What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?
ARUNDHATI ROY ON THE COMPLEX, SHIFTING POLITICS OF LANGUAGE AND TRANSLATION IN INDIA
By Arundhati Roy
The following is Arundhati Roy’s W. G. Sebald Lecture on Literary Translation, commissioned by the British Centre for Literary Translation and the National Centre for Writing. It was delivered at the British Library on June 5, 2018.
At a book reading in Kolkata, about a week after my first novel, The God of Small Things, was published, a member of the audience stood up and asked, in a tone that was distinctly hostile: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in an alien language? In a language other than his mother tongue?” I hadn’t claimed to have written a masterpiece (nor to be a “he”), but nevertheless I understood his anger toward a me, a writer who lived in India, wrote in English, and who had attracted an absurd amount of attention. My answer to his question made him even angrier.
“Nabokov,” I said. And he stormed out of the hall.
The correct answer to that question today would of course be “algorithms.” Artificial Intelligence, we are told, can write masterpieces in any language and translate them into masterpieces in other languages. As the era that we know, and think we vaguely understand, comes to a close, perhaps we, even the most privileged among us, are just a group of redundant humans gathered here with an arcane interest in language generated by fellow redundants.
Only a few weeks after the mother tongue/masterpiece incident, I was on a live radio show in London. The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved, recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African-American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And if all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.
Notwithstanding my anger, on both occasions my responses were defensive reactions, not adequate answers. Because those incidents touched on a range of incendiary questions—colonialism, nationalism, authenticity, elitism, nativism, caste, and cultural identity—all jarring pressure points on the nervous system of any writer worth her salt. However, to reify language in the way both men had renders language speechless. When that happens, as it usually does in debates like these, what has actually been written ceases to matter. That was what I found so hard to countenance. And yet I know—I knew—that language is that most private and yet most public of things. The challenges thrown at me were fair and square. And obviously, since I’m still talking about them, I’m still thinking about them.
The night of that reading in Kolkata, city of my estranged father and of Kali, Mother Goddess with the long red tongue and many arms, I fell to wondering what my mother tongue actually was. What was—is—the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write? It occurred to me that my mother was actually an alien, with fewer arms than Kali perhaps but many more tongues. English is certainly one of them. My English has been widened and deepened by the rhythms and cadences of my alien mother’s other tongues. (I say alien because there’s not much that is organic about her. Her nation-shaped body was first violently assimilated and then violently dismembered by an imperial British quill. I also say alien because of the violence unleashed in her name on those who do not wish to belong to her (Kashmiris, for example), as well as on those who do (Indian Muslims and Dalits, for example), makes her an extremely un-motherly mother.
How many tongues does she have? Officially, approximately 780, only twenty-two of which are formally recognized by the Indian Constitution, while another thirty-eight are waiting to be accorded that status. Each has its own history of colonizing or being colonized. There are few pure victims and pure perpetrators. There is no national language. Not yet. Hindi and English are designated “official languages.” According to the Constitution of India (which, we must note, was written in English), the use of English by the state for official purposes was supposed to cease by 26 January 1965, fifteen years after the constitution came into effect. Hindi, written in the Devanagari script, was to take its place. However, any serious move toward making Hindi the national language has been met with riots in non-Hindi speaking regions of the country. (Imagine trying to impose a single language on all of Europe.) So, English has continued, guiltily, unofficially, and by default, to consolidate its base.
“What was—is—the politically correct, culturally apposite, and morally appropriate language in which I ought to think and write?”
Guilt in this case is an unhelpful sentiment. India as a country, a nation-state, was a British idea. So, the idea of English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself. Writing or speaking in English is not a tribute to the British Empire, as the British imperial historian had tried to suggest to me, it is a practical solution to the circumstances created by it. Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and administered from Delhi, which, for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole. If India had broken up into language republics, like countries in Europe, then perhaps English could be done away with. But even still, not really, not any time soon. As things stand, English, although it is spoken by a small minority (which still numbers in the tens of millions), is the language of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press, the legal fraternity, of science, engineering, and international communication. It is the language of privilege and exclusion.
It is also the language of emancipation, the language in which privilege has been eloquently denounced. Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the most widely read, widely translated, and devastating denunciation of the Hindu caste system, was written in English. It revolutionized the debate on perhaps the most brutal system of institutionalized injustice that any society has ever dreamed up. How different things would have been had the privileged castes managed to contain Ambedkar’s writing in a language that only his own caste and community could read. Inspired by him, many Dalit activists today see the denial of a quality English education to the underprivileged (in the name of nationalism or anticolonialism) as a continuation of the Brahmin tradition of denying education and literacy—or, for that matter, simply the right to pursue knowledge and accumulate wealth—to people they consider “shudras” and “outcastes.” To make this point, in 2011 the Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad built a village temple to the Dalit Goddess of English. “She is the symbol of Dalit Renaissance,” he said. “We will use English to rise up the ladder and become free forever.”
As the wrecking ball of the new global economic order goes about its work, moving some people toward the light, pushing others into darkness, the “knowing” and the “not knowing” of English plays a great part in allocating light and darkness.
It is onto this mind-bending mosaic that the current Hindu nationalist ruling dispensation is trying to graft its “One nation, one religion, one language” vision. Since its inception in the 1920s, the rallying cry of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), Hindu Nationalism’s Holding Company—and the most powerful organization in India today—has been “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.” Ironically, all three are words derived from the Arabic and Persian “al-Hind”—Hindustan, the name of the “stan” (place)—not to be confused with “sthan,” which also means “place” in Sanskrit—that lay east of the River Indus. “Hindus” were the peoples (not the religion) that lived there. It would be too much to expect the RSS to learn from other country’s experiences, but when the Islamic Republic of Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on its Bengali-speaking citizens in East Pakistan, it ended up losing half of itself. Sri Lanka tried to impose Sinhala on its Tamil citizens, and paid with decades of bloody civil war.
