I was inspired by the liveliness in the air as soon as I walked into the Diggi Palace compound, festooned with pinwheels and colourful paper flowers. We made our way to the Durbar Hall, where we were greeted by the melodic music of Sukriti Sen and her band.
During her inaugural speech, Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, introduced translations as one of the prime focuses of JLF 2017. The Global Translation Rights Catalogue, featuring selected works of literature on offer for translation from northeast India as well as Nepal, was launched at the opening ceremony.
There were sparks of inspiration throughout the first day: stories of a folksinger in Udaipur who carries 250 songs within him; an author who writes not-so-fun but nevertheless beautiful children’s books in Maltese; storytellers in dusty classrooms in India reading to children; and bookstore staff who know just what to recommend to hundreds of regular customers.
But it was at a session for Jaipur BookMark that I was most affected. During Reading in the mother tongue: talking children’s literature, panelists spoke of the child born into a minority language but introduced at an early age to a more dominant “language of opportunities”, who then becomes disconnected from her mother tongue. I recognized the child, for I was one such child.
Nepal Bhasa (the Newar language) is my first language but Devanagari is the first script I learned to write in. The first children’s book I ever picked up was the The Hungry Caterpillar, in English. While Nepali is the first language I learned to read on my own, English eventually became the language in which I would express myself in writing.
On my first day of school, I remember feeling like I didn’t belong. Whatever English I knew beyond “my name is” was fractured by mispronunciations and misplaced articles and plurals. What was being said around me, and to me, went over my head. I remember walking up to my class teacher, hot tears welling up, to tell her that I wanted to go home. I couldn’t speak English like the other children could. Every day thereafter, my teachers helped me learn and love the English language, the language that my parents, who had barely passed their tenth grade exams, hoped I would learn: the language that they believed was the doorway to a world of opportunities.
As school progressed, I started becoming better acquainted with the English language. We did study Nepali as a subject but my language of learning and reading was primarily English. I spoke Nepal Bhasa at home, but my interaction with the language was limited. Every Friday, my father would bring home the special edition of the Sandhya Times, the Nepal Bhasa newspaper, with everything except the masthead printed in Devanagari. It was a bedtime ritual for me and my mom to read the micro-stories, jokes and “did-you-know” trivia in the two pages of the weekend edition. But soon enough, the newspaper’s offerings failed to entice the grown-up child in me.
My tongue didn’t have a mind of its own. It had already become accustomed to life in exile, and it didn’t think much of returning home. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Sujata Bhatt’s A Different History (And how does it happen / that after the torture, /after the long scythe swooping out /of the conqueror’s face- / the unborn grandchildren / grow to love that strange language) that I started reflecting on what I had lost over the years through my rejection of Nepal Bhasa, consciously or otherwise.
The regret in not having explored the depths of my mother language as a child and while growing up, and in having spent a large part of my life not giving it much thought, leaves me restless. I am stung by shame when words don’t come easily to me in my mother language, or when I realize that I haven’t read a single book in the language in which my grandfather first introduced me to the world of stories.
It was a mixture of this regret and shame that had collected along the edges of the emptiness I felt within, and a desire to contribute towards creating literature, especially for children, in Nepal Bhasa, that had made me look forward to this particular session. The thought that Newar children could grow up reading in Nepal Bhasa, in illustrated storybooks in Nepal Bhasa like the ones I grew up reading in English, was an exciting one. I left the venue for the day yearning to hear those stories and hoping that one day, I will be able to tell them in my own mother tongue.
18th January, 2017