Humour by Rehana Munir: The bridge of language
I’ve spent the last few weeks cohabiting with a very productive sister, who among other things, has taken up the serious study of a new language, setting a train of linguistic memories in motion. (Apart from a severe case of comparative self-examination.) Born and raised in Mumbai, where languages are mashed together and served like ingredients in pav-bhaji, English is the language I read, write and think in. But it’s an English with permeable boundaries and a disregard for properness – an Ingliss with many Hindustani interlopers, and a frequent disregard for syntax.
Gained in translation
So much is lost, as Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite, said in one of his Oscar acceptance speeches, because of the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles. When it comes to books, the barrier is purely psychological. And so, determined to engage with different literatures in the new year, I picked up Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a breathless and breathtaking revisionist account of Jesus’s life. The Nobel-winner’s transgressive yet comic retelling of the tale was, among other things, an immersion into a wholly different ethos, made familiar by an excellent translation. Thus emboldened, I watched Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film, another wildly transgressive work, with a wryly comic tone. Such were the restrictions placed on to filmmaker that the docu was sent to the Cannes festival in 2011 on a pen drive hidden in a cake!
If you’re hungry for translated works, India is an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’m just coming up for air after two days of deep immersion in Speaking of Siva, a collection of medieval Kannada Bhakti poetry, translated by AK Ramanujan. Essentially a poetry of protest against dogma, idolatory and caste hierarchies, the parallels with the Sufi saints, Kabir and even Christian mystics are uncanny.
Skip the accent
In the long-ago days of international travel, overcoming the language barrier was a necessity. I, for instance, used up all the French I learned over five years in the span of four days in Paris; though I stopped myself from singing “Frere Jacques” to show my gratitude for every metro or museum ticket I was sold. There’s such a sense of accomplishment at speaking a local language, however poorly you do it. One can, however, take this zeal too far. I might have alienated most guests at a genteel Bengali wedding by telling them my hair turned grey when I was very young, and so I’ve had to colour it – just because I knew the words.
In all the conflict around languages – chaste vs colloquial, local vs foreign, tribute vs appropriation – we often miss the lightness. As far as the chaste question goes, no point pointing out the difference between “who” and “whom”, unless the offending speaker is a show-off who needs to be shown up. Hate the sinner, not the sin, oh ye zealots. But tributes are tricky, especially Sunny Gavaskar doing his cringe-worthy Jamaican accent in the commentary box. Props are due, however, to actor-comedian Danish Sait’s many Bengaluru avatars in his cheeky Conversations series, somehow making stereotypes work.
We need new words
To have a word for something is “to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness” wrote Salman Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to say: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Which means language does more than just name things; it frames experience. It would then follow that the Germans and Japanese have a far wider and deeper range of experience than so many of us: they seem to have specific and succinct words for everything!
Here are some feelings I want compressed into standalone English words. The last day of a holiday, when you hate that you have to leave nature, but are secretly glad to be returning home to better Wi-Fi. That conflicted feeling when you want to support a friend on a work project, but you really, really don’t want to encourage them either, because they’re terrible at it. The ecstatic morning after a migraine, when there’s a symphony playing in your head, but everyone around you is behaving like it’s a perfectly ordinary day. The waves of regret that sweep over you when you take that first sip of an ill-advised, too-milky chai. Word.
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From HT Brunch, February 21, 2021
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