of a tire, alone, and go tubing down the river. And for the rest of that trip there were no more mishaps. But I was taking no chances after that experience. I signed on for a swimming course as soon as I could, and although I don’t swim particularly well, the water is no longer an enemy.
I had another drowning experience many years later, which recalled the earlier one, except that the element in question was not water but… words. I was in the bookstore with my husband and daughter, where we were indulging in our favorite vice — browsing among the bookshelves, picking out books to buy. At one point I found myself standing alone in one of the aisles — the shelves towered above me, the spines of the books hinting at the worlds inside them — and I felt myself being slowly submerged in a great tidal wave of Johns and Marys, Garys and Gertrudes, and they seemed to be chattering away about their lives, their adulterous couplings in American suburbia, their wanderings on far planets where they sipped their martinis and dreamed of New New York, their adventures, their emptiness, their fulfillments. They muttered and laughed and enunciated their particular varieties of English — Roman letters came tumbling out of the pages of their books, swooping at me like paper planes, gathering like clouds before a storm, breaking over my head, mating in mid-air to form sentences that hovered around my face. English. English names, idioms, thoughts, ideas. The first thing that came to my mind as I stood there, drowning, was Alice in Wonderland, the scene at the end where the cards are coming down around her like rain, and she opens her eyes to find leaves falling on her face. I remembered Alice, not Anamika. I thought, stupidly, where is she, Anamika? Where is her voice? Where are the Rams and Jyotis and Raghunathans and Kabirs and Mallikas? Where are the syllables and scripts of Hindi and Tamil and Urdu, where are they?
And I thought: yes, I want to hear about the Alices and Josephs and Laurens of this world, and yes, I love English, the language that I mostly write in, now, but must I do so at the expense of all those other ways of expressing being human? I am in a country where they speak English, a language that is no stranger to me — I learned it as a child only a year or two after I learned Hindi — and I am drowning in a sea of words and ideas that are essentially English or at least Western. How do I tell someone, in affectionate exasperation, धत तेरी की जय हो? There is no translation that can do it justice, no equivalent in a Western language.
And the problem is not entirely one of a stranger in a strange land, because in New Delhi, India, there are, I suspect, more English-language bookstores than Hindi. Let English propagate, I have no quarrel with that — but must it plow over Hindi to do that? I am not a Hindi fanatic — every language, after all, is a powerful and different way of holding a mirror up to the world — what I want is a multiplicity of tongues. Not a Darwinian, imperialistic sweeping aside of cultures and languages, but old women chattering in backyards, learning words from each other, spawning new idioms and expressions, keeping their languages alive by speaking them in the fertile soil of a true and diverse cultural congress.
Despite the prevalence of English in the big cities and in the lives of the middle class intelligentsia, in India I didn’t feel I was drowning. I went to an English medium school, too. But Hindi was everywhere. We spoke it at home, along with English, and we spoke it with relatives, and the vegetable seller, the milkman, the cook. There were Hindi movies, and there were visits to relatives in small towns, and there was music, and myth, and the vastness and variety of one of the world’s most ancient cultures. Language reflected culture reflected language.
When I was a child we used to go every summer to Bihar, our home state, to stay with my grandparents. We would take the train from New Delhi Railway Station, a cavernous, cacophonous place where everything and everyone was in a hurry. Sitting in the train compartment, at last, breathing sighs of relief, we would buy cups of fragrant sweet chai from vendors. The cups were earthen ones that you threw out of the window when you were done, returning earth to earth. The tea inside them was pale brown and smoky with the tang of clay. The shouts of the vendors echoed on the train platforms, the train began to slide out of the station, and we left behind the earthy, Punjabi-influenced accents of Delhi Hindi. Going east, the accents of the people on the platform would become softer and more sing-song. By the time we got to Eastern Uttar Pradesh, as twilight fell, we could hear the tender accents of Bhojpuri, the native dialect of my parents. The language is so sweet to the ear that it needs no words like “please.” I used to understand some Bhojpuri once, but now all I remember are the songs my mother taught us. पाक गैले खेतवा, जरन लागे रेतवा sung at about the same rhythm as the swaying beat of the train. In the early morning I would be woken by a strange stillness; the train would be at some small station in Bihar, and the chai garam calls of the vendors, the smell of coal dust and hot, sweet, milky tea would rouse me from my bunk. Here morning was no longer subah but bhore and “why” wasn’t the snappy kyoon but the more relaxed, multi-tonal kaahe. By the time we reached our destination, Patna, it would seem almost as though Time itself had slowed. People on the platform seemed less rushed, the train would have acquired some of the languor of the air, and speech would have become melody. We would all lean precariously out of the doorway as the train drew in, searching the sea of faces for my grandfather, who would be somewhere at the back of the crowd, straight-backed and smiling benignly. Outside, amid the confusion of car horns and dust and rickshaws pulled by turbaned men with lean brown bodies, we would find my grandparents’ grey Fiat, a car they had owned for some twenty years or more. End of journey, beginning of summer. Time to argue over which variety of mango was superior, the pale, narrow, firm-fleshed dashehri we got in Delhi or the huge, golden digha malda, King of Mangoes, grown only in a few groves in Bihar. Time for lassi and nimbu pani and other cooling drinks churned at home by cooks or chattering aunts.
The irony of bemoaning in English the loss of my connection with native tongues is only too apparent to me. It is something I am constantly aware of; yet it was only after that surreal experience at the bookstore that I realized the extent of the loss. I went home and brooded on this for a few days. Then my music teacher mentioned a house concert, where a renowned exponent of North Indian Classical music, touring from India, was going to sing. We went.
The long room at our host’s house had been cleared of all furniture, and was covered by rugs. Panditji sat at one end, with his flock of accompanists and a cluster of microphones. I could hear at least three different languages — not including English — being spoken. Women in bright saris or salwaar kameez, men in crisp kurta-pajamas, sat on the rugs facing the master, while small children played in the next room or came in to sit on their parents’ laps for a moment. When the music started, a slow, gorgeous piece in raag bageshri, I felt like a fish that has been tossed back into its river. It was pure enchantment. The syllables, rendered effortlessly by the master, flowed around us, reverberated in the long room, made the children pause in their play. I sat next to my teacher and one of her other students, and we listened the way thirsty people drink water. For me the crowning moment came later, when the singer sang a piece in raag desh that I had once learned from my sister: a description of monsoon clouds that gather to provide succor after a long, scorching summer, and the call of the papiha, that sits in the deepest arboreal grottos and sings its heart out. Meha re, went the song, meha re, ban ban, daar daar, murla bole… Then a slow, melodious enunciation of the word meha, the cloud, drawing out the syllables toward the higher notes with such passion that it brought tears to the eyes. I could almost hear the rain pattering outside the window.
It has been a while since that experience. Since then, I have taken to re-reading my 8 volumes of stories by the great Hindi writer Premchand. I make it a point to talk in Hindi with my Hindi-speaking friends as much as I can. And while I still listen to music from around the world, I make sure it includes a weekly dose of desi stuff: from Bhimsen Joshi to film songs, from the folk music of Himachal to the qawalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. These temporary immersions are no substitute for traveling on a slow train across the Indian countryside, for arguing over the best mangoes with my cousins, for helping my grandmother feed the wild birds in her garden. But they help me catch my breath.
It makes me smile, though, when I remember the experience in the bookstore, and the concert some days after, that what saved me from drowning was a song about the watery abundance of the monsoons. Life is full of the most unexpected connections.