The languages in my head

Since my last post, the clocks went forward, the moon eclipsed the sun and it is officially Spring. The distraction of cricket is now over and it is back to the business of writing, re-drafting and more writing. It is a widely acknowledged truth that artistic scribes of any colour, nationality or creed spend a lot of time wringing their hands about the state of the human condition among many other (inconsequential) things. For Indian writers in particular, a fundamental question of using English as the medium of expression pops up every now and again. A recent article in the New York Times, sent by my friend Shubashree Desikan (a science journalist with The Hindu) entitled How English Ruined Indian Literature says it all. The author, Aatish Taseer – a journalist and writer seems to be weighed down by tremendous guilt for using the language of India’s former colonial masters.

I went to an English medium school run by nuns where Hindi was my second language not Tamil which is my mother-tongue. I spoke in Tamil at home to family, friends and for fun. I’m fluent enough to be able to interpret for Tamil refugees in the UK from Srilanka, but sadly, can’t read or write it. While growing up, we learnt French and German in our free time, but English reigned supreme. I love the pungency of Tamil – its impact can be quite visceral when used to describe certain situations. For example, an idiot or a dummkopf would be a distilled (unadulterated) blockhead – vadikattina muttal. It isn’t as guttural or clunky as German – the emphasis is more on a precise delivery than a relaxed one. Even native speakers acknowledge that sometimes, Tamil words are capable of ‘breaking one’s teeth’. Hindi is elegant and sweet to hear but French feels much more sophisticated – comparable perhaps to Urdu.

If English alienates the majority of Indians, as the article says, so does thooya Thamizh (pure Tamil) or shuddh Hindi (pure Hindi). Casually spoken Tamil is almost a separate language to its literary counterpart. Just listen to the news or read a paper in either of the two languages and it is a tough job for the average listener to relate it to the lingo of the street. The word endings are different, the vocabulary is almost from a parallel universe. In journalist training and in writing fiction, we are advised to keep the words conversational (not colloquial) – to read aloud, to always check if it is easy on the ear. The regional news channels in India and possibly regional literature too, will fail this test.

I love English for its sheer versatility – its lightness and depth – its ability to convey complicated ideas in simple ways is something I appreciate more and more. In my view, it is a gift to have various languages playing in my head as I write in my first language. In my novel, Stirring the Pot, that is set mainly in Chennai, I try to present dialogue that in all probability occurred in Tamil. For example:

Her words hung in the air. Her mother began to sob. “Why do you refuse to look at your brother’s photo on the wall, Shoba? He’s there before any of us, wanting to be first in all the unwanted things. There, before his old mother, along with his grandparents.”

It makes enough sense in English – a daughter coming home, three years after the death of her brother is faced with the mother’s grief. People who know how it sounds in the original tongue will hear these words in Tamil as they read it – for me that is the beauty of using the languages that run in my head. As for how I dream – it is as much in English as in Tamil – depending on who’s talking – obviously.

A final word on the cricket that fizzled out for India, before I go. The Indian batsmen could’ve stayed calm for a bit longer in the semi-final clash and not succumbed to Mitchell Starc’s verbal sledging. He delivers some choice words with a charming smile on his follow through – an Aussie speciality, as we well know. The dominant Australians crushed the Kiwis with even more ease and went on to lift the World Cup. It was a surprising sight for us in England to see the number of Indian/South Asian people in the crowd in green and gold at the finals, to support the home team. It probably won’t ever happen here and it is not about race or identity or Lord Tebbit – it is down to the simple fact that the game is loved by the entire country wholeheartedly and that isn’t the case at all in England.

So if any of you have the experience of working in a language different to your mother tongue – your thoughts are welcome.



Add yours →

  1. I always maintain that Punjabi is the most expressive language in the world! Urdu and French are very poetic and happily I know a bit of both, but Punjabi is amazing. It’s coarse and it’s hardhitting. They say you dream in your mother tongue and I used to dream in Punjabi but now it’s more who the dream is about!
    Completely agree with you about the news channels. The Urdu used by them is far from conversational and way over my head!
    On another note, English hasn’t been so dominant in Pakistan as it has in India, and consequently Urdu literature remains very strong.

    • Thanks Riz! I can sense that about Punjabi – very earthy and strong. Tamil is close to that – perhaps not as hearty. Regarding Urdu literature – it is the unifying literary language isn’t it? When there’s about two dozen languages and an equal number of cultures in the mix – it is no surprise that English is the way to go.

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