All this to say that we live and work (and write) in a complicated land, in which nothing is or ever will be settled. Especially not the question of language. Languages.
Susan Sontag was surely aware of some of this complexity when she delivered the W. G. Sebald lecture in 2002. Her lecture was called “The World as India: Translation as a Passport within the Community of Literature.” What I’ll talk about is “Translation as a Writing Strategy in a Community Without Passports.”
Twenty years after the publication of The God of Small Things, I finished writing my second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if a novel can have an enemy, then the enemy of this novel is the idea of “One nation, one religion, one language.” As I composed the cover page of my manuscript, in place of the author’s name, I was tempted to write: “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy.” The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it (and here I don’t mean the translation of the inchoate and the prelingual into words). Regardless of which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written in, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe would had to be imagined in several languages. It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish—swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some outright carnivorous. But they are all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other.
For them, translation is not only a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folks’ survival kit. And so, in this novel of many languages, it is not only the author, but the characters themselves who swim around in an ocean of exquisite imperfection, who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realize that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been—is being—translated into 48 languages. Each of those translators has to grapple with a language that is infused with many languages including, if I may coin a word, many kinds of Englishes (sociolects is perhaps the correct word, but I’ll stay with Englishes because it is deliciously worse) and translate it into another language that is infused with many languages. I use the word infused advisedly, because I am not speaking merely of a text that contains a smattering of quotations or words in other languages as a gimmick or a trope, or one that plays the Peter Sellers game of mocking Indian English, but of an attempt to actually create a companionship of languages.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if a novel can have an enemy, then the enemy of this novel is the idea of ‘One nation, one religion, one language.
Of the 48 translations, two are Urdu and Hindi. As we will soon see, the very fact of having to name Hindi and Urdu as separate languages, and publish them as separate books with separate scripts, contains a history that is folded into the story of The Ministry. Given the setting of the novel, the Hindi and Urdu translations are, in part, a sort of homecoming. I soon learned that this did nothing to ease the task of the translators. To give you an example: The human body and its organs play an important part in The Ministry. We found that Urdu, that most exquisite of languages, which has more words for love than perhaps any other language in the world, has no word for vagina. There are words like the Arabic furj, which is considered to be archaic and more or less obsolete, and there are euphemisms that range in meaning from “hidden part,” “breathing hole,” “vent,” and “path to the uterus.” The most commonly used one is aurat ki sharamgah. A woman’s place of shame. As you can see, we had trouble on our hands. Before we rush to judgment, we must remember that pudenda in Latin means “that whereof one should feel shame.” In Danish, I was told by my translator, the phrase is “lips of shame.” So, Adam and Eve are alive and well, their fig leaves firmly in place.
Although I am tempted to say more about the pleasures and difficulties of translating The Ministry of Utmost Happiness into other languages, more than the “post-writing” translations, it is the “pre-writing” translation that I want to talk about today. None of it came from an elaborate, pre-existing plan. I worked purely by instinct. It is only while preparing for this lecture that I began to really see how much it mattered to me to persuade languages to shift around, to make room for each other. Before we dive into the Ocean of Imperfection and get caught up in the eddies and whirlpools of our historic blood feuds and language wars, in order to give you a rough idea of the terrain, I will quickly chart the route by which I arrived at my particular patch of the shoreline.
My mother is a Syrian Christian from Kerala—the Malayalam-speaking southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. My father was a Bengali from Kolkata, which is where the two met. At the time, he was visiting from Assam, where he had a job as an assistant manager of a tea garden. The language they had in common was English. I was born in the Welsh Mission hospital in the little town of Shillong, then in Assam, now the capital of the state of Meghalaya. The predominant hill tribe in Shillong is the Khasi, their language an Austroasiatic one, related to Cambodian and Mon. The Welsh missionaries of Shillong, like missionaries all over India, went to great lengths to turn oral languages into written ones, primarily in order to translate and print the Bible. As part of their own campaign to preserve the Welsh language against the tidal wave of English, they ensured that while Khasi is written in Roman script, its orthography is similar to that of Welsh.
The first two years of my life were spent in Assam. Even before I was born, my parents’ relationship had broken down irretrievably. While they quarreled, I was farmed out to the tea plantation workers’ quarters, where I learned my first language, which my mother informs me was a kind of Hindi. The tea workers, living on starvation wages, were (and are) among the most brutally oppressed and exploited people in India. They are descendants of indigenous tribespeople of Eastern and Central India, whose own languages had been broken down and subsumed into Baganiya, which literally means “garden language.” It is a patois of Hindi, Axomiya, and their own languages. Baganiya was the language I first spoke.
I was less than three years old when my parents separated. My mother, my brother, and I moved to South India—first to Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu and then (unwelcomed) to my grandmother’s home in Ayemenem, the village in Kerala where The God of Small Things is set. I soon forgot my Baganiya. (Many years later, when I was in my twenties, I encountered my cheerful but distressingly alcoholic father for the first time. The very first question he asked me was, “Do you still use bad language?” I had no idea what he meant. “Oh, you were a terrible, foul-mouthed little girl,” he said, and went on to tell me about how, when he had accidentally brushed a lit cigarette against my arm, I had glared at him and called him a “choo . . . ya”—an expletive in several languages, including Baganiya, whose etymology derives from the Latin word pudenda.)
