January 17, 2014

The Indian Language Thing

Dear M,

Do you know what British and American authors have that we Indians don't (or what we Indians have that they don't) - apart from the obvious English-comes-naturally thing? The fact that they (majority of the time) don't have to say he said in Hindi, she said in Bengali (unless they are writing a cross-cultural tale).

Out here, we are deeply curious about what language the characters use. Not that it matters, but you know it is a huge thing. There is this North Indian lady who visits a village deep inside South India. Communication is of utmost importance, and we Indians would naturally and immediately wonder how she would get her thoughts across. Did they speak in Hindi or English? Did she know their tongue? Or did they have to resort to sign language?

There are certain stories where this would not matter - say, we know that the setting is in a village, where they speak a certain language (and no outsiders appear). We don't have to keep saying that they said in this language. It is understood.

Again, it reappears when we write a contemporary story set in urban surroundings. You know how people converse now, a mix of English and Hindi and their own language. We could be truthful and write just as they speak, or we could write it all in English, and throw in an Arre or Yaar or Kano or Madi in it for effect.

I once attended this writing workshop where a guy read out a text he had written, a scene we were asked to create. He said he is comfortable imagining dialogs in Hindi. We nodded approvingly. That's fine. Then he read out his entire one paragraph dialog in Hindi. I mean, we were talking about English writing. If you write your dialogs in Hindi then you should probably write your entire story in Hindi. That's what I was thinking, but none of us said anything, we chuckled at the right places and smiled politely and left it at that.


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