14 May 2006

Language and otherness

In Arjun Dangle’s 1992 edition of Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature (Orient Longman), we find Kumud Pawde’s moving autobiographical extract. In “The story of my Sanskrit,” she notes “that a woman from a caste that is the lowest of the low should learn Sanskrit, and not only that, teach it — is a dreadful anomaly to a traditional mind.” And there isn’t any shortage of traditional minds in colleges and universities.

Sanskrit is the language of scriptures, whose knowledge is vouchsafed to Brahmins, Hinduism’s highest caste, and this encroachment from a Mahar is seen as pollution. There is opposition — rejections, of course — and even words of praise come out with poisoned barbs. “Well, isn’t that amazing? So you’re teaching Sanskrit at the Government College, are you?” She is only redeemed and recognized when she marries into a higher caste, when she ceases to use her “Somkumar” surname and adopts “Pawde,” instead. Assimilation was her saviour.

The professor-friend, a teacher of postcolonial literatures, who lent us Dangle's book told us about a recent incident at a South Asian writer-friend’s book launch in Toronto. The writer’s literary agent remarked to the professor who is also South Asian: “But you speak such good English. You must have learned it here. Did you grow up in Canada?” One can spend a lifetime unpacking the contradictions that prevent integration, let alone assimilation.

Talk of the revenge of the spoken word over the written. Our story was on national radio but hot with shame and anger we switched off the set five minutes after the start. We thought that, in this day and age, national radio would have been able to transcend lumpen stereotypes since the "voice" which the jurors called "lively," "idiosyncratic," and full of "empathetic breadth' was certainly not typical. We had had a chat with the producers a few weeks ago. They had agreed that, given his age, milieu and background, the narrator's voice would be rendered by an actor speaking in an upper-crust English accent. What came out of the radio was a travesty of an "Indian" voice (think Peter Sellers at his worst) who could barely pronounce the hard words that the character loved using & c. We got six or seven emails of outrage from friends who listened. One called it a "mauling" in the name of authenticity and another wondered whether he should escalate it politically. It was so bad that our first thought was to return the prize in protest, then of sending in a letter but now we think we'll settle for a chat with the producers, that is, if they ever call us back which we doubt.

Apparently they gave another south Asian Canadian writer the same treatment: great story, ludicrously "accented" caricature of a reading. Since we can't ever be Canadian enough it seems for the literati, for one to be a south Asian writer, one has to speak like Peter Sellers. What a seal of authenticity. We are reluctant to blame the actor although he bungled a few words. We understand that he has a large repertoire but rather doubt if he or anyone of his ilk can find an assignment there that would allow him to speak in his own voice. Ironically, our reading followed an interview with a Japanese-Canadian artist who had been put in a camp after Pearl Harbour. He spoke about racism in his own voice. A tidy lesson for our radioheads, whatever their capacity for learning. Nothing can remind us more of the tunelessness of our media than its marching out of step with the times. God rot the doyennes of the spoken word. We wait to be redeemed by the written word. Here's hoping.

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