Showing posts with label Language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language. Show all posts

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. 

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" Also, for folks assigning this in a classroom, there is a downloadable PDF version of this essay here

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When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

Revisiting the Calcutta Writers Workshop

I remember finding volumes printed by the Calcutta Writers Workshop while browsing the library as a young graduate student, but at the time I didn't have much context or understanding of the history of the group or its philosophy. Indeed, at that time I found the books to be kind of shoddy -- the hand-printed aspect of the volumes made them seem archaic.

More recently, as I've been researching "modernism" in India and Pakistan, I've been learning more, and I now have a much greater appreciation of what P. Lal and company were trying to do. First, a little background: Calcutta Writers Workshop was founded in 1958 by a group of seven writers -- mainly as a venue to share poetry. By 1960, the group had begun publishing chapbooks of poetry and small books of criticism; they also started a journal called Miscellany. The group is still active as a publishing house, with recent volumes listed on its website here.

I would also recommend readers check out P. Lal's essay on the founding of the Writers Workshop here. And see the profile of P. Lal in The Hindu, from last year.

Untrendy Topics: Modern Hindi Poetry

I've been doing some research on Indian writers from the 1930s-1960s for a long-term scholarly project, and in the process I've been learning about a few lesser-known Hindi and Urdu writers. In Hindi in particular, I've been interested in the "New Poetry" (Nayi Kavita) Movement, with a small group of experimental writers adapting the western, free verse style to Hindi.

For a little background on Hindi literature in the 20th century, you might start with Wikipedia; it's not bad. The New Poetry movement came out of a general flowering of Hindi poetry from the early 20th century, a style of poetry known as Chhayavad (Shadowism). Mahadevi Verma is one of the best known writers in this style; another notable figure is Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan's father (and actually quite a good poet).

For me, the Chhayavad poetry sounds a little too pretty ("precious," as they say in Creative Writing class), though I must admit that part of the problem is that I simply don't have the Hindi vocabulary to be able to keep up with the language the Chhayavad poets tend to use. I prefer what came after, especially the New Poetry movement. The "New Poetry" style roughly resembles the modernism of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Hilda Doolittle in English literature. The language is stripped down and conversational, rather than lyrical. Some poets, like Kedarnath Singh, focus intently on conveying, with a kind of crystalline minimalism, pure images. Others are somewhat more conventional.

Below, I'll give some examples of a few favorite poems from the "New Poetry" movement, with several poems in both Hindi (Devanagri) and English.

My source today is mainly Lucy Rosenstein's "New Poetry in Hindi", which is available on Amazon for interested readers; Rosenstein prints both the Hindi originals as well as her translations.

In her introduction, Rosenstein describes how modern poetry in Hindi emerged after 1900, with Mahavirprasad Dwiwedi's promotion of poetry in Khari Boli Hindi (earlier, poetry had mainly been written in Braj Bhasha). There was an early spurt of nationalist poetry, but, partially under the influence of English Romantic poetry (Wordsworth and Shelley), a movement calling itself "Chhayavad" emerged in the 1920s. Here is an example of a few lines in the Chhayavad style, from Sumitranandan Pant's Almore ka vasant (Almora Spring):

Vidrum ou, markat kee chhaya,
Sone chaandee ka sooryatap;
Him parisal kee reshmee vaayu,
Shat ratnachhay kharg chitrit nabh!

Coral and emerald shade
sun's heat first gold then silver;
snow mountain scent on silken breezes,
a hundred jeweled brids painting the sky
(Translated David Rubin)

It may be that my own limited Hindi renders poems like this somewhat inaccessible, at least in the original. More generally, operating from the translation, I put poems like this under "sounds pretty, but..." (That's my personal taste. I have friends who love writers like Pant and Mahadevi.)

After the Chhayavad movement, the dominant stream in Hindi poetry seemed to split into two in the 1930s, with Progressives in one camp (Pragativad), and Experimentalists in the other (Prayogvad).

Progressive Poetry was part of a major movement in Indian literature that began in the 1930s. This movement is usually called the Progressive Writers Movement, and it had major literary communities in fiction, drama, as well as poetry; it also had offshoots in many different South Asian languages (earlier I have written about some Urdu writers loosely affiliated with the Progressive Writers, Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and Ismat Chughtai). As the name indicates, this was writing largely motivated by a desire to make a political intervention. A fair amount of the writing was anti-colonial, and much of it was oriented to social and economic reforms within Indian society.

Just after the Progressive trend in poetry began in the 1930s, a much smaller group of Hindi writers initiated a new, experimentalist style. Much of this writing avoided big political themes in favor of more abstract meditations. (Importantly, many of the writers in this movement overlapped with the Progressive Writers, and some were card-carrying political activists (i.e., communists). They simply didn't bring themes from the political world into their writing.

