Learning a new language? Don't Jhumpa the gun

If an Indian author obsessed with a foreign language wrote a whole book in it, how hard can it be to push yourself to do a fraction of the same?

March 03, 2016 05:44 pm | Updated 05:56 pm IST

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February has been a ragged month. All I did was hunker down. The problem with hunkering down after gadding about is that you begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. When you live in the boonies as my husband and I do, you start to miss things like the cinema and urbane conversations and all you can eat buffets. We get no newspapers, and we have no TV or Wi-Fi. Our local is a place called Rhythm Hotel. To make contact with the world we have to go to the bathroom upstairs and put our phone on a tripod in order to channel 3G waves. When friends come to visit, they’re charmed by our hermit-like existence. After a day with no signal they start to display signs of desperation. I wait till they get twitchy. Then I reassure them. “Don’t worry,” I say. “There is a way. Let me take you to the bathroom and hook you up,” which sounds dodgier than it is.

Being in a quiet place with few distractions is good for writing. It’s magic for the nervous system. Everything shushes. There’s an ashram a little way down the beach from us that charges people a lot of money to sit cross-legged for many hours. I think if the writing career flounders, we could always absorb the overflow of the ashram. But why think small? Why not set up a rival ashram where we confiscate your phone, feed you gruel, force you to do Yoga on hot stones, and then, when you’re weary and longing for a cool drink of water, make you write a sonnet. There’s a lot of money to be made in the health and mistreatment business.

The thing about isolation is that even if you’re intent on spending a month with your head in the sand and your backside in the air, even if you are this close to becoming one with the ostrich, the world finds a way of getting through. Those 3G bathroom waves. In February there was the sedition channel that was pretty loud, and the JNU channel. Also, the Jhumpa Lahiri channel. Every time I tuned in, one of these three stories were spat out at me. After a while, I tuned out of sedition and JNU. I became obsessed with Jhumpa.

“DO NOT write about Jhumpa Lahiri,” my husband warns.

“Why not?” I say.

“Because you’re envious.”

“I am not,” I shout.

“I’m telling you,” he says, “Just stay away from that.”

The next morning at breakfast, I say, “Envy is such a mono-emotion. What I feel is more complicated.”

Besides, why envy? I push. Just because she’s won a Pulitzer Prize and every other prize going? Because she’s written two gorgeous collections of short stories and two slightly less gorgeous but nonetheless elegant novels? Because I’ve interviewed her and know her to be a serious, shy, nice person? Because she’s beautiful and looks like there has never been a bad hair moment in her history?

No. Simply because she wrote a book in Italian.

“Why let it agitate you?” my husband says. By this time I’m ready to shove my husband off the 3G balcony.

“I’m not agitated!”


My husband is Italian. When we got together I assumed I’d pick up the language like you pick up the common cold. The thought of hiring a private tutor never crossed my mind. I didn’t take classes. Did not even sign up for a free online course. I just waited for osmosis.

We spent time in Italy. A few months in Venice. A few months in Umbria. There were many evenings around dinner tables with people chatting very quickly in Italian. I’d pay attention for the first half hour, then grow tired and motion for the jug of red wine to be sent my way. “You must try harder,” people said. “It’s so easy.” Certo, certo, troppo facile!

I learned I was slightly dyslexic in Italian. I’d frequently swap vowels around. Sometimes this led to embarrassing situations like asking for a plate of spaghetti with male genitalia rather than spaghetti with mussels. I learned that Italian is a language obsessed with two things: food and sex, and frequently, the difference between the two was a vowel. It was a bawdy, sensual, lilting, joyful, greedy language with a lot of oomph. I also learned that you could somewhat get away with things if you learned how to used your hands.

There is an entire vocabulary that resides in the movement of Italian hands. Being a dancer, hand waggling came easily to me. Why speak when you can just swish your hands about? This took me quite a distance.

Then last summer, something happened. There was a breakthrough in the osmosis. I realised that without making any effort at all I understood 70% of what Italian people were saying. I still refused to speak because I felt my connecters and verbs were poor, but words were not just sounds anymore, they had meanings. I also realised that in my heart I was a sneaky person. I have been doing this all my life. Sitting outside the house of a certain language, refusing to speak, listening at the doors.

I did this with Gujarati, my father’s language. Every Sunday we’d go to my Bapa’s house where my aunts would beg me to speak in Gujarati. I’d pretend to understand nothing, and when they sprawled out after lunch, forgetting I was there, I’d listen as they gossiped about how much Kamala- behn had spent on a diamond bracelet or what the latest was with Falguni- behn ’s dikri . Travelling on trains in Tamil Nadu, I’d pretend to be a velaikari and eavesdrop on multiple conversations. At any moment I could have pelted out a Tamil film song, but did I? Never. Ditto for Hindi. Blink stupidly and suck them dry had always been my modus operandi.

Not speaking a language had allowed me to stand at a distance from worlds that I either wanted to claim or that wanted to claim me. It was a kind of weapon. It offered space. But then Jhumpa Lahiri had to go and write a book in Italian. She earnestly sat and wrote a book in a language she loved, not because she thought it was going to add to the great canon of Italian literature, but because she wanted to and she could. Hearing about it in my hideout, I began to feel like a spectacular failure. I started to berate myself. When Jhumpa went to Italy she bought herself a dictionary, but what did you do? You went and bought a black mini skirt. Pah.

For days I begged my husband to speak to me only in Italian. I started an Italian notebook and promised to learn ten new words a day. When we went on our evening walks we spoke only in Italian, which made it a pretty one-sided conversation, but hey, I was trying, I was trying. After three days, I had a meltdown. BASTA ITALIANO.

“Maybe it’s time we went back to the city?” my husband suggested.

On the last day of February we made the slow crawl back to Chennai. All sorts of distractions began flooding in. I forgot about Jhumpa and started worrying about other things, like why so many people had stuffed toys in the rear view window of their cars. Maybe I’d been thinking about things wrong. Maybe it should be more about letting the world in than keeping it at bay? Maybe we should all have a new language on our tongue and a fluffy pink tiger in our sights?

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