Friday, August 10, 2007

Why we write in English

Everytime we write, we are saying something about ourselves.

What we write says something. But how we write may be saying more - for instance, the language we are writing in.

Indians who write in English speak other languages too - Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi. For most of us, in the first few years of life, this other was what we learned, it was our "mother tongue".

At some point our parents thrust us, at an age when we had little or no control of our destiny, into schools where we learned English.

Today we write in English, at least I do, because of the little competence we had achieved in this language. It made us feel good about ourselves. After all, writing is about feeling good, even - or maybe especially - when you are sad.

Today, across india, in newspapers, magazines, and literary forums, thousands of Indians are writing in English. We have made English a part of our identity. Most of us revel in its glory, seeing it as a choice we are making. But think about it carefully, and you might agree with me that this was not a conscious choice. It was a decision made for us by our pragmatic parents, and sustained by the prestige we acquired through our mastery of this language. Like so many other things that "happen to us", English was something that just "happened".

However fluently bilingual we may be today, most of us are not "simultaneous" bilinguals - we learnt English somewhat after we were already speaking another language. what this means is that somewhere in the convoluted recesses of our mind, this other language, this other identity, still colours our English. we drop things - "in way we use the definite articles in English", and reduplicatives like "give them one one mark each" tend to slip into our speech.

The heart of language reveals itself in poetry. It was in our mother language that we learned the first nursery rhymes, our tottering entry into the world of cadence. It was much later that we learned the subtle connection of rhythm and sense; by then we were in English:
"I wandered lonely as a cloud"
sounded great, but
"I wandered like a lonely cloud"
didn't. Discovering the mysteries of sound filled us with exuberance - how an emphasis, falling on moody syllables like "lone", can create a somber tone. In English.

At the same time, deep in our souls, we were keenly aware that the experience of "daffodil" was something we could never have, something that we were forced to experience vicariously. Staring into the urban sprawl from the windows of our privileged school buses, names like "Lake District" began to evoke a faint yearning in many of us.

By now we had started experimenting with this language, stretching our creative muscles, producing essays for homework and poems for the school magazine. The world wanted our English writing, and we were only too eager fill this need. We didn't know at the time, but we were also filling an universal human need, an inner urge to reveal ourselves to the world, to be seen for who we are.

It was clear even then, that the content of our learning would progress better if learned in the mother tongue. For my first year of primary school, my father put me in a village school, where a single schoolmaster supervised our synchronized chanting as we sat on the four verandahs flanking the single classroom. That single year was the end of this experiment however, for English schools simply had better pedagogic processes. Also, it was evident that English was the language of success. I remember as a class VI student, discovering how even our maid padmA-di was paying hard-earned cash to send her son to an English medium school.

Meanwhile, we continued our journey through literature. Beyond the Enid Blyton's and the Alistair Maclean's, in those years when our dreams were gathering shape, Ayn Rand came to us waving the rebel flag of iconoclasts like Howard Roark. Love was stirring in our hearts, and surreptitiously we devoured Lady Chatterley and wondered about the forces that power that moved Jim and Della in "The Gift of the Magi." But access to the other gender was socially restricted, and after our first fumbling overtures most of began to feel that desire itself, like daffodils, was to be experienced only vicariously.

We reincarnated ourselves, our identity, in impotence. When we interred our sexual passion, we also entombed all other passions, the passion for beauty, the passion of dreams. Arundhati Roy says it best:
[becoming Anglophile was] a war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves... Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.
But somewhere down the line, the rich smells and colours of our own world began to colour our dreams, pushing out Lake District. Our world began to invade our language. We discovered our own Howard Roark's who were inventing new languages. "To be born again, first you have to die. 'ho ji! ho ji! to land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. tat-taa! taka-thun!" shouted Salman Rushdie. Amitabh Ghosh's Alu spoke Bengali all through Circle of Reason, and by the time we came to Arundhati Roy, even the "prer nun sea ayshun" was Malayalam.

At last, we could stand up and be counted. Yes, we are Indian. And yes, we write in English. But see how we can be passionate - even in English.

Some are born English, some achieve English-ness, and some have English thrust upon them. We may have had English thrust on us, but perhaps we are now achieving a certain English-ness. Our very own kind.


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