Some of those moments of summer leisure are best spent in the world of books. Reading a book is akin to standing on the shoulders of a giant to look at the world anew, my mother often told me. That visual was imprinted in my young brain and rings true even today as an adult. As words seep in, “the little gray cells” scurry around rearranging themselves into new layers of meaning and understanding.
Writers are truly immortal—think of the many stories we remember fashioned from the twenty-six alphabets of Her Majesty’s language? In an instant, writers’ names and stories flash across our brains. But how many of us can profess to have spent time reading in that “other” language that makes us bilingual?
And, that is a tragedy of our own making. Reading Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Sivakamiyin Sabatham, a masterpiece of Tamil historical fiction as a young adult was the turning point in my life. In spite of being immersed in classical dance lessons set to poetry drawn from many Indian languages, until that moment I had never picked up a Tamil literary classic to simply read for pleasure.
As I read Kalki for the first time, I became a woman possessed. Daily tasks seemed trivial compared to momentous fictional events. Even as the grandeur of the magnum opus sank in, there was another emotion that caused a deep ache—one of utter shame. How many childhood summers had I wasted with only English books stacked by my side?
Being convent-educated and never speaking Tamil within the confines of the school grounds, somehow the language took on a veneer of being “inferior.” Even here, I will be disingenuous if I lay the blame for my sins at my school’s door. My teacher Mrs. Shanthi taught language with such passion that I should have been hoarding novels in Tamil like I did their English counterparts. There is something about growing up in an Indian urban environment that rendered the reading of English novels as being “superior” to reading in the vernacular.
On my bookshelves teeming with English books, you will now find a fair number of book spines sporting words that whisper the language spoken by my ancestors. In my car I sometimes listen to poetry written by Nayanmars, poet-saints who led the Bhakthi movement 1,200 years ago.
To give you a head start on your bilingual reading aspirations, this issue carries an essay by Meera Prahlad on Kannada poets Kuvempu and Sunanda Rao. In previous issues we showcased poets Amrita Pritam (Punjabi) and Jandhyala Papayya Sastry (Telugu). With a little effort on your part 2,000 years of literary brilliance expressed in the vernacular world awaits.
The weight of a hoary literary tradition is one that we should carry and then, there are other parts of our cultural past that we should discard with urgency and solidarity.
The thwacks resounded jarringly in the audio recording that went viral recently—I could not bear to listen to Abhishek Gattani abusing his wife Neha Rastogi. In the name of guarding “Indian family honor,” far too many women suffer in silence. Rasana Atreya’s cover story on domestic violence, “Ties that Bind,” is timely, laying out the underlying grid of communal behaviors that support this vile human act—the desire to control a loved one.
As you set out to pick up books in the “other” language that you are familiar with, would you drop me a line so I can expand my mind’s vistas with you?
Best wishes for a bilingual summer!