What I think when I think in English
What happens when a person who speaks a native tongue crosses over to English?
I used to hope in English, but all my other thoughts were in Tamil and Malayalam. I was born in Kerala and raised in Chennai, a cuckoo among the crows. I did not have a faculty for languages and could speak only one dominant tongue at a time. I spoke fluent Tamil and a type of Malayalam that would make Malayalees feel dejected. I wish I had told them that I could think beautifully in Malayalam.
The way I remember my life then, my purest thoughts were in my mother tongue. When I would resolve that I would one day lead my mother to great consistent happiness, it was in Malayalam. But when I would imagine Miss SM standing in her balcony combing her hair and I, in all whites and white shoes (black heels) running in slow motion, my hair bouncing, and when I would ask the universe silently the distraught question, are girls capable of love at all, it was in Tamil.
However, by the age of 17, I was moving away from Tamil and Malayalam, and beginning to think entirely in English. Are there serious consequences when this happens or is the special-ness of language overrated?
When I was around 10, during a monthly test in school, I was asked to write the gender that would be the opposite of “Ram". I was baffled when I realized that most of the class had got the alleged answer “Ewe". My answer was Sita. I still maintain that I was right. No one in Chennai had ever seen a ram, at least in the tropical city, while Ram, or Rama as we used to call him, was deep culture. Everything else about English was like this—it was venerable at a distance but all wrong when it passed through me. It was a medium of study and intellect but to use it in a casual conversation seemed comically arrogant. The act of speaking in English, in fact, was defamed as “Putting Peter" in my circle. I was among the boys who carried out the defamation. My teachers were not fluent in English. When my parents spoke English, they, like all Malayalees, spoke English in Malayalam. The effect of not being colonized by English was that I was an insider in my home town. I belonged to my city and the great beautiful city belonged to me. Not for a moment was I an amateur Indian. I could talk to thugs and policemen and slum-dwellers and eunuchs.
Being Tamil, or being Malayalee, was a distinct behavioural system and only those who thought in either of those languages could play a part in it. For instance, when some Tamilian Brahmin would want to convey an insult, he would hedge the risk by putting it across as an ambiguous joke. Also, Tamilians of my childhood had the propensity to use glee to show contempt. They would laugh hard, in an exaggerated way, at the jokes of the people they despised, especially their teachers or bosses.
All this I did not observe as a boy, when I used to think in Tamil. Observation is not the act of seeing; it is the act of perceiving what has already been seen. Only when I stopped thinking in Tamil did I begin to see Chennai more clearly and deeply. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once observed that you wouldn’t find the word “camel" in the Quran—the ancient Arabs had no reason to mention what was very common in almost every frame of their existence. Borges, it turned out, was wrong. Camels do find mention in the holy book, but the rarity of their appearance may still substantiate his larger point—that the camels were, for an Arab, “a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels".
When I was growing up in Chennai, I was not proud of the city, or my home state Kerala. Maybe those days we were not seriously required to be proud of home. Love was enough. In fact, I made no special effort to learn to read and write in Tamil or Malayalam. I used them only to think and speak. I could write only in English and Hindi, both foreign to me, Hindi more than English. Then, in 1987, a film called Nayakan by Mani Ratnam was released. I was 13 and I thought it was the greatest film on earth. I still believe it is one of the greatest in world cinema. I decided that apart from being a journalist, I would also become a Tamil film-maker. I began to write many stories, all in English.
When I was 16, I thought the best way to enter the movie business was as a low-level actor. So when I heard that a film audition was under way for some extras, I went. The queue was long and the men looked impoverished and depressing, and the line had not moved after 2 hours, so I left, abandoning the idea of acting. I wrote more stories. I even co-wrote one with the milkman. Nothing ever came out of them. The Tamil sphere of creativity offered me no prospects. For me, there were no rewards for thinking in Tamil.
Meanwhile, my reading, in English, intensified. I was consumed by P.G. Wodehouse, Salman Rushdie, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Ayn Rand. I would not go beyond the first one-third of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, but I was astonished. I did not know this level of intellect was even possible. Also, I was yet another adolescent in search of a bright future and only English promised me that in the line of work I had chosen. When I entered college to study English literature, my English diction was bad, and I had to train myself to speak only in English to improve. I did not ask myself then in what language I conducted my thoughts. But slowly, without my being aware of it, I was colonized by the English language.
I am now stranded in English. Most days I have to consciously fight its underrated influences. Unlike Indian languages, English has names for so many abstract things, including lies, that they can be misunderstood as truths, like socialism, hypnosis, sexism, liberty, human rights and plain nonsense like “quality time" and “multitasking".
As a writer, especially as a novelist, even though I wish to write only in English, I derive all my ways of seeing from my experiences as a vernacular person. Forget subtlety. I belong to a melodramatic nation and I do not accept subtlety as a higher form of expression. And while I have accumulated a reasonably wide vocabulary as a reader, I use a very limited range of words in my thoughts, and that is what I believe I have a right to transmit to my novels. I would feel fake if I used some words—for instance, salubrious, meadows and brook. Maybe I am always trying only to write a good Tamil film in English. And while at it, I do believe that I can now see more than the insiders; I am like the outsider who is able to see the camel.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.
He tweets at @manujosephsan