“Between Homes, Between Languages”
It is only appropriate that a book about passions of the tongue ought to have a confession about my own passion for languages, or, more truthfully, a confession about an embarrassing lack of attachment to any particular one. I grew up in a home in New Delhi surrounded by numerous languages and multiple cadences. It was, linguistically at least, a mongrel household—a hybrid formation, in today’s fashionable parlance. I heard Tamil spoken by my mother and, after a fashion, by my father as well, although he appeared to be more comfortable in Kannada, which I heard him use in conversations with his siblings, and for formal transactions with many colleagues of his Bangalore-based firm. To this day, my father, a child of Tamil-speaking parents who grew up in Bangalore, counts in Kannada and insists he even dreams in it. As happens in many a Brahman household, I also heard a lot of Sanskrit in the context of prayers I was made to learn from the time I was six. And as is true of the life trajectory of so many young girls who grow up in post-independence India in bourgeois families burdened with the task of preserving “Indian tradition” even while aspiring to be “modern” and “Westernized,” I was started on classical Indian music lessons—in my case, Carnatic music—when I was seven. This exposed me to the sounds of Telugu which I learned without comprehending, and it is even today a language I continue to passively hear when I listen to my tapes. There were two other languages which found a prominent place in my life-world: (Indian) English, the principal language of all my formal schooling, of my private pleasures of reading, and of public discourses with family and friends alike; and Hindi, a language I used in the marketplace, and for the consumption of movies and songs, a passion I hold on to, albeit in a truncated fashion, to this day. Unbeknownst to me then, but something I recognize now, these very “Hindi” movies, as well as everyday life in Delhi, familiarized me with the sounds of Urdu, a language with which Hindi speakers of today share an intimate and recent past. So, what was the place of Tamil, this putative “mother tongue” of mine, in this constellation of languages in which I moved? I had no formal schooling in it, nor could I read it. I did not speak it, or hear it spoken, in public. We used it liberally at home, but freely interrupted by English and Hindi; and I can tell from having a specialist’s knowledge of it today that it was heavily Sanskritized.
While I may appear as some kind of exotic polyglot creature to those who have grown up in environments that are predominantly monolingual, my (multi) linguistic experience, I would insist, is something that many who live in the subcontinent, especially in urban bourgeois India, would readily recognize as their own, even if the specifics may vary with each personal story. In turn, my polyglot habits echo a deeper history of multilingualism on the subcontinent produced by the displacement and resettlement of populations in areas where their languages were confined to the home and the family; and they are a consequence of a national education policy which, however haphazardly implemented, ideally expects every Indian citizen to formally study at least three languages: her “mother tongue” (or “regional language”), Hindi, and English. Yet, as my example illustrates expediently, this official linguistic hope has more often than not foundered on issues of how to define the “mother tongue” and encourage its active use in an environment where English and Hindi rule as languages of prestige, profit, and power; of how to promote the study of English against the forces of nationalism that identify it as the language of the (colonial) West; and of how to ward off protests that Hindi, the putative “official” language of India, is but the tongue of one region masquerading as the language of the nation. These linguistic battles are very much part of my personal history that have fostered my interest in the cultural politics of languages in modern India.
While my multilinguality is quite the norm for a person of my class, caste, and educational background in India, what is perhaps less usual is the intellectual turn I made towards studying Tamil, a language which, its official status as my “mother tongue” notwithstanding, was after all on the margins of the linguistic economy in which I functioned. Today, my mother proudly insists that the seeds of my future intellectual interest were sown in my fifth grade when I came home one day, from my Hindi- and Punjabi-speaking school environment, and apparently demanded in my childish Tamil, “nampellām tamiḻā?” (Are we Tamilians?). My own memory of my curiosity about Tamil, however, is tied in with a fairly subversive desire, in my teens, to figure out the contents of the frequent letters addressed jointly to my entire family from my grandmother in Madras. These letters, which were bilingual, were, it seemed to me, curiously coded. Their opening lines in English were usually formulaic inquiries about our health and welfare. The really juicy news that make up the everyday texture and pleasures of family life in India were always, however, in Tamil, and therefore beyond my illiterate reach. Determined to have access to this tantalizing knowledge of family politics that made strategic use of linguistic politics, I learned the Tamil script when I was fifteen and, slowly but surely, was able to read those wonderful letters to my curious siblings who remain, to this day, illiterate in Tamil. I also learned something then that I am able to theorize about today: the proliferation of multiple languages, whether in the family or in the nation, allows for the strategic deployment of linguistic resources to practice “intimate” politics in one’s “own” tongue that shuts out the unfamiliar, the foreigner.
