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Uneasy on my tongue

Janice Pariat | Updated on July 15, 2019 Published on February 09, 2018

Word of mouth: Years of disengagement had made Khasi, the language spoken in Meghalaya, as useless as a blunt knife for the author   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

Janice Pariat   -  BUSINESS LINE

How does one reclaim a mother tongue after almost two decades? And does the language need such a reclamation?

In December 2017, I’m invited to the Vishnupuram Literary Forum in Coimbatore. This annual event, unsponsored by corporations, is funded and organised entirely by readers, writers, translators, and lovers of literature. I am delighted to hear such a “festival” exists. Every year, they bestow the Vishnupuram Literary Award on a Tamil writer who they feel deserves recognition. This time it’s Thiru Muthuswamy, belonging to the Tamil community in Malaysia. I am to be in conversation with Ramkumar Sathurappan, a genial IAS officer, currently posted in Williamnagar, Meghalaya. He’s responsible for my presence here.

I am thrilled, of course. And, in my small address to the audience, I tell them that 2017 was my year of reading in translation, and to end it with this event seemed wonderfully appropriate. The crowds are teeming, the atmosphere is infectious, everyone is warm and welcoming. Over coffee, I chat with other writers, among them a young student who says he was greatly surprised by Boats on Land because it still retained the “regional”, that he’d been disappointed by many other Indian authors in English. I am slightly disquieted by this praise. I want to tell him there are many different kinds of Indian writers in English, that sometimes the same Indian writer in English might write different kinds of books, but there is little time, so I smile and thank him. But this is gentle warning of what’s to come.

The next day, during my conversation with Ramkumar, and my interaction with the audience, I am asked many questions, ranging from the strange (“Why are Khasis so clean?”) to the sombre (“Do your stories address issues of class?”). I am struck, though, by a couple of queries — “What do you think is your responsibility to Khasi literature?” and “Do you think writing in English makes you elitist?” Ramkumar struggles a little to translate this last query, and I misunderstand, thinking I’m being asked about appropriation, and so I reply accordingly. After the session, I’m surrounded by well-wishers, including Jeyamohan, a Tamil author of immense and prolific literary output. He clarifies the question, adding, “They say writing in English is like eating sambar in a five-star hotel.” Everyone laughs. I am mostly dumbstruck. He continues. “English is called a drawing-room language while our languages come from the kitchen, the backyard, the toilet.” I suppose he is bringing up a point about “authenticity”, but all I can say is if the discussion begins with these accusations I am being denied the one language with which I negotiate the world. He laughs, saying he has nothing against people writing in English, and the tension eases.

This is not a new issue.

Accusations hurled against Indian writers in English being elite, inauthentic, “un-Indian”, of pandering to the West have been long-standing. A decade ago I even wrote a dissertation for my MA in English Literature on the subject. But this is the first time I find myself mired in it.

Inarguably, my relationship with the two languages is complicated. Khasi, by the fact that for years I attended convent school where speaking it was forbidden within the school premises, or outside while you were in uniform. Our “second language” was Hindi, while Khasi came a feeble third, and at the boarding school I later attended, it didn’t appear as an option at all. I realised the violence of this much later. I’m not entirely blameless, of course. How much more effort I might’ve expended speaking, writing, reading Khasi. But it is easy for a language to die. And now it sits uneasy on my tongue. “Thlun” as they say in Meghalaya, useless as a blunt knife.

And so even if English is elitist, spoken (especially in that certain way) by the privileged few, if it’s the language of seemingly glamorous literary festivals, and book deals in the West, I have no choice.

I will not renounce the language in which I dream.

But my experience at the Vishnupuram Literary Forum has forced me to think about my responsibility towards the Khasi language. And for the moment, all I know is that I’m both drawn and repelled by the idea.

I am in awe and afraid of it.

It makes me feel worthy and unworthy.

After all, after having “abandoned” the language for almost two decades, do I have the right to claim this responsibility? Does Khasi even need me? Perhaps, I tell myself, I could champion Khasi literature in other ways. By encouraging translations, for example. Yet what also bothers me is whether I am being motivated by guilt. By being afraid of what others may think of me. Of what I may think about myself. At other times, I ask whether an author has any other responsibility at all apart from writing? If we absolve writers from this “duty” to their region, their mother tongues, their community, perhaps that gives us, and them, leeway to enjoy stories — reading and telling them — simply for what they are. Something tells me it is not always that simple.

So how do I reclaim my lost language?

And will it wish to reclaim me?

Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart, @janicepariat

Published on February 09, 2018
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