Stone Telling

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What "queer" could look like in Hindi:

translated poetry and queerness in regional tongues

by B

Growing up as a young Hindu woman in urban India in the 90's, in a time when the country witnessed un-precedented public manifestation of Hindu fundamentalist nationalism, homophobia and casteism, has taught my generation some very powerful and painful lessons about culture and our everyday lives. We grew up to guns of the Kargil war, will remember the Bombay blasts and the communal violence that followed the blasts and bear witness to the Babri Masjid crumbling, saw a Gujurat 2002 unfold while the Centre and the State did next to nothing, cheered internally when queers came out on the streets bearing placards that read, "Queer and Indian" during Deepa Mehta's Fire debacle, witnessed sexuality become a household debate with the Section 377 mobilisation — culture could no longer remain an academic inquiry alone.

We may not have one memory of these events — for even something universal looks different to different people — we have our own stories and anecdotes, which are a part of this larger memory. Like you, I have many stories to tell, from my life as a teacher and student of English and French literature, as a student of women's studies and as an activist who has personal stakes in the feminist and the queer movements unfolding in India today. While I believe each story deserves an audience and is revolutionary in its own way, sometimes these stories, though personal and individual, point to a few recurring instances that many people experience — and there is something to be said about this certain shared experiences that makes the "Indian queers" who they are today.


Recently, a close friend asked for my help in designing the annual syllabus for the advanced English course, he said he wanted to focus on Indian literature (in translation and otherwise) for "too many IB schools teach far too many American and British texts". Having taught at the school he works in, I too had the same qualms, particularly: the syllabus doesn't have more than one (if at all!) Indian text — I was told "Indian" texts have no place in an "international syllabus". Unfortunately, American and British texts anyway populate a lot of our worlds, sometimes it's the market choosing to sell certain types of writing, sometimes we've been raised to believe that 'good' writing can come only from "there", or even if we write, it has to mirror what we've learned from them, so the least we can do — in our various capacities as teachers, as people invested in making theory — is to find ways for students to break away from such horrid tropes, that bind their minds and words, we concluded loftily and we've started building a "dream syllabus", so to speak.  The idea is to have a book-list that simply showcases Indian writing — whether it's any good or bad, the students can decide for themselves; but we want them to come away being sure that "Indian writing" isn't some esoteric bubble, try and see what tensions of our "multicultural society" are addressed in the texts, how it may give us any insight to our lives as we lead them today, among other things. 

It's an ambitious dream and to an extent still remains too idealistic, for we weren't even sure where to begin, what should be the barometer, nor do we know where to start drawing lines, and for a long time, we were happy with having endless conversations about which book we'd like to teach, given a chance, what socio-historic contexts is the text enveloped in. The problems stepped in when he had to produce a working list to show the head of his department what he'd like to teach — and specifically when the texts had to be compartmentalised by genres. And then our conversations turned to, "were Gauri Deshpande's poems queer or feminist? Where to place Faiz? Or Premchand! Are we just sticking to texts that were produced as literature? Can we read Babur's journals as literary texts too?" for most of these people tackled multiple genres and couldn't be reduced to an "either/or" logic. Thus, for the sake of categorisation, we decided we'd keep to themes and compare and contrast two or more texts within each theme — agreeing that it becomes easier to teach and read. Then comes the issue of judging which available translation to take, if and when we found works in the original language — some of our choices had four to five translations and more often than not, we could only understand the translated languages i.e. English, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali and Hindi. For many poems and short stories, we started translating — re-translating, rather — to English. We did the (re)translations to show the students how each time a text is re-written when it is translated, and that creation is possible in Englishes, to lead by example even. However, when it came to our actual translations, each poem or short story came accompanied with elaborate translator's notes; perhaps we weren't quite at ease within our Englishes as we thought. It seemed too close, too real, that these characters were so like us — but we didn't pay much attention to that, brushing them away as anxiety that comes as a twin to a project such as this one. 

Most of the (re)translations were approved (and consequently will be taught in the coming academic year) and the ones that were rejected were all versions where queer subtexts were made increasingly visible — works of Chughtai, Nabneeta Dev Sen, Premchand, Manto, Mahashveta Devi took the worst hits. These isn't to say all these texts even addressed "queer themes" or were queer, just that they had quite a lot of homoerotic subtext that we decided to not cache in the translations. The management explained, "Yes, we know the translations themselves have these things and underwritten feelings, we should remember what these stories are really about. For instance, don't you think Premchand is talking about the forgotten labourers? Why talk of homosexuality in a story about class issues? We are not opposed to homosexuality — if you want, teach a gay memoir or something, but leave poor Premchand alone! English anyway makes these things so appealing". We were shocked, but decided to go on with their decision, for at that point we'd take any small allowance we'd get.  