Initially the movement was spearheaded by Agyeya (also sometimes spelled Ajneya in English; his real name was Sacchidananda Hirananda Vatsayan), beginning with an anthology called Tar Saptak, in 1943.

Agyeya (whose pen-name literally means "Unknowable") is a really interesting character. He was educated at home initially, as his father didn't believe in formal schooling, though he did go on to get a Bachelors of Science at a British college. He also started an M.A. in English, but didn't finish, after he got involved in the independence movement. According to Rosenstein, Agyeya spent three years in jail (1931-1934), which proved decisive in terms of his development as a poet. He was a mass of contradictions - widely recognized as an activist and political leader, Agyeya was also deeply solitary in some ways. Raised as a traditional Brahmin, he also exemplified modernism in his intellectual and literary output.

Here is an example of Agyeya's poetry, in the Experimental ("New Poetry") style:


चुप-चाप चुप चाप
झरने का स्वर
हम में भर जाय

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
शरद की चांदनी
झील की लहरों पर तीर आय,

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
जीवन का रहस्य
जो कहा न जाय, हमारी
ठहरी आँखों में गहराय,

चुप-चाप चुप-चाप
हम पुलकित विराट में दुबे
पर विराट हम में मिल जाय --

चुप चाप चुप च [??] प


May the murmur of water falling
Fill us,

May the autumn moon
Float on the ripples of the lake,

May life's unspoken mystery
Deepen in our still eyes,

May we, ecstatic, be immersed in the expanse
Yet find it in ourselves

Quiet ... ly ...
(translated by Lucy Rosenstein)

Another favorite New Poetry writer is Raghuvir Sahay, who came of age a generation after Agyeya.

Here is an example of a Raghuvir Sahay poem I really like:

आज फिर

आज फिर शुरू हुआ जीवन.
आज मैंने यिक छोटी-सी सरल-सी कविता पढी.
आज मैंने सूरज को डूबता देर तक देखा.
आज मैंने शीतल जल से जी भर स्नान किया.
आज यिक छोटी-सी बच्ची आयी, किलक मेरे कन्धे चढी.
आज मैंने आदि से अन्त तक यिक पूरा गान किया.

Today Anew

Today life started anew.
Today I read a short, simple poem.
Today I watched the sun set for a long time.
Today I bathed to my heart's content in cool water.
Today a little girl came and shouting with delight climbed onto my shoulders.
Today I sang a whole song, from beginning to end.
Life started anew today.
(Translated Lucy Rosenstein)

Another poem in Rosenstein's collection that clicked with me is by Shakunt Mathur, one of the leading female lights of the Experimental/New Poetry movement.

Here is one of Shakunt Mathur'spoems:

तुम सुन्दर हो, घर सुन्दर हो

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
चाहे दिन भर बहे पसीने
कितने भी हो कपडे सीने
बच्चा भी रोता हो गीला
आलू भे हो आधा छीला

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
सब तूफान रुके हो घर के
मुझको देखो आँखों भर के
न जुड़े मेंइ फूल सजाई
न तितली से वासन, न नखरे

जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो
अधलेटी हो तुम सोफे पर
फारिं मैगजीन पढ़ती हो
शीशे सा घर साफ पड़ा हो
आहत पर छोंकी पड़ती हो

तुम कविता तुम लिखो सलौनी, में काफी हूँ, तुम प्रियतर हो
जब में थका हुआ घर आओं, तुम सुन्दर हो घर सुन्दर हो

You should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
Even if all day sweat poured
However many clothes you sewed
Even if the child doesn't yield
And the potato is half-unpeeled
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
All storms in the house should be stilled
You should look at me with eyes filled
Without flowers in your hair,
Showy clothes, flirtatious air

When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful
Reclining on the sofa,
You should be reading a foreign journal
The house should shine like crystal
My steps' sound should startle you

Don't write poetry, beauty, I am enough, you are loved
When I return home tired you should be beautiful, the house should be beautiful.
(Translated Lucy Rosenstein)

Clearly a feminist sensibility! Incidentally, in Hindi some of the lines rhyme, which Rosenstein reproduces in her translation. The language is simple but elegant and the picture she's painting seems true - and this combination is what I like most about the "New Poetry."

Finally, here is Vinay Dharwadker's translation of Kedarnath Singh's "On Reading a Love Poem". This poem isn't included in Rosenstein's volume, though several other wonderful Kedarnath Singh poems are in her collection.

Kedarnath Singh (b. 1934): ON READING A LOVE POEM

When I'd read that long love poem
I closed the book and asked --
Where are the ducks?

