Friday, August 13, 2010

Truth has set me free – the English language and me. In a rambling mode - -

I think every human being is an artist. Every child, unrestricted by the dos and don’ts and fatwas that shape our minds in straitjacket moulds, is an artist. Its unfettered mind sees the world through the prism of unconditioned imagination. As it grows up, there are two ways in which it can develop. It can cling tenaciously to the perspective innocent of life’s schooling, thereby develop double vision as its thinking gets regulated into stereotyped notions. Or it can discipline its life within the rules and regulations of society and wean itself out of the inherent artistic mode of thinking. The first is an artist, in the grip of divine madness. The second, the sane human being – that predictable creature that we all prefer to deal with.

Not my original, as you’d have guessed. “Remember Wordsworth’s “Trailing cloud of glory do we come?”

Well, I think I belonged to the first category despite the cast iron strait jacket mould that I was yanked into by the extreme conservatism of my Syrian Christian community. But I’d have struggled to set myself free from it into the world of creativity had I the word , the signifier.

I lost my word power when I got estranged from my mother tongue. With switching over, in the 5h standard, from Malayalam to French as my second language, my severance from literary Malayalam was complete. Then followed a long period of shallow existence in the world and culture of the English language. The fascinating space around me created by the English nursery rhymes, children’s books, comics, classics, bestsellers sucked me into the vortex of a world I had not lived except in my imagination, while physically inhabiting a Syrian Christian home in the small town of Cochin.

Feelings and emotions - intense and overpowering- struggled within me, seeking an outlet I could not provide –for I was caught between two worlds, one created by an alien language, the other, the flesh and blood world i physically and emotionally existed in but whose language i was alienated from. The latter, the real world I was rooted in, afforded exposure to a number of varieties of Malayalam – the refined language of my parents and relatives, the language of siblings and cousins with whom I had fun times during vacation, the vibrant language of the helpers at home, those potent carriers of oral tradition, pulsating with the confrontational experience of the rough life of the fifties and sixties. Yes, that was my language. That was the language in which I felt and thought; that was the language that coursed through my blood stream.

Tragically, when I reached that age when one gets into the grip of that urge to pen down one’s thoughts, words failed me. The English language did not have the resources to express my thoughts and feeling. I didn’t have sufficient mastery over it. After all, how much of it can one have over an alien language? In utter dismay I looked at the huge chasm between the innermost ME and English, the only language in which I could express myself in writing. My sensibilities could not find corresponding utterances in the alien tongue. I was not Tess or Grand Sophy, but Kochuthresiamma alias Molly, the last but one in a large Syrian catholic family, thrown into the rough sea which first the girl child, then the adolescent and finally the woman had to navigate with considerable difficulty in order not to lose her individuality and power of independent thinking.

Despite its extreme patriarchal culture and hypocrisy, the real world that I inhabited was a rich and beautiful one with a lot of love, gentleness, benevolence, benign human values, and customs & practices steeped in secular traditions evolved from 2000 years of give and take, learn and teach interaction with diverse religions. At the dining table, my father spoke about the story of the evolution of Kerala culture. Being a history person he discourses had the accuracy of history and the authenticity of lived experiences. My mother spoke about it all the time, hoping to perpetuate through me the tradition which she was handed down. The seamstress Cicily thathi and Rosa cheduthy in whose company i found myself very often, filled my mind with stories of local origin, folk lore and myths handed down orally. I had it all in my blood. But i couldn’t speak or sing.

I was a broken muse.

I partly blame the way i was taught the English language. AS a child, I was made to believe that it was the most sacrosanct thing on earth. This, unfortunately, happens in convents. This happens at home too. My people were proud about my comfort in the language. As far as they were concerned, my incompetence in the mother tongue was well mad up for. Sister Kevin who taught Wren and Martin grammar made it appear that any violation of rules warranted severe disciplinary action, something equivalent to a firing squad! The English Language became to me a potent deity, an inflexible tool that would not bend in the hands of a Malayalee Nazrani girl who wanted to tell her tale. So i never wrote.


