Edwidge Danticat once said, “One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one that you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there.” He prescribes you, as a reader, to unravel the beauty within fluid identities through an immersion of self in the liminal stages of migration. By fashioning their own reality within the constructs of nation, home and self, the immigrant is portrayed as a creator and interpreter of culture. But, in a globalized world, what does it mean to migrate through the polarized, wired, and often fractious?”
The unbridled power that this notion of self gifts any ‘nobody’ is an angst-inducing prospect for nationalists, so much so that – throughout history – they have implored language to cripple its very existence in society: in particular, accents. As stated in an article published by Horizon: The EU Research and Innovation Magazine, “With an estimated 257 million people living and working outside the country they were originally from, this accent-related bias is a major problem.” They “can be salient markers of outgroup membership and thus evoke negative judgements and stereotypes”, leading to ‘discrimination in everyday life’ according to Dr Alice Foucart, a psycholinguistics researcher at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.
As elucidated by the University of North Florida (UNF) English Faculty of Research and Scholarship, “Like Wittgenstein’s keyboard of the imagination, language possesses rich musical qualities of tone and texture, resonance and rhythm. These more mysterious, less quantifiable elements of language are key factors in determining everything from nuance to nonsense.” Intrinsically, the word accent connotes a way of speaking differing from that of the norm; in other words, this definition in and of itself is the genesis of a correlation between language and the term ‘broken.’
Last year, I experienced the injuriousness of the ‘broken language’ myself. With the heaviest of hearts, I bid farewell to the bustle of Bombay to pursue a year-long program at Boston College (wow that was dramatic, it is safe to say that I’ve been entirely influenced by Bollywood films). Nonetheless, no longer waking up to the cacophony of Kali-Peeli’s and mouth-watering Masala Chai in the mornings pinched the skin of my soul. The only tie that distance failed to sever was with my mother tongue: Hindi. This is because it’s not just any kind of Hindi, but a dialect so specific to my region that it remains cornered by the borders of South Bombay. To me, ferrying Bombay Hindi overseas was not merely symbolic of my transnational voyage, but of the sliver of hope that my world could intertwine with others’ in my university. In an effort to realize this, I embarked on an excursion with the South Asian Students Association (SASA) – an ethnic club at the university.
Intrigued by the prospect of cultural congruity creating comfort for me at Boston College, I decided to tag along with other members for a day of bonding activities. But, as I toasted my icy palms in the burning fire among a group of 45 so-called other “Indians” after a day of the retreat, I had never felt more alone. Not finding common ground with the Americans was one thing, but to be disconnected from those that shared my roots peeled away a deeper layer of pain. It seemed as though the thread that I had been desperately hanging on during my first four months in Boston had been cut the minute I set foot onto the pebbled shores of the Camp Burgess lakehouse.
How could I reveal that I longed for my umber skin to melt into the shades of brown that besieged me? Whilst the fresh smell of October apples frolicked comfortably on their noses, the candied breeze suffocated me. The rhythmic chirps of black-capped chickadee, to me, shrieked like chalk scratching a blackboard. The open expanse of azure among the trees screamed opportunity to them, whilst I struggled to even motivate my dreams to remain afloat. Every difference widened the river between these strangers and me, but what caught my boat in the tide – dwindling my chances of making it to their end alive – was being unapologetically ridiculed for my ‘Bombay Hindi.’
For those of you who are unaware, Bombay Hindi = Broken Hindi according to the larger Desi population – a sort of slur enlisted to underscore how the Indian in us could not be more different to the Indian in them. Their words punctured my thoughts and silence deafened every smidgen of my body. The roar of my heartbeat began to devour my ears, suffocating and fracturing my voice. Burdened breaths escaping the shackles of my lips only dragged the sweat further down my palms; usually loquacious, I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
More than offended, I was hurt. Hurt that though cut from Indian cloth, my stitches were undoubtedly rupturing at their seams. To be broken is to be “violently separated to parts”; and I appeared responsible for tearing the very fiber of my language. Words became estranged from meaning as I felt orphaned by my country. My Hindi was malfunctioning like a machine; I could not repair myself, but I had to be fixed by somebody else. Weakness swarmed my surfaces as my confidence was contaminated. Until I reflected and realized that these feelings were what those very nationalists wanted me to harbor.
Broken were not my sentences, or my love for my country. Broken was a metaphor for my spirits. Spirits that carry within them the power to make peace with our fluid identities. My Hindi is an intricately laced web of words that carry within them the glorious interaction of familial history – so precious that it’s not just for myself, but eternal and ever-evolving. As aptly articulated in the book titled “Applied Language Learning”, “The language itself cannot be extinguished and rendered meaningless. The inherent power of individual words and fragments to mean, to strike a note on the keyboard of the imagination, reveals the limits and fallibility of linguistic rules and testifies to the latent power and vitality of an expanded, outlaw language.”
Featured image: Graphic illustration by Emma Constable