When I was five, my utterly moneyless mother started her own school by renting, by day, a small hall that belonged to the Rotary Club in the town of Kottayam, a short bus ride away. Every evening we would pack away our tables and chairs, and put them out again in the morning. I grew up on a cultural diet that included Shakespeare, Kipling, Kathakali (a temple dance form), The Sound of Music, as well as Malayalam and Tamil cinema. Before I reached my teenage years, I could recite long passages of Shakespeare, sing Christian hymns in the mournful Malayali way, and mimic a cabaret from the Tamil film called Jesus (which Mary Magdalene performs to seduce Jesus at a cocktail party in zero BC—before things began to go badly wrong for both of them).
As her little school grew successful, my mother, anxious about my career prospects, decreed that I was to speak only in English. Even in my off time. Each time I was caught speaking Malayalam, I was made to write what was called an imposition—I will speak in English, I will speak in English—a thousand times. Many hours of many afternoons were spent doing this (until I learned to recycle my impositions). At the age of ten, I went to a boarding school in Tamil Nadu founded by Sir Henry Lawrence, British hero of the 1857 “Indian Mutiny,” who died defending the Lucknow Residency. (He who authored a legal code in the Punjab that forbade Sati, self-immolation by widows, infanticide, and forced labor. Hard as it may be to accept, things aren’t always as simple as they’re made out to be.) The motto of our school was “Never Give In.” Many of us students believed (with no real basis) that what Lawrence had actually said was, “Never Give In—to the Indian Dogs.” In boarding school, in addition to Malayalam and English, I learned Hindi. My Hindi teacher was a Malayali who taught us a kind of Hindi in a kind of Malayalam. We understood nothing. We learned very little.
“I longed to write about the landscape of my childhood, about the people in Ayemenem, about the river that flowed through it, the trees that bent into it, the moon, the sky, the fish, the songs . . .
At 16, I finished school and found myself alone on a train to Delhi, which was three days and two nights away. (I didn’t know then that I was leaving home for good.) I was going to join the School of Architecture. I was armed with a single sentence of Hindi that I somehow remembered. It was from a lesson called Swamibhakt Kutiya about a faithful dog who saves her master’s baby from a snake by getting herself bitten instead. The sentence was: Subah uth ke dekha to kutiya mari padi thi. “When I woke up in the morning, the bitch lay dead.” For the first few months in Delhi, it was my only contribution to any conversation or question addressed to me in Hindi. Over the years, this is the slender foundation on which, as my Malayalam became rusty, I built my Hindi vocabulary.
The architecture school hostel was, obviously, populated by out-of-towners. Mostly non-Hindi speakers. Bengalis, Assamese, Nagas, Manipuris, Nepalese, Sikkimese, Goans, Tamilians, Malayalees, Afghans. My first roommate was Kashmiri. My second Nepali. My closest friend was from Orissa. He spoke neither English nor Hindi. For most of our first year, we communicated in shared spliffs, sketches, cartoons, and maps drawn on the backs of envelopes—his extraordinary, mine mediocre. In time, we all learned to communicate with each other in standard Delhi University patois—a combination of English and Hindi, which was the language of my first screenplay, In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, set in a fictional architecture school during the dope-smoking, bell-bottom-wearing era of the 1970s. Annie was the nickname of a male student, Anand Grover, repeating his final year for the fourth time. “Giving it those ones” meant “doing his or her usual thing.” In Annie’s case. that meant peddling his pet thesis about reviving the rural economy and reversing rural-urban migration by planting fruit trees on either side of the hundreds of thousands of miles of railway tracks in India. Why the railway tracks? Because “general janta” (ordinary folks) “shits near the railway tracks anyway, hai na? so the soil is bloody fertile, yaar.” Directed by Pradip Krishen, the no-budget film was made on what must have been the cost of backup clapboards for a modest Hollywood movie.
Our publicity brochure for the film (which no one was really interested in) had the following quotes:
“You’ll have to change the title, because ‘Giving It Those Ones’ doesn’t mean anything in English.”
–Derek Malcolm of The Guardian, waking up suddenly in the middle of the film.
“Obviously, Mr. Malcolm, in England you don’t speak English anymore.”
–Arundhati Roy, later, wishing she had thought of it earlier.
Writing screenplays—I wrote two—taught me to write dialogue. And it taught me economy. But then I began to yearn for excess. I longed to write about the landscape of my childhood, about the people in Ayemenem, about the river that flowed through it, the trees that bent into it, the moon, the sky, the fish, the songs, the History House and the unnamed terrors that lurked around. I could not bear the idea of writing something that began with Scene 1. Ext. Day. River. I wanted to write a stubbornly visual but unfilmable book.
That book turned out to be The God of Small Things. I wrote it in English, but imagined it in English as well as Malayalam, the landscapes and languages colliding in the seven-year-old twins’ Esthappen and Rahel’s heads, turning into a thing of its own. So, for example, when their mother, Ammu, scolds the twins and tells them that if they ever disobey her in public she will send them somewhere where they learn to “jolly well behave”—it’s the well that jumps out at them. The deep, moss-lined well that you find in the compounds of many homes in Kerala, with a pulley and a bucket and a rope, the well children are sternly warned to stay away from until they are big enough to draw water. What could a Jolly Well possibly be? A well with happy people in it. But people in a well? They’d have to be dead, of course. So, in Estha’s and Rahel’s imagination, a Jolly Well becomes a well full of laughing dead people, into which children are sent to learn to behave. The whole novel is constructed around people, young and old, English-knowing and Malayalam-knowing, all grappling, wrestling, dancing, and rejoicing in language.