After research –when i was well into thirties. My area of research included the damaging impact of colonisation on the Indian mind. My perception of the English language underwent a sea change in a matter of three years. When i looked back ,i wanted to kick myself for having allowed ridiculous, intimidating notions to stifle my muse. It’s not as though i didn’t know all along that
· This angrezi language was nonexistent before 600 AD or
· It is the most illogical language on earth, the reasons for which i knew only too well
· That the language was considered barbaric by the refined cultures of Europe
· That the grammar and rules appeared only in 18th century, till which time it was a free for all
· And some of these rules were most laughable as they were modelled on Latin from which English did not descend causing them to stick out like sore thumb, and which therefore tended to get flouted by native users, the only faithful followers being the educated colonised!(Colonised in body, mind and soul, UGH!)
· That English achieved this status only in the colonial world.
· That it is a utility language which the world respected grudgingly ‘cos there was a time that the sun never set on the British Empire.

These and many more factors could have exposed to me the clay feet of this language which was given more than its due in the subcontinent. The History of English language which i was superficially familiar with from my early twenties should have broken the oppressive hold this language had on me much earlier. But for some reason it didn’t. It took me three years of intense reading during my research to break free from the inhibiting chains with which the English language kept me a prisoner.

So, now my attitude is
· What the heck. Whatever you want to say, say it. If your grip over the language isn’t good enough, to hell with it. Say it in whatever way you can. Forget the impropriety of the usage. You loyalty is to yourself, your story, not to the language (though i must confess i won’t go as far as ‘nose poking nenjamma’).
· It is usage that determines the precepts, not the other way round.
· When the British colonised the world and then left behind their language, they lost all proprietorship over it. Each region cannot but inevitably manipulate it to suit its requirements. These are not mistakes but differences, which if officialised will acquire the respectable status of a ‘variety of English’.
· The Queens English born in east midland region on the banks of river Thames close to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is a misfit in the little state of Kerala and becomes effete in the hands of the non native users in this distant geographical location with its very different climate, culture and whatnot, unless the user is able to relate to the language without the colonial slavishness.

These auto suggestions did help, but sadly, i was long past the age of creativity when the film fell from my eyes.


  1. The history of English was taught to us in College by my French teacher. (My second language was French) He said French was the most beautiful language in the world and Spanish was the richest language. He had a great talk about the 'filthiness' of English as a language, pretty much the same points you've mentioned.

    Well, I don't mind it being the Universal language since we've all some degree of control over it. I never has any issues with the language as depicted in the article or as popularly criticized. Its a medium of communication and a convenient one at that, if we forget all its technical snags and historical emptiness.

  2. Language is for effective communication. Whatever the language, if you are able to get your message through, the job is done.

    And any language for that matter, has evolved from nothing, to something, to everything, over time.

    Well, well, am I making any sense here?

  3. RGB has said what I wanted to say! :(

    But to add - the problems arise only one forgets that language - whether sign language, Bush, Malayalam or English - is primarily meant for communication and that one should do link language to a region or a community - not be parochial about it.

    What I love about English is its unpretentiousness, its lack of claim of blue blood and its ready acceptance of words from other languages. Thats the reason English has become a universal language, the universal currency of communication. And when I see it juggled by master magicians, I go deliriously happy, watching them play with it.

  4. I would say that Sanskrit must be made compulsory despite fears that it would make people Varna-minded. It is by far superior to other languages. And the more you read it, the less respectful you become towards Varna.

    It is a pity that Kralites like me, destroyed by the missionary education and values, have to discover our Sanskrit roots through English translations.

  5. Does creativity have an 'age' ?

  6. I was reminded of my school days.Learning English from Malayalam teachers helped me learn grammar,but not English.We produce the so called Indian English,which is more or less accepted.Our strict adherence to grammar,sometimes make better writers,but not good speakers.Out English teachers never taught us phonetics and were never bothered about how we spoke English.But we have people with excellent language skills,you for example.

    Our educational system is another relic of colonialism and is largely (especially at the post-secondary level) conducted in English. So if you're college-educated (as a surprisingly large number of Indians are, leading to its current state as a software exporter, among other things), you're literate in English.But most of us speak Hinglish.Indian English is a recognized dialect of English, just like British Received Pronunciation (RP, or BBC English) or Australian English, or Standard American. It has a lot of distinctive pronunciations, some distinctive syntax, and quite a bit of lexical variation. And it can be as hard for Americans to understand as Scots English, especially if spoken at speed.We have contributed liberally to the English vocabulary." Cousin brother,eve teasing,crore,lakh,godown( for a warehouse),opticals,nose screw,scheduled caste,and then Himalayan Blunder,to mention few.And these words are used perhaps more often by them ,than us.
    Whatever,language is meant for communication,as you mentioned.But some can do it stylishly like you,and others,like me,just functionally.

