Thinking In Tongues

Lately I’ve been very busy translating things — French things to English, diluting some literary Gujarati with the help of my grandma and strangely, also my thoughts from English to my native tongue(s) as this summer break she helps me read in a few tongues that have been rusting inside me since the past few years.  For a long time, English has been my go-to language and my native tongues occupy a secondary position, of horrid pidgins that mix many tongues and dialects — which are hilarious at best and painful at worst — and a language I must use with family, with people who aren’t fluent enough in English, a language that is substituted for English and even then I barrel this tongue with English words — I don’t see this as a necessarily bad thing, just illustrating how no matter how hard I try, my native tongues come to me as an after-thought. Sometimes, my grandma will ask me to read પાની and instead I read “water” in my head, and to save face say the Gujarati word out loud — but she knows anyway that it doesn’t come to me ‘naturally’. Generally we smile at each other when this happens, she asks me to try again and I instruct myself to think in my mother tongue, and it works for a while. Then in about two minutes, she asks me to read a whole sentence and I am again judging it by English syntax and grammar forms. I don’t need to learn to speak read write in these tongues, those I did as a child either in school — where the State you belonged to dictated the tongues you’d learn  — or at home where we speak our mother tongue. It’s thinking in different tongues that I am working on and so far, miserably failing.

For years, my English and the ‘talent’ to say things well have been indistinguishable from my identity as an upper-caste Hindu lady, “who will one day go to the U.S. also and write big-thick books for people to read” to borrow my cook’s words as she describes who I am and what I will do — according to her — to her neighbours. She says fondly, “Look at her English, I want my daughter also to speak like her! How fast-fast she goes, sometimes talking liddat on the phone and marking something in study books also” as her neighbours smile politely at us. I’ve gone to this neighbourhood since at least the past decade or so, I used to play with many children who now don’t speak with me at all, and if they do only in English — They say, “How you do” and I used to say, “ठीक हूँ” — and they’d get embarrassed and I’d get angry that no matter what I did ‘those people’ don’t want to speak in their native languages — it’s taken me a lot of time to see how them addressing me in English was their way of leveling ground between us and me stomping all over it and patronising them and replying in Hindi was nothing but my privilege raising its head. English still remains for us a class and a cultural marker, a certain kind of English that you speak marks you from which part of the city you come from — if you code-switch and say, “I don’t know, ask ajoba no” for instance, pegs you from North Mumbai — and the more ‘unadulterated’¹ your English is, the better education and class background you are assumed to have. It didn’t help that I am ‘convent educated’ — a phrase we treat as a synonym for ‘Good English And Decorum’ — and was taught by British and Indian nuns who’d both tell us that “Your native languages can stay at home. Here we speak English — like people“. So we’d speak at lunch in our native tongues, but even that stopped as we grew older and English was just more convenient; plus by then, speaking in English meant Serious Business².

Today, I can re-learn to think in my native tongues because I have the privilege to, because I’ve been code-switching for years at home, because I know English considerably well and can have the luxury of enjoying my native tongue. Language is where we locate our power dynamics in, from these lenses we view and read rest of the world — and me writing in મારી ભાષા will be viewed as ‘reactionary’ or me trying to ‘smash the Empire’ or maybe I have an ‘agenda’ instead of it seen as one of my tongues, my Englishes as I weave both tongues into one. Things only get more complicated when I am read out of contexts — ones I can control and especially ones I can’t — and we’re still talking and parsing each other in English. If I could, I wouldn’t still be able to write in my native tongues, because I wouldn’t be ‘understood’ — mainly because the internet may hypothetically be a ‘global platform’, in reality the digital dollar lays the rules down. To keep the ‘intersectionality’ badge shiny many western feminists love to theorise ‘race’ matters from the omnipresent douchecolonial gaze — where all the third world feminist issues are child marriage foot binding dowries FGM female feticide corrective rapes ‘sex-slave’ industry bounded labour and nothing else — where the western feminist can ‘interpret’ our cultures as ze sees fit — usually as metonymic for all our hybrid realities, to the extent that “Africa” becomes FGM, “India” becomes “child marriage and female feticide” and nothing else, all this is done in the culture of ‘solidarity’ and to extend sistersong.

