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Amarjit Chandan

Writing in a language you cannot fully inhabit

By Amarjit Chandan

I was made to learn English at the young age of six. But even today, when I have to speak in this language, first I think in Punjabi and then translate into English. While uttering English words I always feel that something is being lost - it's not what I intend to say - though set situations learnt over the years don't pose any problem. When the reflex translation system breaks down and words are spoken which were not intended at all, then misunderstandings arise.

I rarely write in English. Many years ago, to my own surprise, I wrote some poems in English for my German friend, as it was our only medium of communication. I can't really say how these poems sound in English. The last poem in Being Here is one of those poems.

I think, feel and dream in Punjabi. This is the language I sucked with my mother's milk. This is the language my father taught me to write with a pencil, holding my nervous hand in his, and this is the language I breathed at home in the Punjab. My language is my real home, my last retreat. Freud says it's not possible to return to the womb. In another context poet John Berger talks about the myth of return. My most favourite words are in Punjabi, one set of such words being ma boli, mother tongue. My poems bear witness that the return is possible; and in ma boli I feel most secure and one with myself. In it words are not just words. Each word strikes a cord and its vibrations take you down memory lane. You can feel the words with all of your senses. Shapes, movements and silence have a language too, and that language I speak and comprehend through

Punjabi. By contrast, just one English word, telephone, is close to me - maybe because it is very much a Punjabi word now. I was mortified to realise one day that the language in which my beloved children converse with me is so strange to me. This came as a shock.

My acquaintance with Hikmet, Neruda and Ritsos has been possible through English. I do know that poetry cannot be translated. But it must be because of their strength of emotions and thoughts that so much remains even in translation. Hindi, the national language of India, is quite close to Punjabi. It is also the language my wife speaks. But for some reason I have never liked Hindi versions of my poems. Because of its close approximation to Punjabi, I think, all sorts of distortions creep in. On the contrary, some of my poems when translated into English, I am told, read well, especially the one titled "Who is playing".

I don't think even in one's ma boli one can fully express one's thoughts, fears and longings. There are very few words at our disposal and the words we have are inadequate. In one of my recent poems I express the desire to go beyond language and feel free and be silent for ever.

Courtesy: Critical Quarterly, Autumn 1994

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Last updated April 2008