My intellectual interest in the histories and cultures of Tamil-speaking India were piqued for the first time when I went to college, first for my bachelor’s degree at Delhi University, and then for my master’s and master of philosophy degrees at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Although I studied Indian history at two of India’s finest institutions and with some of its best historians, whose teaching continues to stand me in good stead today, I was soon troubled by the remarkable lack of disciplinary interest in southern India in the nation’s capital, itself only an echo of geopolitical realities. At the same time, as a Brahman wanting to learn Tamil in the aftermath of a powerful anti-Brahman movement in the state, I did not expect my interest in the language or its history would be welcomed in its putative home, Tamilnadu. These factors among others brought me to the United States, first to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and then later to the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley. And it is perhaps a fitting end to this quixotic history of my relationship to Tamil that I finally formally learned the language, this troubled “mother tongue” of mine, in a land far away from both my home and my mother.
I grew up then with not just a singular identity that defined itself around the speaking of one language, but used to the luxury—or is it a burden?—of having multiple, albeit partial, identities that I could deploy in various ways in different contexts. At its worst, this has meant that I have frequently felt between languages, between homes; at its best, I have also experienced the pleasures and possibilities as well as the contradictions of being at home in many languages and many places and among many peoples. It is this kind of life which has cultivated in me attitudes which resonate with what the Italian born, Australia raised, French educated feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti has characterized as “nomadic consciousness.” In her 1994 monograph Nomadic Subjects, she proposes that such a consciousness “entails a total dissolution of the notion of a center and consequently of originary sites or authentic identities of any kind,” even as it resists “settling into socially coded modes of thought and behavior” and thwarts “assimilation into dominant ways of representing the self” (Braidotti 1994: 5). In contrast to the exile or the migrant whose thoughts are fissured by loss, separation, and longing for homes left behind, a nomad’s relationship to the world around her, she suggests, is one of “transitory attachment” and “cyclical frequentation.” The nomadic style, then, is without a nostalgia for fixity, authenticity, or singularity. Linguistically, the condition of nomadism goes hand in hand with polyglottism: just as a nomad is always in transit between places, a polyglot is “in transit between languages.” As such, the nomad-as-polyglot “has some healthy skepticism about steady identities and mother tongues.” “Is it because the polyglot practices a sort of gentle promiscuity with different linguistic bedrocks, that s/he has long since relinquished any notion of linguistic or ethnic purity?” she asks (Braidotti 1994: 8, 28).
I may not agree with everything Braidotti has to say about nomadism as the paradigmatic form of consciousness for the end-of-this-millennium critical thinking, nor do I explore here the full theoretical implications of her provocative suggestions. But her work has re-alerted me to the critical possibilities—rather than to the paralyzing ineffectualities—of being between languages and between homes, a condition that increasingly characterizes so many transnational subjects in a post-colonial era. Nomadic consciousness has made me wary of the “renewed and exacerbated sense of nationalism, regionalism, localism that marks this particular moment of our history,” even as it has enabled me to “think through and move across established categories and levels of experience: blurring boundaries without burning bridges,” as Braidotti puts it aptly (1994: 4, 12). Certainly, constructions of cultural essences and authenticities have been important strategies for the reempowerment of the disenfranchised in many parts of the world, especially under colonial regimes. But my nomadic consciousness also urges me to ask who determines which authenticities are legitimate, which essences retrograde. Under what circumstances? Most important, why and how is it that cultural possessions, be they language or religion or that most sacred entity of all, the nation, assume an enormous materiality and fixity, and ultimately end up by possessing the possessor(s)?
Like my life, this book, too, has had its share of nomadism. The research that has gone into it, and into the doctoral dissertation on which it is partly based, was done across cultures and continents (as all nomadic projects are) in India, England, and the United States. Parts of the book came into being in Madras; others in Berkeley, Chicago, and Philadelphia, very different intellectual and cultural sites, “American” though they may all be. Today, I have come to believe that my “India pages,” as I refer to them privately, inject the passion and sense of urgency that I have felt to be necessary counters to the rarefied existence I lead in the U.S. academy. At the same time, I am all too aware that my position in that academy has allowed me the luxury of continuing my nomadic lifestyle, with all the critical de-centering possibilities that entails. The writing of history, we have been told many times, especially in recent years, is an act that is complexly entangled with writing the nation; the most authentic histories, it follows, are those written from within the space of the nation. Yet this history that I write straddles nations, just as it is between languages and between homes. Ultimately, though, its actual production site is far away from the people and the nation(s) which are its subjects. Even while I am aware of the complex consequences of this for the contents of this work, as well as for its reception and reading, I prefer to think, with Salman Rushdie, that if the purpose of critical thought is to find new angles with which to enter our historical realities and to unsettle established certitudes, then my geographical displacement and my critical nomadism offer me a certain purchase. Or perhaps, as he wryly notes, this is simply what I must think in order to go on with my work.