Years ago, I had a friend in school who could write with both hands. It amazed me, for I could write with only one. It amazed me, too, to find that there were creatures, like alligators, that lived comfortably both on land and in water. It took me a little more time to notice that people do two or more things, perhaps not simultaneously but sequentially, quite competently.
The same person can cook well and play excellent bridge or be a high jump champion and play piano like a pro. But is there a link? How does one transition, and how easily and enjoyably, from one activity to another? I have an interest in languages and learned a number of them. I have tried my hand at writing in three of them and translated from another three. Bengali, my mother tongue, and English, my acquired love, are the two closest to my heart. I continue to write professionally in both of them, and that led to a strange discovery.
To meet a deadline or in anticipation of one, I sometimes write two or three columns for a publication. After writing three columns in succession for an English publication, when I turn to write an article in Bengali, I feel a strong resistance within me. In fact, it appears to be an unpleasantly difficult chore. I have to remind myself that it is my first language and I have written a book in it before I can persuade myself to sit down and write a piece in Bengali.
The reverse is also true. If I write a bunch of articles successively in Bengali, it seems an onerous, uncomfortable enterprise to write anything in English. Again, as I force myself to the task, the discomfort dissolves, and my computer keyboard eventually gets rattling. I was mystified. What lay behind this persistent, powerful resistance? That made me ask a more fundamental question. Why do I write in two different languages? What makes me seek out a second language to express myself when I am already doing so in one?
The true answer is so clear to me that it amazes me that I had not realized it before. The two languages are two totally different media. I cannot do in the one what I can do in the other. I sense freedom and fluidity when I write something that intrigues me in the language of my choice. Were I to try and write the same thing in another language, I would feel constrained. The two languages seem to offer me two different spheres of operation. I would not dream of trying to do in a second language what I have done in the first.
This may seem farfetched, for in the world today things are constantly being presented in different languages. I have no doubt that a computer manual or a tourist guidebook can be prepared competently in two or more languages. A creative product, an essay or a novel, is rather a different thing. You might object that novels and even poems have been translated in many languages. Frankly, I would think of the original and the translation as very different products.
A translated story or a poem – I have myself tried both – makes an impact quite different from the original, and it serves well those who cannot read the original. But the emotional charge of the one is a quantum leap from that of the other. What I have realized is that, emotionally and culturally, I enter a wholly different realm when I move from one language to another. I have always hated changing homes, even when I am moving to a far better home. I find it more than uncomfortable; it is nearly traumatic for me. That is precisely the sensation I have when I switch from one language to another.
It is distasteful. But once I have gotten into my stride and have written in a language for a while – in the way I have lived in a new home for several months and grown accustomed – I have found my place in a new universe and enjoy my stay in it. But the sensation of transition is discombobulating.
Even this characterization is superficial. If my language is a universe that envelopes me, it shapes the way I think and feels and write, it gives me pause to think of the helpless creature I seem to be in the face of the whole complex of my genes, my upbringing, my modelling on my parents, my sibling relations, my community, my city, my country, my school and university and my work in different institutions. If these have all covertly but comprehensively influenced me, what remains of my individuality, my vaunted objectivity or impartiality? Do I know which way I am turning inwardly and why? Am I helplessly, like a whirling weather cock, at the mercy of veiled, vast forces, to which I must bow, without even knowing when and why?
It gives me a clue to the vaunted impartiality of critics and scholars, who have to pretend to judge works of art or literature solely on their merit, and not on their appeal to surreptitious elements that lie alive but dormant within them, as much as in me. Writing has sometimes been described as a journey of exploration. It has certainly been for me an adventure of disconcerting discovery.
(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])