    Beautiful post.

  7. What language do you think in? English or Malayalam, or is it a combination of both? I lost touch with my mother-tongue at a very early age (about 2), and picked up English instead.
    I had to relearn Tamil at a later phase, and it is all the more precious for me because of that effort. It doesn't bother me that I don't have the same facility with it that I have with English, because I know my English is colored in some way by Tamil.
    Language is an amorphous thing, ever evolving. English takes on the overtones of Twitter/texting crowd, moving from elaborate to e-speak. Tamil melds with the English craze, dropping the Teluguisms and grabbing onto English and Hindi as the next frontier for picking up words. Malayalam takes on an increasingly less regional and more international shade or two (Have you ever heard the variety spoken in Lakshadweep- I'd say it is about 70% Arabic and 30% Malayalam, a very difficult combination to unravel unless you are familiar with both.)The list is probably endless.

  8. @scorpiogenius
    as a medium of communication, i'm comfortable with english. as a medium of art -no. that's the point i'm making

    you are making plenty of sense. but i was talking of the devices i used to break free from the terror of englis whic was instilled into me in in the schools i attended which made me treat te language as if it were a deity not to be tampered with.this is all the more true in kerala and kerala schools.

    options to learn sanskrit should be given - but make it compulsory? being heavily inflected, it's a rather difficult language.
    i dont think a twetieth century person studying sanskrit will become varna minded, particularly since sanskrit is a dead language. Unless of course one learns sanskrit to fortify one's varna notions.

    a very pertinent question. but the material creates at 20 is different from what is created at 40.think of sakespeare's romeo and juliet and winter's tale.

    @dr antony
    thanks Dr.
    i am a champion of indian english while most english teachers are dead againast it. Indian english should be standardised, cos indians would find it much easier to approximate their english to it than to queen's english.what we deride as indianism would then gain respectability. like you said, india has been contributing heavily to english vocabulary for centuries. if india becomes an economic superpower, our enlish willautmatically get a status enhancementand will become on par with australian and american enlish. so it's important we have some sort of a standard indian english.The effort as been afoot for some time but it's weak. It's time we became less apolegetic about our variety of english.

    @ sujatha
    language ever evolves. if it doesnt it'll suffer the fate of latin and sanskrit. the factors that contribute to its evollution are many - the people who speak it, the region where it is spoken, te other dominant language prevalent in the area, technology that has entered the soul of the speaker(what u mentioned). language absorbs these and changes. therefore you cannot standardise a lanuage(tho i've used the term in my comment above for want of a better word).
    The whole point i'm trying to make is learners of non native languages should not be intimidated by rules, most of which are superimposed in a vain attempt to standardise a language.the genius of any language repells this effort.the india classroom attitude to english does that, and the learner in the process become more conscious of the language that she should. it can do immense harm to creativity.
    about in what language one thinks in, it differs from person to person i guess.

    @ balachandran
    'What I love about English is its unpretentiousness, its lack of claim of blue blood and its ready acceptance of words from other languages.'
    dont know if i agree with you.i wonder if you remeber the fuss the english people made thru their mouthpiece GUARDIAN ABOUT asian migrants contaminating the language of shakespeare.indian english even figured in the most snooty manner in its editorial.
    but you are right, in its formative years it was unpretentious. And it is its history that made it so receptive to foreign influences in all the four aspects of language.

  9. Talking of contamination of English, who else are better/worser polluters than their American cousins? At least Indians do not misspell. The problem that The Guardian and the English people have is simple insecurity. And Cockney English is the farthest from Shakespeare's!

  10. very insightful article, madam. covers a lot of area concisely. a lot of what you want to say you have kept out of this article and that gives the article solidity, if that is the word i want. touching creativity is beyond languages. deconditioning and de-regimentalising (i am not sure about this word, but i hope you got the meaning) are the issues for us who are conditioned and regimentalised. and, is it not a fact that the age for creativity is never "long past." if we look at it closely, we can see we have found ourselves more creative when we were young because we were less conditioned then, we were without a care, we were light and free. 'paradise regained' is also a possibility. the solution to the problem is, perhaps, in the knowledge of the problem. i have been maintaining a close watch over this area in the recent years, watching also what makes some people very creative, not in writing or some form of art alone, but in life generally.

