It is hard to find a point to begin because there was no moment of revelation. It was something I always knew, we always knew, implicit in our subtle everyday verbal acrobatics—a kind of omnipresent floor-mat that we could never step off to lift. Being-conscious-of, of course, is different from saying-aloud. Silence comforts guilt, but speech untangles and presents it in a sort of a repeated prayer, or an attempt to build another (identical) wall for a space half-formed and crawling upward.
The truth is that I am both proud and ashamed of my English. It has always worked this way: like commodity or currency, a thing whose ownership marked me as ___ and ___ and ___ to different people. It allows me to speak a satisfying, unsubtle difference against people who speak it less or worse or with any sign of labor. It allows me access and audience and relevance, command over a coveted thing. When I was younger there was glee in this knowledge, a greedy willingness to believe that this taxonomy was natural and obvious and the law, a willingness to feel contempt for the people further down the line. Those instincts don’t really die, if I’m honest, but they are more transparently ugly now. As a kid in bourgie South Bombay, my pidgin amalgam of Hindi-Marathi-Gujarati used to be a joke, grimacing but careless—inscribing my lack of need, my freedom from that world. Now the words mother tongue make me flinch.
This discomfort underwrites everything in a way that makes it slippery and hard to articulate, hard to find or echo in the words of the people around me. It is also more than that. In naming this language anxiety, a kind of life—a comfortable life—is under threat. But we knew deep down that it was only a matter of time.
The silence I grew up in cracked slowly and under various pressures from outside our little world—reading, almost in pain, Fanon and Homi Bhabha, tasting the strange, vicarious pleasure of Jamaica Kincaid’s corrosive anger. A rupture on a sleepy Sunday a few weeks ago: Etel Adnan’s essay “To Write in a Foreign Language.” Her writing confronted me with an unexpected and unsettling familiarity—the familiarity of little shared autobiographical details and larger shames and aspirations. It was filled with a kind of gentle intolerance for bullshit—for self-indulgent guilt and fatalism in the face of history (both of which I love to do) while holding the environment that might produce those feelings, and herself, in a hand bent in tender curiosity. Most of all, her writing seemed an invitation. Here is a space you can talk about it. You don’t need to be very certain. Just pick up a thread.
It’s amazing to think of a shared cultural geography of childhoods caught in language tussles. Mine, a little like Adnan’s in Lebanon, was a marriage of my parents’ aspiration and what was familiar to them. My parents and I are children and grandchildren of petty and pompous convent schooling, inheritors of an implied belief that the fundamental worth of English was moral, a constituent of character. Each generation of my family has drifted further from Gujarati and towards English, towards a specifically prim and schooled English and its accompanying insecurities—of proper grammar and idiom, competence over imagination. It is the mimicking of fluency rather than the thing itself. We steal even our slang.
When I was learning to read, my mother force-fed me Enid Blyton—the English is excellent—and my early imagination was formed to respect a jolly outdoorsy masculinity that was already everything I wasn’t. All reading then was an odd sort of survival training. It had less to do with joy or imagination and more to do with a desperate and disciplined acquisition of language. This, was, perhaps, the gift of a parent who was always conscious of not having it enough.
My mother’s language is surprising in its dexterity when she lets go, but usually she is cautious and awkward about her words. A variety of anxieties confine her to language she feels is familiar—she will hear something here and repeat it there, and stay quiet unless she needs to. She is resolutely internal, refusing to talk about politics or sports. Abstractions are frivolous to her. Her wild intensity is voiceless and embodied, surfacing only with curses for my grandmother and when she locks her bedroom door and saws at her violin. Sometimes she will throw things, her eyes wide and lips pulled thin. She is excessive in her anger and in her careful love, but it is excess as repeated action rather than verbal expression. It is 19 missed calls on a friend’s phone or a total and dutiful willingness to complete laborious school projects for me or switch around a flight for an extra day together though we are not very rich. I always feel deep down that no one has loved anyone the way my mother loves me. My home, growing up, was filled with affection—but oddly lacking in conversation.
Because of this, language, any language, came to me as a slow and sweaty dig out of a ditch. It was only harder that it was English, amplified in awkwardness by a culture of ginger reverence for it. I was repaid for labor with a stammering acquaintanceship.
