Srinagar-born writer and collector of poems, Onaiza Drabu, muses about an identity inextricably linked to languages.
Illustrations by Samiah Bilal
Moments after coming into this world, a string of words in Arabic was sung in my ear. A string of words that would, in retrospect, go on to define my identity as a Muslim for the years to come. Nearly three decades later, I can still not translate the words of the azaan despite having heard them more days than not ever since.
Soon after that, most people around me in Srinagar started speaking in Kashmiri. For the next few years, this was one of the dominant languages I heard. Everyone in my household spoke Kashmiri. I grew up with them — only, receptively bilingual.
I was thus raised in four languages — Urdu, English, Kashmiri and Arabic. The latter two I did not speak. One a mother tongue I was supposed to know and the other a language I was supposed to live by, chanting — not necessarily comprehending. One to define me as a Kashmiri and the other to define as a Muslim — two identities I cannot shirk off and have learnt to own with a ferocity bordering on activism. One so rooted in a space and place and the other, remarkably global.
Arabic flies around in phrases. Sometimes, I know what the essence is of what I say. At most others, I accept an assumed sanctitude. Even now, I do not comprehend it as a language — I cannot break it up and understand it. I can vaguely infer what I am saying, only once I put thought to it — parsing sentences into words familiar through associations in my tongue. Most often, I make little effort to decipher and all I let myself hear is divination.
Islamic pedagogy, as it was handed to me, was based on fear. You don’t question fear. You cower under its tones. Arabic then was a language of fear — and of phrases. A language I accepted as part of my life, aurally letting it discipline me with its sanctitude. It became my language of all things holy, but also all things dreadful.
When my Quran teacher would use guttural sounds every time he built Arabic words in his mouth, I suppressed a giggle. It was comical. But his stern face reprimanded me. He moved on quickly to tell us of snakes in the grave pit for infidels. The environment would turn sombre again.
I was thus raised in four languages — Urdu, English, Kashmiri and Arabic. The latter two I did not speak. One a mother tongue I was supposed to know and the other a language I was supposed to live by, chanting — not necessarily comprehending. One to define me as a Kashmiri and the other to define as a Muslim — two identities I
cannot shirk off and have learnt to own with a ferocity bordering on activism.
As children, you internalise much of what is said to you. So, whenever I heard the call to prayer, my impulse would be to rush in and drape my arms, legs and head in cloth. The sounds I came into the world hearing were the ones that drove me back into cover. It gave me the sinking feeling of play time being over and the reminder that I was very likely going to be bitten by the same snakes in the grave pit.
It is not all grim. You could escape this fate if you remembered to recite the right words at the right time. Repeat certain phrases five times at night. Read that three times and blow the puff of air, laden with these incantations ,all around you. My teacher taught me the value of these phrases that I now refer to, in millennial-speak, as ‘hacks to heaven.’ Remembering God all day with a different set of quick verses, specific for times of the day would get you rewards aplenty. Reciting something before sleeping kept the evil spirits away, reciting another relieved you from the pains of the hereafter. It was too easy, I thought. Why spend hours, when these few incantations in Arabic could help me attain salvation?
While many people live the religion they practice, others retain tokens from childhood — rituals that bring them home. These recitations, small rituals in a tongue unfamiliar, packed in a puff and blow of air stayed with me. These verses, in Arabic became tokens of my religion to carry wherever I go.
There is a meditative quality to hearing something so thoroughly unfamiliar, yet with the power of bringing you back home — the Islamic soundscape overwhelms around the world. I remember moving to a completely new country — landing at dawn, nervous and uneasy. Just as I shuffled into the car with bags and a lot of baggage in tow, the taxi driver started playing the Quran and played it through the hour-long journey. And we drove past this unfamiliar dusty terrain, full of blue skies and a desert palette; and as I was leaving behind a different life and starting a strange new one, it brought me home in an incomprehensible way.
I constantly translate Kashmiri, a language supposedly my mother tongue, in my head as I speak. This absurdity is unique only to postcolonial cultures. When people ask me what language I write in, I make sure to roll my eyes before replying, in English — obviously. How can I explain my levels of fluency in the rest? Kashmiri is an identity I wear on my sleeve. Yet my command of the language, in a culture so rooted in linguistic identities, is mediocre at best.
In school, a teacher once said that the definition of literate was someone who could read and write in their mother tongue. This realisation, that I was very likely not literate by this teacher’s standards, hit me hard and it has stayed with me since. Up until then, me and my friends mocked people who spoke in Kashmiri. Being caught speaking in Kashmiri had a fine at school, after all.