For me, or for most contemporary writers working in these parts, language can never be a given. It has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow-cooked.
It was only after writing The God of Small Things that I felt the blood in my veins flow more freely. It was an unimaginable relief to have finally found a language that tasted like mine. A language in which I could write the way I think. A language that freed me. The relief didn’t last long. As Estha always knew, Things can change in a day.
Less than a year after The God of Small Things was published, in May 1998, a Hindu nationalist government came to power. The first thing it did was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. Something convulsed. Something changed. It was about language again. Not a writer’s private language, but a country’s public language, its public imagination of itself. Suddenly, things that would have been unthinkable to say in public became acceptable. Officially acceptable. Virile national pride, which had more to do with hate than love, flowed like noxious lava on the streets. Dismayed by the celebrations even in the most unexpected quarters, I wrote my first political essay, “The End of Imagination.” My language changed, too. It wasn’t slow-cooked. It wasn’t secret, novel-writing language. It was quick, urgent, and public. And it was straight-up English.
Rereading The End of Imagination now it is sobering to see how clear the warning signs were, to anybody, just about anybody, who cared to heed them:
“These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests,” we were repeatedly told.
Why does it all seem so familiar? Is it because, even as you watch, reality dissolves and seamlessly rushes forward into the silent, black-and-white images from old films—scenes of people being hounded out of their lives, rounded up and herded into camps? Of massacre, of mayhem, of endless columns of broken people making their way to nowhere? Why is there no soundtrack? Why is the hall so quiet? Have I been seeing too many films? Am I mad? Or am I right?
“The End of Imagination” was the beginning of 20 years of essay writing for me. Almost every essay was immediately translated into Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Urdu, and Punjabi, often without my knowledge. As we watched mesmerized, religious fundamentalism and unbridled free-market fundamentalism, which had been unleashed in the early 1990s, waltzed arm-in-arm, like lovers, changing the landscape around us at a speed that was exhilarating for some, devastating for others. Huge infrastructure projects were displacing hundreds of thousands of the rural poor, setting them adrift into a world that didn’t seem to be able to—or simply did not want to—see them. It was as though the city and the countryside had stopped being able to communicate with each other. It had nothing to do with language, but everything to do with translation.
For example, judges sitting in the Supreme Court seemed unable to understand that, for a person who belonged to an indigenous tribe, their relationship with land could not simply be translated into money. (I was arraigned for contempt of court for saying, among other things, that paying Adivasis, indigenous tribespeople, cash compensation for their land was like paying Supreme Court judges their salaries in fertilizer bags.) Over the years, the essays opened secret worlds for me—the best kind of royalty that any writer could ask for. As I travelled, I encountered languages, stories, and people whose ways of thinking expanded me in ways I could never have imagined.
“It was as though the city and the countryside had stopped being able to communicate with each other. It had nothing to do with language, but everything to do with translation.
Somewhere along the way, slow-cooking began again. Folks began to drop in on me. Their visits grew more frequent, then longer, and eventually, pretty brazenly, they moved in with me: Anjum, an Urdu speaker from Old Delhi, came with her adopted daughter, Zainab, and a laconic, cloudy dog called Biroo. A young man who called himself Saddam Hussain showed up on a white horse he introduced as Payal. He said his real name was Dayachand and that he was a Chamar, a skinner from Jhajjhar in Haryana. He told me a terrible story about what had happened to his father. He spoke in a sort of Mewati-Rajasthani that I found hard to understand. He showed me a video of the execution of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, that he kept on his cell phone. It was Hussein’s courage at the moment of his death, he said, even if he had been a bastard, that had made Dayachand convert to Islam and take the name Saddam Hussain. I had no idea what the connection between the video and his father was.
A rail-thin man with his right arm in a plaster cast, his shirtsleeve flapping at his side, slid in like a shadow. He refused all offers of food and drink. The man handed me a piece of paper that said:
My Full Name: Dr Azad Bhartiya. (Translation: The Free Indian)
My Home Address: Dr Azad Bhartiya , Near Lucky Sarai Railway Station, Lucky Sarai Basti, Kokar, Bihar
My Current Address: Dr Azad Bhartiya, Jantar Mantar, New Delhi
I offered him a cigarette. He went outside to smoke it, and returned only after a few weeks. That was the beginning of Dr. Bharatiya’s drifting in and out of my home. It continues to this day. The next to come was the opposite of a drifter. Biplab Dasgupta, from the Universe of English, was an officer of the elite intelligence services currently posted in Kabul. He asked me to call him what his friends called him—Garson Hobart—the name of the character he had played in a college play. He arrived with an expensive bottle of whiskey from which he drank steadily. He seated himself at my table and, without so much as asking, used my pen to start writing something, from which he never looked up, except to occasionally enunciate the Latin name of a bird, as though he were checking the spelling by saying it out loud.
