Tag Archives: language

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: A Women’s Language

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The philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote extensively about the need for a embodied, feminine authorship, penned in one essay: “I said, ‘write French’. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before entering. Strictly forbidden.”

To write in: in secret, in solitude, in defiance, in allegiance, in spite of. This can happen in any language.

In China’s Jiangyong County, for an uncertain number of centuries, existed a dialect called Nüshu. It was created for, and used exclusively by, women when they were not otherwise permitted literacy.

Nüshu created the custom of “third day missives”, which would arrive in a woman’s marital home on the third day following her wedding. These were booklets of joyful blessings and sad songs, sent to her from her mother and her closest female friends. In literature I have read about this literature, the words “sworn sisters” come up repeatedly, at the centre of the nexus of intimacy.

Among all partings I think of this – a queer woman writing to her lover or desired one, separated from her by marriage. Her secrets travelling to another village, almost safely. Her lover or her desired one receiving these cries of the heart, etched in ink. The lines of the Nüshu script are so delicate, leaflike as compared to standard hanzi logograms, that they were known as “mosquito writing”. I want to imagine those lines being saved, but I also want to think that every woman in her new household would have known how to read too. Would they have kept her secret, or turned against her?

Nüshu was also often written on handheld fans, objects held close – folded or open.

Unlike the Japanese Hiragana or Korean hangul scripts, which were primarily used by women before being absorbed into general use, authentic Nüshu died with its last proficient speaker in 2004. Only scholars know it now, and perhaps deciphering rather than communicating is their primary mode. Because it was written down in personal documents, it could not possibly have been secret, as many claim. So its use was either accepted, or tolerated as a form of lesser communication.

I looked at lines of characters: the same word in different Chinese scripts. There is said to be a link between Nüshu and the most ancient of them all: the writing carved on bones and tortoise shells that would crack upon heating, and be used in divination. How many times did the words for “rain” or “king” appear on those shells and bones? And the ones for “love” or “child”? In the 19th century, these fragments were ground up in traditional medicine, their secrets swallowed.

The lettering for “woman” in the ancient oracle script is serpentine, an almond shape cut through by a flowing incurvation. I meditate in other languages about the scripted, the secret, the silent, the said.

This is how we know that Nüshu was an embodied language: it could be spoken, and sung. The written documents that remain are only vestiges of a certain world. Words build worlds; this language too sustained one. And like those swallowed divinations, I know there are some who carry its spirit, scriptless and soundless, into many vastly different ones.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: We Have All Written/Said Problematic Things

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When we consider a poem like “The White Man’s Burden”, all the enchantment of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” fades away. When we realise that Enid Blyton’s books were full of racism and sexism, and that we were happily oblivious to these prejudices as we read them, we cringe. More egregiously still, when we think retroactively of the “groupie” culture of 70’s music, we balk at all the statutory rape that took place.

Especially if you write, perform, work in policymaking, or teach, such examples are worth reflecting on. From actions to accidental slippages, they tarnish entire bodies of work. Whether or not one is in the public eye is irrelevant. Accountability shouldn’t be motivated by criticism, but by one’s own conscience. What would you do differently, looking back at your own work?

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a poem that I wrote when I was 17 on Facebook. I commented with a disclaimer, which she was sweet enough to insist was unnecessary. But to me, it was. You see, the poem contained the word “androgynous” as a reference to Plato’s androgyne, the being made of two halves so as to be a perfect whole, who need not seek love beyond the self. But if I were to write a similar poem now, half a lifetime later, it would not even occur to me to use a word that belongs as a queer identifier, because my own understanding of the word has changed.

Similarly, when I was doing the final proofs for my new book, The High Priestess Never Marries, I removed a playful reference to the Mahabharata’s Dronacharya, who demanded that the tribal archer Eklavya sever his thumb, from a story. When I had written the story five years ago, my understanding of caste was less evolved than it is now. To put it simply: I wouldn’t make that joke now because I would no longer think it was funny. I had been wrong, whether I knew it or not. How many times had I read a book and thought of how much better it would have been if it weren’t for that completely unnecessary drop of indigo in the milk: “fat” or “dark” being used interchangeably with “unattractive”, period pieces which used racial pejoratives like “savages” outside of dialogue, elitist self-identifications like “TamBrahm”, and so on? How can I leave that bad taste in someone else’s mouth, when I know better now?