I was surprised that they were nowhere
even far into the distance

It was in the third line of the poem
or perhaps the fifth
that I first felt
there might be ducks here somewhere

I'd heard the flap flap of their wings
but that may have been my illusion

I don't know for how long
that woman
had been standing in the twelfth line
waiting for a bus

The poem was completely silent
about where she wanted to go
only a little sunshine
sifted from the seventeenth floor
was falling on her shoulders

The woman was happy
at least there was nothing in her face to suggest
that by the time she reached the twenty-first line
she'd disappear completely
like every other woman

There were sakhu trees
standing where the next line began
the trees were spreading
a strange dread through the poem

Every line that came next
was a deep disturbing fear and doubt
about every subsequent line

If only I'd remembered--
it was in the nineteenth line
that the woman was slicing potatoes

She was slicing
large round brown potatoes
inside the poem
and the poem was becoming
more and more silent
more solid

I think it was the smell
of freshly chopped vegetables
that kept the woman alive
for the next several lines

By the time I got to the twenty-second line
I felt that the poem was changing its location
like a speeding bullet
the poem had whizzed over the woman's shoulder
towards the sakhu trees

There were no lines after that
there were no more words in the poem
there was only the woman
there were only
her shoulders her back
her voice--
there was only the woman
standing whole outside the poem now
and breaking it to pieces

(translated by Vinay Dharwadker) [SOURCE]
I hope you enjoyed at least some of those poems.

A Book with "@" in the Title

There's a profile in the New York Times of Chetan Bhagat (thanks, Pocobrat), author of One Night @ The Call Center, which was released in the U.S. on paperback last year. Bhagat, an author few in the west will have heard of, has now become the biggest English-language author in Indian history:

But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history, according to his publisher, Rupa & Company, one of India’s oldest and best established publishers. His story of campus life, “Five Point Someone,” published in 2004, and a later novel, “One Night @ the Call Center,” sold a combined one million copies.

Mr. Bhagat, who wrote his books while living here, has difficulty explaining why a 35-year-old investment banker writing in his spare time has had such phenomenal success reaching an audience of mainly middle-class Indians in their 20s. The novels, deliberately sentimental in the tradition of Bollywood filmmaking, are priced like an Indian movie ticket — just 100 rupees, or $2.46 — and have won little praise as literature.

“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here. (link)

Yes, it's true, we do hate him.

I read One Night @ The Call Center a few months ago, when the American publisher sent me a review copy. Some parts were so bad, they made me cry. I was particularly bored by the chapters detailing the protagonist's unrequited romance with a colleague , which are set off in bold type for some reason (though the fact that they are set off in bold is actually useful -- the font makes it easier to identify the chapters to skip!).

That said, the novel does have some amusing cultural commentary scattered here and there, and I suspect it's the book's candor on the grim--yet economically privileged--experience of overnight call center workers that has made Bhagat so popular. That, and the book is so easy it could be read by a stoned dog on a moonless night.

Here is one passage, on accents, I thought interesting:

I hate accent training. The American accent is so confusing. You mightthink the Americans and their language are straightforward, but each letter can be pronounced several different ways.

I'll give you just one example: T. With this letter Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent, so "internet" becomes "innernet" and "advantage" becomes "advannage." Another way is when T and N merge-- "written" becomes "writn" and "certain" is "certn." The third sound is when T falls in the middle. There, it sounds like a D--"daughter" is "daughder" and "water" is "wauder." The last category, if you still care, is when Americans say T like a T. This happens, obviously, when T is at the beginning of the word like "table" or "stumble." And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another story.

Say what you will about his literary skills, Bhagat has clearly worried about American accents.

A second moment of cultural commentary I remembered came from the middle of the novel, after one of the characters has started to freak out after getting one too many calls from racist Americans uttering epithets of the "rat-eater" variety:

"Guys, there are two things I cannot stand," he said and showed us two fingers. Racists. And Americans."

Priyanka started laughing.

"What is there to laugh at?" I said.

"Because there is a contradiction. He doesn't like racists, but can't stand Americans," Priyanka said.

"Why?" Vroom said, ignoring Priyanka. "Why do some fat-ass, dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why?"

Nobody answered.

Vroom continued, "I'll tell you why. Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our counttry for the last fifty years couldn't do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth."

And if reading rants like that makes you feel better about things, you might enjoy One Night @ The Call Center. (Well, parts of it, anyway.)

Suriname's Linguistic Khichri

The New York Times has an article on Sranan Tongo, the creole language that is spoken by a majority of people in Suriname, in South America.

Suriname, like Guyana and Trinidad, has a large Indian diaspora population from the 19th century, people who came across originally as indentured laborers. For a country of just 470,000 people, the linguistic and cultural diversity is truly astonishing:

To get a sense of the Babel of languages here, just stroll through this capital, which resembles a small New England town except the stately white clapboard houses are interspersed with palm trees, colorful Chinese casinos and minaret-topped mosques.