Etel remembers: “Somehow we breathed an air where it seemed being French was superior to anyone, and as we were obviously not French, we learned how to speak it.”
This is an uncertain we just like all national plural pronouns are uncertain; the we breathing this air might easily mask another we choking silently on alien gas. This second we might choose this rebellion against the new language or have its burden placed upon them by exclusion and a slow, excruciating drain of opportunity.
Our second we, to which I obviously did not belong, made itself known to me from our kitchens and taxis. My maid growing up braided my hair every morning and packed me lunch and taught me how to match my clothes. She spoke Marathi most of the time and would only shyly offer up mangled English words while washing my hair, the two of us alone and splashing in my bathroom. We were close, as close our mutually recognized distance would allow, and she often asked me to teach her a little English. I did, for a little, and then got bored and stopped.
I was, of course, a selfish cow—but the sympathy I am encouraged to replace my childish indifference with is no less repulsive. English is taught—often even to adults—in a tone of deep and sugary condescension, to a lesser species, one that flashes with occasional and long-forgotten brilliance but which exists mainly as an anthropological exhibit or as silent labor.
And when they come too close there is the mocking, a flourishing subgenre of general conversation, of mispronounced or accented English. It is often the deepest cut, the quickest way to put a language-aspirant in her place. This easy cruelty digs long trenches, separates giant groups of people into attractive and repulsive under barely misleading pseudonyms. Identity works as a flourishing of not-thems, and scratching behind either surface yields nothing. My side is safe, protected, on the right side of this commercial history.
And so English becomes guilt twice over: guilt for using it, and guilt for not being grateful enough.
Etel recalls her mother’s “imperfect French”, a gift she gives her only child. Etel’s own imperfect script in Arabic (which she turns into paintings) is almost a perfect turning and returning from and to this inheritance. In its imperfection she calls it a “living” rather than speaking language. When she makes it art, painting in flawed Arabic again and again, she turns language (especially broken language) into an object of living, a moment where meaning breaks down into visual or sonic joy. This is copying as pleasure, as a form of reclaiming through repetition.
Copying can be ugly, grasping, desperate. In Homi Bhabha’s essay “Mimicry and Man,” it is a bitter farce, an exercise in colonial production to produce “the Other as a subject of difference that is almost the same but not quite.” This mimicry invokes the grotesque dumbness of a parrot or clown, slapping lips together to make mutilated sounds for the dull amusement of some colonial master, grotesque even more because the performer believes he is getting it right.
Adnan’s copying is of another kind. It recalls the childish way in which language is learned, the joys of little verbal slips and letters written the wrong way around. It made me think of a slipping, sly and joyful book I read recently—G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr. This, too, is filled with a kind of irreverence, but it works in the opposite direction as Bhabha’s colonial mocking or its classroom equivalent.
Its subject, a nut named Hindustaaniwalla Hatterr, a “mixed-Oriental orphan ward,” speaks in a language both completely inventive and oddly familiar. It mangles and mashes the tropes and traditions of English as it is taught in India, laughs at its occasional Latinate pompousness and stiff upper lip while playing with its oddness. Examples of his splicings:
“Only a few years ago, Master Keeper, I was sitting in my humble belle-vue-no-view, cul-de-sack-the-tenant, a landlady’s up-and-do-‘em apartment-joint in India”
“The member of the specie, who had a crush on me, was the dhobin: viz., my Indian washerwoman”
“Damme, Bannerji, glad to see you! I was indulging in morbid thoughts. Hell of an ennui. Come in. Right inside ma maison.”
I’m not sure if these amputated bits can carry the incredible music and joy of the whole. Sentence after sentence of this garbled, thoroughly recognizable ‘nonsense’ transforms the hybrid language of the overconfident aspirant into something mesmerizing, musical—a kind of poetry.
It inverts the aspiration for perfection by reveling in the accidental harmonies of misspelling or misspeaking. It returns to love scorned mothers and maids and the many thoughtless casualties of mocked language by performing towards rather than away from them. It makes music out of mistakes, and behind its laughter is a quiet manifesto—a reminder to be careful with the illusion of assimilation through perfect language, of becoming, somehow, the rules themselves by producing long enough. It is a reminder to push occasionally in the opposite direction.
Devika Kapadia is a student of philosophy and occasional poet. She tweets at @phatic_feeling