My mother tongue to me is a series of haunting phrases from a language not wholly familiar. Phrases that float in and lodge into your head. They shove themselves involuntarily between sentences and between ideas and, most often, find expression in exclamations — as cusses, as wishes, as prayers.
Moving through life, I built new relationships with words and languages. I read more Urdu and Hindi. Fell in love with the sounds of Punjabi and expressions in Spanish.
I still couldn’t read or write in my mother tongue.
I rehearsed. I would fumble. I was nervous to speak it to someone outside of the family. I questioned my ability to own this tongue, to wear it. I questioned my legitimacy, the authenticity of my identity.
Urdu rolls so easily off my tongue. Over the years it became enmeshed with the Hindi of the media and the streets to become the colloquial Hindustani. I love the sounds, the expressions, the comfort. It is a warm embrace; my fluency, the intonations and the rapidity with which my humour flows are thrilling. I can dig expressions from the handbags of obscurity as I watch people laugh. I can flit from respectable to crass in seconds and, with equal ease in both, throw people off. I can adjust and acclimatise to whoever I speak with, change my tone — change my accent and my vocabulary. I can fit in and I can code-switch, swiftly moving from one register to another. This poetic language brings many worlds together for me. I think of it as delightfully, quintessentially Indian.
Can I own it as my tongue though, if it is the tongue of a nation constructed as the oppressor? Or rather should it be mine and hold such fondness in my life. In the moments when I feel tenderness for it, both the language and the nation, I try to disassociate emotion from objectivity. The imposition of both, the violence they have inflicted on us, and the systematic erasure they threaten both our language and our identity with, are too harsh to forget for lengths of time. I remember it and my fondness is kept in check.
And yet, Urdu is my tongue, just as, in all its strangeness, India is my country. I have grown fond of this nation of contradictions and made it my own in many ways — more ways than I can explain without twinges of guilt. My Kashmiri stands envious, wishing I could associate with the tongue of my birth with the same ease and comfort. Urdu, meanwhile, is in a strange linguistic purgatory within the Indian nation.
It was a sunny afternoon when an elderly man who I’d asked to help with Kashmiri texts sat me down. “You don’t want me here to read, do you? How will that benefit you?” he said. “I want to give you a gift. For you to be able to read your mother tongue.” I laughed and said I’d never be as good. He smiled, “Maybe, but I will not feel like this interaction has been futile.”
Thus started the summer afternoons of me reading the A, B, C’s of a language I’d spoken for three decades. It was like introducing letters to the unlettered — letters of their mother tongue. As I slowly learnt to read, I realised how absurd this was. It reminded me of the time where I sat down with the English translation of the many Arabic prayers I said, and knowing what they meant, made them lose a bit of their magic.
Poetry, however, is an efficient language to translate between tongues. To read poetry, even in translation, is to express and emote in all these different languages. It is to open up an unexpected chest full of images and trinkets that don’t belong to you, but discovering it piece by piece, word by word, you start comprehending their life.
If I could read Kashmiri, it meant that every time I was to speak in this mother tongue of mine, I wouldn’t copy phrases of older women I’d heard. These women wouldn’t be the voices in my head while I conjure phrases describing the ruin the internet brings to the lives of people. I’d lose my humour, which came with the inherent sociality of picking up a language colloquially. I’d gain literacy but lose orality.
If I could read Arabic, it would mean I’d understand faith. What I would chant every night wouldn’t be divine anymore; it’d just be a prayer and not a charm. Faith is not faith if I can explain it. Faith isn’t faith without mystery to it.
Maybe I did not want to know how to read Kashmiri.
Maybe I did not want to learn what my daily Arabic chanting meant.
Maybe I was comfortable with my ignorance in both these languages, and maybe this ignorance brought with it a magic, a desire, a longing I didn’t want to lose.
Maybe this is also why poetry in strange tongues is so dear to me.
In Shiraz one afternoon, I saw streets lined with readers of faal (prognostications) with their birds waiting to pick out a poem from the Divan of the poet Hafez. I was tempted to pick up a poem that they offered and take it with me in hope that it would give insights into life, love and fortune. I did not.
Much later, on the day I was leaving Iran, a boy walked up to me in a bus in Tehran. He clutched a pack of what looked like pink fliers in his hand and left one in my lap. Trained to think I’d be asked for money and to give all freebies back, I refused and returned it. He smiled, put it back on my lap and got off the bus. It was a ghazal from Hafez. My faal on a cheaply-printed pink leaflet, which I then folded into my wallet.
