Being bilingual in India teaches you that what you say is often changed by the language you say it in. When I first went to a proper school (complete with padres, pencils, uniforms, etc.), the only language I spoke was Hindi. I probably had a passive knowledge of English because my father, who was from southern India, spoke English round the house, but everyone else spoke Hindi and so did I. There was one thing I could say in English, though, and that was, “If you do that I‘ll make you remember your grandmother.”
I’m not sure why my first English sentence was so belligerent because I was a small, risk-averse child, but I can guess at how I came by it. Anyone who has watched a few Hindi films will recognize that this is a literal translation of the Hindi threat, “Agar tooney yeh kiya to main tujhe nani yaad dila doonga!” Whereas I, a Hindi-speaking five-year-old, used the only English I knew to feign confidence in an “English medium” school, India’s former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, an English-speaking 45-year-old, said the same thing in Hindi for the opposite reason, to affect a vernacular robustness that didn’t come naturally to him, a middle-aged, deracinated anglophone.
Wordsmith: Nadeem Aslam, UK-based author of The Wasted Vigil, spoke only Urdu till he was 14. Richard Lea-Hair
Many Indians, certainly many north Indians, have made that journey from being Hindi speakers in childhood to becoming fluent anglophones incapable of expressing a complex idea in their mother tongues, leave alone writing in them. Ironically, middle-class Bengalis, the first Indians to learn English, have managed to remain literate in both Bengali and English; in contrast, for native Hindi speakers, learning English seems to mean unlearning Hindi. The average north Indian anglophone like Rajiv Gandhi uses Hindi for routine daily transactions (such as buying bus tickets or asking for directions) or for talking to older relatives (such as the rhetorically useful grandmother) and the lower classes.
Inside three years the Jesuits delivered their part of the unspoken agreement that existed between my school and my parents: Hindi shrank from being my first language to being my worst subject, a subject taught with near-ghoulish badness by a gaggle of women with large, hooped earrings and Punjabi accents. English replaced it by becoming the default language that I read fiction in. By the time I was nine, I had one-and-a-half languages and Hindi was the fraction.
But even a talented linguist like my father, who spoke several Indian languages well besides being properly literate in them—like Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Bengali and Sanskrit—recognized that English wasn’t just one language among the many he knew; it was something of a hegemon. I once asked him, with the awe that someone deaf to other languages feels around people who have a flair for picking them up, how he could think and speak in so many. He grinned and said, “My trick is that I speak English in half-a-dozen languages!” He didn’t mean that he was literally translating from the English when he spoke Tamil or Kannada: He was suggesting that his other languages were irradiated by his knowledge of English.
Nadeem Aslam, the Pakistani novelist, spoke only Urdu till he was 14; he came to English when his father migrated to England. He said he read in Urdu every day to stay close to a language that he loved. He was asked if he ever wrote in Urdu. He said he didn’t because as a novelist he needed to be surrounded by the language in which he worked: To write in Urdu in England would be like trying to swim in an empty swimming pool.
It’s a striking image and it set me wondering where that left Indian writers who live in India and write fiction in English. Because even if we allow that a part of their world happens in English, the better part of it doesn’t. To extend Aslam’s metaphor, does that mean that they’re likely to paddle in the shallows because there isn’t enough water for a deep end?
Aslam’s metaphor is based on a particular conception of the writer’s relationship with a language. A country ordered by a single language is so central to a European nation’s sense of itself that it’s taken for granted that the world the novelist describes will happen in one language. Consequently, to write about it you need to be immersed in that language. To write about it in some other language (such as Urdu) would be affected, perverse, unless your Urdu was as rich, complex and practised as your English, which, in the absence of total immersion, the full swimming pool, it couldn’t be.
To describe the bilingual, often multilingual contexts in which anglophone writers live and work in India, it might be useful to change metaphors, to replace the swimming bath with the bucket “bath” so we can escape the idea of immersion. Indians don’t immerse themselves in baths; they sluice themselves with mugfuls of water. The moral, I suppose, is that the anglophone Indian doesn’t need immersion to sustain language: Small quantities of running English—spoken, written, sung and heard—will do.
But the middle-of-the-night question—what language do you scream in when you’re tumbled from your bed at 2am by an earthquake—remains. In the last week of my father’s life, his mind abandoned his hospital bed present, and ranged back to his childhood. He called to his mother, who had died when he was a boy, and spoke to his grandfather, who had raised him. For all the languages he had learnt over a very long life, and despite his own acknowledgment of the primacy of English, he died in Tamil.
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is the author, most recently, of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org