Tag: Language

June 28, 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.

April 20, 2018 /

I first heard of the “Gaidinliu notebooks” when I was doing research in North Cachar Hills of Assam, India, in 2005. These “notebooks” are associated with the prophetess, Gaidinliu (1915–1993), affectionately also known as Rani (Queen), who was the leader of an indigenous religious movement known as the Heraka. No one possessed the notebooks in their entirety. Therefore descriptions were elusive and mysterious—some people talked about them as “god given,” and others as a “script” that contained in it many “signs” about future events. There was speculation that once the notebooks were made available, translated, and understood, it would usher in the heguangram, generally translated as “kingdom.” What is this kingdom? And how is one to recognize it? Then, other requests came in: people wanted to know of these “notebooks” and whether I had seen them. I assuaged their curiosity by informing them that I had seen a copy of the “script” in the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. I assured them that I would request a copy from the curator. Upon returning to Britain, I contacted PRM regarding the Gaidinliu notebooks and about taking a copy to the Zeme people of North Cachar Hills.They scanned the notebooks and provided copies to take back to the community.

February 18, 2018 /

We speak Mnar in Jirang, a language so different, mutually unintelligible from Khasi. My training in linguistics tells me this is a different variety of the Khasian languages. There are several of them. While we share so many of the ways in which we talk about the world, about our experiences of it, languages are also different. To call a language a language and to mark variances as dialects, is a political process and very often do not do justice to the variants. If we look at Norwegian and Swedish, they share many more similarities than Standard Khasi and Mnar, and yet they are languages, because they are spoken in different countries. So for historical reasons and political reasons, Standard Khasi has become “the Language”, and all the others, dialects.

May 12, 2017 /

What do you do when you hear a hear a voice from 1928 rushing to tell you the Parable of the prodigal son? Did our language sound like that? Why did he stumble? Who was he? Where did he record it? How was the narrator chosen? Did he get paid for it or was he forced to do begaar? When we discovered these scratchy gramophone recordings done for The Linguistic Survey of India in 1928-29 we had to share it. For us reasons are not merely historical or linguistic but emotional like divining the dead. So go ahead and listen to our ancestors speaking Khasi, Pnar and War.

January 23, 2017 /

Paradoxically, all traditions are invented (and re-invented) at some point of time. If the Wancho script beats the odds and survives, it will become a tradition in twenty years. No other script seems to have managed the feat in this century. Well, not quite: Klingon, the fictional language of the Klingon people in the Star Trek movies of the 1970s and 80s was invented with a vocabulary and a grammar to give realism to the dialogue. Fans have extended it become a spoken language, complete with songs, poetry, and a script, even a language institute.

June 28, 2016 /

I am in Calcutta. At least I think this is Calcutta. I was told that I would be journeying into the heartland of the bhodrolok and the East Bengalis of Shillong coloured my expectations and bias. Upon arrival though I feel as though somethings have been missed. Like the city, the information hardly seems fresh. It is not current.