Later it occurred to me that he might have been doing it to trouble future translators in whose languages the scientific taxonomy of birds and trees, with their genus and species names that identified each of them as unique, did not exist. Hobart’s expression changed—in fact, almost everything about him changed—when my doorbell rang, and I found a man and woman standing outside. The woman turned out to be Hobart’s tenant, who had apparently gone missing. Her name was Tilotamma, and the man with her was Musa, her Kashmiri lover who seemed to know Hobart, too. They came in carrying cartons of papers and files, and towers of dusty documents. She put up a few sheets of paper on the ’fridge and secured them with a magnet. It was a word list, an alphabetically organized lexicon:
A: Azadi/army/Allah/America/Attack/AK47/Ammunition/ Ambush/Aatankwadi/Armed Forces Special Powers Act/ Area Domination/Al Badr/Al Mansoorian/Al Jehad/Afghan/ Amarnath Yatra
B: BSF/body/blast/bullet/battalion/barbed wire/brust (burst)/ border cross/booby trap/bunker/byte/begaar (forced labour)
C: Crossborder/Cross-fire /camp/civilian/curfew/Crackdown/ CordonandSearch/CRPF/Checkpost/Counter insurgency/Cease-fire/CounterIntelligence/Catch and Kill/ Custodial Killing/Compensation/Cylinder (surrender)/Concertina wire/Collaborator
D: Disappeared/Defence Spokesman/Double Cross/Double Agent/Disturbed Areas Act/Dead body
After a while Tilotamma’s ex-husband, Nagaraj Hariharan, came by, looking for her but pretending not to. For some reason, he had brought his mother-in-law Maryam Ipe’s fat medical file from a Cochin hospital. He showed it to me, even though I made it clear that I had no interest in the blood profiles and oxygen saturation charts of complete strangers. It was only much later that I saw the notes that contained Maryam Ipe’s ICU hallucinations. I could not have imagined that, if you study people’s hallucinations long enough, they tell you more than volumes of sentient conversation ever could. Major Amrik Singh, a tall Sikh officer of the Indian Army, arrived, denying several extrajudicial killings that I hadn’t even accused him of, insisting that he was being made what he called an “escape goat.” Once he picked up on the generally non-accusatory atmosphere of his surroundings, he began to boast about his counterintelligence operations and how he had passed himself off as a Hindu, a Sikh, or a Punjabi-speaking Pakistani Muslim, depending on what the particular covert operation demanded.
A baby girl appeared on the doorstep, unaccompanied. Anjum moved in with astonishing speed, swooped her up, and would not let anybody else come close for at least two weeks. A hand-delivered letter arrived from the forests of Bastar. It was written in cramped, tiny handwriting. English, as far as I could tell. It was addressed to Dr. Azad Bharatiya, who, for some reason, read it aloud to Anjum, translating it into Urdu on the fly:
Dear Comrade Azad Bharathiya Garu,
I am writing this to you because in my three days’ time in Jantar Mantar I observed you carefully. If anybody knows where is my child now, I think it might be you only. I am a Telugu woman and sorry I don’t know Hindi. My English is not good also. Sorry for that. I am Revathy, working as a full-timer with Communist Party of India (Maoist). When you will receive this letter I will be already killed . . .
The new slow-cooking recipe involved considerable risk. I had to throw the language of The God of Small Things off a very tall building. And then go down (using the stairs) to gather up the shattered pieces. So was born The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
It is not necessary for readers of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to know or understand the complicated map of languages that underpins it. If it were, if readers needed a field guide in order to properly understand the book, I’d consider myself a failure. To see it in bookshops sitting side-by-side with pulp fiction and political thrillers gives me nothing but pleasure. The fun and games with the Language Map is just that—an extra layer of fun and games. In truth, the Map of Languages of The Ministry, and their intertwining histories, could become a rather large book in itself. So, all I can do right now, just as an illustration of what I mean, is to drill below the surface of the first few chapters. I’ll start with the opening sentence:
She lived in the graveyard like a tree.
Long ago a man who knew English told her that her name written backwards (in English) spelled Majnu. In the English version of the story of Laila and Majnu, he said, Majnu was called Romeo and Laila was Juliet. She found that hilarious. “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” she asked. “What will they do when they find that Laila may actually be Majnu and Romi was really Juli?” The next time he saw her, the Man Who Knew English said he’d made a mistake. Her name spelled backwards would be Mujna, which wasn’t a name and meant nothing at all. To this she said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m all of them, I’m Romi and Juli, I’m Laila and Majnu. And Mujna, why not? Who says my name is Anjum? I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.” The Man Who Knew English said it was clever of her to come up with that one. He said he’d never have thought of it himself. She said, “How could you have, with your standard of Urdu? What d’you think? English makes you clever automatically?”
Ahlam Baji, the midwife who delivered her and put her in her mother’s arms wrapped in two shawls, said, “It’s a boy.” Given the circumstances, her error was understandable . .
. . . The next morning, when the sun was up and the room nice and warm, she unswaddled little Aftab. She explored his tiny body—eyes nose head neck armpits fingers toes—with sated, unhurried delight. That was when she discovered, nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part. Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? Jahanara Begum was.
. . . In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him—Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language. Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.
It is when we meet Mulaqat Ali that we get our first hint of the fraught history of language that mirrors the fraught history of the Indian subcontinent. The churning that eventually culminated in the bloodshed of Partition partitioned not just land and people, but a language, too, making one part “Muslim” and the other “Hindu.” This is a description of how Mulaqat Ali conducts himself with the shallow young journalists who from time to time arrive to interview him for various newspapers’ weekend supplements about the exotic culture and cuisine of Old Delhi:
Mulaqat Ali always welcomed visitors into his tiny rooms with the faded grace of a nobleman. He spoke of the past with dignity but never nostalgia. He described how, in the thirteenth century, his ancestors had ruled an empire that stretched from the countries that now called themselves Vietnam and Korea all the way to Hungary and the Balkans, from Northern Siberia to the Deccan plateau in India, the largest empire the world had ever known. He often ended the interview with a recitation of an Urdu couplet by one of his favourite poets, Mir Taqi Mir:
Jis sar ko ghurur aaj hai yaan taj-vari ka
Kal uss pe yahin shor hai phir nauhagari ka
Will tomorrow, right here, in lamentation drown
Most of his visitors, brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own youthful hubris, did not completely grasp the layered meaning of the couplet they had been offered, like a snack to be washed down by a thimble-sized cup of thick, sweet tea. They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realized that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Urdu, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.
