The Peculiar Perils (and Excitements) of Living in One Language and Writing in Another

Non fiction by Aditya Gautam

First things first: when I talk about the language in which we live, I mean to talk about the nebulous linguistic soup in our heads in which our thoughts are first formed and take definite shapes. This language, or a mixture of languages, is often our mother-tongue, the one in which people talk around us most often, the first language we learn to speak, and grow up speaking. It is, barring exceptional circumstances, the language in which a person would instinctively swear if a stiletto-wearing lady stepped on his toes. In most cases, it would also be the language in which one writes.

And yet, there are those, like me, who choose to write in a different language.

In recent years, I have begun to wonder why this is so, why I write in English instead of Hindi, my mother-tongue and the primary constituent of the linguistic ocean all around me. As a result of these musings, I have realized that the reasons behind this choice are many, some of them complex, others more complex, some rooted in the uniqueness of India’s linguistic landscape, some in my individual person, and many in the overlapping area between these two.

One of the reasons, I believe, is what Geetanjali Shree, an internationally acclaimed Hindi writer, describes as the “classic colonial condition”. Put simply, it is the tendency of former British colonies, India among them, to hold the English language in higher esteem than their own language, the tendency to treat it as a metric of intelligence or sophistication.

In India, for instance, it is not uncommon for someone whose spoken English is not very good to be branded a ganwaar, an uncouth or provincial person, and good English speaking skills are a prerequisite to get into a decent college or land a decent job. There is a thriving industry of coaching institutes that help people cultivate the perfect American or British accents and parents are willing to lose a limb to get their kids into English-medium schools. These schools insist that the students only speak in English on their premises and stock their libraries exclusively with English literature. So the English language continues to bask here in a glow of class-climbing, caste-escaping aspirations, and promises its devotees an entry pass to the “equal-opportunity” club.

At this point, if you are beginning to imagine some sort of pitched struggle between a global and a native language, please don’t. The reality, as usual, is much more nuanced than it looks.

For one thing, unlike most other countries, India doesn’t have a national language that is spoken and understood by a vast majority. Instead, we have more than 1900 languages and dialects spoken all over the country by a population of more than a billion people. Kos-kos par badle paani, chaar kos par baani, goes a popular saying, flaunting, with very little exaggeration, the change in the taste of water and the language spoken every couple of miles in India. Even when I call Hindi my mother-tongue, I refer to one of the many Hindis (it has forty-eight officially recognized dialects) mixed with Urdu, English, and a little bit of Farsi, which is spoken in my hometown.

In this poetically insane medley, English acts as a linguistic glue of sorts.

As one of the two official languages of India, along with Hindi, it is the language of our higher education, the national media houses, the higher bureaucracy, and the judiciary. It may not be the mother tongue of most people in India, nor the language in which they live, but it is certainly our language of necessity and convenience, the one that people from opposite ends of the country use to communicate with each other.

As a kid growing up in a small religious town (only a few dozen miles from Rishikesh, where the Beatles famously found their nirvana), my school’s bookshelf suffered acutely from a case of the “classic colonial condition”. For me, therefore, English became the language of stories that could instantaneously transport me to places real and more-than-real, away from boredom. The heroes of my childhood were the characters created by Enid Blyton, J.K Rowling, C.S Lewis, Mark Twain, instead of the Indian folk heroes whose stories reached me only on the nights, usually at family weddings, when some old relative was feeling particularly sleepless.

At some point during these early years when my ravenous hunger for stories lost a millionth part of its intensity, a part of my reading self began to conceive of someone, a real person, creating the worlds I visited between the covers of books. Naturally, I longed, in a vague sort of way, to be that person. I longed, therefore, to be Blyton, Rowling, Lewis, and Twain. All of whom, incidentally, wrote in English.

No big surprise then that I made the same choice. We write what we read, after all, to tweak Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous phrase a little. In the beginning, at least.

I think now, with a lingering sense of loss, of the first story I ever wrote.

I must have been ten or eleven years old because vampires were still cool back then, courtesy of the Twilight book series. As were the werewolves, of course. Both featured in my story, with all their tropes intact. That might have still turned out okay, except for the fact that all my characters sounded more or less alike, and there was little by way of originality in plot or structure. More importantly, even though I had intended to set this story in my hometown, the only resemblance between the real and fictional town turned out to be a shared name. The story’s town felt more like the kind of countryside towns and villages where Enid Blyton usually set her Famous Five novels; my characters had Earl Grey tea in the evening, unlike the people of my hometown who have always been happy with their regular ginger-and-cardamom chai. They called each other “dear” and insisted on having some Scotch before going to bed.

