For 21-year-old slam poet Diksha Bijlani, English is a language she has no choice but to use. She cannot write poetry in any other tongue. But, just like the Hindi versions of the Disney movies she watched on TV in childhood, she wonders whether her identity isn’t lost in translation.
Perhaps she would rather be true to her “first language”, even if it has been supplanted by her second? Performing her poem, Translated Disney, at Kommune’s Spoken Fest, Bijlani attacked the glorification of English in India (video above). An excerpt:
“I am a descendant of a family of multilingual folk
who are synonymous to non-English speaking.
Who sent me to English school so I could be better than them
Because speaking English in India is status
English in India is ‘Look, I have a verbal Mercedes!’
English in India is sucking up to the colonialists
but forgetting they left a long time ago”
Bijlani, who is from Allahabad, told Scroll.in, “My poem isn’t against English speaking per se, it is against putting English speaking on a pedestal and looking down or inducing an inferiority complex in everybody who cannot speak English. On the sidelines, it is also about a loss of identity experienced by the diaspora, when they are made to accept or fit into a culture that isn’t organically theirs.”
In her poem, Bijlani bemoans a duality of identity she experiences as a result, worrying that this might lead to a decoupling of personal identity from our cultural identity.
“The role language plays in culture is crucial,” she contended. “Many rituals, phrases, ideas which may culturally make sense find no semantic translation into English. We might just strip ourselves of those unique identities if we associate our native languages only via translation, and not with the fluency of first languages. What if our cultural essentialism cannot be captured through English at all? That is how culture dies a slow death – when you asphyxiate the language it was born in.”
Acknowledging the irony of her own poem being in English – something she has received minor criticism for – Bijlani pointed out that it is the result of her education, and because she originally wrote and performed the poem at a poetry slam event in Chicago, to a room full of white people. Moreover, the poem itself acknowledges that irony, as Bijlani recites, “This is not conformity, this is surrender; how I cannot write this poem in anything but English so you (white people) would understand it” and “Frankly, there is no other language I am competent enough to write poetry in”.
“It is up to us to not use one language as the yardstick to measure intellect, or to disseminate knowledge in,” she said.