Speaking in tongues

Paromita VohraThe Sri Ram Sene, denizens of some phantasmagoric video game called Aspirational Taliban, declared last week that they would cut off the tongue of any writer who dared criticise Hinduism.

Looked at practically, this is a puzzling threat, as writers don’t write with their tongues but with their minds and hands. But cultural battles are not literal ones. The tongue is indeed a potent symbol as it has so many meanings. Babies stick out their tongues as they learn to use their mouths. They also put everything in their mouths to understand it, because their mouths have more nerve endings per square millimeter than any other part of their body. Our mouths and tongue develop faster than our hands.

The tongue symbolises speech, sex, mischief, thought, taste, teasing, defiance, concentration, anticipation of something delicious, even the realisation of one’s own mistakes (definitely not the favourite choice for the Ram Sene and their ilk). If there is an organ of interpretation, the tongue is it.

The Ram Sene mindset is uneasy precisely with the idea of so much exploration and so many meanings in one place. Though claiming to be the guardians of Hinduism, they are, in fact, uneasy with its million interlinked tributaries and open-ended strands, the palimpsest of meanings it has acquired over a long history and diverse practice across wide geographies. To reduce something to one meaning is to make it controllable. That’s futile though, because, when life itself is uncontrollable, meanings are as plentiful as nerve-endings in the tongue.

The fact that we “hold our tongues” suggests that while we may sometimes keep our counsel in the face of someone else’s vociferousness, our meanings remain within us.
Maybe it’s time for round two of give-the-Ram-Sene-something. Except this time, instead of Pink Chaddis, maybe we should send them books of poetry, the better to appreciate the exhilarating pleasure of multiple meanings, which even nursery rhymes offer.

On the other side of the world’s waters, the tongue had a different kind of outing. Pan Nalin’s film Angry Indian Goddesses was runner-up for Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Announcing this, the media featured images of the seven protagonists of the film sticking out their tongue a la goddess Kali. The trailer of this film (in which, as per one film journal, women channel their inner Kali, “the angriest Indian goddess”) holds out equal promise of either designer guilty-pleasure fun or unbearable boho-chic faux feminism. But this image, though clearly done for fun, still made me cringe a little.

Meanings are generated from context. If the context of understanding is limited to the idea of Kali as exotic, mystic, primeval Hindu feminist-ish figure — then one wonders about the potency of these symbols. The conception of the strong, powerful woman as Kali has now become its own cliché, a stock image of womanpower that controls the multiple meanings of feminism. Saying “aurat devi ka roop hai” is a kind of tired idea both from those who would like to domesticate women and those who claim to want their liberation. The figure of Devi, the goddess, also has multiple meanings, manifestations and narratives that our jaded tongues rarely get to taste. Whether ‘regressive’ or ‘progressive’, one-dimensional ideas cut off our tongues in some sense. It is left to us to find some new way to generate meanings from life and art. As Grace Nichols, a poet I love, writes in her poem “Epilogue” — “I have crossed an ocean/ I have lost my tongue/ From the root of the old one/ A new one has sprung.”

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com

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