The Republic of Verse: ‘Living and Dying in a Foreign Tongue’

The voices of the republic include dreamers, dissenters and rebels against borders and authorities. One poem of resistance, from a different Indian language, each day this week.

Bhil women grinding corn in a village. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bhil women grinding corn in a village. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a country that has no ‘national language,’ the presence of many languages is at once beautiful and politically charged.

For a week from Republic Day, The Wire presents poems that throw open how our languages can be oppressive, oppressed and insurgent. The poems are curated by Poorna Swami and Janani Ganesan, from a special edition of Asymptote, an online journal for international literature in translation.

Each of these poems is a work of resistance but also of presence – asserting a future where our many languages, while different, are more accommodating of each other.


Living and Dying in a Foreign Tongue

The language that was at home in the ear
and seeped into our blood
with the thread of grandma’s story
in the dark night.

Through forest-river-field, astride grandpa’s
shoulders, the language that entered within through
the eyes.

The language of the light of a morsel of food
chewed and fed by mother.
The living language of the family, neighbourhood, village
seen through my fingers entwined with my father’s
at festival time.
A language alive
in the family-courtyard-village.
Everyone lives as one.
Dances, sings, works as one.
The sorrow of one
is the sorrow of all.

Our language that takes us to
this higher path
could not even climb
the threshold of the schoolhouse.

I sat alone in school
while our tongue sat outside
whining, like a dog.

The master said: don’t speak in our language.
I was scared and could not ask:
Why can I not speak our tongue?
Who forced that foreign tongue into
our master’s mouth?
From 10 to 5 during the day
it sat on the iris.
Like the deep darkness of the darkest night,
as letters, it made its way into me through the eye.
At times, as if possessed,
it forces its way into my body through my fingers.

Forcing its way through the lashes
of the teacher’s green stick
that foreign tongue.

Proving us uncouth,
night and day
it tries to civilise us.

How to rule over each other?
Letting us live, it kills.

That language teaches
how teeming mid-bazaar
to snatch the fruit
of someone else’s labour.

It leaves us living dead
that foreign language. 

— Jitendra Vasava

Translated from Dehwali Bhili by Gopika Jadeja

Gopika Jadeja is a poet and translator, and editor of a print journal, Five Issues. Her work has been published in The Wolf, Indian Literature, Vahi, Sahcharya and elsewhere. This translation first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Asymptote, as part of its Indian Languages Special Feature. Asymptote is the winner of the 2015 London Book Fair’s International Literary Translation Initiative Award and a founding member of The Guardian’s Books Network with Translation Tuesdays.

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