It is not so much like a dance with smooth, elegant gestures, bodies gliding across mediums to weave a pleasing, premeditated pattern. No. It has been more like a game of hopscotch—tossing a half-formed thought in the air, and aiming for the desired spot, maneuvering the easily erasable chalk lines across a sandy playground, or in the center of a rough asphalt road, or on a deserted footpath, struggling with the footwork, alternating between discombobulated hops and insecure landings on one foot and then two feet in the right places, tracing and retracing the journey until one reaches the square with the stone and retrieves the meanings of a win! Why even play hopscotch when one might dance is the question. What creative and artistic elements does a game of hopscotch allow that a dance form does not? Why do I need to write in two languages to begin with? Is it a matter of random choice or is there a politics to it? Is it sheer madness or is there a method to it?
Before now, I haven’t ever truly considered why I write as I do. Yet, subliminally, I was aware that poetry does not just get written, not even when it appears so. Whatever deeply embedded structures that my unconscious creative spirit was digging into every time I tried to pen something down had come from the singular linguistic universe of my mother tongue: Gujarati.
Even when other languages were present, they never came to dominate or offer an alternative cultural identity. Still, my earliest encounters with anything that resembled a poem occurred in my childhood through another language: Sanskrit. It was quite normal to wake up to my grandmother chanting shlokas during her early morning puja, just as it was to fall asleep listening to my mother sing some of the same shlokas at night. Sometimes, my father would play Gujarati bhajans or even Hindi ones. From an early age, I grew up with devotional poet-singers such as Narsinh Mehta, Meera, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Kabir. Languages, or poems in languages other than Gujarati, came to inhabit my aural universe from a time when I could barely understand the meanings of their words.
But English was still far away on the horizon. My father had an intimidating office library full of English law books. The compilations of anecdotes, the occasional work of fiction, dictionaries of quotations, inspirational stories, and self-help books that took up a shelf or two in the old teak bookcases at home were all in English. He even subscribed to the Times of India and two or three other English periodicals. Misha, a Russian children’s magazine, was especially for us children. The thing of interest for me there was a comic illustration of Mulla Nasrudin’s story on the second page. Many works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in those bookcases, which we sometimes ventured to glance through and sometimes forced ourselves to read, were in Gujarati and by some of the most hallowed writers.
The lessons I learned from school textbooks, the children’s songs that I sang as my father drummed on the table, the stories that my mother told me in the afternoons lying on the cold mosaic floor of the old city house, the fights over water in the pol that drew me curiously to the balcony, the garbas that I danced joyously for nine nights in a row every year, the poems that my sister had learned by heart, the recipes that neighborhood aunties exchanged in the afternoons, the patterns of memories that my grandmother would weave while crocheting—all, all of these were never in any other language but Gujarati.
A more serious engagement with English started only in middle school, where it was a second language; it was a slow process to begin with. It intimidated me. Until the last years of college, it even remained confined within the walls of the classroom. It was obvious, therefore, that the earliest poems I wrote, the weak ghazals that I would be quick to disown today, were in Gujarati. Much of what I wrote in those early years was an attempt at fitting into rather rigid, existing traditions and received frameworks. My writing remained contrived and stagey.
But that changed with an intensive study of English literature and critical theories in the third year of my BA at St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad. By then, I had begun to live in two parallel universes—one in college classrooms and the other within our home. Each had its own traditions, values, politics, and vocabulary. In one, I was to question the text, argue with my fellow students and teachers over the multiple meanings of words, and express independent opinions. The environment offered romance, freedom, and even irreverence. Nothing in this was as obvious as it seemed at first. In another, my familiar universe, everything was self-evident, even when unsaid and unwritten. Authority, age, and antiquity commanded respect, and disagreement and questioning were considered impertinent. Duty, deference, and devotion were virtues of a higher order. Even though I had learned to straddle with one foot in each world, the two did not remain so separate for long. One of the places where these two worlds merged and influenced each other was in my poetry.
I continued writing poems in Gujarati. Free verse took the place of more structured forms and the questioning or critiquing mode began making appearances. A poem on Eklavya, which Jayanta Mahapatra pushed me to translate into English for Lipi a couple of years later, was one of the earliest to mark this confluence. With this, I came to realize that sensibility that I—a woman of privilege born and raised in a upper-caste, upper-class Hindu family—had begun to acquire through my engagement with Dalit literature in English translations. This was also a very emotional, humane, and poetic response.
