Archive for May, 2012
Response to the topic for a blog magazine: Encountering the Other in Language/Place
The ‘other’ in place and language pre-supposes that place and language are located. To me they are not. I am often asked which language is my mother tongue. The answer is: I do not know. I was born in Rourkela, Orissa to Punjabi Sikh parents. My parents fought in Punjabi. My friends in the street played in Hindi. Our maids talked in Oriya. My school was in English. Each of those languages became part of my linguistic expression and experience. I laugh in English, feel sad in Hindi, count in Punjabi, and Oriya soothes my ears. As for the next question: where are you from? I again do not have an answer: as I said, I was born in a town whose official history started with a post-Independence steel plant and I have left a lot of places since then – Rourkela, Dehradun, Rajpura, Kapurthala, Bhilai, Hyderabad, Bangalore. Two of these cities have belonged to different states in my lifetime. Being dislocated and not being owned by a language, I have a self that is less defined by external markers and my obvious affection towards them. If all that I am not is the ‘other’ then, to make sense of living is, I need to find my ‘self’ and to confront my prejudices. To do so, I struggle with language and feel at home in the open pages of my drafts.
About a decade ago, I asked myself if my exploration of self would not best start by exploring my own family. I sought to write about my mother’s mental illness, about the care I received from our maid. Though my mother was my subject, I could not and did not want to be completely objective and clinical about her. In fact, the success of Sepia Leaves comes from it not being a cold, objective study of madness but by its being a warm, involved, subjective look at the situation in a family living under the shadow of Schizophrenia. It also posits the fact that a surrogate mother, the maid, actually connects the little boy to the world.
I said above that Rourkela’s objective history began with the construction of the Steeel Plant. That is how we construct our history as a nation – objectively. The reality is that the land for the Steel Plant was acquired from the tribals living in the region for generations, for hundreds of years. These tribals were uprooted, sent to the margins of the new town, made untouchable by the Nehruvian ‘temples of modern India’. Then when there is a crises in a family in this experimental nuclear society whose constituents have migrated from across the new nation, where one does not share culture or language with one’s neighbours, it is the tribal maid who comes to assist the young boy grow up. How can then there be an other in it? The othering is in our minds, in the language we employ, in the tools we use to sharpen our understanding and by which we miss out on the essential truths of the situation.
It becomes trickier in my next book Roll of Honour (due to be published September 2012). That is a story of split loyalties of an adolescent Sikh boy, studying in a military school during the wave of Khalistan, in the year 1984. The story deals with militancy at the national/state level and power hierarchies within school systems, and also with bullying and sexuality. The difficulty in writing Roll of Honour is dual:
a) The fact that the life at school is a sub-culture and almost complete in itself with hardly any reference to markers outside the school walls. It has its own system of punishments and rewards and valourizes its own notions of honour and disgrace.
b) That the language of the school is English but the language among students in a strange mix of Punjabi and their own code of speaking in which words are used more as tokens and less for what they inherently mean: cusswords which perpetuate and respond to a host of power equations.
The othering happens when I try to tell the story of an essentially rustic Punjabi experience in the English language. English is a language that the students learnt from textbooks and not from their environments. Each day of the last several years when I failed to articulate the angst of the protagonist I felt my own self was othering me, othering my understanding of what had happened.
One can write about the school as travelers wrote about Asia and Africa a few centuries ago by painting it in their own point of view, by orientalizing it. But here the storyteller is a native, himself not unfamiliar with what seems bizarre to an outsider. To write about a sub-group the writer needs to access what is being discussed within the sub-group in the language of the sub-group. If one chooses to access it like an erstwhile foreigner would to India or a grouping in India, the knowledge would remain that much bland. But if one wants to really access it, one learns to make it part of oneself, become a subject, and not objectify it. Quite like shop assistants in shoe shops all over Lajpat Nagar Central Market have their own unique register in which they fix prices for the shoes we buy. I remember the grain merchants from my childhood speak amongst themselves in a different language than what they used with the farmers who brought the grain. These language and registers are inherent in sub-groups which can extent to neighbourhoods, towns, cities, states, nations and also to religions, sects, businesses, occupations.
The only way I found out of it was to paint the picture as simply as I could. Use English not for its flamboyance or floweriness but for its ability to say less but to convey the essential. Whether it works or not depends upon the reception the book receives and how I feel just when the edits are over and it is going into print. That is when I will know if I could finally diminish or even erase my own sense of otherness from my own sense of self. I will know if I could move beyond dualities towards oneness and yet tell the story of the drama in the human heart.