The partitioning of Urdu began in earnest in the second half of the 19th century, after the 1857 Mutiny, when India ceased to be merely an asset of the East India Company. The titular Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was formally deposed, and India was brought directly under British Rule. Muslims, seen as the main instigators of the Mutiny, came in for severe punishment and were treated with great suspicion by the British administration. Power bases began to shift, hierarchies changed, releasing suppressed resentment and new energies that began to seep through the cracks like smoke. As the old ideas of governing by fiat and military might began to metamorphose into modern ideas of representative government, old feudal communities began to coalesce into modern “constituencies” in order to leverage power and job opportunities. Obviously, the bigger the constituency, the greater the leverage.
Demography became vitally important, so the first British census was a source of huge anxiety. “Hindu” leaders turned their attention to the tens of millions of people who belonged to the “untouchable” castes. In the past, in order to escape the stigma of caste, millions had converted to Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. But now their religious conversion was viewed by the privileged castes as catastrophic. Reformists rushed in to stem the haemorrhage. Hinduism became an evangelical religion. Organizations of privileged caste Hindus, who believed deeply in caste and believed themselves to be Aryans, descended from the European race, sought to keep Untouchables and indigenous tribespeople in the “Hindu fold” by performing Ghar Wapsi(Returning Home) ceremonies, a farce that was meant to symbolize “spiritual cleansing.”
In order to clearly define itself and mark itself off from other competing constituencies, the newly emerging Hindu constituency needed cultural symbols—something to fire the imagination of its evangelists and its potential recruits. The holy cow and the holy script became the chosen vehicles for mobilization. Gau Rakshak (cow protection) societies proliferated, and simultaneously the demand was raised that Devanagari (Deva as in Dio/God—the script of the Gods) be officially accepted as a second script for Urdu. Devanagari, originally known as Babhni, was the script of Brahmins and had, like Sanskrit, been jealously guarded, its purity protected from the “polluting influence” of lower castes, who had, for centuries, been denied the right to learn Sanskrit. But the changing times now required that it be promoted as the indigenous script of “the people.” In fact, the more widely used script at the time was a script called Kaithi. But Kaithi was used by non-Brahmin castes like the Kayasthas, who were seen to be partial to Muslims. Extraordinarily, in a matter of a few decades, Kaithi was not just discarded, but erased from public memory.
To turn a battle for a new script into a popular social movement wasn’t easy when the literacy rate of the population was in single digits. How is it possible to make people passionate about something that doesn’t really affect them? The solution was simple but ingenious. In his erudite tract, Hindi Nationalism, Alok Rai writes in some detail of how the mobilization for Devanagari came to be fused with the call for Hindu Unity, cow protection, and Ghar-Wapsi. The Nagari Pracharani Sabhas—Committees for the Popularization of Nagari (the God-part, “Deva,” was added later)—and the Gau-Rakshaks and the Ghar-Wapsi evangelists shared the same offices and office-bearers. (Most likely this arrangement continues today too.) The campaign for Devanagari had immediate and practical goals, too, such as eligibility for jobs in government offices, for which, at the time, reading Persian was a basic qualification. The campaign gained velocity and was buoyed by the resistance to it from the Muslim elite, including Muslim leaders with a vested interest in the status quo, such as the best-known reformist and modernizer of the time, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Here is his defense of retaining the Persian-Arabic script as the only official script: “Would our aristocracy like, that a man of low caste and insignificant origin, though he be a B.A. or M.A. and have the requisite ability, should be in a position above them and have power in making the laws that affect their lives and property? Never!”
It’s extraordinary how sworn enemies can find common ground in each other’s worst prejudices. As always, it was a battle of old and new elites lobbying for opportunity, the new ones, as always, disguising their own aspirations as the will of “the people.”
The Devanagari Movement’s first victory came in April 1900, when Sir Anthony MacDonnell, lieutenant-governor of North Western Provinces and Oudh, issued an order allowing the use of the Devanagari script in addition to the Persian script in the courts of the province. In a matter of months, Hindi and Urdu began to be referred to as separate languages. Language mandarins on both sides stepped in to partition the waters and apportion the word-fish. On the “Hindi” side, anything seen as Persian influence, as well as the influence of languages thought to be unsophisticated vernaculars, was gradually weeded out. (Somehow the words Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan escaped the dragnet.) Sanskrit began to replace Persian. But Sanskrit was the language of ritual and scripture, the language of Priests and Holy men. Its vocabulary was not exactly forged on the anvil of everyday human experience. It was not the language of mortal love, or toil, or weariness, or yearning. It was not the language of song or poetry of ordinary people. That would have been in Awadhi, Maithili, Braj Bhasha, and Bhojpuri and a myriad other dialects. Rarely if ever has there been an example in history of an effort to deplete language rather than enrich it. It was like wanting to replace an ocean with an aquarium.