Girish Karnad’s twist on stories—historical, mythological, or folk tales—in his plays rekindled my interest in the stories I was familiar with. The religious and mythological stories that I had once read in Amar Chitra Katha as a child were now visiting me again. I was seeing each one of them in a new light, reading them in greater detail, and writing about them in poems with a changed context. Eklavya was followed by a cluster of five poems on Gautam Buddha, one on Jarasandh, Prahalad, Trishanku each, and later, another cluster on the Dasha Avatars and women figures from the mythologies. It was liberating to be able to go back to something so familiar and find it so strange, distant, and new at the same time, to inhabit the mythological stories as a woman and to bring them to bear on the contemporary contexts of women’s lives.
Over the next couple of years, I began translating many of the poems from this cluster into English, often only to share with non-Gujarati friends. It was also a time when I began reading more poems in English and translating them into Gujarati, often to absorb the experience of them in my first language. Translation made me more attuned to the sounds, nuances, and even limitations of the languages I was working with. But once I started, I began translating every other poem I wrote. I wrote the same poem in Gujarati and later in English. It was not always a faithful translation—it did not work.
That a cultural framework provides space for feelings to be expressed in a certain way, that responses are generated by that culture only in the language of that culture—all this can be problematic for those who translate from one language to another. But I had also started facing other issues. I do not know exactly when this started, but I did find it easier to write some poems in English first. If I looked closely, perhaps there was a pattern to it. There were certain subjects that gave themselves more easily to English. Or I can say that, sometimes, I more easily found the desired elasticity, openness, and a certain freshness of breath in English. This is not at all to say that there was a clear compartmentalization of subject matters and language.
But I understood that, as one who writes in a certain language about certain things and in another about certain other things, I was facing a different issue than that of a translator. And this had to do with some different kind of prompting that can’t be altogether explained. Is it in the end a boldness that comes with a language embedded in Western culture where these things can be said and have been said? Or is it something that comes automatically because, at the deepest levels, language is inextricably woven into thought or feeling? When you translate from one to the other, you do what translation usually does. But bilingual writing is governed by a different, mostly unknown set of imperatives.
It was difficult, I thought initially, to write about the materiality of a woman’s body in my mother tongue. The gendered roles that she played in the culture were rarely examined in poetry. The physical body of a woman was not looked at from a woman’s perspective in mainstream Gujarati literature. On the other hand, women, their identities and the loss of those identities, their desires and the silences around them, their exploitation and the masking of it in the name of culture were becoming central preoccupations with me. It is then that I began writing in English. “Body Painting” was one such poem. I have still not managed to rework it in Gujarati. But the more I began to translate my own English poems into Gujarati, the more I began to reclaim a space that was mine in my own language.
The body of poems written in English was also scarred by recent political events: the Ayodhya temple, teachers’ deaths during the Uttar Pradesh elections, the Shaheen Bagh protests, the migrant crisis during COVID-19, deaths due to oxygen shortages during the pandemic, the rape of Dalit girls in Uttar Pradesh. Why did they appear in English? Was it also because there was no thriving tradition of political or protest poems in Gujarati, or was it because I was aiming for a wider readership? Was it that English gave me the desired idioms I needed to write about contemporary issues as well? Maybe all of these.
Every time I write something in English, I’ve been left feeling guilty, as if I had betrayed someone. The Gujarati translations were more of a way to absolve myself of that guilt, but they also helped with my Gujarati writing: the context of the original often required me to stretch the language and look for new ways of saying things, new plays on words, new ways to adapt the original powerful images into my language. In the process of writing, there have been times when I have gone back and forth between the two language versions, tweaking a line in Gujarati, editing a word in English. I have often been asked by close friends why I need to write in English. I have been advised by well-meaning relatives that I should write strictly in my mother tongue. I am not sure if I have a categorical answer to why I write what I write in a certain language. In fact, there is no clear compartmentalization for or connections between subjects and language. A lot of it still seems like spontaneous expressions, an intuitive feeling about which language can carry the weight of my emotions with ease and effect. That said, I would never want to choose any one of the two as the only or primary language of creative practice. I have come to appreciate this duality, living in the in-between zone, this game of hopscotch, this different kind of dance, where sometimes I stand secure on both my feet, and sometimes wobble across the lines.
Copyright © 2022 by Pratishtha Pandya. All rights reserved.