Weeks later, I had a friend visit me at home. He translated farsi poetry, so I immediately jumped at the opportunity and gave him the leaflet to know what my faal actually said. I was moving countries soon and changing homes, and felt like I needed the reassurance only cosmic irrationality offers.
He took it with him that day and I only received the translation in my email inbox once at the airport. Amidst tears that are characteristic of airplanes, airports and liminal spaces, I opened this email and read out the poem.
Here was Hafez speaking to me in verse. How could I not weep?
Ignorance of the full workings of languages and worlds I inhabit has been the theme of my life for many years now.
I have spent my days in places and with people whose native tongue I do not speak. And neither do I feel the need to. Once you make your peace with not knowing a language, you open yourself up to feeling it. The tones, the sounds, the expressions, the loanwords. Love in translation will always have its imperfect bits of broken expression but also a delightful ambiguity that leaves cultures for discovery. There is a beauty in the struggle to translate our peculiar thoughts from one tongue to another — it is a restless quest, where we often lack the words to explain the words.
Poetry, however, is an efficient language to translate between tongues. To read poetry, even in translation, is to express and emote in all these different languages. It is to open up an unexpected chest full of images and trinkets that don’t belong to you, but discovering it piece by piece, word by word, you start comprehending their life. Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton says it well when he says that,
Sometimes you go into this chest of another, sifting through what you find, but with notions of your own. Every time I read Mahmoud Darwish in Arabic, for instance, my associations with the language manifest once more. His love feels holy — almost spiritual, even Divine. There is fear and reverence with this love because it sounds so.
One feels in phrases. Phrases that one is used to reciting over and over again, as poems. The transience in my life brings beauty and the fleetingness of interactions brings the ability to appreciate them. It also brings people, who leave their words behind and walk out just as effortlessly. The words and the verses that come with these brief encounters, stay. The words they oft repeat, the poems they love, the texts that shaped them — they stay with me as little remnants of their selves. Brief encounters that leave bits of oneself altered after another has lent you their language; their lens to the world. After all, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda says,
Poetry has the power to lend new identities — the many identities you co-opt through a lifetime adopting their histories, their faith and their phrases to guide you through life.
The marsiyas I heard when younger were elegies in Urdu, giving voice and narrative to Arab characters. I heard the stories of Imam Hussain and Bibi Zainab with the sounds and words of Urdu, in heartbreaking poetry. We gave a genre a voice by lending it a tongue and owning the story. Poetry becomes yours, if you borrow the tradition.
You can find home, you build home word by word. Poem after poem and you can love in translation — albeit with a bit of longing as Amir Khusrau puts it:
In a world increasingly and constantly connected, synchronous conversations are facilitated by technology. Friendships have been built without languages, or with them, for as long as we have lived. Travel across linguistic boundaries, and the subsequent dispersal of words is an age old phenomenon. Talking through translation is a lot like talking in different tongues, albeit through a bridge — for many of us, the bridge is English. It lets linger the flavour of the original tongue, but is formless enough to fit into the idiom of another.
To feel a language would be to understand its poetry and its idiom. To feel a language would be to wear different lenses and view the world. The active, the passive, the possessive, the non-possessive — they all tell you how each language emotes.
Translation gives me comfort with languages and worlds unknown; languages only felt in rhythms, broken words and conjured images.
When I cooked food the other day, your words echoed through my ears, wishing health to my hands. When you saw me early morning, you told me my eyelashes are worth the world (kirpik dünyaya değer). At night, you said that to be sleepy is to have dreams (sueño). When I laughed, you told me my moonlike face (وجھک کالبدر) can brighten up your nights; that I am your sky (mi cielo). I laughed again at how absurd it would sound to an outsider yet to me this is endearing. When I call you my liver (جگر), the light of my eyes (گاش) or my lungs (شوش), it is just as strange.
Sometimes when I spend too long with you, I mix my sentence structure up and sound like you. When I say words and build sentences, I know it is not my voice that I use — it is yours. I hear your voice in my head as my tongue speaks.
Let me speak, said Kamala Das.
Onaiza Drabu is a Kashmiri writer. She co-curates a newsletter on South Asian literature and art called Daak and has recently published her first book, an anthology of Kashmiri folklore titled The Legend of Himal and Nagrai. She tweets @onaizad and @daakvaak