A Toast to the Digital Literacy Narrative Project: A Story of Coming to Word(l)s

On a trip to Samtse in Bhutan many years ago, I saw Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. They were meant to carry their words far out over the valley. Words are like that, breath is their partner, rhythm essential to their dance, naming is becoming, that’s why those who control this breath know how to control lives. I mumble these prayer beads now, may this breath hover over my life. Let me recall the story that many of you share, a story of growing up
with words in an Indian city, a story so strangely incomprehensible to
so many of my physical audience, in memory of Uma, this inscription.

Once upon a time, beyond the thrice nine lands in the thrice ten kingdom, …the story of a childhood unravels amidst that formulaic opening. It is the incantation of the beginning of a near-forgotten love-affair with words. There’s more there if you can look in, but suffice it to say that I learned the world of words unselfconsciously, unknowing that, in most of the rest of the world, my facility would never be considered sufficient.

How shall I define my first literacy? If knowing how to sign your name is literacy, I became literate very late–was it 10 or 15? Was it when I took my first state-level, school-leaving exams, and my father told me I had to come up with a signature to put on my ‘admit card’? How shall I put aside my more recent literacies—learning academic language, and learning how to type on a (departmental) PC even as I struggled with a computer-based graduate classroom in the US, learning how to translate myself to an American audience–as I extol my halting first knowledge of my mother tongue? How shall I say that I feel I shall not be an educated Indian unless I go back and reside among my roots, after a long sojourn in foreign lands?

My mother tells me that as a baby I used to go to sleep looking at pictures in books I could not yet read. I still treasure those books, the ones that haven’t yet been ‘borrowed’ away, and read them when I go home, the cadence of their stories the pulse of my dawning understanding. And I give books to my nephews and nieces, hoping they will remember the attention and magic involved in still inscriptions on fragile, friable media.

I learned to interpret the world in paper and paint around the same time that I read. Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales. Russian fairy tales, Thakumar Jhuli, a beautifully illustrated version of The Ramayana that got lost somewhere, Sunday newspaper cartoons, pulp fiction, tell-me-why books, everything. I loved drawing their stories over and over again, composing sequels in my head at bedtime. Long summer vacations from primary school, ‘making sentences’ with new words encountered in new stories, wakeful as everyone else took their siesta. I would run home from art classes on Sunday mornings for fear I would miss the TV episodes of Nadia Comaneci (we only got a TV when I was in the 5th grade, my father believed it would harm our studies, ahem). ‘Tights’ were things I learned about after I tasted my first sip of wine, that type of clothing was an anomaly in hot humid Calcutta. But I run too far ahead…Long afternoons practicing cursive writing and grammar exercises. Competing for handwriting prizes. Elocution and extempore speaking in English. Skits, plays, music, speeches at morning assembly. We all spoke English at school, never thought we couldn’t, never thought we’d be asked to stand separate from a national and convenient tongue.

Every birthday was a memorable event, because the massive Calcutta Book Fair occurred around that time, and I would be allowed to spend the day choosing any and all books I wanted, within a budget. If tell you what it was like in the words of an American professor who taught us Mark Twain and Whitman at Calcutta University, you might believe me. He was there on a Fulbright, and told us he was amazed that thousands of people would "pay" to enter the book fair and that thousands would visit and re-visit the fair over days for mere, often imperfect, love of books. He seemed blown away by the crowds of people he saw milling around a sea of stalls set up in the Maidan, an area the size of a football field, eating, talking, getting portraits done by students form the nearby Art College, trying to spend on the latest novels to display on nouveau riche shelves, all in the dust and the blaring music over 3 whole weeks. Everybody came, all the local booksellers and publishers—OUP, Penguin, MacMillan, Rupa, you name them, the local little book sellers, a professor’s private press, sellers with only a few copies of a comic book to sell, handicrafts sellers, The Geological Survey of India, the Indian Museum, all 20% off. And a guest pavilion every year for a specially invited country and a few august speakers from there. I heard Gayatri Spivak spoke there, but that was before I knew what she was. The subway used to sell special entry tickets. I used to get them from there, rather than wait  an hour to get into the fair. My friends and I used to play truant from college and M.A. classes and run off to wander alone around the fair. Sudeep, do you remember this? What book shall I buy? I only had a few hundred rupees, that month’s pay, maybe some birthday money, and books cost so much. Delicious pleasure-pain. Sometimes mixed with popcorn and cotton candy. If you came back with no blisters on your feet and arms not full of books, you hadn’t loved it as much. They moved the fair to somewhere outside the city after I left India, a place accessible more easily by cars, not by the mass transport so many had always availed of. I have never been to it since I came away. Its gone, like so many shrines in India. But there’s still College Street, for now.