Slip into one of the Indonesian eateries known as warungs to hear Javanese, spoken by about 15 percent of the population. Choose a roti shop, with its traditional Indian bread, to listen to Surinamese Hindi, spoken by the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population. And merchants throughout Paramaribo speak Chinese, even though the numbers of Chinese immigrants are small. (link)

Is it just me, or is Suriname exactly like Queens? (The food options sound enticing.)

For the curious, there is a Sranan Tongo-to-English dictionary here (not many words derived from Indian languages, as far as I can tell), and a "Sarnami Hindustani"-to-Dutch dictionary here. (Of course, for the latter, you need to know Dutch!)

I would also recommend a reader comment on an earlier post by Vinod (where he mentioned the Surinamese Indians in Amsterdam).

Subcontinental Scripts: Hindi vs. Urdu

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I recently taught myself how to read the Urdu script, and it was quite challenging. Reading from right to left isn't so hard to get used to, but there are some letters that seem to be interchangeable (i.e., two different ways of writing 'k'/'q'), and other letters that look painfully similar to one another on the page ('d', 'r', 'v', etc). Also, some of the vowel markers one sees in Hindi/Devanagari, though they do exist in Urdu as diacritic marks, are frequently omitted in practice, so you often have to guess which vowel should be used based on context. Oh, and did I mention that there often aren't clear word breaks (depending on how the typography is done in a given book or newspaper)?

But once I got the script down (roughly), I was pleasantly surprised to find that Manto's Urdu vocabulary isn't that far off from standard Hindustani -- but then, he's a prose writer known for his accessible style. By contrast, the vocabulary of much Urdu poetry (i.e., Ghalib) is so full of Persian words as to be unintelligible -- at least to a barbarian ABD like myself.

Via the Sepia Mutiny News Tab (thanks, ViParavane), I came across a great post at the Language Log blog with a historical linguistics explanation for how the script (and language) divide came to be. I don't have much knowledge to offer on top of what Mark Liberman says, so the following are the just the quotes in Liberman's post I found to be most interesting.

First, Liberman has several quotes from an article by linguist Bob King on the "digraphia" (Greek for "two scripts") of Urdu and Hindi. First, we have the background:

Hindi and Urdu are variants of the same language characterized by extreme digraphia: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script from left to right, Urdu in a script derived from a Persian modification of Arabic script written from right to left. High variants of Hindi look to Sanskrit for inspiration and linguistic enrichment, high variants of Urdu to Persian and Arabic. Hindi and Urdu diverge from each other cumulatively, mostly in vocabulary, as one moves from the bazaar to the higher realms, and in their highest -- and therefore most artificial -- forms the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. The battle between Hindi and Urdu, the graphemic conflict in particular, was a major flash point of Hindu/Muslim animosity before the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947. (link)

Then there are the social implications, which are not trivial:

One can easily imagine a condition of pacific digraphia: people who speak more or less the same language choose for perfectly benevolent reasons to write their language differently; but these people otherwise like each other, get on with one another, live together as amiable neighbors. It is a homey picture, and one wishes it were the norm. It is not. Digraphia is regularly an outer and visible sign of ethnic or religious hatred. Script tolerance, alas, is no more common than tolerance itself. In this too Hindi-Urdu is lamentably all too typical. People have died in India for the Devanagari script of Hindi or the Perso-Arabic script of Urdu. It is rare, except for scholars, for Hindi speakers to learn to read Urdu script or for Urdu speakers to learn to read Devanagari. (link)

(And yes, even those of us who pretend to be scholars struggle with "script tolerance.")

Another scholar (Kelkar) gives some concrete examples of differences in vocabulary, with specific attention to the points of divergence:

Common words like chai 'tea', milna 'to meet', and mashin 'machine' are the same in either Hindi or Urdu. Vocabulary diverges sharply as we move from Low to High. The Hindi words for 'south' and 'temperature' (as in weather) are dakshin and tapman, the Urdu words junub and darja-e-hararat. The sentence "Who is the prime minister at the moment?'' is ajkal pradhan mantri kaun hai? in Hindi, ajkal vazir-e azam kaun hai? in Urdu.

An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with different
languages. (link)

Liberman's post ends with a reference to Gandhi, who struggled -- as early as 1917! -- to conceive of a "secularist" solution to the script problem, but failed to do so.

Obviously, with Partition, the terms of the debate over "standard" scripts changed in the Indian subcontinent. The debate in Pakistan is essentially over, and Urdu wins. But according to the scholars Liberman cites, the split over scripts is very much alive in India (especially northern India, though I have Muslim friends from places like Hyderabad who say their families only speak Urdu at home).

The joint/hybrid spoken language spoken in much of northern India is Hindustani (mostly Hindi grammatical structures with a mix of Sanskritic and Persian vocabulary), which seems to have persisted in northern India despite attempts at Sanskritization. But even with that shared spoken language, it appears the division over scripts remains.