Fast forward a few months, I'm taking a Translation studies course with the Language Studies department. Like most people here, I've been translating for as long as I can remember. Many who came of age in the 90's in Mumbai may remember the time when Marathi became compulsory for a lot of schools, as the Marathi right wing parties took political stronghold in the city. Similarly, in other states too, supplementary to Hindi, many of us learned the language of the region we live in, often decided by the regional majority party. "This is the fate of a country that is regionally divided on the basis of language!" my Hindi professor would often muse in school, nodding her head at the loss at a chance to "unite" in one language, and by extension, one nationalism. Add this to the language one speaks at home, and as it happened for many of us, we'd at least know to read and write in Hindi, [regional language] and perhaps even the familial language. As if three languages weren't enough, quite a few of us studied in English medium schools and after a certain age, learned French, German or Spanish, as a "foreign language". As a result, I've not been able to comfortably pin any language as my "mother tongue", or even as a "first language". When the professor asked, "What is your first language?" in class, we looked around, basking together in the awkwardness of such a moment, erupting into nervous laughter as the silence bore on. There are languages I can communicate in, some I can articulate in, always out of place in each, each tongue bearing with it the politics it comes shrouded in. 

With a considerable amount of translation and linguistic theory, we also translate a few works, so we can apply our theories, see which of them hold ground, as it were. One of the assignments was to (re)translate one verse of Sappho's Isle of Lesbos that has seen six English translations so far. We were to make our seventh interpretation of Sappho in English and then translate it to any language we can. I chose to translate that particular verse in Hindi, though most of my translations so far had been English to French and Gujarati to English, just to see what "queer" could look like in Hindi, having encountered most queer literature so far only in English. So, when I read the Hindi version of the poem aloud, many students were outraged that such a poem could be written in a language as "pure as Hindi", as it turned out they'd done the English re-creation and said that their regional tongues didn't have words to express "queerness". My professor and I found it ridiculous, we didn't take it too seriously, until some dignitaries and board members told the class "[…] such things should be left best out of the classroom". While we were enraged — and frankly astounded, for one of the senior professors is an openly gay man, and was included in the meeting where the impropriety of "such things" were being discussed — my professor decided to "take it out of the classroom". 

We went to the local lesbian support group he volunteers at, used the (re)translation I'd done from the Mary Barnard translation from the original Greek version as an example and asked the seventeen undergraduates in attendance to make their own versions. Before the two hours were up, we found such wonderful interpretations in English — as someone poignantly said, "this bastard English only is my mother tongue, now what to do" — and translations in Oriya, Hindi, Marathi, Bangal and Tamil; while we couldn't read every language, all of us spoke English and were able to explain to each other our word choices and omissions. It's not a mindless co-incidence that all of us spoke English comfortably well either, but more on this later. Once the translations were discussed, most of the girls said how "grateful" they were, for they'd never imagined that their first languages could ever express "the queer side of them". One of them suggested that maybe, translations like these were the way ahead, if one is to "excavate" queer writing, which further brought to discussion which texts did we think of as "queer", and in the follow-up e-mails most of them said they were now re-reading much cherished texts in their regional languages, surprised how much homo-erotic (and in a few cases, blatantly queer) matter they addressed — somehow, "queerness" in any [regional] tongue had a sense of immediacy, one that English lacked.

Thinking back, many narrations of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat growing up had tales of Krishna charming this gopi or the other by changing forms, sometimes spying on them while they bathed, or Arjun spending a year as a woman and later proclaiming that there will "always be a woman inside him". Even when we trace some anti/counter Hindu movements such as the Bhakti movement, some strands of Sufi-ism and the Warkari traditions of religion and worship, there are plenty of instances where the devotee changes form (gender) to fit into the 'male God-female devotee' (seen as the ultimate form of submission and therefore, devotion), or the 'female Goddess-male devotee'; we don't see these as "queer" instances.

