The language of migrants

Updated: 28 August, 2020 06:32 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

When you don't know a people's language and they don't know yours, what comes to the rescue are a few exchanged words, gestures and the space you share to create a fluid system of communication

Representation pic/Getty Images
Representation pic/Getty Images

RosalyAs someone whose subjectivity derives extensively from her identity as a writer, I frequently find myself speculating about the fictional possibilities of any immediate circumstance. For instance, in the last two days, I've spent almost 20 hours helping a farmer friend harvest his Gala apples.

I was called in to alleviate a state of emergency after he had realised he had only 10 days left until the co-operative would accept this particular variety. He had consulted the weather forecast app for the region. It wasn't looking good. The weekend was all thunderstorms and heavy rain.

I was his Hail Mary, the fourth person within his contingent of paid harvest helpers. I was joining my partner, with whom I was excited to work alongside, and a Bulgarian couple who had travelled to Tramin explicitly to work.

Midway through harvesting yesterday, I wondered what the script would be like if the four of us, along with Florian, our employer, were characters in a Beckett-like play. I could imagine the mise-en-scene. Rows of apple trees growing much like vines, a testimony to high-intensity farming. A Harvester machine which has several arms reaching out to carry the apples, conveyor-belt-like, to the 300-kg-capacity carton at the back, its humdrum motor sound punctuating the play, offering rhythm, and our 10 arms reaching out into either side of each row of trees, moving from top to bottom, plucking fruit.

There would be the suggestion of Alpine weather — the sense of Summer quietly ending, the air getting cooler, fresher, with leaves turning colour to herald in autumn. And there would be the five of us, the protagonists, with no common tongue with which to speak to each other.

I kept repeating to myself all of yesterday the first line of a poem by Cecilia Vicuña, "Language is migrant." While my partner and Florian, with whom he works regularly, spoke Dialect, it was harder for me to have a conversation with Florian. He's eager to improve his English, I'm eager to improve my German, and we're still learning to switch between the two.

We each have moments when we struggle to find a word that signifies the thought we want to articulate. On Wednesday, as he kept emphasising to me the readiness of the apple, he relied on the adjective, 'mature'. I told him that the word ripe is perhaps better, also because it shares a close phonetic bond with the German word, 'reif'. Later, when I tried to make sense of this revelation with my partner, he asked why mature wouldn't cut it. I told him it could, but mature has the sense of something continuing to age, or the connotation of wisdom, to, of something still gestating.

Ripe suggested that the thing in question was more ready and willing to be consumed almost immediately. Then, later, I thought, perhaps this conceptual inflexion I was trying to articulate only existed in my head, and was categorically untrue.

Meanwhile, the only exchange I managed to have with the Bulgarian couple was to show off the one word I had learned in their language, which was appreciated, and when I was asked if Bastian and I had a family, by which I assumed I was being asked if we had children, to which I said no. But it was frequently amusing to overhear Florian using Italian as a bridge, and sometimes relying purely on gestures.

Beckett would have had a blast writing this play about how our migrant bodies were relying on a certain economy of labour in order to profit from a capitalist market system. The quality of ripeness was being determined by future customers in Asian and African markets who had exacting standards of what constituted a beautiful apple. The general well-being of the region we were in meant it was profitable for the Bulgarians and me to do the hours because back home this money we would earn would have greater currency. It's strange to conceive of the many economic convergences that have resulted in our productive togetherness.

"Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants; cells," Vicuña writes. I wondered about how the unspoken could be performed.

Ever since I began to spend time in Südtirol, I've learned the beauty of occasional wordlessness, the grace in using gestures to communicate, and sometimes even not being hung up on articulating one's subjectivity all the time, rather, sharing a silence, or inhabiting a space within which one explores one's consciousness within the company of another.

I'm also trying to learn German like an immigrant, through participation rather than active instruction, guided by the grammar lessons my partner offers me. "You have to give yourself time," an illegal immigrant I spoke to two weeks ago told me. He was from Nigeria and had initially entered via Libya on a boat. We had an exchange in English and he told me a few tricks to communicating in German and to encourage me to learn Italian.

It was one of the most meaningful conversations I'd had with a stranger since I got here. I wonder already about what the next harvest will be like. Whether I'll be more fluent in Dialect and German and hopefully Italian or whether I'll have got half the town to speak more English. For now, I'm practising the little I know and I'm hoping the warmth I radiate can fill the silences.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 28 August, 2020 06:30 IST

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