Norms and languages evolve. So do we. And we must remember: while we owe it to our own personal growth and to the audiences that we hope to reach (whether that’s in a book, in a personal conversation, or on Twitter), we are all works in progress. We’re all continuously changing, and if we’re open to it, we’re continuously learning. I wonder what I’ll think of my recent writing in 15 years. I wonder what I will find problematic then. My point is to say that it’s okay. We grow most when we have the humility to know that we don’t know everything. The best disclaimer, and the best apology, is to delve deeper and do better.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 13th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Calling To A World That Isn’t Listening

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Deeply disheartened, I stood before a lit lamp and tried to find a reason to raise my voice in a world made deaf by its own silences. A line flickered to mind, and I recognised it as the title of a book I’d wanted to read, but had never purchased. That line was: “finding beauty in a broken world”. The environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote a collection of essays by that name, on seeking a way of being that integrates all the fragments shattered by human brutality. I yearned for the book suddenly. I have buried myself in language for as long as I can remember. It salves me. It puts me, too, back together.

I sought an excerpt online, the way another person might view a movie trailer. In the first page, Williams writes – “…I faced the ocean. ‘Give me one wild word’. It was all I asked of the sea.”

That was how I had felt, at my altar – and that page led me to this page you read now.

All libraries carry the memories of trees, and sometimes it is to the source that we must go. The summer streets are carpeted with the yellow flowers of rusty shield-bearer trees. I recall the closing lines of Adam Zagajewki’s poem: “Praise the mutilated world/ and the gray feather a thrush lost,/ and the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.” This is what I try to do, in the evidence of the lines that precede them: “You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”

As I write this, my voice hurts – both spiritually and physically. For the latter, I drink a kashayam, and for the former I seek the balsam of words. And as I do, I remember something: not too long ago, I was a part of a panel on women’s issues. After the event, one of the other participants asked me, “So, did you never fight with your parents as a teenager?” Of course I had, I said lightly. “Oh really? How is it fighting when you have a voice as soft as yours? Not possible.” The indignation I felt was at once blunt and sharp, like a pair of precise surgical scissors. But in the interest of politeness, I said nothing. I looked her in the eye and allowed a tactful bystander to laugh the situation off with a “that’s just her voice!” How little the person who had insulted me knew of war, I thought, to not be able to tell a fire from a blown fuse.

Tonight, through my bedroom window and yours, the first full moon of the Tamil year will blaze. Perhaps you’ll see it, awoken by mosquitoes or misery (or just the stealth of moonbrightness). And if you do, remind yourself. To sleep well is an act of self-care, and those of us accused of caring too much frequently forget to tender ourselves the same. A mercenary measures steps in blood, a soldier in miles, and a warrior in how gently one’s footfalls shape the earth. Were we only so gentle with ourselves, too.

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

The Venus Flytrap: A Sonder

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Lovers of language will be familiar with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an Internet project that creates new words to help describe emotions that are, well, difficult to describe. The project is a beautiful experiment on the fine line between babble and Babel. Among its more popular invented words is one you’ve very likely seen in a meme or a listicle somewhere, whether or not you knew of the Dictionary in question. That word is “sonder”.

            The Dictionary defines the word as follows: “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. That’s the abridged version. An achingly hipsterish video accompanies the entry: it reminds the viewer that while they are the protagonist of their own life, around them are a supporting cast and a multitude of extras, each with a life that pivots around themselves. And there, the viewer in question is only an extra.

            I understand the popularity of the word. It gives a person pause, and for a few seconds or minutes they experience the humbling amazement that there are realities, perspectives and stories other than their own (honestly, not much of an epiphany at all if one likes to read). But what does that realisation really do other than reinforce the centrality of one’s own narrative? The truth is, every single day we rub up against the narratives of other people. And too often – out of urgency, protocol, fear or sheer indifference – we fail to register them, unless something they do or say or don’t imposes on our attention. If you really think about it, a sonder (the Dictionary defines it as a noun) is not a moment of connection; it is simply a break from a permanent cloud of self-involvement.

            I’m not sure if The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has a word for the opposite of sonder, the feeling I’d describe as the wall one hits against in certain individuals despite one’s core curiosity about and attunement to others. The people you see often, who allow you only the most functional and superficial access to their nature. You have to know them, professionally or circumstantially, and you form an impression of them that has nothing to do with who they think they are, only what they choose to not do.

            Surely that is not such an obscure sorrow, the knowledge that someone trusts themselves so little that they do not trust the world.