That said, I'm not calling to "reclaim" such practices — for the questions like, whose traditions? At what point were they practiced? Who stands to gain access to these reclaimed traditions, are ones to bear in mind — but to take a hard look at this business of "finding queer practices" in many "third world cultures" that authors like Devdutt Pattanailk and Ruth Vanita are invested in. Such studies and fictional retellings are almost always along the lines of, "See these people can be queer too" or (worse) saying, "This is our legacy! This is our history!" without seeing the "we" is constructed at the cost of excluding anyone who doesn't have "sacred Hindu texts" as a part of their history. The more dangerous subtext of this emerging genre is, queerness can exist in [regional language], but has to be rescued by English, receive its marks of legitimacy and then we can have a "tradition" to consume and call our own.

I don't ever want to take away the very real and heavy sense of relief one feels when one finds these queer instances in the regional language, it means too much to a lot of people to (finally) find people like them (and us), in worlds they are familiar with. However, it means something to grow up thinking queerness could only be expressed in English, to go to school where the only queer texts are gay memoirs or to be a part of a classroom that becomes unrecognisably hostile because a translation occurred, and which "sullied" a language with its queerness. Or that, till date, the words we use to express our identities are found in English (Gay, Lesbian, Trans* and so on), even though we don't fall into the boundaries these terms set. Having English markers of your identity in and itself is not a problem, but it means something to realise your language doesn't have words for you.  It means something, to grow up thinking that one cannot be queer if one doesn't know English, to believe that your first language will not allow you to be yourself, won't utter the words around your sexuality, or that romance in your language will never reflect who you are. 

I'd like to hold on to this feeling a little bit longer to say, it's not inconsequential that whole markets and lifestyles push English as the language that queerness can be expressed in at the same time, keeping in mind many, many instances where we don't use English. Mobilisation around decriminialisation of Section 377 takes the language of "privacy" — that the State has no business judging the "private" lives of people — as well as saying queer people have a right to dignified public lives; subtext reads in loud and bold letters, the movement (as it is now) stands for people who can afford to have private lives separate from their public lives in clear demarcated ways (bedrooms, houses) and have the liberty to "make" the private wherever they go (inside of taxi cabs, rickshaws). It's not a mistake when the queer movement is read as a largely urban movement, for if we were to look at the everyday lives of our languages, there is a huge gap between the number of English words we use — especially the ones we use to talk about "private parts" of our bodies — the split of language of the queer movement, and the people it promises to represent.

Maybe, translations are indeed the way to go, maybe such "violations" and "impurity" need to resurface in our regional tongues, maybe then we can finally move away from one definition, one particular way of being Queer (as most mainstream LGB organisations purport), maybe we can finally also break away from the idea that queer is only "middle class, Hindu, English-speaking", and that our only battle is the decriminalisation of Section 377. Maybe, it's time our words start miming and meeting other actions.


I'd like to end with the infamous Sappho (re)translation, hopefully you'll make your own.

Isle of Lesbos
(Translated by Mary Barnard)

He is more than a hero
He is a god in my eyes—
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you—he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can't
speak—my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn't far from me

                 Roman transliteration:
सपनों की नगरी ।                Sapno Ki Nagri
वह सिर्फ एक पुरुषोत्तम कहा                Vah sirf ek purushottam kaha
मेरी नज़रों में परमेश्वर बना                Meri nazro mein parameshwar bana
जिसे तुमने अपनी बगल में                Jisne tumne apne bagal me,
बिठा दिया ।                bitha diya.
सुने वह तेरी मीठी आवाज़                Sunne vah teri meethi aavaaz
और मोहिनी सी हंसी,                aur mohini si hasi,
इधर बनू में बेक़रार ।                idhar banu meh behkaraar
भूल से जो में टकरा गयी                Bhul se jo meh takra gayi
यह टूटी ज़ुबान तो बोलने सी ही रही,                yah tooti zubaan to bolne se hi rahi
तन पे हलकी आंच जल जाये                tan pe halki aanch jal jaye
कानों में सिर्फ धड़कन गून-गूनाये ।                kaano meh sirf dhadkan gun-gunaye
काप ती याहू, पसीने में भीग जाऊँ                kaap ti rahu, pasiney meh bhig jaau
देखो में कैसे थर-थराऊ                dekho meh kaisey thar-tharau
हाई, लगता है अब तो मर ही जाऊँ ।                haay, lagta hai, ab to mar hi jaau.