Keeping our words

Two weeks ago, I lost my cousin. He was from the Sikh part of my family so the prayer service was a kirtan in the Gurudwara. Unless you are a religious person who takes solace in prayer — and I suppose I am not usually — you can be rather detached from the prayer part on such an occasion, immersed in your own feelings of sadness and loss. This time I also struggled with a different set of feelings, having lost someone who was part of my childhood.

I’ve always found the Sikh kirtan beautiful and soothing as music, but this time was different. At that particular gurudwara, as the kirtan progressed, the words were projected alongside in three languages, all in their own scripts. The Punjabi words appeared in Gurmukhi, the Hindi translation in Devanagri and an English translation in Roman.

I found the kirtan brought me a different solace. The words — meant to calm the mind, make it think of life and death differently — entered my being and gave me something to sort my emotions with.

This act of translation was simultaneously practical and spiritual. It held no sense of berating or accusation about loss of tradition. Instead, it simply acknowledged social reality. As families scatter and nuclearise, as migrations make us part of other places, there is also a loss of language for many, and with it a feeling of loss of cultural rhythms or the comforts of ritual. The translation also acknowledged that those present in the room might belong to different traditions or religions. The translations allowed us all to enter the ritual meaningfully, providing a link to the familiar rhythms of our partly lost language, through other languages that have now become ours.

I thought of this kirtan often the last few days as many writers around the country returned their official awards. One may debate the political meaning and significance of their action endlessly, coming down on any side or many sides.

But, it is a poignant truth that most people might have heard the names of many of these writers — Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Malyali — clearly acknowledged as worthy of love and regard in their field, for the
first time.

Because hell hath no petulance like Chetan Bhagat scorned, he scorned these writers, affecting yet again, underdog status. Yet, though he may not intend it, doesn’t Mr Bhagat’s promotion of English as panacea contribute to further marginalisation of writers working in other languages, making them the underdog? Yaniki, isn’t it time to retire the underdog defense?

It would be wonderful instead, if there were a way to build a link with the works of the many great writers working in difficult literary or political situations — through translation, through better distribution, as well as awards. Because it is through our link with language, art, beauty and literature that we are able to cope with ambiguity, to tackle and articulate more complex thoughts and emotions and through it to deal with disagreement.

Most of us do have more than one aspect to our personality and identity — our regional selves, related to language, music and stories and our national self, one, which we are continuously redefining. A celebration of diverse language cultures would provide validity to different parts of our identity, help us find comfort and confidence through culture rather than the shame and self-hate that form the basis of shrill assertion and quick violence.

Otherwise we are stuck with the bullying polarities of Arnab’s show or the judgmental bullying of social media which are only free-for-all, not free expression, even if they parade as that nowadays.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at The views expressed in these columns are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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