            What makes me like a person, whether at first impression or as I’m getting acquainted with them, is a willingness to not conceal the fact of an interior life. Not the details, necessarily, just the fact itself. A lightness with which the intricate is yielded: a mood, a glint of the eyes, a curve of the lip, a few open words. A lightness that is partly the absence of guile, but more so the acceptance that this is how we are, all of us, no more than pure emotion scaffolded by body, name, role, place. And how sad and wasteful it is to pretend otherwise.

            You will come to know a person whether they let you in or not. And they will come to know you, or a version of you, composed of the truths you give away and the lies you live by. Even if I’m wrong and a dramatic sonder is the most us egotistical human beings are capable of, imagine: in that moment of sondering, when someone looks up and catches some deep, unguarded glimpse of you – do you think you’ll like the you that they’ll see?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2nd. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: One Hundred Names For Love by Diane Ackerman

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I wrote about Diane Ackerman’s memoir about her partner Paul West’s astonishing near-recovery from global aphasia, One Hundred Names For Love, for Cerise Press. Global aphasia is a stroke-induced condition that leaves the sufferer bereft of vocabulary. The review is here.

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.

Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.

When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.

I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.

I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.

But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.

Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.

There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Poem: Mamihlapinatapai

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Mamihlapinatapai

Yahgun (Tierra del Fuego): a look shared by two people, each of whom wish the other would initiate that which they both desire, but which neither one wants to concede.

The saddest word in the world
has a piñata nestled
within it. You will never
know the richness of
your own heart until
you have held it high
above the totem
of your body and
blessed its
rupture.

The Venus Flytrap: Between Bread and Betelnut

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I was raised by my Sri Lankan Tamil maternal grandparents, and among my various cultural heirlooms comes that famously recognizable accent. That conversation-stopping, glint-in-the-eye, connotations-stirring, “Yaarlpanam-ah?” accent. The one my mother, in her less matriotic moments, tries to pass for Malayali. That political, poetic, deeply personal dialect that I call my mother tongue.

As fiercely in love as I am with this tongue, I have had to rein it in. Living in Chennai and having to haggle with auto drivers on a daily basis does that to you – do you have any idea how much they charge otherwise? I learnt to imitate the coarser rhythms of Madras Tamil out of the need for defense – like a stereotypical Ceylonese, I keep my allegiances close but my wallet closer still.

Still, it’s an accent that never fails to surprise me. The affirmative om that perks up in place of the ama I’ve conditioned myself to use in India. The fact that I cannot bring myself to use the personal nee when the neenga I am used to is just that much more pleasingly polite, and somehow, to my ears, more intimate. My accent gives me away when I least expect it to, like a blush-inducing pinch that makes sure I don’t forget. Just like how my v’s and w’s mix when I argue in English, any Tamil conversation in which I wholly participate is jazzed up (or if you’ll excuse the blatant exoticism, baila-d up) with my real accent. The one I had before I knew it was an accent.

My accent is too pretty to make fun of, I think. But some of my island-inflected vocabulary isn’t.

When I was 18, I spent half a year living with my local grandmother. Bless her, for she tried her best to take care of this half-and-half foreign-returnee. I think her patience was sorely tested by a few incidents in the kitchen (which is not called quisine here – sigh!), in particular.

I wanted some paan, I told her once, incurring her disdain. Paan, as far as I knew, was bread. Paan, as far as she knew, was betelnut. Not getting the hint, I tried to describe a sandwich. Finally, a wave of clarity broke upon her face and she exclaimed, “You mean roti!”. But roti, as far as I knew, was what’s known here as the Malabar paratha.

Equally flummoxing was when I asked for kochikai (chilli, to the Ceylonese). “What you mean”, someone corrected me, is “mizhagai“. “No”, I insisted. “That’s pepper!”

But the linguistic faux pas that I didn’t stop using until literally months ago is the one that takes the cake.

Grand old Ceylonese ammammas, at least in my experience, greet children by grabbing their chins, sniffing both cheeks, and muttering in rapturous tones, “Enda kunju!” Or (once again, to show you how little I knew), “my little one”. Fancying myself a grand young Ceylonese lady, it’s a term of endearment I also use to embellish my speech.

Imagine my glee and horror when my very irate sister informed me recently that kunju, as far as Indian Tamil is concerned, means penis.

So don’t blame me for my dirty mind. It’s genetic.

I love that my Ceylonese accent gives me away, because years and years from the first home of my childhood in Colombo, not so far away at all from losing my grandparents, it’s one of my dearest possessions. An accent like the surprise of sweet in mango pickle, I wrote in a poem once. So leave me to my broken Tamil and my quaintly scandalous expressions in it. It’s one of the few ways that I know how to love and remember love.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.