As the positions on both sides hardened, even the literary canons came to be partitioned. The “Urdu” canon erased the sublime, anti-caste Bhakti poets such as Kabir, Surdas, Meera, and Raskhan, a Muslim devotee of Krishna. The “Hindi” canon erased the greatest of Urdu poets Mir and Ghalib. (Something similar is at work in the world of Hindustani classical music, although it hasn’t yet had the misfortune of being formally divided into Hindu classical music and Muslim classical music.) Fortunately, progressive writers and poets, the very best of them, resisted this pressure. They continued to produce literature and poetry that was rich and deep and fully alert to what was being done to their language. But gradually, as the older generation passes, the newer one, whose formal education comes from “new” Hindi books and textbooks that have to be approved by government committees, will find it harder and harder to reclaim an ineffably beautiful legacy that is rightfully theirs.
“It’s extraordinary how sworn enemies can find common ground in each other’s worst prejudices.”
Today, many of the younger generation of Urdu speakers in India cannot read the Persian script. They can only read Urdu in the Devanagari script. Urdu is seen not just as a Muslim language, but as a Pakistani language. Which makes it almost criminal in some peoples’ eyes. In March 2017, two Muslim members of the legislative assembly of Uttar Pradesh were prevented from taking their oath of office in Urdu. A member of the Aligarh Municipal Corporation was charged with “intent to hurt religious sentiments” for trying to do the same.
Although Hindi’s victory has been a resounding one, it does not seem to have entirely allayed its keepers’ anxieties. Perhaps that’s because their enemies are dead poets who have a habit of refusing to really die. One of the sub-themes of the 2002 Gujarat massacre was poetry. As Anjum discovers to her cost when she travels to Gujarat with Zakir Mian, who was a friend of her father Mulaqat Ali.
He suggested that while they were in Ahmedabad they could visit the shrine of Wali Dakhani, the 17th-century Urdu poet, known as the Poet of Love, whom Mulaqat Ali had been immensely fond of, and seek his blessings too. They sealed their travel plans by laughingly reciting a couplet by him——one of Mulaqat Ali’s favourites:
Jisey ishq ka tiir kaari lage
Usey zindagi kyuun na bhari lage
For one struck down by Cupid’s bow
Life becomes burdensome, isn’t that so?
Nobody disagreed when Saeeda (who loved Anjum and was entirely unaware of Anjum’s suspicions about her) suggested that the soap operas on TV be switched off and the news be switched on and left on in case, by some small chance, they could pick up a clue about what might have happened to Anjum and Zakir Mian. When flushed, animated TV news reporters shouted out their Pieces‑to‑Camera from the refugee camps where tens of thousands of Gujarat’s Muslims now lived, in the Khwabgah they switched off the sound and scanned the background hoping to catch a glimpse of Anjum and Zakir Mian lining up for food or blankets, or huddled in a tent. They learned in passing that Wali Dakhani’s shrine had been razed to the ground and a tarred road built over it, erasing every sign that it had ever existed. (Neither the police nor the mobs nor the Chief Minister could do anything about the people who continued to leave flowers in the middle of the new tarred road where the shrine used to be. When the flowers were crushed to paste under the wheels of fast cars, new flowers would appear. And what can anybody do about the connection between flower-paste and poetry?)
The modern-day mob that destroyed his shrine, so high on nativism, could have just as easily valorized Wali Dakhani for being the man who influenced poets who wrote in Persian to write in Urdu, who turned the writing of Urdu into high literature. Because Urdu is nothing if not a language born on the streets of Hindustan. But, sadly, that’s not how the story goes.
The destruction of Wali Dakhani’s grave during the 2002 Gujarat massacre was not the only incident of its kind. During those same weeks, in the city of Baroda, a mob attacked and damaged the grave of Ustad Fayyaz Khan, one of the most accomplished singers in the Hindustani classical tradition. Many years earlier, in a riot that took place during the 1970s, a mob burned down the house of Rasoolan Bai (Garson Hobart’s favorite singer). The only good thing to be said of this contemporary mob tradition is that it understands the dangers posed by art. And it has impeccable taste.
I will end this very long lecture with a short note about slogans and mantras in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Anjum survives the Gujarat massacre because the mob that finds her lying over the corpse of Zakir Mian, feigning death, believes that killing Hijras brings bad luck. So instead of killing her, they stand over her and make her chant their slogans:
Bharat Mata Ki Jai! Vande Mataram!
She did. Weeping, shaking, humiliated beyond her worst nightmare.
Victory to Mother India! Salute the Mother!
They left her alive. Un-killed. Un-hurt. Neither folded nor unfolded. She alone. So that they might be blessed with good fortune.
Bharat, Hindustan and India are names that are used interchangeably for the country we live in. “Akhand Bharat”—undivided India, which contains the territories of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, is the ideal of Hindu Nationalists. Chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai! (Victory to Mother India) is seen by many as being patriotic and not necessarily Hindu Nationalist. In less extenuating circumstances, Anjum would surely have shouted down, perhaps even beaten up those controversialists and unimaginative literalists who ask how King Bharata, whose Kingdom was called Bharat came to be a Mata (mother), and why India is a motherland and not a fatherland.
The second slogan she was forced to chant, Vande Mataram, usually translated as “Praise Be to Thee, Mother,” is from a poem written by the popular Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay that appears in Anandamath, his novel about the Sanyasi rebellion, first published in the 1880s. It is a novel that is, and always has been, greatly favored by Hindu nationalists because it created a template for the ideal Hindu warrior, the fantasy Hindu warrior, who rises in rebellion against his degenerate Muslim oppressors. Anandamath is a wonderful example of how, in the process of its telling of the past, literature can also mould the future. In the poem, the motherland is conflated with the Hindu Goddess Durga.
