It’s only words

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 17, 2020

Real and imagined: Purity of language is a mythic notion   -  ISTOCK.COM

Languages don’t have to be mutually exclusive; they can bleed into each other, or flow steadily alongside, respecting an invisible boundary

The language we grow up speaking, and the language we choose to write in, can be two different things. Fetishising the mother tongue has political value but when it comes to literature, the idea is as useless and dispensable as a nursery rhyme. If the mother tongue was so essential to creating literature, Donald Trump would have produced a handful of novels by now, laced generously with his favourite words — ‘great’ and ‘beautiful’.

I attended a Protestant school in Allahabad; Hindi was the only language we spoke in and outside of school. It was the language I spoke at home. No one told me to speak in English and I didn’t. In the Hindi heartland, Hindi came to one naturally. In school, the English teachers dissed Hindi while the Hindi teachers looked down on English. Once in a while, my mother told me to tune in to the BBC on short wave radio, “to improve my pronunciation”.

I switched to English only when I went to Delhi and Bombay for my vacations. Big city kids spoke in faux Americanese. I learnt that it was cool to drop a ‘like’ every few words: “And I was like... are you mad?” Back in Allahabad, I swotted away at both languages and ended up with a neat 92 per cent in English and Hindi in my school-leaving exams — the ‘adarsh balak’ of a bilingual education. The marks also reflected my family’s linguistic legacy — Hindi writers on my mother’s side, and accomplished writers of English prose on my father’s.

A word here about the futility of forcing a language down one’s gullet. We were taught Sanskrit for four years in school. I topped all exams. In college, when I had to study the Nyaya logic primer, Tarkasamgraha, I found the Sanskrit that I’d been taught was of no use at all. Languages don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes, they bleed into each other, at others, they flow steadily side by side, respecting an invisible boundary. Purity is a mythic notion, which is why I do not understand the curious hierarchies of language that Indians create.

Boarding school kids will speak only in English. Someone I know, married to a German, once told me that their child speaks in English to the father (who is Indian), German with the mother, and Hindi with the domestic help. On the other hand, film-makers such as Anurag Kashyap are nativist in their own way, firmly believing that only Hindi can capture the milieu of the stories they are trying to tell.

How successful is English at rendering Indian realities, assuming there is something called ‘Indian reality’? It works in novels and plays, but often mysteriously fails in TV shows and films. There is also the false confidence of the Indian who has gone to an English-medium school. Every second person who has had the privilege of doing so feels that they have a novel or a book of poems inside of them. By this logic, all of New Zealand should have rattled off at least one novel per citizen. Even Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov was willing to learn. After a rigorous round of editing with The New Yorker’s editors, he said, “This has somewhat subdued me — I was getting rather pleased with my English.”

The Russian émigré writers are held up as the greatest examples of bilingualism, whether it is Nabokov or Joseph Brodsky. Both began writing in English late in their careers. Much — at times, too much — has been made of how the interplay of languages influenced the quality of the prose on the page. There was also Joseph Conrad, who moved on effortlessly from his native Polish to become one of the most accomplished writers in the English language. Nabokov was often compared to Conrad, a comparison he fulminated against, once complaining in a letter to writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson, “Conrad knew how to handle readymade English better than I; but I know better the other kind. He never sinks to the depths of my solecisms, but neither does he scale my verbal peaks.”

In India, we have the example of Arun Kolatkar, who wrote in both Marathi and English. Nabokov translated his earlier Russian novels into English. With Kolatkar, it was not so much a matter of translation as it was writing, almost simultaneously, in two languages. He would write the same poem in Marathi and in English. As he once told my father [poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra] about one such poem: The two ran each other pretty close.

The question of language (and translatability) doesn’t necessarily have to take on magical transcendental overtones.

There are, at times, more mundane reasons to do with readership. Nabokov’s future lay in the US (after fleeing Berlin) and the decision to write in English was also necessitated by practical concerns. Literature travels in unpredictable ways. A Scottish writer writing in English might discover a captive readership in Italy. Anuradha Roy didn’t set out to write for Norwegians. She writes in English; it was the Scandinavian reader who fell in love with her works in translation. She tips her hat to the Norwegian reader in her novel Sleeping on Jupiter, which features an Indian character adopted by a Norwegian family.

It’s not possible to write a piece about one’s mother tongue and the interplay of languages without mentioning AK Ramanujan, who wrote of Kannada, Tamil and English, “They are continuous with each other, and I no longer can tell what comes from where.”



Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on September 17, 2020
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