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.