Thursday, September 07, 2006

English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

Vikram Chandra's novel Sacred Games is written in English, but it is an English that meets its characters halfway we find in it a sediment of the Hindi in which they really think and speak. Here, for example, is inspector Sartaj Singh threatening a man: "Don't argue with me, gaandu. You want me to take your izzat in front of your family? In front of your daughter?" This is the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde: "Under the grey sky they walked up and down, counting, and while this ginti was going, I discussed my plan with my two controllers."

Even the narrator in the Sartaj sections (the Gaitonde sections are narrated in the first person) often makes this move across tongues. Here is Sartaj at Katekar's funeral: "A man, another constable, carried a matka full of water. Sartaj could hear the rhythmic gulp of the water as he walked. The thali full of flowers and gulal was carried by another constable, close behind... They entered the shamshan through a tall black metal gate." The Hindi is always unitalicised, not marked out as foreign.

As Indian readers we take this quite calmly, and think of it as a judicious and even necessary blend the language allows us through to the characters by appropriating some of their speech in the original. By annexing a part, Chandra suggests the whole: we can readily imagine how the characters might sound in the Hindi.

Of course, Chandra's characters are themselves attracted by the allure and promise of English. In one of the book's most charming passages, revelatory of the struggle of tens of thousands in our country "born far from English", Gaitonde speaks of how his inadequacy in English stings him, and recounts his agonising struggles to master the language (a trivial paradox here is that his lament about English is actually in English):
I closed my door when I studied English because I didn't want anyone seeing me squatting on the floor, one uncertain and slow finger on the letters….It was humiliating, but necessary. I knew that much of the real business of the country was done in English. People like me, my boys, we used English, there were certain words we used with fluency in our sentences, without hesitation, "Bole to voh ekdum danger aadmi hai!" and "Yaar, abhi ek matter ko settle karna hai" and "Us side se wire de, chutiya." But unless you could rattle off whole sentences without having to stop and struggle and go back and build them bit by bitter bit, unless you could make jokes, there were whole parts of your own life that were invisible to you yourself, gone from you. You could live in a Marathi world, or a Hindi colony, or a Tamil lane, but what were those hoardings speaking…?…What were they laughing about, the people who skimmed by smoothly in their cushiony Pajeros? There were many like me, born far from English, who were content to live in ignorance. Most were too lazy, too afraid to ask how, why, what. But I had to know. So I took English, I wrestled it and made it give itself to me, piece by piece.
Like Gaitonde's boys, Chandra has created a serviceable alloy of two languages, in which the smallest dabs of Hindi keep the language close to the ground, and allow Chandra to take off on the most lyrical flights of English and not sound as if he is talking above the characters. This is Gaitonde taking his bride back home during the Bombay riots to the colony he has built, Gopalmath, which he finds ravaged by conflict. Of the two words of Hindi in this passage one is the resonant 'vatan':
Then I looked about, at the homes of Gopalmath. During a lull in my own war I had left my home, and came back to find my home the battleground for a larger conflict. They, somebody, had drawn borders through my vatan. Here was my Gopalmath, the habitation of my heart, the town that I had caused to be built, brick by brick, where I had walked with my friends, arms on shoulders, with the smell of gajras and falling water in the air, where I had found my manhood, my life. Here was the bright quilt of its roofs, stretching from the bowl of the valley up the hill, this vibrant spread of brown and blue and red knit together by the arcing threadlike lanes, here were the numerous angular reachings of the television antennas, catching their fierce glints from the hovering sun. All of it lay desolate. And at the very edge of the horizon, to the south, a smudge of smoke. Under that unbearably bright sky I took my bride home.
Here the gajras and the vatan with which the English is flavoured might be seen as transforming our reading of such phrases as 'the arcing threadlike lanes' or 'the numerous angular reachings of the television antennas'. The apotheosis of this method, in which the burnished lyricism of the English is steadied and Indianised by deposits from the vocabulary of the character, appears to my mind, in the chapter in which Gaitonde is arrested for the first time. In one long, long sentence, which proceeds as if miming the slow progression of the hours, he describes the routine of life in jail:
In three weeks I was able to execute my plan. And in those three weeks, I learnt the rhythms of this new life: the whistle at five in the morning; the drowsy rows outside for the ginti; the rattling of alumunium plates and bowls and the crackling of the tari on the dal, for which tari you paid extra; the long hours of the morning, and then the smell of cooking from the bissi where they kneaded the atta with their feet and threw rotting vegetables into huge bowls; after lunch at ten, the murmur of conversation and the snores and the smell of hundreds of men sweating; the smokers with their precious little balls of charas and their long rituals of burning and crumbling and rolling; the shifting games of chess, and teen-patti, and Ludo, and the curses and the laughter over the rattle of the dice; my boys ranged around the only two carromboards in the barracks, feeding their passionate following of the championship league they had set up, complete with blackboards for singles and doubles ladders; the tussles and sudden enmities that flared between men packed together, that spread like winding fire through the rows of beds; the shouting and threats as two men faced each other under the eyes of a hundred, each too afraid of shame to back down; the brawny kalias from Nigeria selling tiny fifty-rupee packets of brown sugar in the yard; and their clients, hunched knee to knee in tight little circles over their chaser-pannis, breathing in the smoke with the devout expression of men who had seen another, better world. And the long wait for five o'clock and the dinner of the same watery dal, and the lumpy coarse rice, and the rubbery chappatis, and then sleep at eight.
Here is another piece by Jeet Thayil dealing in some detail with the language of Sacred Games. My review of the novel is here.

1 comment:

Chandrahas said...

Amit - It seems clear to me that Chandra is not doing the same thing as Joshi, or even Rushdie for that matter. It's more interesting to think about the differences in the blends that writers conjure up than postulate that they are all up to the same thing.