Today I Cannot Write: The Legacy of our Colonizers

Writing about not being able to write is a common theme in literatures across the world. In modern terms, it is the writer’s block, ‘the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing’. I attempt to relate the Indian experience of writing in English, and how subtly yet profoundly it is affected by the legacy given to us by our former colonizers, in the form of the ‘universal’ language, brilliantly beautiful yet irreparably hurtful.

On a trip to China two months back, I was chatting with a few associates, and they complimented me, telling me how good my English was, that it sounded just like standard English, that it had very little accent. I looked at them quizzically- but obviously- we studied in English medium schools, I studied English literature, we talk in English more than half the time. If a language is in use so much, why wouldn’t we be good or fluent in it? We never went around complimenting each other in India on our English. And so they asked, do you also speak English at home, with your family? No, I said, not so much- a little bit, but not so much as outside home. Aah, they said, so it is your social language. You use it, they explained, in your social circles, and at your workplace.

Another time, another place. As school children, we went for an exchange to France, and again they had conceded, your English is very good. No, we French, we are the best in everything you know, we are the best country in the world, America comes second yes, but France is number one- but you guys oh, you guys definitely speak better English. Do you also speak it at home? No, I had said, not at home no, not English- our social language.

It can be stated safely, I am presuming, without reference to facts and stats, that for most Indians across the country, and by most I do mean more than ninety percent at the minimum, English is not their mothertongue, it is not their first language. Sure, we might have been conditioned to learn words like cat and bat, recite Johnny-Johnny to twenty smiling relatives, to say goodnight after dinner, but English was not our conversational language, at the beginning it was not. When I  got hurt, I never went to my mother saying look mommy, I got a boo-boo; no, I went to her saying mamma ek balti khoon nikla hai. I lost one bucket of blood- obviously an exaggeration there, but boo-boo, no it never came to my mind. English is not a language that our families gave us- it was a special gift by a special government, for its dutiful citizens, a passcode into the world. Our families gave us Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Assamese, Marathi, but English, our country gave us English.

English seeped into our lives like a language does- it came in the guise of how it became cooler to listen to English music when we were thirteen, how our teachers would say we’ll be punished if we talk in Hindi at school, how claiming you understood every line in an English movie without subtitles gained you impressed looks, how we were given the choice to drop Hindi after class eight and take up any other foreign language. It seeped into our lives, disguising itself as our compulsory subject, how you could pick maths or physics or history, you could choose to study economics or psychology or accounts, but English, everybody had to study- it was the compulsory subject, whether you chose science or commerce or arts.

And so, how could it not seep into our writings? I was thirteen and it was the first time I attempted to write a fictional story on such a grand scale. The story was quite thrilling honestly, and some days I still wish I had made something of it- a terrorist group took over a school, deploying a terrorist each in every classroom, as the children fought back using their pencils and compasses, chalkdust and water bottles, stationery stuff of a school life. But I struggled- I struggled and I struggled, not because I did not know the story or wasn’t able to write it; I struggled because I could not name my characters. The Indian names all around me, the names of my friends and teachers, my own name indeed, did not sound real enough for an English story. It just did not seem authentic.

Matt, I named a character, because Matt sounded English; Matt seemed like he belonged in an English story. And my terrorist group, they called themselves The Jungle, yes, and their head was called The Lion. And when I was faced with the eventuality of choosing Indian names, because an average classroom in India is not filled with Matts and Lizzies and Ashleys, I tried to pick Indian names that could sound as un-Indian as possible. It wasn’t due to any personal aversion that I harboured for Indian names; it was simply the sound of such names, sounds which never fit in English books, in all the stories that I had been made to read in school, all the books I had bought from the bookstore, all the TV shows that I watched, Lizzie McGuire and Hannah Montana- these stories never had an Akshita or a Shreya, an Aditya or an Anuj, names which were very popular at that time, names which were all around us in person, but never in the books we read.

