A few weeks ago I came across a poem by the Kenyan Gujarati poet, Shailja Patel, and it got me thinking about why we Gujaratis have a natural and unforgivable tendency to deviate from our mother language. A product of the East African diaspora living in London, it is made abundantly clear to me at countless occasions that among my generation of young professional Gujaratis, speaking in the mother tongue is "not cool", simply too "desi" and dare I say it - akin to being "fresh off the boat". Conversely, my love for Gujarati and the consequent arrogance that stems from that love has so far led me to think of myself being above those who think like that. You see, I've always thought that, in fact, those of my generation who think that speaking in Gujarati is "not cool" are themselves "uncool", "wayward" and simply "not worth it". But reading Shailja Patel's poem (credit goes to my better half, Mehwaesh, for introducing me to it!) made me review those thoughts and re-assess my position. Was there an intrinsic reason why others shunned Gujarati? Were they trying to rebel against something from their childhood? Did others associate harsh domestic memories with Gujarati? Did the language invoke sentiments best left forgotten?
Shailja Patel's "Dreaming in Gujarati":
The children in my dreams
speak in Gujarati
turn their trusting faces to the sun
say to me
care for us nurture us
in my dreams I shudder and I run.
I am six
in a playground of white children
Darkie, sing us an Indian song!
in a roomful of elders
all mock my broken Gujarati
Twelve, I tunnel into books
forge an armor of English words.
Eighteen, shaved head
combat boots -
shamed by masis
in white saris
singe my western head.
tongue of the mother
I murder in myself.
Through the years I watch Gujarati
swell the swaggering egos of men
mirror them over and over
at twice their natural size.
Through the years
I watch Gujarati dissolve
bones and teeth of women, break them
on anvils of duty and service, burn them
to skeletal ash.
Words that don't exist in Gujarati :
English rises in my throat
rapier flashed at yuppie boys
who claim their people “civilized” mine.
at cab drivers yelling
Dirty black bastard!
Force-field against teenage hoods
F****ing Paki bitch!
Their tongue - or mine?
Have I become the enemy?
my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi
suave and melodic
salty rich as saag paneer
laced with Arabic,
he speaks Gujarati
solid ancestral pride.
five different worlds
before white men
who think their flat cold spiky words
make the only reality.
Words that don't exist in English:
If we cannot name it
does it exist?
When we lose language
does culture die? What happens
to a tongue of milk-heavy
cows, earthen pots
jingling anklets, temple bells,
when its children
grow up in Silicon Valley
Then there's American:
Kin'uh get some service?
Dontcha have ice?
May I have please?
Ben, mane madhath karso?
Tafadhali nipe rafiki
Donnez-moi, s'il vous plait
Hello, I said can I get some service?!
Like, where's the line for Ay-mericans
in this goddamn airport?
Words that atomized two hundred thousand Iraqis:
Didja see how we kicked some major ass in the Gulf?
Lit up Bagdad like the fourth a' July!
Whupped those sand-niggers into a parking lot!
The children in my dreams speak in Gujarati
bright as butter
sounds I can paint on the air with my breath
dance through like a Sufi mystic
words I can weep and howl and devour
words I can kiss and taste and dream
I take back.
The following analysis of the poem is taken from Dan Ojwang's book, "Reading Migration and Culture: The World of East African Indian Literature" (2012). In this piece, which forms part of Shailja's collection of performance poems, Migritude, she tells of her troubled relation with English and Gujarati, her "Mother Tongue". The incessant and turbulent tussle with the two languages coincides with her autobiographical quest for an alternative gender and sexual identity against the beliefs of her mother. While English represents the violence of the British Empire and post-Cold War American world order, it is simultaneously a means through which she has accessed "words that don't exist in Gujarati: self-expression/individual/lesbian". Since Gujarati marks the primal scene of her childhood in Kenya, in which attempts have been made to discipline her into an ideal ethnic and gendered "chhokri", I thnk she associates the language with fictions of purity that lie at the heart of dominant nationalist and diasporic ideologies. Her initial interpretation of the language as a bearer of the patriarchal, nationalist logic of reproduction is reflected in the Gujarati-speaking children who appear in her dreams, begging her to take on a mothering role, an image that echoes her own childhood dependence on Gujarati-speaking figures of domestic authority.
