Mother Tongues, Twisted

“I once saw, in Germany, a small exhibition of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence to his German publisher… Beckett wrote to his publisher not in German but in French, a language in which he was of course deeply at home; but in the final year of his life, he switched to English. “Going home,” I thought.”
~ James Wood, “Secular Homelessness”

In Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sonar Kella’ (The Golden Fortress), Mandar Bose, one of the antagonists, is a conman who pretends to be a globe-trotter. When asked by his compatriot why he chose to don the guise of a globe-trotter, he says, “Matric e 56 peyechilam, Bhugol e!” (“I got 56 in Geography in my Matriculation exam!”) This is quite a high score, but there is a strange ambiguity of validity here. This exchange takes place in a moment of inebriation. One expects this assertion to imply that his act will be quite informed. He is delightfully mischievous, sprinkling trivia to drum up his credentials.  The protagonist, however, on meeting him, is surprised by his Bengali, which sounds typically untouched. 

“Your Bengali seems as clear as ever,” he’s told. 
“The thing is,” he replies, “if you want to forget your mother tongue, you can do so at home. And if you don’t want to, no amount of globe-trotting can affect it.”

The image of this masquerading globe-trotter has returned to me over the years. One can appreciate the conviction with which he defends his apparently unsullied mother tongue. I would often find myself equally charmed and disturbed by this sense of anchorage; being reminded of the importance of home, I was moved to think about the other side of this binary—the unrelenting presence of homelessness. For those of us who grew up in a world pretending to do away with borders, “homelessness” was both a privilege and an affliction. The rootedness of a “mother tongue” required the privilege of stasis. What about those of us who had moved around throughout our lives? What, or indeed, where was my mother tongue? 

There was, of course, a simple way to answer this. My mother tongue was the language I was born in, the language my parents were born in. Bengali. Bangla. But this couldn’t explain the homeliness that I felt in the other languages I walked into. And it couldn’t, at the same time, explain the alienation I felt within what was supposed to be my “mother tongue”. I had grown up in Kolkata, Yokohama and then in Delhi. Now I was in Oxford. Bengali, with its deceptive simplicity, was a blanket. But there was also Hindi, rebellious and proud; there was Japanese, stoic, silent and determined. And then there was English, the conduit of interpretation. In a strange game of exchange, I saw Kolkata’s Esplanade in Delhi’s Connaught Place and London’s Trafalgar Square. I looked for Japanese words in English, Indian words in Hiragana.

And my mother tongue, like home, soon became a shifting ground. A mirage, a promise of eventual arrival grounded in myth. Homer writes that when Odysseus returned home to Ithaca, he was surprised to find that the home he returned to was not the home he left behind. His countrymen were interested in telling him what had happened in his absence, while he wanted to tell them how he had filled in this absence. Olga Tokacrzuk writes that ours is a generation of transit. We spend more time in airports than in landings. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps the old, grand Odyssean myth of an epic journey away from home, of grand homelessness no longer appears to fit onto our current conditions congruently. Speaking about myself, I can say that ours is a generation of movement. And those of us who have the privilege of a chosen homelessness come to the realisation that we are neither too far from home, nor ever at home. Home is altogether collapsed into a flight ticket. Our mother tongues become ‘twisted’. There is something playful about the image of something twisted. Twisting implies similarity but not sameness. The twisted thing looks almost like what it used to be, but it isn’t quite that anymore. My Bangla looks for similar word-shapes in English, Hindi and Japanese.

Translation is strangely tied to exile, to homelessness. To those of us who prefer both the peril and privilege of a self-imposed exile, translation, perhaps, is not merely an act of remedy but a condition of survival. A refuge. For what is translation after all, if not the location of this very loss?  My mother tongue is the spaces in between, the translated no-man’s land which is simultaneously orphaned and public. 

Mandar Bose, in trying to show off his cosmopolitan geography, often equates landscapes in the film with their supposed counterparts encountered through his travels. But his is a geography which is inaccurate, even misinformed. Looking at the hills of Eastern Rajasthan, he exclaims, “Ah, this reminds me of Spain!” Soon, his excesses take a turn for the ridiculous. He argues that there are wolves found in the African Sahara. When told that he must have mixed up wolves and hyenas, he exclaims,

“Hyena toh moshai China te pawa jay!” (My dear fellow, Hyenas are found in China!”) 

Growing up, these scenes were exclusively meant for levity, a laughter which we kept locked up in the tiny boxes of memory. But today, I find myself thinking about this lapse as the condition of homelessness, of our mother tongues being ‘twisted’. Words walk out their houses and visit their neighbours. 

The man with inaccurate geography ultimately gets caught. But what if we choose to read this inaccuracy as invention? What if this failure is a generative joke? Perhaps the act of translation (whether by choice or circumstance) requires this very suspension of maps, an exile of possibilities, a chosen, wilful inaccuracy of geography. In our twisted mother tongues, a word begins somewhere and ends, ends up somewhere else. All we can do is be the rivers in between these journeys, bridges which belong nowhere and everywhere. 

About the Author:
Utsa Bose is a first year MPhil student in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford, and formerly an intern at Mother Tongue Twisters.