Tag Archives: indigenous

The Venus Flytrap: Decolonising Language

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In the 19th century, a woman named Uvavnuk was struck by a meteor, lost consciousness after experiencing a vision of the bear-human spirit of the meteor, and came to with a song on her lips that has fascinated scholars of spiritual experience ever since. The language she sang, spoke and lived in (we inhabit languages, as they inhabit us) was Inuktitut. The legend about her mystical encounter is longer than her song; Europeans collecting what they called folklore documented and translated both. Until colonial contact, the Inuit languages were oral, and at least nine scripts were developed across the vastness of Canada for functional purposes after this contact began. Now, a new script that will consolidate and replace the others has been formally accepted. Called Inuit Qaliujaaqpait, it uses the 26 Roman alphabets. Natan Obed, president of the cultural non-profit Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, was quoted as saying, “It’s the first time we’re exercising our own self-determination to implement our own writing system.”

Several Canadian press outlets carried the same story, verbatim, and I was intrigued by one particular line. Devoid of quotation marks, the exact words – “Inuit have decolonised the alphabet” – are not attributed to Obed, but are implied as being the summary of his opinions. The term used recalls the 1986 manifesto Decolonising The Mind by the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in which he declared that with that text he was bidding a final farewell to writing in English, having already ceased to produce creative (as opposed to non-fiction) work in that language some years prior. His political assertion was instrumental in expanding the body of work originally created in African languages, including Gikuyu and Kiswahili.

Ngũgĩ wrote of how schoolchildren were faced with two Gikuyu orthographies – rival ones, developed by different missionaries. Imagine having nine, as Inuit peoples do. The Gikuyu scripts were eventually integrated, and like Inuit Qaliujaaqpait, shares the alphabet with English (without certain letters). The use of the coloniser’s alphabet, while rejecting the coloniser’s language, is a striking way of accepting history but charting the future anew. There are others: they may require learning or eliminating, but always imagining.

“Decolonising” is a buzzword now, lending itself enjoyably to hashtags and T-shirts. Someone gave me a set of stickers recently which say “Decolonise this place!”. I accepted them with glee, but realised they’d be best used in an act of protest vandalism. I’m not opposed to such gestures, but what would their context be? If I stuck them on, say, railway signage, hostel gates or temple undials without deconstructing that big word, would their intent still be conveyed? Or would nothing happen but self-congratulatory wokeness? I think I’ll pass them along, to inspire someone else. Perhaps they’ll know how to incorporate them into their activism meaningfully, while I’m unable to.

The same 26 letters can be assembled in a hundred million ways, after all. And the same words have different effects, depending on the recipient as much as the presenter. I believe we can have the courage to request translation, and to love without guilt the complicated privilege of many tongues, whether sinuous or rusty. Those are powerful decolonisations too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 10th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: You Must Not Forget This Story

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I wonder how many languages will die in the months to come, during the year which the UN has designated as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”. Most of us will never know of some of them. Perhaps we’ll hear of them later, for the first and last time, in a news item announcing the loss. Or a stray phrase or word will drift to us, Romanised. We won’t know how to pronounce it but will treat it like a window into a perished world (like this: itek eoirapnene; later, I’ll tell you what I’m told it means). And every language, every dialect really, is a world of its own – with a worldview that is intimately tied to the words that describe the speaker’s experience of that world. February 21, observed annually as International Mother Language Day, is a fine time to reflect on this.

Languages seldom die organically, even if it seems as though the demise of the last speakers is the reason. The erasure begins far earlier. Centuries ago, with Western colonisation. In more recent decades, with globalisation and capitalism and the ways in which the hungry mainstream always pushes the so-called fringe further and further beyond the margins. And still, and ongoing, with all kinds of cultural impositions, some so subtle they are unfelt except once their changes have become entrenched. According to the UN, 43% of the approximately 6000 living languages in the world are endangered, and a language disappears every two weeks, “taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage”.

 “Untranslatable” words are among the most popular cerebral memes, and geeks everyone have become familiar with the poetic mangata (Swedish: the path-like reflection of the moon on the water), the now ubiquitous hygge (Danish: a cosy contentment) and even the gorgeous mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan: an unspoken moment between two people, neither of whom may act on what’s between them). But the words are not necessarily untranslatable, as their descriptions prove. Only their brevity doesn’t transfer. The listicles thus allude to something else, an intangible interplay of knowledge and loss. Perhaps it comes from the awareness that a thing exists but can only be experienced out of context, for the world it arises from isn’t a world one has the vocabulary to imagine.

Literally. This is why the widely-held idea that Inuits have one hundred words for snow persists, when the reality is that their languages are structured polysynthetically, and what we think of as an English sentence may be one long word. To satirise this, someone named Phil James made a convincing list, with some red herrings – “warintla: snow used to make Eskimo daiquiris” and “depptla: a small snowball, preserved in Lucite, that had been handled by Johnny Depp” should have tipped anyone off. Still, these un-dictionary definitions even find themselves onto baby name websites.

And finally, itek eoirapnene. These are Ainu words, meaning “You must not forget this story”. The Ainus have an ancient Japanese culture I only learnt of while reading on vanishing languages and the worlds they sustain. This is as far into their language as I may ever go. But that message is worth carrying forward.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What’s Gratitude Got To Do With Genocide?

