“I'd have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.”
– W B Yeats
At the time of my parents’ wedding, my mother was teaching in Mathura, far away from the Himalayan foothills where my father was posted. When my mother quit her job to move in with my father, my grandfather wrote angry letters to them, accusing my father to have become a Majnu – an Indian Romeo. Baba’s disdain rose from his handwriting, like heat coming off the tar roads outside our village at the end of a summer day.
Everyone dreaded my grandfather’s letters. They were erudite and impenetrable, filled with the vomitus of his thoughts in a small yellow postcard. A banal life event could conjure acerbic shayri, erotic poetry or mathematical theory, creeping horizontally and vertically all over the postcard until no space remained.
He was a poet who scaffolded our lives with his prose. His words slinked on every piece of paper that lay around us. Every time my father brought him books from the library, he reminded Baba to not write on them. Baba never remembered. Besides the piles of notebooks in his room, we saw his writing littered on newspapers, calendars, junk mail, telephone diaries, schoolbooks and take-away menus.
He read voraciously and wrote the same way. He spoke of quantum physics and Jungian psychology, of Medieval English literature and German metaphysical writers. He wrote about all this to our relatives in villages and tiny towns across north India who turned the postcards in their hands and said, “What is this?” Their lives – mired in grocery lists, local gossip and car loans – had no space for Baba’s words.
When people visited Baba, after a perfunctory how-d’you-do he would launch into some tirade, invoking everyone from Pythagoras and Newton to Stephen Hawking and Roberto Calasso. The relatives shifted in the white plastic chairs, perplexed at finding themselves in this situation, sipping tea and eyeing the door. My father would send my sister or me to Baba’s room. “Go rescue them,” he would say, chuckling. As the relatives made their escape, quickly muttering their namastes, Baba would brush them off, turning back to writing in his book, on his newspaper, or in the diary he had in his hand, continuing his assaying as if with no pause.
“It is myself that I remake.”
– W B Yeats
There are times when I’m speaking and I wonder – mid-word – which language I’m inhabiting, and my brain gets confused, my lips stumble. I speak to my parents in chaste Hindi, my husband in English with a smattering of Hindi exclamations, my sister in a democratic mix – fifty-fifty – of the two. I write exclusively in English.
If language is tied with identity, mine is like a bunch of tangled hair left in the shower drain. Try to unknot it and the strands start breaking apart, diffident about revealing anything of their true lengths.
Baba adored and detested his granddaughters’ slow love affair with this colonial language. He marvelled at our fluent nattering in English (“So molten,” he said), but would lose his temper if he saw us reading, say, the Ramayana in English. “Angrez ki aulad,” he would call us. Spawn of the British.
In this confusion of languages, in America I live in the crevices of my Indian accent, much preserved and fought over. I loiter at its gates like an obsessive lover, unwilling to let go of it. In this gigantic country, my accent – in my writing and speech – is my scaffolding. The magnet of its inflections shapes my assaying tongue that emits word after English word. This choosing defines me in America, a framework for another story in a variant of a language’s sound.
At writerly gatherings in Manhattan, when people ask me what I write, and I say nonfiction in my Indian accent, many people smile. “Ah, who isn’t writing nonfiction these days?” “Of course, that’s where the money is.” The people who react like this are always white and almost always men, so powerful in their fluid idiom, so secure with this clout of their American twang. Their statements delivered in the perfect American cadence sting.
How do I say it? My language is my history, my history is my language. If I don’t write who I am, who am I?
“I do not know how to stretch the thread and weave the cloth!”
– Rig Veda
When I moved to New York, I shamelessly stared on the subway at people’s faces, hands, eyes, knees, lips, elbows, shoes, blue hair and green nail polish, so beguiling after the long drought in northern Kentucky where geese far outnumbered humans. On the train, everyone was reading something or babbling something or listening to something with white plugs jammed into their ears. Words-words-words that I could not hear were all around me and I stared, starved for their contours, longing for choruses and confrontations after the tinnitus of Kentucky’s silences. As the A train ripped into Washington Heights, brown faces smiled and murmured, “Lo siento,” and I resisted the urge to hug them.
The languages of my life fill transparent time with different colours. When I read foreign books translated into English – from the Spanish or Korean or Bengali – if the dialogue sounds stilted, I imagine it being said in Hindi, and it comes alive with nuances of rhythm and tone. I cannot imagine it in English. For the banality of everyday, I need to inhabit Hindi.
The ancients, too, grappled with this pull and push of language. The Rig Veda, composed around 1200 BCE by nomadic poets high on psychedelic Soma, speaks constantly of weaving. In one hymn, two maidens – day and night – dance in circles and endlessly weave the stuff of life.
The poets’ minds swarmed with images and they were drunk on language, apostrophising and questioning life, gods, the universe. Before all these, they deified words. Sanskrit later became a court language, but these poets were the tongue’s original inhabitants. They built no temples, fashioned no effigies. They created sanctums of words, and named their language Sanskrit, which means "perfect".
According to Plato, this world is only an imitation of an ideal. Art is twice-removed. But for the Vedic poets, the world was created by poetry, knit with words, woven forward and woven backward, like the weft and the warp of a loom.
In the Rig Veda, the word is a goddess called Vāc. This matters to me for in the history of the world, of language and of text, I so often feel desolate amidst masculine paradigm. Vāc is the first of the Vedic pantheon, the “thousand-syllabled speech dwelling in the highest regions of transcendence, from where it flows to sustain everything that exists.”
According to the ancient poets, the world came into being with the union of mind (mānas) with word (vāc). Language was life, life was language. They grappled with how to understand such an existence.
I struggle like them too. I cry out, like an unnamed poet of the Rig Veda cried five millennia before me, “Do not let the thread break while I’m still weaving this thought.”
Four years after Baba passed away, I finally dusted off the diaries he had filled throughout his life. Through my grandfather’s writing, I wanted to understand the past. What I found instead were hundreds of yellow postcards. His writing is rhetorical and opaque, springing forth in Medias res, leaving you confused, frustrated. The notebooks are a barrage of thrumming Hindi words saying so many things, each word and sentence a unique jewel of a meaning I understand, but the paragraph is nothing that I can grasp. What choice do I have then but to build my own dais over his scaffolding?
My husband often laughs because I get confused between yesterday and tomorrow. This is because in Hindi, both go by the same word: kal. It comes from kaal, which means time. With my mother tongue’s circularity of time so inherently embedded in my brain, I assay, back and forth, weaving word-cloth on an old-fashioned loom. Yesterday, tomorrow, yesterday, tomorrow.
Ancestral Voices (Reflections on Vedic, Classical and Bhakti Poetry), Ramesh Chandra Shah
The Rig Veda (Translated by Wendy Doniger, Penguin Classics 1981)
Ardor, Roberto Calasso (Translated by Richard Dixon)
Aurvi Sharma was awarded the 2015 Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction and the 2015 AWP WC&C Scholarship. In 2014, she won the Prairie Schooner Nonfiction Contest and the Wasafiri New Writing Prize (‘Life Writing’). Aurvi’s writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, Everyday Genius and Remedy Quarterly. She lives in New York.