Monday, November 7, 2016

I Stand a Cyclical Step Away from Being Everything Else

I am tucked away in a niche on the highest floor of the campus library where no one can find me. No one can directly see me or at the least, I can’t see anyone but for the tree tops slowing changing colours in the fall of the summer, now gone by. I am amidst everything that is me: changing colours, a dot of an existence in the infinite and everything transient. I am also everything that isn’t me: gable roofs, sweaters and a partial slice of these surroundings. I am removed right now. I am listening to Chopin’s nocturnes as the sun shines outside the curtain wall spread of glass and wondering how being stuck in such a turbulent and delightful place can be expressed in words. I am going to try anyway.

I am bi-lingual. I am actually tri-lingual, so to speak. I am quadruple-lingual if I consider pieces of other languages I know enough to have a conversation with a Tea Master for a cup of chai across almost any state in my country and yet, I need my American friend to say ‘vanilla’ for me because my accent is somehow incongruous to the barista who can’t understand when I say ‘vanilla’. Vann-nila Milkshake, I say.  How do you read an Indian woman saying ‘vanilla’? The word itself seems weird to me now that I have repeated it over and over again. But do you know what is comforting? Vennila. வெண்ணிலா, is the bright, white moon. The bright moon under which I sing and write, that which is everything comforting to me, that which is midnight stories from my mother, books I read under dim lights on the terrace and a constant companion. We hear what we want to. We listen to our own projections and inner-most calling, cravings and demons.  Every time I hear words, I don’t see just one meaning. I see its mermaid sisters in other languages, swimming by hand-in-hand. I seem to have gills for pores and wings for fins. I am familiar. I am unfamiliar. I hold them all in my fist and I can easily switch between at the least three languages within the fraction of a second and yet, I am not understood when I say ‘vanilla’.  What then, is my proficiency with these languages?  I’d go one step further, what is proficiency itself? What does it mean?

I urge you to listen to Chopin’s nocturnes in broad daylight. Throw yourself in my shoes, out of context, out of everything comfortably known. There is nothing as vibrant and melancholic as these compositions. What do you hear when you listen to a solo piano piece? What language pops up in your head? You’re surely thinking, aren’t you? What language do you think in?  What language do you think in when you close your eyes and see your mother’s face? When are those times your parents call you by your full name? What are the words that accompany the oddness of being referred to by our entire name by the ones we love, and if it is a language that you know, go deeper. Do you know the language or the inward surge that comes with it? If you had to tell the story of that inwardly gut, a wrenching pain or an excruciatingly beautiful joy, what are your words going to be?  We are a race that vastly identifies itself with linguistics, one’s mother tongue and inflections of a language’s voice and yet, for most things that strike us, we speak in silence, in pauses and in breathing; in being understood and experienced.

I talk to you from this place. The whole globe is cyclical and I am at the edge of one of the poles. Should I slip, I fall straight south. With a single step upward, I go down.  I am walking a tightrope on the horizon. With each step, I am seeking a balance. I am slack-lining; dipping up and down, trying not to fall. I am looking for a word in English that comes closest to கண்ணம்மா. I am amazed at how the word ख्वाब sounds in my mouth and its lyricism in poetry. One of my closest friends in this country said I was an effervescent personality whereas an angry ex-roommate called me a 'bad person' and that is interesting, someone else's words/descriptions of me: I like that added to the many pieces of who I am. I like these little bits of donated words to make me anew and changing but I am also everything I grew up with and devoured ,by myself. I grew up with கண்ணம்மா, with கண்ணா resounding in my ears. I can’t quite read anything as quickly in my own language as I can in English. I am auditorily attuned to the nuances of my language; it’s a meadow with rivers and the sounds, words come with memory, with nostalgia, with my mother’s face, my grandmother's smile and hot playgrounds. There is comforting familiarity in knowing what I am hearing and what it means to the one saying it, in my mother tongue. And yet, I can read English better than any other language I know. I know what I am looking for. Both of these languages now, hold me at an arm’s distance in one way or another. I am in-between languages, I am in the middle of explaining myself to people on either sides. I am no one story. I am too many of them and based on which side you ask me to tell you the story from, my narrative is going to change.

I want to layer my stories with the words you don’t know when I tell them. I want to know what you think they are and what I think they are and what they really do mean. I can’t translate for you what I viscerally understand. I read an interesting article with the term Shaman in Spanish (by a bi-lingual writer) and I am automatically thinking of the same word in Urdu. Oddly enough, these words mean close to the same thing in both these languages- one connecting the spirit and visible worlds. What do you think connects me and you? What connects a Spaniard and an Indian speaking a language that is a mix of Hindi and Farsi? How did these words travel? Like me, I’d like to think that language is cyclical too. It is stuck between familiarity and unfamiliarity. A language is one step away from falling into another and becoming one or something new. I am all these missteps; I am something new, something old and a confluence.

My friend, in a conversation yesterday, told me that all art is political. This turned up at a time when I independently wonder of the personal and the political in my art, writing and stance. Everything I write, say, make, or sketch is a manifestation on some level, a piece of my socio-cultural-linguistic environs. You are partaking in a bygone memory or incident that shaped me, now, across time. It is in the way I say ‘vanilla’, it’s the way I draw the moon, it’s the way I write a poem about my mother’s and my மூக்குத்தி and how I have embraced what it means to me now… to see her in myself as I move away from her, into being someone else. What do you think மூக்குத்தி is, anyway? I implore you to trace the form of these words that you may not understand. Try to write these words you see and write what you think they mean. They have a story that is me and you have one, too. Do you think these stories can fall together, find some link, a tear to share or a smile? Stories are what make and break us. Micro-narratives stitching up a whole picture full of holes: tears sewn up with the sun shining through them.  

I seem to belong and flit between everything I know and don’t know. I fall freely everywhere. I belong nowhere. I talk to you from my land of in-between's where everything is a simultaneous existence, one cyclical step away from being something else. I am everything you know and everything you don’t.

வாஞ்சை கதைகள் தரவா?


Art  ©  Hemalatha Venkataraman: Please do not reproduce without permission

Borderland: Gloria Anzldua (A book that I actually started reading when I told someone I consider my mentor that I feel like I am in-between worlds)

Sommers- I Stand Writing


  1. What a fantastic lucid read :) left me with a few thoughts of my own. Am i what i am in the dreams that the world sees, or am i the dreamer and have i become what others dream of me? As surreal as that sounds, it leaves me with nothing. Still goes on to define what i am.

    Keep falling free. it's wonderful for the soul, or so I'm told. take comforts in knowing that you are always alone. You walk your own road. And true to nature, it's that very thing that reminds you that you aint so alone after all. All of us are there, doing just that.. maybe on the same road, maybe not the same spot!

    1. Thank you, Katz. Falling free is beautiful, and I am trying to keep at it! It is a comforting to know that none of us are alone in being alone.

      Great to connect with you here,

  2. It is interesting that you speak of languages as something that is whole and incomplete at the same time, just as the speaker-reader-writer you and me, who are constantly changing and evolving.

    The same thoughts have crossed me multiple times. There's a certain number of things that I can completely relate with in this post. The feeling is universal, even if temporary, then. :)

    1. Change alone is the changeless law. :) It's interesting, turbulent and beautiful at the same time. This time around, I can feel the change and growth myself too. :) Rocking on the same incompleteness and whole...



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