‘In which language do you think?’
A friend asked this question during a board games session that I had organised at my apartment in Mumbai a few weeks before social distancing norms took over our lives. Everyone hunched over the board of Catan—six to be precise—grew up speaking two to three languages, and yet the unanimous answer was English. I didn’t actively participate in the discussion and was relieved that the question hadn’t been posed to me individually.
Until a few years ago, I, too, would have promptly replied, “English!”, eager to embrace and be embraced by a language I thought would not only be my emancipatory vehicle, but a home which is unconditional, accepting, and safe. However, it’s too much to ask of a language, especially English, because no matter how much I try to claim it as my own, no matter how much I try to find freedom and belonging within its strict form and structure, it will always be the language of my colonisers. My diction will be a tad too crude, tenses will be fraught, grammar will be broken, and our accents will never be sophisticated enough to carry the weight of English.
However, while perhaps not a home, I have made an interim shelter out of English with its broken foundation of tenses, cracked grammatical pillars, and borrowed vocabulary of flaked paint. Some will say my shelter is not English as I have irreparably altered it by bringing elements of other languages of my land into its premises. To make an exclusive home of English would mean parting with the fragments of my land that I have acquired over years. So here I am, not belonging to any one language but belonging to this broken shelter made of man—a montage at its best and mishmash at its worst.
I was nine years old when a blonde American lady visited our house in Delhi. She was visiting an Indian friend who happened to be an acquaintance of my grandfather and was brought to our house when she insisted on having a “culturally immersive” experience. As she sat amongst a sea of people from within the household and beyond, I remember walking up to her in our baithak uninvited and striking up a conversation. I have no recollection of what happened, but I have lived that day multiple times through the memory of my grandfather and mother. According to them, as everyone except my grandfather (who learnt English during his days working as telephone technician in Libya) struggled to converse with the woman, I chatted with her effortlessly in “fluent” English. When she left, the atmosphere shifted to celebration. Filled with pride, my grandfather had tears in his eyes as he watched me speak in the language he had been trying to master all his life.
In retrospect, I’m sure this encounter acted as a catalyst to what would become an obsession with English, which I was convinced would be my way out of the stifling patriarchy in my household which had clearly defined rules for each gender. My commerce graduate mother from Calcutta University had dropped her master’s dream to cover up her head to sweat in front of the gas stove making round rotis.
However, something shifted that afternoon. Lines were blurred and I was soon encouraged to take up activities all women before me were prohibited from. Grandfather, who had shown deep disdain over the birth of a granddaughter, became completely involved in my upbringing.
He took me along for his evening swimming lessons, read stories to me at night, and used only English to converse with me. My grandfather was a patriarch of the household, a reverent figure in the family and beyond, and his attention cemented my thought that worthiness was tied to English.
I was enrolled in an English medium school but Hindi was the primary language of communication used amongst my fellow classmates. Very few children spoke English with their parents, so the fact that I was able to converse in English with my grandfather gave me an advantage over other students and helped me gain the same attention in school, which I was receiving within my family.
During this obsessive phase with English, I actively started severing my ties with Hindi—a version which is spoken at home—which is bits of Haryanavi (a dialect of Hindi) and bits of Khadi Boli (Hindustani dialect) peppered with generous helpings of Urdu. At 14, I stopped reading in Hindi.
No one noticed or chided me over my poor Hindi handwriting or made fun of me when spelled words wrongly. Hindi was not deeply intertwined with my self-worth the way English was—it could easily be discarded as parts of my body, like a rotten tooth, I thought I didn’t need.
When I went to architecture college at 17, I was ready to leave Hindi completely behind me. College would become the place where all relationships will be formed in English but instead I landed up in a government college in the interiors of Punjab where most students barely spoke Hindi and were only now encountering English for the first time in their lives.
I could have easily tried to learn Punjabi, but I refused to learn even a word of it thinking it would adulterate my English. I spent my initial years of college in a state of constant insecurity, avoiding contact with words from other languages, fearing it would destroy my relationship with English, taking away my self-esteem and worth.
Those insecurities also crept into my writing, which I later realised was phoney and not rooted into any context. My writings from that time only reflected what I was reading at the moment. However, towards the end of my five-year architecture degree, in what could be called a stroke of destiny, I forged a friendship with J and M, fellow students in my cohort, who only spoke Punjabi. Our friendship grew and evolved without any language and that realisation changed my relationship with English forever.
While they knew and spoke English, too, J and M existed mostly in Punjabi. J spoke perfect Hindi with me but wasn’t very comfortable speaking English, while M had a perfect command over English but fumbled comically in Hindi. Around them, I loosened my grip over English. For the first time in many years, I entered spaces—physical and emotional—without English, like one removes a pair of shoes before entering a building. It was liberating to know that after all, English was just a pair of shoes I needed for walking and not an irreplaceable part of my body.
M is a poet who writes extensively in Punjabi. As we grew closer, he introduced me to his poetry and through his poetry I started discovering works of Punjabi poets like Amrita Pritam, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Pash. Though I had heard and read translated works of these writers, reading (or listening) them in the language they originally wrote uncovered a sea of vastness that gets lost in translation.
I realised there was a rootedness in the works of these authors, a rootedness which I still hadn’t found writing in English. Was it possible to feel rooted in a language which is not your mother tongue? And without rootedness, what chance do I have of succeeding as a writer? I had trained myself to think in English, but was I feeling in English? And if I wasn’t feeling in English, which language would I feel in?
I pushed these thoughts behind the back of my head and threw myself into the world of Punjabi poetry and music with all abandon. I still remember when I read Amrita Pritam’s Main Tenu Phir Milangi—years before it became an Instagram reel. It reminded me of the poems of Sylvia Plath. The fact that these two women who were writing in different contexts about similar themes and experiences in completely different languages were capable of taking readers to similar emotional depths, made me relook at language as just another medium.
Reading poetry in both Punjabi and English softened my writing which I’d previously caged within the strict structure and form of the language. Instead, I started focusing solely on emotions I felt and wanted to convey. My tenses were off, I used correct words at incorrect places and relied heavily on spell check. However, I learnt to hold my emotions together. I was no longer pandering to the language of my colonisers, instead I was claiming it as my own, by chipping away at the very structure that had kept me bound to it for so many years.
Today, I find it almost ironic to admit that it was Punjabi that turned my suffocating relationship with English into a liberating and rewarding one. It also opened doors for other languages that I had and would encounter over the years. I opened myself to languages. I never fully learnt to speak but definitely learnt to express sorrows, joys, and humour in them. I still mostly write in English but I have found my own form which is rugged, rustic, and rooted.
And when someone asks me, in which language do I think? I reply, the language I make love in—the language of poetry.
Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai