By Tashan Mehta
Last week, I attended Cirque du Soleil, its first premier in Mumbai under a big top, complete with popcorn and ooos and aaaas. And it reminded me of another, very different experience, of reading Unnikrishnan’s opening sentence to his short story, “Glossary”: “In 1991, an English-speaking teen who went to an Indian school in Abu Dhabi was waiting to cross the street when his tongue abandoned him by jumping out of his mouth and running away.”
And even though Cirque du Soleil is mostly without words and Unnikrishnan’s world exists only in text, that errant tongue of “Glossary” that grew legs, hands and fountain-pen blue hair seemed to be wagging in that circus tent under the umbrella of the same experience. Voice.
Move back in time, to last year. We’re at Jindal Global University in Delhi, attending a conference on Indian speculative fiction. It’s a roundtable and we’re discussing the same ideas that preoccupy most speculative fiction writers. World-building. Characters. Telling the right story in the right way.
But here’s where we come up short. What does it mean to tell a story in the right way? Conversations about marginalised writers and their narratives are more prominent in the global publishing world now, as they should be. More and more readers want to see the world from different angles, to look at themselves represented in what they read. And the world has been thinking about these issues in broad strokes: South Asian, East Asian, African.
But these issues are complicated for those from these cultures. It isn’t just a question of setting your story in India or giving your characters more ethnic names. To truly convey our experiences, we have to carry over and embed complex concepts into our narratives. Values. Perspective. Faith. And the most thorny issue of all for the literary medium: language.
India’s landscape of language is complex, so much so that beginning this paragraph has taken me four tries. But let me attempt to quantify it. Statistically, there are 22 main languages recognised by the Indian Constitution and written in 13 different scripts. There are over 700 spoken languages. The figures are mind-boggling, especially when you move to the mother tongues.
But it’s the lived experience that is particularly difficult to capture. I grew up in a house where my parents spoke to me in English and to my grandparents in Gujarati. I went to school and learnt Hindi and Marathi. I travelled around India and learnt that Mumbai Hindi is very different from Delhi Hindi or Hindi from any part of India. Ask me what languages I can speak and I will say ‘English’. My Hindi is passable, my Marathi painful, my Gujarati bordering on comprehensible—or so I say. My parents would say it’s worse.
And yet, the flavour of those languages remain. Words leak across bhashas to find themselves in my English voice. Behaviour patterns that can only be found when I’m speaking Hindi move into my personality and then trip into speech patterns. I find parts of my heritage when I imitate some aunty’s Gujarati phrase and it’s tongue-in-cheek but it’s also my childhood, the language carrying with it the flavour of growing up in a silent and overgrown colony, of gathering around fire and having ash marked on our forehead. Languages carry culture and memories, the smoke of the all the lives we’ve lived.
And I’m a simplistic example, thanks to my inadequacy with languages. There are those who are fluent in several tongues and use them on a daily basis. To write about these people outside of their crosscutting and dexterous flexibility is to lose something. It’s to ignore the many people they have to become, the multicultural experiences that make them—in short, the selves that their lives divide into. If you’re asking—as we were asking at Jindal Global University—how to tell a story in the right way, then the answer must include language.
But where does that leave us, the novelists who write in English?
It’s the question we found ourselves staring at during that roundtable in Delhi. How do you carry over the many tongues you live with on a daily basis and place it in an English voice? You can choose to not look at the problem by pretending that all language is translatable, that small flavours of acchha, hai, and nahi could get your tone across. This is, in my experience, the default approach to all multilingual landscapes. Most of the transferring of cultural and specific information is buried in what the language is saying, rather than how it is saying it. And perhaps it is a perfectly good process. After all, I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in English and it’s my favourite novel. (Of course, I’ve never read it in the original Russian, so I will never know what I am missing.)
Or you can transfer the specificities of a language into English and let the chips fall where they may. Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone is a celebrated example of this. Bagchi’s novel places a Hindi tradition at its heart, imbuing English with the flavour of Hindi and Urdu. It meant he demanded ambitious things of the English language, trying to find ways in which it could take him to same places as Hindi and Urdu. Or you could go down the route that Arundhati Roy chose in her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where all language is translation, mixed and sifted together into strange sociolects to create an ocean that she calls the “companionship of languages”.
But all this gets slightly more complicated in speculative fiction. In speculative fiction stories, we are already introducing readers to new worlds. We don’t have reality to anchor our readers, recognisable clothes to dress our characters in, landscapes to keep their identity solid as we trip and dance in the domain of language. Everything is strange. Everything is new. Become too innovative with tongues in speculative fiction and you risk losing the reader. When you say ‘his heart plummeted to the floor’ in realist fiction, it’s a well-used metaphor. When you say it in speculative fiction, his heart really well may be on the floor, pebbling the marble with congealed blood. All meaning is up for grabs.
So how do we solve our language problem? Can it be solved? Solutions range from creating multilingual texts (think of how early novelists used Latin and French liberally in their works) to perhaps accepting that this isn’t really a problem at all, that this all falls under the umbrella of ‘the inadequacy of language’ talked about since mankind began writing and we can move on. I think the question is more complex than that. If, as writers, our tools are words, then where those words come from and how they are used both in the fiction we create and the reality we are talking to is very much our business. As are the people we are writing for, and the languages they bring with them.
The closest answer I can find is in a form of lunacy.
Come back to that Cirque du Soleil big top in Mumbai, where I am sitting at the edge of my seat with my nails digging into my sister’s palm (she is not pleased). I’ve been to a Cirque du Soleil show before, in Montreal. It wasn’t as good as this. It isn’t that the acts are more daring here or that the set is more impressive. They’re not, actually. It’s that this show has voice. It has developed its own grammar, vocabulary and register, a style unique to it. All the acts—whether it is the trapeze artists or the fire breather—use and work within that vocabulary. It’s bizarre, borderline crazy, but it’s all more the more beautiful for it.
And it reminds me of Unnikrishnan’s story. In “Glossary”, that errant tongue with little limbs and blue hair crashes into a car. It dies, “causing all the nouns the now-deceased tongue had accumulated in its time in the boy’s mouth to be released into the air like shrapnel, hitting and injuring unsuspecting inanimate and animate things”. The tongue’s desire to be free of its owner lets loose a whole bevy of ‘tadpole-sized’ nouns that fall from the sky like hail. The epidemic spreads. Tongues and languages run free, battling with each other on the streets, embedding themselves into people they don’t belong to. They rewrite the landscape in which they’re allowed to exist.
I believe that’s where our hope lies: in rewriting. If we wish to place our multilingual tongues in an English voice in a speculative setting, then we need to abandon the idea of reality and objectivity altogether. We could twist the languages that make us (as Unnikrishnan does) so that they all operate on a singular system peculiar to our text. It would be a fictional reality that functions on its own rules, which speculative fiction writers do all the time in terms of content—we’d simply move it to the level of language as well. It’s been done before, notably by Antony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and it’s a tradition worth following.
There are disadvantages. It would destabilise the reader, create confusion, and you could risk losing the story under all the innovation. A friend once wrote to me that the power of speculative fiction doesn’t lie in language, but in making concrete abstract problems by manifesting them into the worlds we create. And I don’t think he’s wrong. But perhaps there is a way of handling it carefully, of leaning into the strengths of speculative fiction to evoke the weird, the strange, the otherworldly so that all the parts work together.
To do so, however, we must surrender the idea of a sensible ‘reality’, a practical real world. Once we do, it is no longer daring to imagine absurdist forms of literature that accommodate our cultural selves; these books would simply be an accurate reflection of the times we’re living in. Look around you, at the political landscapes, climate disasters, the stories we never thought we’d be hearing—reality has already outstripped fiction. We’d be playing catch-up.
Unnikrishnan, Deepak (2017). “Glossary”, Temporary People. Delhi: Penguin Random House India.
Tashan Mehta is a novelist based in Mumbai. She graduated from the universities of Warwick and Cambridge, where she first developed her interests in form and the fantastical. In 2015, she was selected for the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency. Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, was published in the Indian subcontinent in 2017 and has been longlisted for the Prabha Khaitan Women’s Voice Award. Her short story, ‘Rulebook for Creating a Universe’, will be published in Magical Women, an Indian feminist speculative fiction anthology forthcoming by Hachette India in 2019. She is currently working on her second novel, a cross-genre work to be published by Juggernaut Books, and a third speculative fiction novel. She was the British Council Writer in Residence.