Mother tongue, other tongue

Barring a few, most Indian English writers acquire the language they write in and seldom lick it off their mothers’ teats. …. This whole question of multilingualism should be looked at less jingoistically if it is to have any meaning, as I think it does.

(Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” Chandrabhaga, #7, 1982.)

You ask me what I mean

by saying I have lost my tongue.

I ask you, what would you do

if you had two tongues in your mouth,

and lost the first one, the mother tongue,

and could not really know the other,

the foreign tongue.

You could not use them both together

even if you thought that way.

And if you lived in a place you had to

speak a foreign tongue,

your mother tongue would rot,

rot and die in your mouth

until you had to spit it out.

I thought I spit it out

but overnight while I dream,

munay hutoo kay aakhee jeebh aakhee bhasha

may thoonky nakhi chay

parantoo rattray svupnama mari bhasha pachi aavay chay

foolnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh

modhama kheelay chay

fulllnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh

modhama pakay chay

it grows back, a stump of a shoot

grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,

it ties the other tongue in knots,

the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,

it pushes the other tongue aside.

every time I think I’ve forgotten,

I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,

it blossoms out of my mouth.   

                          (Sujata Bhatt, from “Search for My Tongue,”  1991)



  1. gaddeswarup said

    Last part, very true in my case. I did not particularly care about mother tongue, thought of langauage as a tool for communication. But Telugu started reasserting itself, particularly after my passion for mathematics reduced ( for some reason, I always counted in Telugu) nearly around the age of sixty. Possibly one dies in one’s mother tongue.

  2. gaddeswarup said

    The last sentence might have remained in my memory from this article by Mukul Kesavan:
    Similar links in my post:
    But I remember such stories from before. Back in 1975, before leaving Zurich I went to say goodbye to Komaravolu Chandrasekharam(n), a very senior mathematician, mainly because he was the director of the School of Mathematics, TIFR where I started as a student. We never had conversations before but that time he kept talking for three hours. About his birthplace (Masulipatam, he actually showed his passport), Telugu poets, Kanyasulkam… He also told me, may be that time or later, a story about John von Neumann (in his younger days, K.C. was assistant to Herman Weyl in Princeton and knew many high profile mathematicians). Von Neumann was Jewish who converted to Chiristianity (catholic ?). On his deathbed, there was priest by his side, he confessed in some language, then spoke in several languages and ended speaking in Yiddish.

  3. anu said

    this reminded me of Zadie’s essay :

  4. gaddeswarup:

    Sixty. And a mathematician. Gulp. You have me thoroughly intimidated!


    Marvellous essay. Much obliged.

    Thanks for the responses, both. And apologies for the delay…

  5. multilingualmania said

    Wow! This is very powerful!!

  6. gaddeswarup said

    I really wanted to be a village farmer. I refused to go to college and quit college twice since I felt they were teaching nonsense. Meanwhile I developed a passion for mathematics and survived. I am 68 now.

  7. Pooja said

    I think the need to speak your first language becomes a lot more pronounced when you are geographically removed from it. For people living abroad, for example, Indian cinema is a huge draw even if they watch stuff in other languages. And it’s not just because they enjoy movies.

  8. Carrie said

    Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account
    it. Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! However, how could we communicate?

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