  11. @ venugopal
    glad you understand sir.
    you are right. creativity never dies. it adapts to all atages of life. in my case, it's a regret for what it might have been had i the wordpower when i was young and had stars in my eyes which over years mellowed down - - - :-) silly, i know. but sometimes one cant help thinking - - -. a friend who read this piece told me it is a clear case of a poor workman blaming the tool. she might be right, i guess.

  12. Ma'am, start reading J. Krishnamurti and Osho. I have been doing this for a time and then started into Aurobindo. Then read Aurobindo and Krishamurti on a parallel level. Reading them together to see how one person (JK) turns into poetry what the other (Aurobindo) says in a very complicated way. There is also a book titled 'Krishnamurti on Education' every teacher and parent should read.
    The topic is all about creativity. How to recapture creativity. I am not speaking about writing and some other form of art alone, but also about living happily, creatively, radiating happiness all around. From that condition comes great writing, great painting, great music. I have been navigating and trying to touch that stage. That will be the regaining of paradise.

    Over the years you have developed a great deal of command over the English language and can express images with subtlity. Combine this talent with the condition it is possible to regain, the condition of total equality and wonder you had in your young days. Don't think about literature at all. It will flow naturally.

  13. @venugopal
    thanks. shall definitely get my hands on JK.
    must confess Sri Auroindo hs never been my it his poetry, drama or prose a thinker? - am not really a good judge of that.

  14. I am just a beginner, but have already found JK and Aurobindo poles apart. JK never quotes anyone, his poise is to remain at the zero position and see everything around with total innocence and freshness. Like the way a child looks at the world, without naming anything, without putting anything within the confines of a mould, without limiting anything into a symbol. I think that condition is the poet's, the mystics.
    Sri Aurobindo I have found a dentist's driller. He is a mathematician, a logician; he desects the frog into its various parts to teach what is what, poking with the needle, cutting open the stomach, opening out all the entrails on to the table.
    JK is non-destructive, Aurobindo is destructive. What both have in common is the limitless compassion to slog on to communicate the incommunicable. Aurobindo ties himself into knots trying to communicate and JK probes all subtle ways to evoke the unevokable with hints and suggestions, because he knows language is nothing. Ma'am, life becomes suddenly exciting when you get into these people!

  15. Most importantly the local language opens up a people. For that reason alone a migration away will usually mean a migration away from nuances of ethnicity, in a way that is.

  16. All said and done, is it that easy to translate your emotions or feelings to another language? When Thakazhi said ' Ente thankakkodam" , I always wondered how it would sound or feel in another language.

  17. Dear KT, who says you were 'long past the age of creativity when the film fell from my eyes'. Despite getting all these comments and all these loyal readers, do you still feel you are not creative enough? I dont know if you like Sidney Sheldon, but he started writing novels in his late 60s didnt he? You are way too good KT dear :-) And the only reason why I am not writing 'wow you wrote it beautifully' is cause I have already said it too many times and it has become a sort of cliche now!

  18. @cris
    thanks cris for the lovely words - they do make me feel good.

    @dr antony
    would "my trasure" be an ideal idiomatic translation of ente thankakudamey?

  19. Excuse me for posting this like 7 months after it was written, I can't help but read and enjoy all your posts even though I'm kind of new here lol.

    Yea English is the universal langauge in the world. It's spoken all over the world now, India, China, Europe..etc.

    As for sujatha's comment..I think one thinks in the language mainly spoken in the enviroment they grew up in. So people raised in Kerala would think in malayalam, those raised in France would think in French..etc. After all, it's their native or "home" language and the language that they would prefer.

    I find being familiar with the sound of another language quite soothing..although I speak English since it's my native language and the language I'm most comfort in, I can understand Malayalam (to a conversational extent), a little Spanish and am getting myself exposed to Hindi now though I only understand a few simple phrases. Hopefully Tamil will follow because I have a big awe for its movies. Idk, but I always find that either speaking or understanding a language is one tool that can help you gain perpective of another culture rather than your own, of course there are other tools as well if you solely know one language..but just saying you know? Knowing English I guess makes you more broad minded a bit.


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