Bhasha Blues

My attempts to find a literary voice after being uprooted from a ‘home’ language

 

This article is in English, mostly.

As a matter of fact, virtually all of what you read in this website will be in English. Most of my writing—whether its fiction, nonfiction, poetry, emails, texts, tweets, whatever—is in English. English has been my primary method of written communication for most of my life.

In a world hyper-connected now through social media etc., this hardly makes me unique. English has been the ‘lowest common denominator’ for international communication for a century, and now, that’s true more than ever.

I’ve published articles in newspapers and magazines and websites in English. One day, I hope to publish books in English, too. The language has been good to me. I spend a lot of time with it. It’s usually the first choice when I type in my phone (except for the occasional emoji), the keyboard I use on my computer, and most importantly, the voice of debate in my own head, the language with which I think, ponder, comprehend, and create.

And yet, I’m a paraya to this language. An alien. All my life, I’ve used English to my advantage, and yet, it will never be ‘home’ to me.

Nothing will.

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I was born in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, in North India, to a family that spoke Hindustani (a mix of Hindi and Urdu) and a similar spoken dialect of Punjabi. My mother tongue, the first words with which I was addressed as an infant, and most likely my first words (except for proper nouns) were in Hindi/Hindustani. It was the language of our family discussions, of the neighbourhood bhel-puri wallah, of the cook that made me Maggi, of my friends on makeshift cricket pitches, of the movies I watched, the songs I listened to, the comics I read, of almost everything in my periphery. Being in Varanasi, every conversation was tinged with a musical flavour of Bhojpuri, too.

I went to English medium schools, but even if most of the subjects were taught in English, this mixture of Hindustani was the vernacular that I used with my friends and family. English was limited to textbooks, foreign movies, Australian cricket commentators, western songs, and Christian family friends. My family took a trip abroad when I was just four years old, to the US and Canada, and it taught my elder brother and I a new dimension in English, both oral and written.

Even as I was just 4 or 5 years old, my parents realised the importance of having a strong grasp of English for our future. If they would overhear my brother and I babbling in Hindi about our favourite WWF wrestlers or the latest Bollywood movies, we would be shushed and told to “T.I.E.”. Talk In English. It became a family code, and our parents would zap us with a T.I.E. whenever they felt we weren’t practicing our English enough.

It helped, a little. And within a year or two, my interest in English became stronger as I started to read more. Encouraged by my father, I delved into a variety of texts: abridged and illustrated versions of Mark Twain novels, SportStar magazines, English versions of Raj Comics, or menu-cards at Chinese restaurants. By the time I was sent to boarding school at age 10, I was still a Hindi “thinker”, but was equally comfortable speaking and reading in both languages. Because of the English-medium education, my English writing had become much stronger than Hindi. My doodles, the conversations in my comic speech bubbles, and my early story-writing (all superhero/apocalyptic stuff) was in English.

Then, with seven and a half years of boarding school in my formative teenage years, English firmly became the language of my thoughts, most of my conversation, the majority of my reading, and of all my writing. Nowhere outside of Hindi class was I challenged to better my Hindi vocabulary. Hindi was limited to some conversation and intake from popular media around me. Relatively speaking, I have expanded little to my knowledge of Hindi/Hindustani after age 10-11 up to this day.

My knowledge of English, however, kept growing, influenced by literature, music, cartoons, TV, movies, sports, and of course, academics, which was all primarily in English. I began to learn the nuances of the language, and the “phunny” rules of English started to become intuitive. I spoke in both, but had started to “think” almost exclusively in English.

It was, thoroughly, an Indian-English, arguably the most significant legacy left behind by the centuries of British Raj. Even living as an Indian, it’s entirely normal not to use Hindi at all. India is proudly a country of dozens of “official” languages and hundreds of other minor languages, offshoots, and dialects. Despite linguistic chauvinism (thoroughly affected by the nationalist politics), English has been accepted as a domestic medium, leaping past the communication barriers between Indians of Punjab or Gujarat or Tamil Nadu or Assam or Odisha or wherever. 

But just like each part of India has its own language, English itself isn’t a monolith. In India, I spoke a bastardised English that was semi-British-Indian-English, semi-American-pop-culture-English, and semi-Hinglish/Urdu. However, people in the world from “native” English speaking nations (of the Anglosphere) have a more intimate relationship with the language, a tug-and-pull that has evolved through centuries to give every such pocket of the world its own English dialect.

British English is very different from American English, or Australian English, or South African English, or that in Canada. British English itself is different in England and Scotland and the Irelands and Wales. The English of England is so specifically regional that an author can immediately place themselves based on the dialects they use in their work, whether its Mancunian or Scouse or Yorkshire or Cockney or “The Queen’s English”, or the hundreds more dialects influenced by recent immigrants that Wikipedia tries to describe as “Multicultural London English”.

The same is true for English (written and oral) in the United States, where a person’s (or in the case of fiction, a character’s) dialogue cadence can ‘place’ them somewhere for an astute reader: the English of New York, of Boston, of Philadelphia, or Texas, of California, of Minnesota, or wherever else.

No matter how much of an English I may practice (writing or speaking) in my adult life, it will never be my ‘home’ language. There is no clear cadence of the language that will ‘place’ me. I will always be outside looking in, always a badly-disguised imitation, an adopted son.

This issue is not unique to me or other English writers in India, of course. Anyone growing up in any Commonwealth nation—from Pakistan to Nigeria to South Africa to Jamaica and Hong Kong—understand this issue very well. Wherever else English writers may emerge (like former US colony Philippines or even non-English-speaking countries like China), they have that same feeling of being a paraya. How do we borrow a language that isn’t indigenous to our own, and yet create literature/art out of it?

Despite being a descendant of Commonwealth-adopted English, I’ve grown to be obsessed to grasp the straws of my mother tongue. This is just a chhota-mota way for me to remain connected with my roots. I know that I may never be able to write fluently or at any literary level in my ‘native’ Hindustani. Still, I hope to keep the language alive in the form that I speak it or think it, expressing it in a jagged yet fascinating mixtures with English.

I’m well aware that I speak a bastardised tongue, a scrambled Hindi that now sounds foreign to Hindi speakers, and a mila-jula English that will never have a home-base, that will never ‘belong’ somewhere. But in this challenge, I feel, also lies an opportunity: I have the opportunity to revel in this bastardisation of language, to turn my individualised language remix into my personal home-base.

For a long time, in my creative writing work, I self-edited myself to try and sound like a different writer, a writer who spoke and wrote better English than I did. But this approach was inauthentic, and my work sounded inauthentic, too. I know that I don’t have the polish of some native English speakers, or even an instinctive expertise of the complex fundamentals of the language. I am continuing to work on making those fundamentals stronger, even as an adult leader.

But to truly get my writing to shine—to shine my personal ‘voice’ on the page—I’ve had to let my own bhasha remix play out. I’ve had to let go of control a little, write with the language rules and vocabulary as I see fit, and then see what happens!

Both English and Hindi are evolving languages, adopting cultures as they go along. I may have become an imperfect outsider to both these languages, but I hope that my generation of mixed-up speakers can add a new evolution to move the languages forward.