My parents had always been proud of my voluminous English vocabulary and crisp, clean accent. My tongue dived deep in English, exploring trenches and caves, but struggled to stay afloat in Hindi and Bangla. My parents only spoke to me in English because they, like scores of others, believed that it was more of an asset to their child. The imperial nature of English is so deeply rooted in the Indian psyche that neither I nor my parents thought that communicating only in English was a problem.
At the instruction of aunts and uncles who believed that my aptitude for Hindi and Bangla was below average, my cousins interacted with me primarily in English, pushing me further into an abyss of ignorance . I felt like a guest at family gatherings, especially the type who arrives uninvited and without a gift for the occasion. I internalised this shame and grew annoyed with my own lack of comprehension, so much so that I began treating regional languages with elite condescension.
The four walls of my room only heard Hindi when I whispered it to my tutor, that too at his pleading and insistence. Bangla was a scorned lover, a third-class citizen at best, who only got attention when I interacted with my Bengali grandmother. I recited Tagore only in English. I annotated Premchand and Kabir’s poetry only in English. I read my favourite book, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, only in English. I dreamt only in English. I still do.
I made no effort to sail into Hindi and Bangla’s literary oceans because I was content with English translations of the same. But, recently, when I watched my boyfriend interact with his friends in Hindi, chuckling at jokes made with colloquialisms, I should have understood, I felt like a guest all over again. “Guest” is too polite a word; I felt like a mistress meant to be kept secret, someone who is only allowed into certain spaces of his life, someone who knows only a piece of him, someone who doesn’t understand him well enough to laugh with him in Hindi, someone he speaks to only in English.
I have trouble interacting with people of different backgrounds because my linguistic skills, or lack thereof, are a striking indicator of my privileged class and caste and keep me further disconnected from the realities of my culture. Understanding that “pariah” and “junglee” are casteist slurs or that English words like “avatar” come from Sanskrit allows us to engage more with our ancestry and learn about our collective histories, the rights and wrongs, so we can find a progressive way forward.
I recently attended a talk by Jerry Pinto who cemented this belief. He said that the need of the hour is vernacular to vernacular translation, Hindi swimming laps with Bangla, not only with English. He said that not enough literature was being exchanged between regional vernaculars, creating an imbalance of power, keeping English on a pedestal.
Resisting linguistic homogeneity is not a recent phenomenon. The 1960s witnessed Bengali protests and deaths when the Assam government tried to make Assamese the official language of administration. The 1980s were also marked by Goan riots over the status of the Konkani language. As recently as 2017, Darjeeling erupted with aggression as Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters protested against compulsory Bengali instruction in schools. While each of these aggressions were fighting different linguistic hegemonies, they were still fighting the concept of homogenising because identity is chained to language.
Pinto also said that when Indians make these linguistic homogenising efforts, they lose the opportunity to relate to each other between the lines. He lamented that translating Kishore Kumar’s lyrical magic, “Phoolon ke rang se, dil ki kalam se, tujhko likhi roz paati,” to English was possible in a literary sense but not in an emotional one.
Like Pinto, I’ve learnt that language is pregnant with ineffable emotion. I’ve learnt that when I’m feeling loving towards my mother, I call her Ma not “Mom.” I’ve learnt that “Bengali mixed vegetable” doesn’t evoke as visceral a facial expression as does shukto. I’ve learnt that only saying accha excitedly to my auto driver while he tells me about his family leaves my soul insatiably hungry because I do not have the regional vocabulary to communicate with him like I could have in English.
Readers like me, homogenised in English and infrequent visitors, if at all, of their regional languages are losing access to other communities because we default to learning about our heritage in mediums non-native to us. Why, because it’s more convenient to breathe every breath in English even if spirits, histories, and cultures get lost in translation.
Pinto articulated the most feasible and tangible solution to this problem. He said that for the Indian society to become a more fertile breeding ground for cultural exchange, consumers, must show demand for it. We need to take an active interest in our second, third, fourth, and fifth languages and read, write, watch, and listen to content in as many of them as possible. We must wriggle free of our dependence on English translations of regional vernaculars and explore the nuances of our histories and cultures in the languages they were written in.
In a country where it is easy to splinter on political, religious, and cultural lines, the need to relate to one another is an urgent responsibility. To learn about people from different walks of life, to understand caste and class, and to appreciate the breadth of South Asian emotion, we must begin with consuming those narratives in languages closest to the original work, in regional dialects.
To stop feeling like an unwanted guest in a space you belong to by default is to dive headfirst into your linguistic history and stutter and stumble over the simplest words and sentences until you don’t.
Feature Image by Taarika John for Homegrown
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