However, the first two stanzas came to be the unofficial anthem of the National Movement because they only mention “the mother,” which lent itself to being interpreted by both the Hindus and Muslims as a reference to Mother India. Although it was a much-loved song during the struggle against British colonialism, in today’s atmosphere of a very different kind of nationalism, a bullying, coercive nationalism, people, Muslims in particular, many of who are not unaware of the provenance of the poem, are often forced to chant “Vande Mataram” as a form of ritual humiliation. Ironically, the modern version of the song was hugely popularized in the 1990s by the Sufi singer A. R. Rahman. Sadly, a once loved slogan has become controversial.
It is not unusual to have a Bengali slogan being chanted in non-Bengalis speaking states. Slogans in India—whether they are being chanted by lynch mobs or protestors, by the right-wing or the left, by people in territories under military occupation, or protestors against big dams—are a performance directed outward, for the rest of the country and the rest of the world to hear, and therefore, quite often, are not in the local people’s mother tongues. In Kashmir’s massive protests, you will hear chanting in Urdu and in English, rarely in Kashmiri. The chant of Azadi! Azadi!(“Freedom! Freedom!”) is Urdu—originally, Persian—and has probably traveled east from the Iranian Revolution to become the signature slogan of the Kashmiri freedom struggle, as well as, irony of ironies, the women’s movement in India. At the opposite end of the country, down south in Kerala, I grew up to the resounding roar of Inquilab Zindabad! (“Long Live the Revolution!”) in Urdu, a language that local people neither speak not understand. The other Communist Party slogan was Swadandriyam, Janadhipathyam, Socialism, Zindabad! (“Freedom, Democracy, Socialism, Long Live!”) That’s Sanskrit, Malayalam, English, and Urdu in a single slogan.
I’ll end with the journey of a mantra through The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Two months after Anjum and Zakir Mian go missing, and the murdering in Gujarat has begun to tail off, Zakir Mian’s son, Mansoor, goes to Ahmedabad to look for his father. As a precaution, he shaves off his beard, hoping to pass as Hindu. He does not find his father, but finds a terrified Anjum, who has been enrolled in the men’s section of a refugee camp, dressed in men’s clothes, her hair cut short, and brings her back to the Khwabgah. She refuses to tell anybody what happened to her, but—haunted by memories of “how the men were folded and the women unfolded”—she takes a wailing young Zainab, her adopted daughter, to a barber, has her hair cut off, and dresses her in boy’s clothes. “In case Gujarat comes to Delhi.” The other precaution she takes is to teach Zainab to chant the Sanskrit Gayatri Mantra that she says she learned while she was in the camp in Gujarat. She says that many of the other refugees had learned it because they believed that, in mob situations, they could recite it to try to pass as Hindu. Neither Anjum nor Zainab has any idea what it means, but Zainab takes to it happily, chanting as she dresses for school and feeds her pet goat
Om bhur bhuvah svaha
Tat savitur varenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
Remover of pain and sorrow,
Bestower of happiness,
O Creator of the Universe,
May we receive thy supreme sin-destroying light,
May thou guide our intellect in the right direction.
The Gayatri Mantra appears three times in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The first time, as a talisman against mob violence. The second time as promotional material in a British Airways commercial to attract customers from India’s new and exponentially expanding middle class. And the third time in a fast food restaurant in a shopping mall. Zainab has grown up now, and is betrothed to Saddam Hussain. Saddam tells them the story of how years ago, his father was beaten to death by a mob outside a police station. The mall they were in, Saddam says, was exactly where that police station used to be. Zainab says she knows a Hindu prayer, and recites the Gayatri Mantra as a gesture of love for her future (as well as late) father-in-law.
Such are the ways in which Sanskrit has been finally been indigenized.
A few months after Anjum returns from Gujarat, ravaged and broken, unable to continue living her old life, she moves in to the old graveyard, where she sets up home. Over the years, as she gradually recovers, she builds the Jannat (Paradise) Guest House. When Saddam Hussain joins her, they expand their business to include funeral services. The graveyard becomes a place where anybody—any body— that has been denied the grace of a funeral by the Duniya (the outside world) is given a dignified burial. Under the auspices of the Jannat Guest House and Funeral Services, depending on what the occasion calls for, prayers for the dead include the Fateha, singing the Internationale in Hindi, and reciting from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. In English.
So, how shall we answer Pablo Neruda’s question that is the title of this lecture?
In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?
I’d say, without hesitation, in the Language of Translation.
 Rai, Hindi Nationalism, p. 57.
 Atul Chandra, “Language Row in UP Assembly: Sanskrit Allowed, Urdu Not,” Catch News, 30 March 2017 (available online at: http://www.catchnews.com/politics-news/language-row-in-up-assembly-sanskrit-allowed-urdu-not-56230.html).
 “BSP Corporator Takes Oath in Urdu, Is Charged with ‘Intent to Hurt Religious Sentiments,’” The Hindu, 14 December 2017, updated 15 December 2017 (available online at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/bsp-corporator-takes-oath-in-urdu-is-charged-with-intent-to-hurt-religious-sentiments/article21665609.ece).
 See Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Delhi: Penguin India, 2017), p. 171.
Arundhati Roy is the author of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and has been translated into more than 40 languages. She also has published several books of nonfiction including The End of Imagination, Capitalism: A Ghost Story and The Doctor and the Saint. She lives in New Delhi.