These last few weeks have been rather stressful for me, so by the time I get home, I’m more than exhausted, crash on my sofa and let the TeeVee numb my LadyLobes into oblivion for a while. This is around the time my grandmother’s favourite soaps are aired and we’ve developed a routine between the two of us. I help her to get dinner going (in my limited capacities as a non-cook) and she fills me in to whatever I missed in the first 10 minutes of the show. Over these weeks, I have now become familiar with the plotlines of more than seven shows, each predictably depicting middle to upper middle class Hindu households, where the protagonist, generally a virtuous woman battling a myriad of obstacles from abusive husbands to nosy-parker neighbours, this Indian Daughter In Law suffers and endures rather vapidly, always quoting from some scripture or following orders to a T. This is TeeVee land after all, where women go to bed in saris and with their full make-up on, where the idea of a ‘diverse’ family is a multilingual Hindu family — what? have a non-sterotypical Muslim or a Christian character? Never! The TeeVee roars back — and where always, good triumphs over evil, after about every 200 episodes. Of course, when I’m watching these soaps with my grandma these quips are contained in my LadyBrain as she genuinely enjoys these shows. Plus if you saw her blushing the way she does when a Dude and a Lady on the screen brush hands, you’ll get it too.
Yesterday I noticed something interesting in one of these shows; it reminded me of my other grandmum that I lost a few years ago. One of the senior actors on the show had the exact expression as my grandmum would get when I’d start rambling too quickly in English; like many MudSquatters she too could read and write English quite well. Though she was the one who introduced me to Austen and the Brontës; when it came to sounding the syllables she fell short. The actor on-screen was making an exaggerated effort to understand her grandson as the child blathered on in the Coloniser’s tongue – with the American accent no less!—when this grandma of mine looks at me and teases me, “Isn’t this like us? You and your English books, always ranting in that language! Going so fast that no one can even understand! God knows what you must be saying in that language about us!”. While my parents and I converse in English relatively easily, for my grandma this language remains an unexplained pun, as she correctly guesses our tones but the words and their exact meaning escape her. For her not learning English remains her way to defy the Empire, while today I believe in smashing the Empire from within, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house and caught in the middle are people from my mum’s generation who learnt English to get jobs and status. My parents have a more intimate relationship with our Mother Tongue than I do, for English remains a means to an end for them, as for me English is one of my primary expressions; it’s alienating, frustrating and yet the only tongue I can dream in. The debate of ‘Whose English Is It Really?’ can continue forever. What interests me today how this language is used to cut, to prod, to break into and make room for new dichotomies to absorb. I’ve noticed how my tone changes when I’m speaking to my friends or students, while at home even my English shifts its tenor, it slows down. Here, a few words from my Mother Tongue blend in, the way I leave questions open is again extremely specific for my community, the language flows more smoothly till the transition to speaking entirely in my Mother Tongue has been made. Sometimes when my Mum and I don’t want to let the maid know we’re talking about something that concerns her, we shift unanimously and almost subconsciously to English and then step right out again in a similar manner. Here, English is used to show and maintain class and to an extent caste supremacy whether we’re aware of it or not.
Till date, English remains as a ‘gift’ and ‘boon’ granted by the coloniser to us dusty colonised people, we don’t own it, command it, manipulate it. We swim in, forth and sideways at best; which only further cements the concepts of ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds. Even while re-reading canonical texts as Austen, Dickens or T.S. Eliot and many others¹ from this camp, the one thing I’m constantly looking in this dance of conversations between the Master and the Slave is where is the end of one and the exact beginning of another’s border. As to tell the history of the Other is to expose and ‘deal’ with the limit’s of one’s own history; this is where the obsession with defining the Empire and its Colonies becomes visible as our bodies are written upon as ritually as possible by narratives of literature and media. Similarly, the Mother Tongue is heavily washed with English till all is left are Anglo-Saxon and Nordic sounding syllables in the place of well-woven langues that are birthed from Sanskrit. And this ‘conflict’ is of a Lady who belongs to the upper echelons of society — caste and class wise — where the negotiation between my Mother Tongue and English doesn’t seem as violent as it really is, as
erasure ‘progress’ that comes packaged in Disney and Beatrix Potter books masks the harshness. People who aren’t as privileged as I, who are forced to learn English and are told that their ‘worth’ will increase to that of a human only if they speak in English, their transitions into our Collectively Colonised Skin is much more painful and gory². And the few who scrape pieces of themselves from this system, they are rejected later for ‘poor English’ pronunciation, ill-formed grammar regardless of what their potential is.
Here all previous notions of ‘dismantling’ or breaking the Empire go void, for words and sounds that were never yours to begin with cannot be called back or used to ‘talk back’ to and dreams of a ‘new tongue’ are long gone. What remains are shards of sounds, words, alphabets with which the POC has to start building a ground that has to move out of its previous feminised sphere — hence available and penetrable — and work to a negotiation that rests with neither the colonised nor the coloniser, the concept of ‘nation’ has to be reconciled with neither the subjugator nor the subjugated skins is the solution to interrupt and resist imperial narratives. The question that haunts me today is just how far do we force ourselves to indicate this ‘OtherLand’? All I can hope so, this defining doesn’t result in a pompous show of appropriation and tokenism. Like in the case of my two grandmothers, English has to move beyond a forced ventriloquism, a dubbing of tongues or all we will be left with will be tongue dumb tongues³.
1. Ask F. R. Leavis. If you can resist puking at the Wikipedia page that is.
2. Most first-generation learners of English are people from ‘backward’ castes and indigenous tribes.
3. Thank you Nourbese Philip!