Ojwang's book explains that Shailja also believes that English allows her to claim an ambiguous gender identity, symbolised by the image of a shaved head and combat boots, as opposed to the Gujarati-speaking "grannies in their white saris". However, if English provides a set of ready-made concepts that name same sex desire, her exclusive adoption of it as a tool for queer self-fashioning ultimately appears to her as an abdication of some sort. Her earlier deviation from Gujarati, she comes to realise, is partly the product of colonially induced language shame.
Is my generation the progeny of a generation that was subject to colonially induced language shame? Is that why we think speaking in Gujarati is "uncool"? Are there grannies in white saris we want to rebel against at various subconscious levels? Is there some kind of historic subtext to why young professional East African Asians want to stay clear of all ties with Gujarati?
Although English may have provided us with a vocabulary for responding to racism in the UK and the US, have we, in our quests to "fit in", forgotten that Gujarati and other languages spoken in East Africa gesture at senses of community, alternative to those forged by international capitalism (whose most privileged language is English)? Have we forgotten how sweet our language sounded at Mombasa's light house and Bamburi's beaches?
It saddens me to see that Gujarati might be associated with an inflexible tradition and that returning to it may warrant a high price, which, frankly, many of my generation are just not prepared to pay. The reality, however, is that a rich language with a Sanskrit-based heritage cannot be devalued by those who simply can't be bothered to explore it. Did you really think that a language hailing from such a diverse region of South Asia doesn't have words for "lesbian", "self-expression" and "individual"? Gujarati literature is not so dry and bland, my friends! You just need to look hard enough.
I often feel like a solitary soldier in the quest for trying to keep the Gujarati language alive among young East African professionals like myself. It's part of who I am, what I am and why I am the way I am. Gujarati is me - I think in it, I dream in it, I sing in it, I breathe in it. And I am not ashamed of an inexplicably beautiful language that has opened so many doors for me in life. You see, I learnt very early in life that only if you fully understand your own language, will you develop an appreciation of your heritage culture. And only if you fully comprehend your heritage, will you move on to develop an attitude of multiplicity, and understand and embrace other cultures that you encounter in this cosmopolitan world of ours. In my case, Gujarati has proven to be invaluable. Its Sanskrit origins have helped me develop a growing and impressive vocabulary in Bengali, also of Sanskrit origins; and I dare say, that has helped me forge new links with my better half's family and friends.
My encounters with young Bengalis in London has confirmed one fact. They don't have complexities with speaking their language. They are proud to speak it, indulge in it, sing in it, laugh in it and cry in it. Their's is a culture where English is only spoken for the benefit of those who don't understand Bengali. They have abundant pride in speaking Bengali when they get together and spend evenings singing rich melodies of songs penned by the Bengali Nobel laureate and poet, Tagore. Robindro shongeet, the name given to the genre of music based on Tagore's writings, has so far shown me how comfortable young Bengalis are with their language. Sadly, I cannot imagine anything of the sort with young Gujaratis.
Perhaps, it might be unfair to compare their passions for their language with Gujaratis. After all, Bengalis had to fight for their language. In the 1950s, when the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language in East Bengal (modern day Bangladesh), extensive protests raged among the Bengali-speaking majority of the region. Facing rising sectarian tensions and mass discontent with the new law, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on 21 February 1952. The movement reached its climax when police killed student demonstrators on that day. After years of conflict, the central government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956. In 1999, UNESCO declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day, in tribute to the Bengali Language Movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world. The Bengali Language Movement catalysed the assertion of Bengali national identity in East Bengal and later, Bangladesh.
|Shaheed Minaar, (the Martry's Monument) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, commemorates those who lost their lives during the Bengali Language Movements protests on 21 February1952|