The Venus Flytrap: You Must Not Forget This Story

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: Koi No Yokan And Kintsugi

What marvels do the languages we’ll never know contain, what things would they tell us about ourselves if only we knew how to decipher them? Sometimes there are feelings I have that calcify inside me until, years later, a comet of words will set them free like a kiss in a fairytale. What if the words that will give me back to myself are ones I will not even understand?

Those lists of beautiful and supposedly untranslatable words are like too many macaroons at once. I’m not sure such delicate turns of phrase are meant to be gorged that way, instead of being savoured. I encountered one of them, unaccompanied, the other day – and perhaps because it was alone, among lines and not in lists, it arrested me. I mused over it slowly. This was the phrase, from the Japanese language: koi no yokan. The presentiment upon meeting someone that, eventually, you will fall in love with them. But not yet.

The last time I had that sense, I had held on to the possibility like the fact of the moon: full in rarer moments, obscured in most. Sometimes the probability of love took me far, literally. Sometimes I forgot about it. Once or twice, it ambushed me, and I would find myself bawling, as though a claypot I didn’t know was in my hands was suddenly in shards on the floor. All in all, let me say this: what was never promised but expected to be eventual was more inspiring than disappointing. Perhaps some glimpses of love yet to come, intuitions that hold true for only as long as morning dew on a leaf, are meant only to do that much.

The last time I really loved someone, I didn’t have a clue that it would come to pass for the year and a half in which I had known him peripherally, before he suddenly came into view like an aperture of sight or imagination had been adjusted. I never saw it coming, and sifting through memory later, I was humbled by the intricacy of life’s convolutions, how something only a short distance away had never shimmered at me with sweet allusion, or cast its spectral foreshadow.

Although here’s what I suspect and may never be told the truth about: he knew before I did. He’d had that presentiment, and if he had known the Japanese words, he may have known what to call it.

There are other words now to fill the gap that cannot be bridged. I know some of them. Others hover outside my comprehension.

Mulling over koi no yokan, I remembered that where that early recognition had caused me pain had actually always been only in platonic friendships. Their loss scars me far deeper than amorous disillusionment. I’ve matured into a tendency to see romance as transient in ways that I refuse to presume, even now, of friendship. I spent all of this year recovering from two friendships that failed my faith in them.

Again, and always, another Japanese word: kintsugi. The art of fixing what’s broken with gold, which hides neither its beauty nor the reason for its need.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 22nd 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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.