The Joy And Peril Of Being Bilingual
July 27, 2018
I was eleven and in school. The best English in a group of about 200 students was my English. And yet, I was several miles away from a good footing on the lost island that is pronunciation. My English teacher at the time called me to her desk and started marking up her feedback for an elocution piece I’d been preparing. I’d presented this piece to her earlier in the day, in an empty classroom and with a shaky voice. As I listened to her, I saw the word moment, circled with a heavy hand.
“Okay, this.” She saw me frowning at the circled moment. “I know you’re Marathi so you probably don’t know this. This is moe-ment. Mow-ment. Not moo-ment.” And then, quickly moving to the margin, she wrote the word in Devanagari for me: an “oh” attached to the “ma,” unequivocally creating the desired moe. The short bar drawn on top to complete the syllable suddenly seemed heavy. I was quick to nod, repeating the word to myself. All the impulsive quips that rose up in my defence – should morning then be pronounced mourning? Should an extra o be added to move? – were intentionally ignored by me. For many months, the discarded foolscap with these markings and corrections kept appearing amidst notebooks, assuming the shape of a deformed paper plane at the bottom of my bag. Every once in a while, I glanced at the Devanagari moment, reminded of the agonising correlation my teacher had drawn between the two languages I enjoyed the most. I am Marathi, which is why I don’t know English well. All I can surmise now is that I was a child and this upset me. At the time, the leaden Manderley gates to foreign languages were secure in their dust and invisibility, and it was only this foreign(?) but familiar(?) language, English, that took up all my energies. Was I not bilingual?
I grew up. In the widening wake of that tiny event, I lived in a reality which vociferously encouraged me to think about the thrills and disappointments of language itself. I was bilingual and I had never, not in a single sentence, separated English from Marathi or Marathi from English. Just as I had a family that clashed but still had the most fun when together, similarly Marathi and English were two living entities within me that lived by jostling, holding hands, and remaining voluntarily joined at the hip, delighting in the difficulties of admixture and difference.
I went off to college. As the deadline to declare my major approached, I was left repeatedly frowning. It seemed as if my choice should be crystal clear to me. My major – out of all the majors on offer – had to be English. And English it was. But later on in that semester, as I took a course on translation and Indian literature, I entertained all sorts of doubts. What was I going to accomplish by studying English? The problem wasn’t so much a question of professional prospects as one of matching interest with existence. It was important to me that I could bring myself into that which I would study. Funnily and predictably enough, I knew neither what I meant by “myself” nor by “that which I would study.”
Studying English literature implied preparing yourself for endless acts of rereading and unreading, going back to beloved texts to spot the bigotry. It also meant an introduction of and irreversible intoxication by literary theory. But all of this additionally meant, for me, an inability to keep translating my life into Marathi. This was when I tried explaining to my family what I was studying. They knew I was reading books, they knew I was reading poems. But what could I tell them about the theory that thrilled me every day, what could I tell them about Jacques Lacan’s formulation of the mirror stage? It made me laugh one morning as I sat in class and it struck me that there is no word in spoken Marathi for sexuality. There may occur a term somewhere in some textbook, but when we speak, we never have a word. We never have such words.
I was reminded, bizarrely enough, of a scene in Kiran Desai’s English-language novel, The Inheritance of Loss, in which a patient attempts to describe his illness better by distinguishing between a chun-chun and a thun-thun. This, of course, is just one of the ways in which multilingualism delights and stumps those who claim to possess it. It is not at all a problem that there is no Marathi word for a certain concept or no English word for a certain feeling. Language always finds a way to be articulated.
The semester ended, and then did the other semesters. Questions of communication – frequently called problems – came and went, and each time I would quietly chuckle and remember a particularly vicious line in Freud or an insight-induced bout of laughter from class. Every other day the untranslatability of a pun would hit me fondly in the face. The intimacy that came, however, whenever a bilingual joke exchanged hands was a unique one. In New Delhi, a city filled with Hindi and Bengali people, I realised for the first time the staggering specificity of the bilingual pang. It was not enough to acknowledge linguistic difference, to want to associate by virtue of being multilingual. Everything worth holding on to was left in the details, and compelled by this, I started looking at Marathi less as an example of bilingualism and more as bilingualism itself, for me. To my eyes and ears and brain.
I graduated and went back home, and was greeted – amongst other things – by my father’s bookshelf. The leaning spines, like the person they belonged to, had always been there, but unlike the person, were not acknowledged. Deshpande, Dalvi, Mirasdar, Kale, Atre, Patil- I was slow to begin reading them, and to this day I haven’t stopped beginning.
Occasionally, there’s an anxiety that enthusiastically recommends the what-if imagination: what if Marathi came without English, what if English came without colonisation, what if we knew all the languages in the world, what if there was only one language. And this anxiety, it comes and goes; it’s funny now and it’s cryptic later. What has stayed in a constant and relieving contrast (after working out the kinks for ten years) is the rather plain and equanimous fact that Marathi won’t make English a foreign language, and English will never make Marathi an affront or a pain. Because that is not how reality lives, that is not the lived reality. If they are foreign, and insulting, and challenging, it’s because they are languages, and not because they are Marathi or English. And like I said, this was certainly not the lesson I learnt, all the way back in that defining moe-ment. Rather, it was what I gleaned from all the years that followed.
Are you bilingual? Which languages do you know? Have you found being bilingual a challenge? Have you read any Marathi authors? Which ones are your favourite? Share with us in the comments below.
Sayali was born in Bombay and is a student of English and German. Her chief interest lies in finding out if words are ever enough. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.