A long arc from Enid Blyton in the second grade to the Tolstoy and photocopies I left behind in my bookcases in my father’s house. A long arc of remembering, so many seams opening, and opening, like eyes. Sometimes my friends would ‘borrow’ books from me, for ever, I remember, not all of them, but a few. One junior did it with so much elan: she said they’d got lost while moving. Since I never imagined books were less than inviolate, I never anticipated the theft. Lost my innocence there! Even now I cannot bear to part with a book I have made mine and have lived with.

Books were the one thing my father never denied me. All else was “luxury.” I loved them, and only lost touch with them when they became too useful. Yet I never believed, unlike something a college classmate told me, that they were my identity. The beloved must be necessary in life, no more, no less.

We grew up speaking three languages at home, like so many in India. I never knew it was labeled code-switching. My parents had lived in Holland for a while, and I remember my father trying to teach me how to count in Dutch. A few words of French followed an association with his French geologist counterparts and my four months learning that liquid tongue. On the contrary, some other Indian languages still remain a mystery to me. I never thought much of knowing and unknowing. Monoculture was impossible when attempts at cultural cosmopolitanism were all around me in an Indian metropolis.

Languages flowed around me all day—the rickshaw-drivers slang, strangely drawn-out , I could imagine that tongue giving song on a boat on the Ganges, the bus-driver and conductor exchanging hot words in their own shorthand, the many dialects of the street and the markets, the village-tongues, the tight-lipped low voices in posh boutiques, the badly spoken English in the new malls and cineplexes, the put-on ‘Amru’ accents in upscale shops, the lucid teachers at school, the nuns’ terrible coaching (I remember I could never say “Assam” to their satisfaction), the Hindi teachers trying to teach a gaggle of girls the right way to say “Aum” and the significance of “Uma,” the lilt of literary Hindi on the lips of my Rajput Hindi ‘sir,’ the water-waves of modern Bengali I heard in the music on the radio, my mother bursting into song at the stove as the first monsoons hit the city, and I learning, learning, the shape of words, feeling with mind-fingers as they told me how others had described human experience. Perhaps I fall prey to sentiment, perhaps not.

Perhaps because I never regarded language as possession or more than a reed, a flute, I didn’t ‘get’ the debates about translation and literacy when I got older. Wasn’t all language like paint, and weren’t you supposed to switch from water colors to pastels to oils to acrylics and so on as you learned more in art school? I still refuse to entirely join those debates. Some eminent writers and critics will say one chooses to write in the language one thinks and makes love in. I think that you can say certain things in some languages and not in others. At least I can’t. Perhaps that’s why people quarrel.

I know that is why I stand divided, forced to choose between and within tongues in this foreign land. To identify myself clearly and concisely I must translate and pack into practical syllables who I am, what I stand for, what good that is. The natal mixed inheritance is no use. Simultaneity of being is suspect, somehow incestuous, unless it is useful. One must be clear: post- this, -suffix that, things clearly in hierarchical order or democratic equality. No place for the clamor of tongues.

One cannot resist the world for ever. Living among preferences for monoculture I am becoming one color where I was harlequin, and I despair of becoming alien to both types of insiders I have known. I stand murmuring with Eavan Boland:

"I was born on this side of the Pale.
I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
But I stand in the first dark and frost
…and imagine

my pure sound, my undivided speech
travelling to the edge of this silence.
Ass if to find me. And I listen: I hear
what I am safe from. What I have lost."

Regardless, speech, sentence and song impel radiance from experience. I keep learning, chanting, this mystical thing, this song in blank verse—speech–because the incantation "redeems our sanity," because it enfolds desperate belief in the power of breath (‘vac’/speech) to bring forth something for future good.


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