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In Translation: On Being Desi

Traveling between Hindi, the mother tongue, and English, the language one works and writes in.

By Literature

Illustration by Justine Guzman

                                                                            if i were to stand still now

                                                                           where would I be standing?

                                                                           practice standing tall ma reminds me

                                                                           hello my name is Sorry

                                                                           sorry I 

                                                                           sorry I 

                                                                           sorry I 

                                                                           i purge sorries everywhere and anywhere

                                                                           to anyone that will listen 

                                                                           English taught me that


Yet Hindi is born from a body that is born from a body that is born from a body. Yet language is currency. 

I am in a land of long cement sidewalks land of no monsoons and native Indians land of fake truths land that mispronounces my first AND last name land that teaches me to speak and write pure American land that uses the meat of my other land that screams on posters go back to your land that makes my tongue foreign land that stripped my ma’s saris. 

So, aap kahaa se hai? So, where are you from? How did you get here? 

Tusi kitho ho? Where are you? Why are you lost? When will you be found?

I pick up leftover names from the tree that grows gooey mangoes. I prayed, wishing for an easier more pronounceable name by the white people. More pronounced in English.

“Can I be Isha today ma?”

 “No, your full name is what I gave you. Your name is your name forever. No future generation will share or inherit it.”

Desi. Desee if translated exactly from the Hindi spelling. Desee as in “one of local origin.” The origin of the alphabet is rooted in sound and there are so many more sounds in Hindi than there are in English. In English there is you there is You there are Gods there are gods there is me somewhere. Somewhere in an alternate universe, my parents are living out their lives having stayed in India. They look happy. 

From the corner of my eye, I can see the “cousin” (I’m not sure exactly how we’re related, but everyone’s a cousin or an aunt/uncle) who just came from India smirking while I talk to my ma in Hindi. This was the first time I was meeting him. “Why’re you laughing?” I probe defensively, feeling the blood start to sink in my cheeks. “Your Hindi is so cute! It has an accent, you know!” “No it doesn’t! I’ve always been told my Hindi is very saaf (clean, derivative from the term “saafed” which means white)!” “It’s so American.” He chokes through deep belly laughs, his eyes alight with satisfaction at my embarrassment. 

Girls have loose lips that never want to look back. But get slapped into turning around at home. Around you I took out my tongue and teeth without blinking my eyes and left my gooey mango mouth empty. Empty lips are beautiful until spoken to. Too much freedom gets a girl in trouble. She is only trouble for you. Your lips are very dry. Dry yes, and cracked and scarred and beautifully bleeding. Drenched in red from my teeth who gnaw and bite my lips to feel something. Anything. The thing is, the sharp pain of my teeth sinking into an already open wound on my bottom lip reminds me to stop forgetting Hindi. 

But how can you? You live every day with two tongues. This is a normal existence for you until you realize both cannot subsist together. 

Each fighting for words.  

The mother tongue does not understand the foreign one, and as the years go by, dies a slow painful death inside your mouth. Sitting there, rotting, until you dream one night that you cut it off in a monsoon flood of anger, hatred, and shame, spat it out, hoping to forget all of it. 

And yet you realize that the cruelty exists in the fact that the memory of it never fades. Your mother tongue still exists only as a stump, a nub, trying to rebuild itself, long and beautiful, the bud trying to open your mouth, and desperately bloom for your mother. But it can never grow back the way it once was, its original figure curving and swaying with a beauty that cannot be retaught. 

Hindi was your first language. It’s what you learned to love in. It’s all the spices in the rajma chawal your mom makes and her never-ending list of nicknames for you. It was the language you had your first kiss with and the language you use to communicate with your grandparents. 

It is your mother tongue — aptly named — as Hindi is one of the only connections you and her share: It’s exclusive to only you two. A secret that can’t be told to another who will understand what it means. It ties a rope between you and her and her and her mother and so on in the past and future. You are embarrassed to admit that you can feel yourself losing it every day. And are ashamed to be the one that is leaving behind the language of the matriarchal lineage your mom passed down to you. 

Your birthright. 

The slow erosion creating craters in your mouth, filling up quickly with English words, drowning the others.

Though you sound like the people around you, you are still seen as an outsider, and while you look like the people of your mother’s birthplace, the words tumbling out of your mouth are alien to them. 

You feel disjointed, untethered. Like you’re chewing stones. 

You lay awake at night practicing words, again and again, to make sure you still know how to pronounce them: 

Kaardh Kaardh Kaardh means to rattle. It’s a sound, an onomatopoeia. Kaardh Kaardh Karrrrdh….rdh, rdddhh, rrrdddhhhhh. “Rdh” is one of the hardest sounds to make in Hindi ma’s voice rings in my head. If I can remember how to say this word, maybe I’m not forgetting Hindi after all. I remind myself the “rdh” sound happens when your tongue curls back to make the “r” sound: rrrrrrrr. The tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth. The “dh” in “rdh” happens as the tip of your tongue makes a sharp but soft movement back to its resting place resulting in a quiet “d” sound. Like “duh.” rdh, rrrrrdddhhhh, rrrddduuuhhh. Karddduuhh. Karrrddhh, Kardh. 

Your instinct is to reply in English and because you never learned to write in your mother tongue, you tell stories in English too. You can feel your tongue not being able to wrap itself around words your mom cooed at you as a baby in between bites of yellow daal, words that you understand clear as day and yet can’t pronounce without an accent anymore. 

You still wake yourself up screaming in Hindi from a fever dream, an intimacy you hold onto dearly, one in which for a brief moment every night you can hold conversations fluently in your native language, only to wake up and be dragged violently back to the present.

In the dream you are back in India, at your grandparents’ home, dancing mesmerizing light-footed routines — like you both are floating — with your Nani next to the fish tank. The next morning as you lay there confused, you long for home, amrud and kala namak on your tongue, savoring the sour and sweet that is able to re-twist it to what it used to be.  

Amrud. Guava. Amrood… aaamroooood. Repeat after me: uhm-rood. Like rude but the d is softer like a dh where the tip of your tongue presses against the roof of your mouth (lightly) behind your two front teeth and the rest of your tongue is still flat, touching both the top and bottom of your mouth. Uhm-rooduh. Gently the tip of your tongue moves down to make the dh sound. Like duh, but with a softer d. Amrud…aaammroood, aaaammmmrrrroooooddddd. 

Hinglish: the amalgamation of Hindi and English in the spoken word. Mine is now more English than Hindi. But, English is inadequate and that’s why I need Hindi. But, Hindi is the language I was struck in most often. But, English was mine. English IS mine. But, Hindi is the memory of the homeland and ma in it. 

Featuring excerpts fromमैं कौन हूँ|,” a lyric essay. 

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