Aspects of this experience may be common to most writers who dip their toes into fictional waters at a tender age, and like many of them who stick to writing for the sheer joy of it (despite the voice in their heads telling them what abject failures they are at it), the plots and structures of my stories also got better with time. Some things, however, remained as unresolved as for that very first story—a sense of missing crucial details in my characters and their settings. The world of my fiction, rendered in the English language, was too clean, too well-organized. Despite honest plots, it fell short of reflecting the messy, noisy, crowded world I lived in, the world whose stories I wanted to tell.

For as long as I have been writing, I have carried this feeling of losing essential details, the feeling of writing against an invisible filter between the world of my stories and myself. It has taken me a fair amount of time to be able to articulate this, and only recently have I have begun to understand that the nature of this perceived filter is that of translational loss.

Translation, the way I understand it, is an alchemical process. The translator does not merely transport some stories from foreign languages to our language, he actually teleports an alien world to ours while balancing the two paradoxical goals of preserving this alienness in all its strange beauty and making it possible for us to comprehend this beauty. When I write in English, I do something similar. Only, instead of someone else’s literature, I am translating the language of my being, and when I try to replace this language with another, I can preserve my plot but many other less tangible things are lost. This happens because language is not merely a mode of communicating the story to the readers. It pervades everything from the personalities of our characters to the architecture of our narratives. The way a typical man from the state of Uttar Pradesh in India speaks, for example, when translated to the Queen’s English would lose almost all its character, all its spice. The abuses with which he peppers each sentence, the obsequious way in which he deals with his boss, the way he is with his wife in bed, all of it, when passed through a filter of “clean” English would turn drab and ill-fitting.

The key to avoiding this, for me, has been the recognition that my in-head process of translation needs not to replace one language with another but to weave together both of them. Some things will still be lost, since there is no such thing as lossless translation, but it is the kind of loss with which I can make my peace because the product of this combinational translation is neither inferior nor superior to the original.

It is its own independent, beautiful thing—an alien world superimposed on the familiar, neither native nor foreign. To be able to do this, what we need, paradoxically enough, is to actively stop thinking about language and declare our allegiance first and foremost to our stories and their characters. When we do that, we are able to transcend translation, wrap up the languages in one another, and use them in a way that is most honest to our stories.

Salman Rushdie, for example, does this in many of his novels by interlacing English with HUG-ME (Rushdie’s acronym for the mix of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, and English that is the language of Mumbai, the language he grew up with) because that is the language of his characters and the places where they live. ‘But what is so precious’, says a character in Midnight’s Children, ‘to need all this writing-shiting?’ The word “shiting” here referring to a typical Indian mannerism of highlighting an English word of a sentence by succeeding it with a rhyming word that is by itself nonsensical.

By attempting to put my understanding of this pre-writing translation to practice, I have also realized that the self-assurance needed to construct my own frame of translation can only come from trusting my readers. Trusting them to take the language and understand it by the context of the story. Trusting them to not balk at the first thing they find foreign and have to Google. Trusting them, instead, to love that foreignness and the literary engagement it provides them.

Rushdie, after all, trusted his readers to not confuse “shiting” with “shitting”.

All said and done, I know that like most things about fiction writing, there is no right or wrong way of walking back and forth on the tightrope bridge between languages. No formula that I can apply to the language of my experience and memory for translating it to the language of the words on my paper, and no precedents I can blindly follow. Every other writer who has done this has done it by finding a way of using languages that was best-suited to their unique voice and identity, and I will have to do the same.

Meanwhile, the excitements of living in one language and writing in another continue to lie in the perils of doing so, and in the peculiar, sometimes beautiful results that come up as I try to merge the two. And what about the days when the perils feel like too high a price for the excitements, and I find myself wondering if it would not be better to give up all these linguistic nuances and fully embrace a language once and for all? Well, on those days I try to remember an interesting anecdote that Arundhati Roy, a master tightrope walker herself, recounted in her W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation.

A few weeks after the release of her Booker-winning novel, The God of Small Things, a rather hostile member of the audience asked Roy a question during a book reading: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?”

“Nabokov”, she replied, and sent the man storming out of the hall.

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