Then there is the question of writing in English itself- any story in the world, to make itself legible and publishable, dictates that it is narrated in a single language, barring its interspersion with foreign words or phrases, it is essential that the narration must be in one language. And then again it happened: my story had a grandfather, and how do I justify that he spoke such perfect English?  I had never seen any grandfather to be so fluent in English. My story involved a squabble with the domestic help- how many women who swept your house everyday, did the dishes and cooked the food, raked the leaves and collected the garbage, how many of them spoke in English? It was a conundrum that I just could not, and still cannot, sometimes, resolve. If everybody in the story spoke in English, the story did not sound real, it did not hold true; my characters lost grit.

“Fiction must stick to the facts,” Virginia Woolf once said, “and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” So how do we deal with it? Something about it doesn’t sound real- a lot of Indian characters speaking in English, and a lot of names, did not sound real, did not sound genuine. Yet we have to deal with that fact. I try to think of what language do I think in, maybe that will give a clue- but as soon as I try to determine my thinking language, I immediate forget what I’m thinking. My thoughts escape me, forever elusive. I start counting in Hindi, and then stop after a point, realizing that I do not know the counting beyond a certain number.

With the advent of internet technology, however, and the increasing realization of our globalized times, and the past few years when Indian fiction has erupted, it is easier to make peace with these facts. It is easier to relate the Indian experience in English because the experiences are made more common, more popular, normalized to a huge extent in the books we read and the articles we keep scrolling through our social media websites.

And yet there is a split- a split which all writers writing in English must face, whose mothertongue is not English. The split in the self- personally, for me, the split in my Hindi self and my English self, in my home life and my public life, in my personal language and my social language. This split in myself in two languages is my hindrance- it is because of this split that today I cannot write.

A lot of Indian writers have dealt with this Split in incredibly creative ways. Anuja Chauhan frequently uses Hinglish words for an urban novel, which I feel is the strength of her style. Her style doesn’t pose, as terms like yaar, arre, bhai, and toh among others become as commonplace in her stories as they are in real life. Amitav Ghosh uses unique narrative styles to find his way around relating this Indian experience in English. Arundhati Roy placed The God of Small Things in small town Kerala, where English is definitely more prevalent than the rest of the country, and even she uses Malyalam phrases and words frequently in her novel. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions narrates theMahabharata from Drauapadi’s perspective, a retelling of the epic- the theme of the story is so poignant and powerful that it automatically posits itself as outside normalcy and we never need to connect it to contemporary reality. As for Tagore, I will never be able to understand how he does it- he places his stories and themes of suffering in such beauty that even his translations never seem to have undergone it.

However, the fact arises that one way or the other, we must deal with it, whether it may be by alienating our subjects or adapting contemporary usage of English as a language in a way that is relatable. The only other language that I know, Hindi, I am ashamed to admit I am not so good at anymore- I can speak it well, but read it much slower in comparison to English. As for writing, I’ve been out of practice for years- it is my fault and the fault of so many others around me, the fault in our system, and hilariously so, the fault in our stars. And it is a beautiful language lost to me.

A lot of post-colonial writers talk about this as well.  Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o renounced his usage of English as colonialist and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe talked about writing in English, but in a way that made it your own, away from the classical, traditional English. That is what we have happening in recent times- new words are added everyday, curated and abbreviated by their context, especially with information technology. All countries which underwent colonialism go through the same experience.

On the other hand, think of countries like England, America and Australia. English, there, is the mothertongue for the majority- people of all classes speak it. The dialects and the slangs vary, but primarily, it is easier to represent that community in writing, because the Split is not present. Then there are scholars who argue against homogeneity and for multilingualism-  Aijaz Ahmad makes a case for multilingualism, that we are all capable of learning multiple languages, fluently, and using them in our day to day lives, and it is only the system which teaches us that we need to have a primary language.

But today, I cannot write, not because I don’t know the story or I am unable to write- but because I face a split in myself, I am unable to understand how to represent this uniquely Indian experience in a language that seems inadequate for it. With the ghost of a language that refuses to go away, and another language that is always inside me but never truly feels mine, I must struggle to reconcile with this Split, finding new ways everyday to sound acceptable, in both worlds.

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