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So America has copied India, and if that makes you happy, feel free to use my sour grapes to make faux champagne. The imitation remains mutual, though. India – or more precisely, cashless, digital, desensitised India – now celebrates Thanksgiving, a North American festival with a history its name completely belies. I noticed it last year, in personal status messages and corporate sales promotions, and the trend continues.  It falls today.

For some reason, many people seem to think that Thanksgiving is a day when you express gratitude. For, I don’t know, having PayTM, credit cards and god-bless-Amazon-India? For being the first to get exclusive UNESCO-certified Whatsapp forwards? Alright, maybe I’m being uncharitable (see sour grapes from earlier). Some sincere, well-intentioned, but sadly ill-informed people seem to think Thanksgiving is a day to be appreciative of one’s good luck and myriad blessings.

But its North American observance, memorializing an autumn harvest feast shared by Puritan colonisers and Native Americans, is also a fictitious lustre on facts. To be exact, it’s nationalist propaganda. The first Thanksgiving of 1637 celebrated a massacre of 700 Pequot people. Native Americans were probably not seated at that table. Among what followed and preceded were: the Trail of Tears, smallpox as warfare, stolen lands, systematic slaughter and too much more.

Reading beyond skewed history textbooks, we know that Columbus sought a direct sea route to Asia. His poor navigation skills opened the Americas up for exploitation over the coming centuries. So when you observe the festival in India, what are you saying thanks for: that it wasn’t your ancestors, just someone else’s?

The Native Americans who survive to this day – whose voices I seek to neither represent nor appropriate – as well as all who were wiped out, with or without descendants, deserve more respect than that.

Distantly, we hear of the resistance against a pipeline that violates sacred Sioux grounds at Standing Rock, where water cannons and mace are blasted at unarmed protestors, who were even locked into cages and attacked by dogs. Distantly, we read of how even as these events unfolded, Obama was posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Elouise Cobell, who successfully litigated against the United States government in the largest class action lawsuit in its history, for mismanagement of funds and lands leased from Native American nations. Such dissonance, between the things we are told and the things we know to be true. And still, so very distantly, we type out “Happy Thanksgiving! So grateful for all the good things in life yo!” as though nothing is connected, as though the history of human survival is not twinned by the history of human carnage.

Don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Your “good intentions” don’t bring back the cultures that are lost forever, or revive the ones that are under threat. Your “good intentions” don’t keep human rights violations from happening to this very day. Hell, your “good intentions” haven’t even solved the riddle of how India sends missions to Mars but hasn’t invented tools that replace manual scavenging with bare hands, right here in our own backyards.

And as for gratitude? What’s genocide got to do with it?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Postcard From Bundjalung Country

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I write this to you by hand from a wildlife sanctuary in Brisbane. My companions have gone to an animal show, while I have chosen to catch my breath and reflect. I am surrounded by bird calls (I promised you this a few weeks ago) and the quick footsteps of excited children. I still have white sand in my shoes from a beach I stole away to on my last morning in Byron Bay. This brings to mind the first time that I travelled to this land, when I’d lain on my back under regal trees and it was Singapore by the time I washed Larrakia country out of my hair.

But that was Darwin, in the North, and it is Bundjalung country I have been in this time.  On one of three rainy days, the writer Jeffery Renard Allen and I were having coffee when a woman came up to us and asked if we wanted to meet one of the Elders. That woman was Dale Simone Roberts, and as Jeff leant to be introduced to the seated Elder, Aunty Dorrie Gordon, Dale turned to look me in the face and said “Bless your journey. I can see a little bit. You’ve been fighting for the women.”

I burst into tears.

I don’t know what it was: the history and trauma embodied by Aboriginal people like Aunty and Dale, and the ordeal and fresh wounding embodied by Jeff, as an African-American man in the world today; or the fact that while I was contemplating the everyday resilience of others, someone had seen right into mine. Aunty blessed me in her way, and I touched her feet first, as we do in mine.

Immediately after, a precious conversation with Helen Burns, a local writer with whom I’d forged an instant bond upon discovering that we are both writing fiction projects on Andal. She told me how sometimes she sees a person in Tamil Nadu, on a bus perhaps, and could swear that they were Aboriginal. In Pitjanjara (one of many indigenous languages), she said, the word for ‘parrot’ is ‘kili’. I fished into my handbag for my notebook to write this down, and it fell open to an image of Andal I hadn’t realised I had carried to this distant continent.

How many countries are within each nation? How many countries are within each individual?

Among my panels was one on multicultural influence. My passport declares one thing, my heart and tongue claim another, and my history sprawls though acres of a third.

But an Australia-India Council grant has brought Rosalyn D’Mello, Salma and I here to promote our feminist anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, and over and over again we found ourselves simultaneously adding nuance to popular narratives and expounding on the dire condition of women in India. One journalist told us that a national Year 12 exam asks students to write essays on the same. On us.

 And when she asked about India itself, I told her a list of things I was afraid to speak about, and in this way I named them – the many countries within a nation that only on some days do I call mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.