on reading, (w)riting & relating
Yesterday, my daughter eagerly poured over her copy of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, not the true Shakespearean version, but the ‘No-Fear-Shakespeare’ one. We read the prologue side by side… and she remarked, “This actually makes me want to read Shakespeare”, pointing to the simplified version, I was a bit encouraged too. As a child, our school library was a single room, stocked with Church approved reading material by mainly British authors of the 1950’s. Outside of that, our family could not afford a circulating library membership (which incidentally mostly carried cheap romances).
Today, through an unrelated exchange, I was reminded of my naive attempt as a 12-year old, when I arranged a dance performance for children of a neighboring school as a service project. After weeks of practice, we found out, just a few minutes before the show, while on stage – that the children of the school were deaf and dumb. It was impossible for them to understand the words or music of our performance, and they would only see a group of girls whirling and twirling around on stage. We could not back away. I remember being horrified and embarrassed that I had taken their ability ‘to hear’ for granted. Although they graciously cheered as they ‘felt the beats’ of the music: ‘thump … – … thump … - … thump’, the popular upbeat regional folk song became a monotonous droning sound. I felt I had cheated them of the experience.
Sometime around then, I recall that when came the opportunity to pick up a foreign language at school, I was ‘nudged’ into picking Marathi over French. Unlike my friends, apparently, it was deemed unimportant for my education. Although I used to help my brother study his French (because of his work now, he is now fluent in 3 Indian and at least 6 international languages), my paternal grandmother learned French when she was young, and a maternal aunt was fluent in French because she was an international flight attendant, yet – French was not in my books. After all, a housewife was not going to need French. I lost all my friends in the process of the French-Marathi split. A few years later, my sandy-eyed heart-throb worthy high-school Marathi professor, whose traditional Kolhapuri chappals announced his entrance and departure through our quiet halls remained amazed at my grasp on the language as I would even write poetry in Marathi sometimes (still do, on occasion). Yet, I did not realize that not having the ability to choose a new language would come back to haunt me later.
A few years ago when we visited Paris, my husband (who learned French in school) and daughter (who had chosen French for Middle School) teased me at my flustered state of avoiding speaking French. I said nothing then. I hated that in all the hours we spent at the Louvre, I could not read any of the signage attached to any of the beautiful detailed exhibits. And yet, although it did not mar the beauty of those pieces, just created a small blank space. I was happy I got to see so many famous pieces whose fame preceded their audience.
Later that year when my daughter started studying French I began to help her study sometimes. She would tease me: “Oh, goodness Mamma, you can’t speak French, you are terrible.” I had to tell her why I never learned, how circumstances killed my desire to, and why I was not going to let my disappointments limit her reach. A few solemn moments followed. We continue to study together on occasion but she has never teased me about it again and my desire to learn French has not rekindled.
Over the last few weeks, I have been writing about a specific character in 'Not For You', Mukki, whose persona is based on a real-life person, Mukki, who was born deaf and dumb and was never able to attend school – because there were none where she lived that would address her needs. She could only decipher vibrations and visuals. She lived in a little coastal fishing village, worked for my grandparents from about 1940-1990 until they passed away, she herself is long gone now. I struggled to write about Mukki’s communications – how does one describe this movement to someone in a gesture or that? And despite my access to various word banks and tools, I stumbled often. In my frustration to decode and explain Mukki, I realized how incredibly unique her relationship with my grandparents, my father, and his siblings would have been. They communicated merely through hand gestures (not sign language) and grunts… it was an extremely humbling revelation and I was reminded of that time with that poorly executed dance performance.
My late father encountered many journalists eager to get a scoop on his life, career and his public work. He worked with many different levels of people, could break into a high-level religious discourse in his non-native Gujarati on account of the fact that my mother speaks Gujarati at home, or quote verses of the Koran to his Muslim constituents, speak fluent Sanskrit, Marathi, Hindi, English and even gully-speak when needed. His nature was to keep amicable relations with each journalist but often said only the good one's dove into the heart of the matter, without insisting on speaking in a particular language - because that was not the point, the story was the essence of their piece, however imperfect the conversation appeared - they were not engaging in a linguistic discourse but were engaging in unveiling, unraveling and understanding. To keep the conversation going, one spoke with the intention of an ease of communication. He said life would have unfolded in the same manner regardless of the language.
Quite literally the day he passed away, someone complimented my daughter on her command of Gujarati and how ‘she must keep it up’. We both cringed at the untimely compliment, it was not about language, it was never going to be about language but about communication, it was always about communication. And in the many months that have passed since then, I reflect often on my conversation with dad and his words ring true even more now than they did before.
When in India I will easily break off into a street-speak tirade in Marathi when needed (a necessarily skill in Bombay) and switch into a composed American English conversation if I get a call. I find it easy to pick up slang and lilt’s in a dialect – I can’t explain it. In the 20-years of being living in the US, I’ve met people with all sorts of accents and predisposed notions of my ability to communicate in ‘English’. The minute I start speaking, they wonder – how can a sari-clad woman talk about traditional Indian foods, she appears to be under 50 and her conversation with her husband is a different kind of English… how is it possible that she can speak American English? They don’t trust their ears. It is just as difficult as when I try to explain the taste of a dish without handing you the dish.
We are not computers relying on a string of 0’s and 1’s. The ability to speak/read and the ability to communicate are different from each other, they don’t mean the same thing. We sometimes take language for granted, or even the ability to speak or read, and sometimes place more emphasis on it than it needs - but forget that there are many who cannot enjoy them the same way as we do, simply because of circumstances.
I continue to remain bothered when people insist on a specific language of communication under the umbrella of 'protecting heritage', or any other reason. If one withholds conversation or communication because of insistence on a language choice, it is not a conversation or communication but a one-sided lecture, a talk that needs subtitles, an attempt at creating disparity. No matter ones’ command on a language, their ability to effectively communicate while using it along with other non-verbal means of communication – will win the day.
Very often, as a food writer, for all the words in the world, I might never be able to explain the taste of freshly scooped tender coconut flesh still dripping with young sweet coconut water as you slurp it childishly under the shade of a 50-year old coconut palm, while your toes play with the cool sandy mud, or the exquisite feeling of bliss you experience looking up into the cloudy blue skies through the crisscross mesh of the coconut fronts far overhead, or wonder – when will those clouds bring rain? After all, for all its words and dictionaries, any language is only a tool that becomes grossly powerless in describing essential, esoteric emotions arising from simple moments: a heartfelt hug, a tender kiss, or a spoonful of your favorite food.
I can only try my best to help you 'taste the experience'.
Read more about some of my favorite food memories in my next book: Not For You: Family Narratives of Denial & Comfort Foods. Check it out here.