In Hieronymus Bosch’s The Infernal Landscape, drawn in pen and brown ink on paper and previously thought to have been created by the Early Netherlandish master’s assistant but recently attributed to Bosch himself, a scene from hell is conjured up in a grim, terrifying manner. There is a tower, where a net catches bodies and hangs them on the sides of a water wheel, which operates inside a monstrous creature’s gaping mouth. People also hang inside a giant bell resting on the creature’s back, while others ring the bell with human clappers. Beyond the tower, there is a dragon that spews people instead of fire into a cauldron. In the foreground, there is a quadruped barrel with a human face, two human legs, and two bestial legs. On top of it sits another unrecognizable creature with a long beak, reminiscent of plague doctor masks, wearing a helmet. As far as the eyes can see there are people, innumerable, anonymous. It has always fascinated me how similar The Infernal Landscape is to the earthly landscape, but last year it felt like I had been inserted, unwillingly, into the perilous sphere. Not knowing how to move in this unknown space, I sought shelter in another language.
Last year, as the second wave of COVID-19 hit India, what we knew as reality quite quickly spiraled into something frighteningly unrecognizable. The country was already reeling under the unprecedented authoritarianism of the Modi government, a teetering economy, extreme religious polarization, and attacks on civil rights, but the pandemic made its transformation into a nightmare well and truly complete. It was like having bumped into Nosferatu in the dark. At first, there were whispers, then tweets, then images—dead bodies being burnt on the pavements, dead bodies being lit en masse, dead bodies being buried on the banks of the Ganges, ashes from burning dead bodies landing on people’s balconies, phone calls announcing more dead bodies, people dropping dead in front of hospitals. There was an acute shortage of oxygen, so one did not even know if those who died were victims of the virus or of administrative indifference. My Twitter feed, in April and May 2021, was almost solely comprised of Indian people desperately looking for oxygen. The entire country gripped by a collective apnea. Worse than this, if anything could be worse, was the blatantly false narrative that the government had done stellar work providing excellent health care to its citizens. As bodies fell like dominoes, people, as if in a hallucinatory state, talked about the great work being done by the government. Photographers and journalists documenting, at the risk of their own lives, the unfolding tragedy were labeled “anti-national.” What can be done with a person who is looking into the mirror and refuses to recognize the person they are seeing? It felt like I was losing touch with reality. I longed for something foreign. Something not of here. Even if one could breathe, one couldn’t breathe. Every morning, I woke up to another death. I cannot—I do not even want to—remember how many I knew who died, entire families, friends, histories, everything vanishing in real time. And so, every morning, often after hearing of yet another death, I turned my attention to two hours of French lessons online.
I first enrolled myself in French language classes in August 2020, already well into the pandemic, as a way to do something. The first few classes were spent learning how to say “my name is . . .”, followed by a teacher pointing at objects or images of objects and we, the students, associating words with the pictures.
In many ways, it felt like a return to childhood when we learned about new things, words, and concepts almost every day, at home, at school, or somewhere outside playing with friends. It was perhaps apt as I was forced to look at the world anew, my earlier impressions squashed. It was an unexpected relief to pronounce foreign words from my mouth, to be able to contour my tongue into new shapes. Sometimes my tongue ached a little after having spent two hours twisting it in unusual forms. I liked it. It was also a way to escape isolation imposed on us by the virus, not only because I was studying online with other students but also because I was beginning to access something previously inaccessible to me.
In English, Hindi, and Bangla—the languages I use daily—we spoke only of death and distress. At a time when everything was bad news, it was only in French that I could talk about something simple, like a cat or a game of Ludo. The morning we logged a record number of deaths for that year, our class learned the alphabet. In French, the letter H has an eerie resemblance to “ash.”
There are lines in Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” that go like this: “Black milk of morning we drink you evenings / we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night / we drink and we drink.” Celan wrote the poem in his mother tongue, German, also the language of the Third Reich, which murdered both his parents. His relationship with the German language remained ambivalent throughout his life, and despite being a German-language poet, he did not wish to return to Germany. In one of his letters to Ilana Shmueli, he wrote about his trip to Israel and his fascination with being able to hear Hebrew words on the streets. The idea of a free nation enthralled him. In a letter to the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, he wrote that he could not imagine the world without Israel and would not imagine the world without it. He thought about resettling in Israel but didn’t. He continued living in exile in Paris, living his destiny in Europe. He didn’t feel confident with his Hebrew and didn’t want to stop writing in German. Celan wrote in another poem, “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language.” Language also exists outside its territories, nations, and demarcated regions—at times even histories. If nothing else, it is possible to remake its structure, its cadence, as Celan did with his poetry in the German language. I wonder if Hindi might be reinvented by a poet in the future.
By the time the second wave truly engulfed India, the French language was no longer just something; it was my railing in the blackout. I realized that it is possible to inhabit a language the way one inhabits a city. It is also possible to take refuge in a language. Language constitutes a physical space in itself. Every day, those two hours of French classes were the only time when I didn’t think or speak of something horrific. When I could no longer envision a future for myself, I reinvented it in terms of language and its levels. It seemed almost certain that, in the near future, my life would still be in a state of flux and the world would still be facing unrelenting crises but, if I remained alive, I would at least know more French. It may seem like escapism, but to escape horror is survival. Oftentimes survival is resistance.
A few weeks ago, as I was discussing Indian politics with a French artist, it occurred to me that I no longer speak only of cats and games of Ludo in French. I am still not quite fluent, and I demur, I speak French in a lower voice and I hesitate. I know now that relationships with languages change, and as with spaces, sometimes they become complicated.
I have felt this with my other languages, especially during the pandemic and the period of rising majoritarianism, when the weight of a language becomes a little too heavy, too laden with context. Sometimes, overnight, it can become the language of an unrecognizable present. And yet, as Celan reminds us, it is the only thing that remains. It happens gradually, but you can grow up in a language, just as you grow up in a locality. You understand its map better, its limitations, its possibilities, its horrors. You are a part of a group of people who share—not exact but similar—coordinates. You may be alone in a house but you are never alone in a language.
In periods of isolation, language can be a way to be with others. It’s not always that the presence of others bring us comfort and hope, sometimes it brings us strife, conflict, and tragedy. Even so, this contact with others, irrespective of what it brings us, is our contact with life itself.
© 2022 by Saudamini Deo. All rights reserved.