The stepmother tongue

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without the homeland and without true mother tongue, I wander the world,even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it, I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” — Jhumpa Lahiri , In Other Words

I have often been called an ‘Angrez*’ — a label used both by people who love me and those that detest me. Not a surprise however, as english is the language that I think in, the default language for my emotional and rational expressions. That’s why Jhumpa Lahiri’s essays in her non-fiction debut ‘In Other Words’ sidle into a cavernous space within my mind. The book is an elaborate excavation of her commited relationship with Italian as a language shaped through her mother tongue Bengali as well as her stepmother tongue English. Her essays are great echo of the sentiments of people(like me) who live in a perennial twilight zone - a zone where our personal history, familial ties and default language seem to never converge.

Language is the dimension that we use to explore and make sense of the world. The words you learn and steadily use shape the person you become. Simple or complex, shallow or deep, cerebral or emotional — the words that string together the stories we tell ourselves, are often in the language that connects with our sense of self and our identity. I wonder why I default to English. It is incorrect to suggest that this is because I have a more developed vocabulary and arsenal of options when communicating in english. After all, I was raised by parents who actively ensured that my mother tongue(Kannada) was the language for all communication at home while my sister and I went to a school where English was the medium of instruction. But many of my peers and friends continue to think in their mother tongue/native language even though they were educated in schools where English was the primary or only medium of instruction.

English very rapidly enveloped my psyche as a teenager when we moved to the relative isolation of Yemen where I started spending days, weeks and months reading dozens of books written in English.Here I was, an Indian kid in an Arabic speaking nation, surrounded by Indians who spoke a dozen different languages dealing with the transition into teenage with no other kid my age. Books in English were my primary companions. Even my connect to India was through the weekly edition of The Hindu newspaper in English and comic books of Indian mythology written in English. The dissonance of reading Ram or Krishna’s dialogues written in English never left my mind. However, questions of identity and cultural loyalties was never an important criteria in my choices as a teenager. Like the music from the teenage years that lingers long after your hormones temper down, English seems to have not just dawdled around my persona, it has shaped the person I see in the mirror today.

When Jhumpa talks about the sense of imperfection and estrangement that comes bundled with speaking a language that lacks any correspondence with the environment you are in, I am often reminded my teenage challenge of finding friends in a society where teenage anthems were often from Bollywood, marathi or kannada films, quite contrary to my default preference for songs written in English. Even my wife’s sense of romance is mostly connected to a library of Hindi songs that don’t kindle much passion or romance in me. I am an Indian who is always at a loss for emotional connect with Indian languages. This disconnect used to trip me into guilt over deserting my mother tongue. I’d often wonder if my nomadic sensibilities and lack of desire to ‘settle down’ is an expression of being linguistically devoid of roots.

Friends and family have sometimes made the argument that mother tongue is the thread that connects me to the business of taking and sharing the cultural identity of being an Indian. But, I no longer wish to carry the burden of passing on culture or such other artifacts of social life. I don’t feel invested in the idea of carrying the torch of protecting a language from extinction. Languages die and new ones develop. The ‘diversity for diversity’s sake’ argument is does not have much credo with me. Sure enough, the dynamic nature of the world around us will spawn diversity even if we stop inventing socio-cultural-linguistic barriers and cliques around ourselves.

As someone who is not a professional writer and cannot devote time and attention to the pursuit of excellence in multiple languages, I have two choices — I can invest in my love of the stepmother tongue called English or I can flirt with a language that doesn’t connect with my emotions but will feel great as a conquest because it is my mother tongue. I have invested in my love of the stepmother tongue. I don’t intend disrespect for those who want to protect and preserve culture anchored in a place, country or region. But I know that I am shaped by the stories I tell myself in english and these stories feed on the struggle rooted in diversity that exists within myself.

Referring to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Jhumpa talks of language and art as metamorphoses that transform us, though never as completely as the biological variant that shapes a caterpillar into a butterfly. In some verisimilitude, my multiple languages, disconnected from perfect consistency with geography and culture have made two versions of me, not always in consistent ways but unique nonetheless.

I am the sum of all that is incoherent yet consistent within me, an outcome of the rituals and experiences I consciously and vicariously imbibe as an individual exposed to multiple places and cultures of the world.


Angrez is a colloquial Hindi language term for those who have western tastes and/or rely on English for communicating well.