oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)
The following is an edited and translated version of a paper I presented at a conference at the French Embassy in this city last week. This paper is around the interwebes in different forms, link back please if you’re quoting it.
 

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I’ve been invited here to speak to you of representations today. I’m told this group is interested in culture and translation – in the realm of feminism and praxis – and I’ll be talking specifically about a few images that linger on, even when exercises that seem as benign as translation occur. I am not sure how many people in the audience are familiar with Mumbai of the Globalisation, Privatisation and Liberalisation era, and I am not entirely certain that any summary I could provide would come close to even scratching the surface of all that Bombay and later Mumbai experienced in the past two decades. So you will have to translate the circumstances I speak of.

Introductions have always been my weak spot — I never know how to quite answer the “where are you from” question. Not that I have a history of origins so complicated that I don’t know where I come from, it’s just that the moment I say I am from “Mumbai, India”, the conversation usually dies out. For people who’ve grown up in different parts of India dreaming of going to Mumbai (for some Bombay) and making their dreams come true — I don’t know how to talk of the Mumbai I know, of intense competition that you learn to lovingly call “survival”, of the brusque lifestyles, of the city where private spaces are now becoming extinct — to the effect that we’ve started creating the “private” everywhere we can — where you find spas and slum dwellings in the same street, where such clichés actually hold true, for the city they dream of has no room for such cracks. To people who don’t know India, much less Mumbai, all and everything Mumbai has come to symbolise is Slumdog Millionaire and any suggestion that Mumbai is more than someone’s Orientalist-wet-dream is met with condescension. This is usually the point in the conversation when I stop talking altogether or just walk away.

Since I moved to this city six months ago, introductions have become my least favourite exercise. Another conversation nightmare is, “What was your childhood like?” as people think I’m being creative with details when I say I grew up reading and re-reading works of Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Enid Blyton and Wordsworth on one hand and am equally well versed with the worlds of Rabindranath Tagore, Ruskin Bond and Anant Pai. Another horrid question is, “What is your mother tongue”, for English doesn’t seem like a true enough answer, least of all to me. But it’s the only answer that fits the traditional definitions of a “mother tongue” – I have never really understood what mothers have to do with languages – it’s the language I think and dream in, can articulate myself but it still breathes foreign to me. Lately French has joined the rank too. Popular images that came through via texts and visuals are of the “Indian global citizen”, of the new middle class, upper-caste child that speaks impeccable English as well as knows the “traditional texts and scriptures” (translated in English will also do), a person who manages tradition – of a certain kind, accessible only to some people in the caste and class hierarchy – with modernity. Most of our middle class households imbibe the idea, consciously and otherwise, that our dream is the American dream. Of studying and working in the US, of internalising meritocracy – this is also why so many people study English and Spanish, with specific American pronunciations; you find the various “Learn Perfect American English” institutes littered all across India.

I am not suggesting that growing up anywhere in India in the 90’s was an uniform experience, rather that it meant something to be growing up in Mumbai, a city so many people think of as the cultural capital of India and being able to more-or-less set the norms for most other youngsters in other small towns and cities – I didn’t think it was true till many years ago a friend from Bengal pointed out the favourable change in people’s attitude towards me when I’d mention I am a Mumbaiite. There was a moment, somewhere in 2002 or 2003 where suddenly my friends and I discovered the power we wielded as residents of Mumbai, and we’d loudly make fun of participants of other cities whenever we went for Science fairs and competitions. We called them “vernacular trash”, forgetting that English too was a vernacular language to someone else in a different spot on the globe, or the way English had reached us, drunk on the status our city afforded us. We grew up soon after, learnt that it was politically incorrect to make such statements and started fraternising with the “under classes” in a wave of bourgeois guilt. Luckily for us, we met reality soon enough, figured out there was no “under class” and that the people we wanted to save so badly had more to give us than the other way around – in terms of practical advice and even as producers of theory and knowledge.

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oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)

Lately I've been very busy translating things -- French things to English, diluting some literary Gujarati with the help of my grandma and strangely, also my thoughts from English to my native tongue(s) as this summer break she helps me read in a few tongues that have been rusting inside me since the past few years.  For a long time, English has been my go-to language and my native tongues occupy a secondary position, of horrid pidgins that mix many tongues and dialects -- which are hilarious at best and painful at worst -- and a language I must use with family, with people who aren't fluent enough in English, a language that is substituted for English and even then I barrel this tongue with English words -- I don't see this as a necessarily bad thing, just illustrating how no matter how hard I try, my native tongues come to me as an after-thought. Sometimes, my grandma will ask me to read પાની and instead I read "water" in my head, and to save face say the Gujarati word out loud -- but she knows anyway that it doesn't come to me 'naturally'. Generally we smile at each other when this happens, she asks me to try again and I instruct myself to think in my mother tongue, and it works for a while. Then in about two minutes, she asks me to read a whole sentence and I am again judging it by English syntax and grammar forms. I don't need to learn to speak read write in these tongues, those I did as a child either in school -- where the State you belonged to dictated the tongues you'd learn  -- or at home where we speak our mother tongue. It's thinking in different tongues that I am working on and so far, miserably failing.

For years, my English and the 'talent' to say things well have been indistinguishable from my identity as an upper-caste Hindu lady, "who will one day go to the U.S. also and write big-thick books for people to read" to borrow my cook's words as she describes who I am and what I will do -- according to her -- to her neighbours. She says fondly, "Look at her English, I want my daughter also to speak like her! How fast-fast she goes, sometimes talking liddat on the phone and marking something in study books also" as her neighbours smile politely at us. I've gone to this neighbourhood since at least the past decade or so, I used to play with many children who now don't speak with me at all, and if they do only in English -- They say, "How you do" and I used to say, "ठीक हूँ" -- and they'd get embarrassed and I'd get angry that no matter what I did 'those people' don't want to speak in their native languages -- it's taken me a lot of time to see how them addressing me in English was their way of leveling ground between us and me stomping all over it and patronising them and replying in Hindi was nothing but my privilege raising its head. English still remains for us a class and a cultural marker, a certain kind of English that you speak marks you from which part of the city you come from -- if you code-switch and say, "I don't know, ask ajoba no" for instance, pegs you from North Mumbai -- and the more 'unadulterated'¹ your English is, the better education and class background you are assumed to have. It didn't help that I am 'convent educated' -- a phrase we treat as a synonym for 'Good English And Decorum' -- and was taught by British and Indian nuns who'd both tell us that "Your native languages can stay at home. Here we speak English -- like people". So we'd speak at lunch in our native tongues, but even that stopped as we grew older and English was just more convenient; plus by then, speaking in English meant Serious Business².

 

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oncejadedtwicesnarked: Spivak is looking disgruntled and pissed. (Default)
Jaded

March 2012

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