It’s not that big a surprise that when regional and local feminism(s) are “translated”, almost always it’s an Orientalist view of the third world, where the western feminist can be a shocked and horrified of the lives we live daily in the third world — and the most common reason I’ve heard is, “Well we are all women, we can understand each other”³ — and for ‘understanding’ each other, my life has to be translated in English, in contexts and terms it doesn’t belong in. Two weeks ago at a transnational feminist conference, a western feminist asked me what is the ‘safe’ way to promote solidarity — and I’ll still stick by my answer: Learn my language, it’s only fair because I learnt yours.

Maybe then, in the gaps and silences a translation leaves western feminists will understand learning our tongues won’t do much — as learning a tongue and thinking in one are two entirely different things and that one is a skill and another a re-clamation of the marginalised; I hope I’ll reach there someday.

—–

1. Read ‘unadulterated’ as not ‘tainted’ by our devilish heathen native tongues, of course.

2. It is even More Serious Business when parents use English out in public to scold us. That’s when hell freezes over.

3. Direct quote.

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11 Comments

  1. Thank you. You have expressed so much of my struggles with the languages I speak, their place in my life and privileges they take in my community 🙂

    Reply
  2. Jane

     /  June 3, 2011

    You have a cook? Like a household servant?

    Reply
    • Yes, she works in many households assisting people to cook and/or handles the kitchen altogether. Mine happens to be one of those households. Out here, almost every middle class family can afford household help.

      Reply
  3. Margaret

     /  June 4, 2011

    Two weeks ago at a transnational feminist conference, a western feminist asked me what is the ‘safe’ way to promote solidarity — and I’ll still stick by my answer: Learn my language, it’s only fair because I learnt yours.

    You are joking, right? I have a learning disability — I can’t learn any new languages, let alone tribal Indian languages. Check your privilege.

    Reply
    • And now you are joking right? Because you clearly didn’t see this:

      Maybe then, in the gaps and silences a translation leaves western feminists will understand learning our tongues won’t do much — as learning a tongue and thinking in one are two entirely different things and that one is a skill and another a re-clamation of the marginalised; I hope I’ll reach there someday.

      Learning my tongue won’t make you magically understand the culture I come from — *that* was the point.

      Also: People with learning disabilities have to learn English too out here. So, what is your point again?

      Reply
  4. ainee

     /  June 4, 2011

    what the hell is an indian tribal language, btw? even if you cant learn languages, you can respect the idea that some concepts/cultures/etc cannot be translated accurately.

    Reply
    • It’s definitely not up to anyone else to label the tongue I use as “tribal” either.

      Reply
  5. Yes. One thing about American women: we get isolated from other women in ways that women in India don’t. This was told to me by an East Indian woman, contrasting her life in the U. S. with her life in her home country.
    And I appreciate what you say about the American feminist notion that women everywhere are terribly oppressed compared to them. One thing we may lack that women have elsewhere is the help and support of other women!

    Reply
  6. This is really interesting, I speak my native mother tongue at home with my parents but between us siblings it’s English.
    What I find intriguing is how you place emphasis on the language of your thoughts, do you think that really determines the language we are most comfortable with, or is it simply the language we know best?

    Reply
    • I think in depends on which culture and geopolitcal location you come from. For instance, I am more comfortable linguistically in English, but I don’t find myself fitting its silences and spaces. I know my mother tongue well enough — especially that it “fits” — but culturally I’ve thought of it as ‘inferior’. I think for many of us, we’ll never really know and continue thinking in pidgins of many tongues that mix in our blood, no?

      Reply
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