In Response to In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Before I started school, I was fluent in Malayalam, my parents’ mother tongue, as well as Gujarati, the regional language of the state I lived in, making it my neighbours’ mother tongues. But after I started school, I switched to English. As far as I remember, I didn’t struggle in that language. It was the language I learnt to read, write, and express myself in. It was the language that’s at the backbone of my verbal comprehension, reasoning, and general understanding of the world. I was brought up with books written in that language, and I found meaning in trying to improve myself in all aspects of the language – vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and all. Everything about the language excited me, excites me. There is nothing more amazing than how the world makes sense simply through the different permutations and combinations of the 26 alphabets of the Latin Script. And I’ve been content with it.
I also learnt Hindi around the same time I learnt English. But it was purely conversational, just like Malayalam, and Gujarati. I was excited for the time I was to start learning to read and write in Hindi and Gujarati. And I remember the perseverance and the discipline that goes into learning a new language. And at times, because of the similarities, not just in script, but also the pronunciation, and vocabulary, I remember being extremely confused with both, because by that time, I’d stopped conversing in Gujarati and switched to English in school, and Hindi out of. My Gujarati neighbours were comfortable in Hindi, so there was no problem. Two years of Gujarati later,
we were taught Hindi, and in another two, Sanskrit followed. And for some reason, it was much easier to learn Sanskrit, than it was to learn Hindi or Gujarati, especially considering it was pretty much a completely new language (excluding the script).
When I switched residence to Bombay, I was bombarded with a new language: Marathi. But by now, I was tired. I couldn’t take another language and try to study it. I was done.
That was until Jhumpa Lahiri came into the picture. I read The Namesake for classwork (well, additional reading), and fell in love. This time I wasn’t just fascinated by English, but also diaspora as a theme, and Bengali as a language. I don’t know how or why or when. It just happened. I was fascinated by how learning just a few words in a new language opens up a new outlook towards life, as we learn intricacies about the culture of the people who speak it. Soon, I was asking all my Bong friends (somehow, I have a lot!) to tell me their daaknaams, and asking them about their naming ceremonies. Then, I obsessively read other books written by her, and finally, over this weekend, I managed to read In Other Words. And I was blown away by her, just as I was the first time I read her work.
She writes about the sense of depravity she felt, somehow mixed with the usual sense of comfort that any writer would feel towards her first language. I get it with English. As if it’d never fail me. She got it with English. (Well, the Pulitzer didn’t win itself). But somehow, somewhere, she felt the need to switch. She started learning a new language: Italian. The entire book is her story of perseverance, as it is it’s outcome. Learning a new language is hard work. Nothing is more frustrating, nothing is sweeter.
She writes about her struggles. She writes about the turmoils of trying to express oneself in a completely new language. And I somehow get that too. I have had experiences with being in and out of comfort with languages. There have been times when my Hindi was exceptional, and there were times when I just couldn’t string a sentence together. I’ve been out of touch with Gujarati and Sanskrit for years now, but my ears still perk up when I hear them, and my heart swells with nostalgia.
She writes about how she’s grown, how she’s somehow different. I feel it when I’m communicating. I’m a different person when I’m talking in English- more self assured, more confident, more creative. But when I try to Express myself in Malayalam- I’m more obedient, more submissive. When I try Hindi (not the Bambaiyya Hindi), I am confused, clueless: a mere ghost of what they were in English. I try to translate my thoughts in English to words in Hindi and they make no sense. The flow and the beauty of the language is completely lost. I wonder if she feels like that too? Since she’s trying to reinvent herself completely, I guess there’s only growth, not a dissociation in Identity.
She talks about the feelings of incapacity in herself, as if she were lost and suspended in the void, the voices in her head refusing to bulge to her commands of thinking in Italian. She talks about how others question her about her ability to speak good Italian, about how many told her it’s suicide, but she never bulged. And I love her for that. I love how she came forward and barred her soul. I love how she’s still struggling, but she has a book about it. And I love how she’s never given up. Because I know I have. On several occasions.
And she writes about the strength of her belief. Yes, she may have doubted if she’s doing something incredibly stupid, but she never doubted her conviction. And to me, that speaks volumes about who she is. She is the one I want to emulate. I want to be sure about myself, despite multiple failure. I want to learn to break my walls, and start apiece. I want to let go of my comfort zones and tread the stormy seas. Because she gives me the courage to do that.
In other words, thank you for the book, Ms Lahiri. You’ve opened my eyes, just a smidge more towards this confusing world.