Mu Vich, Ajeeb Jeeb :: In My Mouth, Strange and Curious Tongue

Raman Mundair

I was born in India but because the British were there I ended up here. I grew up in a context where there was cultural amnesia – both from the coloniser and eventually myself. I lost many things through forced migration, including language – I lost my mother tongue. Schooling in the UK compounded this and in my father’s house, for various reasons, I never had the opportunity to learn my languages except by ear. This meant that I often made errors. I still do. My language in/abilities give me away. These in/abilities demonstrate that I am different in every context. They speak to my split tongue, double-tongued existence. When I have been in India (but sometimes here in the UK) amongst relatives and/or mother-tongue speakers my efforts to communicate have been mocked or shamed. My in/abilities and pronunciation give me away. There are other markers too – class and caste and geography. Being a working class, South Asian lass living in the North (and here I include Scotland) has significantly influenced the shapes my mouth makes and the work I make as a writer and artist.

Baal. Image courtesy of Raman Mundair.
Blessed Sleep
Blessed Sleep. Image courtesy of Raman Mundair.
From Day One
From Day One. Image courtesy of Raman Mundair.

Mu Vich, Ajeeb Jeeb :: In My Mouth, Strange and Curious Tongue, is an experimental exploration of articulation, of the act of naming and forming ways of expressing in a creative, textual, visual and performative way. It is an open ended conversation without an assigned syntax or grammar. It is a diasporic, cultural and linguistic free association, each moment enhancing and amplifying the previous moment. It is a multi-genre work that dances within the evocative space of emotional exile, the space that many of second and third generation people of colour can step into and emerge with an innovative new language and identity – a unique way of seeing and telling our lived experiences.

As a teenager I read Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple and it made a visceral impression upon me. So much of the text landed deeply in me but a stand out excerpt is where the protagonist Celie discovers the joy of language through reading. She begins to re-author herself through language, to develop a distinct identity held by the language she learns and adopts. When in my late teens I began to teach myself my mother tongue on my own terms, I felt like Celie, and like her I was attempting to distance myself from an experience of trauma, trying to shape-shift through the acquisition of language. Being painfully aware of my ineptitude and failure to perfectly grasp the languages I found myself housing them privately inside. A hidden self. One that on the rare occasion had had the courage to share a conversation in Punjabi and Hindi, had invariably been met with unkind laughter. 

My hidden tongue was raw, unsophisticated. It was secreted and yet it was perhaps one of the most true parts of my identity. Its uncomely sound held my early history – of how I began with a multitude of tongues but crossed the water and found it reduced to one. And of then, the arduous journey back to a steadied self-authorship, one where risks can be taken and self-invention trips fluently off the tongue.

In his essay “Exile as a Dissociative State: When a Self is ‘lost in transit’”, Andrew Harlem [1] suggests that:

‘exile’ is both a migratory and psychological phenomenon, with particular emphasis on it as a state of mind—one that, by virtue of the dissociative processes by which it is characterized, forecloses the (psychic) possibility of immigration. From this point of view, an exile is not simply one who cannot (physically) return; she is someone who cannot ‘remember’ other versions of herself, who cannot bridge the gaps between versions of self rooted in disparate times, physical spaces and relationships, who cannot ‘stand in the spaces’ between self-states. 

As a child of colonialism, there is a tension for me between English, the language I inherited through historical and cultural consequence and the languages of my parents, the land of my birth, the tongues I was born into but never fully grasped, selves I never fully stepped into or remembered, spaces that are too claustrophobic or too vast to stand between. And yet this tension is also opportunity – it offers focus and certain freedoms.

Imre Kertész writes about his experience as a German Jew and his struggle with accommodating German as a language when it has been oppressive and violent to his both literally, metaphorically and culturally and his quest for autonomy within that in his essay “The Freedom of Self-Definition”.[2] For Kertész:

My subject is the freedom of self-definition, which entails the simple notion that each and every member of society has the right to be what he or she is. No one should become the object of derision or the victim of discrimination on account of his birth or the way he chooses to regard himself - even if such discrimination is condoned, openly or in secret, by the powers that be. … Here in Europe, you presumably take these freedoms for granted; you enjoy them in your everyday life as basic human rights and may not see the need to talk about them.

Kertész words feel particularly prescient in the era of Brexit and Corvid 19. 

Kertész is aware of the many paradoxes of his lived experience including the fact that “With foreigners, I converse freely, but, with my own countrymen, I am ill at ease.” He also interrogates the sanctuary, identity or sense of belonging that language may offer him. “But German, too, is only a temporary asylum, a night shelter for the homeless. It is good to know this, good to make peace with this knowledge, and to belong among those who belong nowhere. It is good to be mortal.”

The American writer Jhumpa Lahiri also considers these complexities in a recent essay on trying to learn Italian [3]:

In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you. ...In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to write it, or even read it. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I’ve always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language.

There is a weight to that placing of mother tongue alongside foreign language, a burdensome meeting that loosens like phlegm to irritate and cough out further meanings. Lahiri suggests that, “The contiguity of these words, their literal juxtaposition, reinforces the state of contradiction, of entanglement. It gives us a double impression, throwing us off. It expresses in the mythical, I would say primordial, sense the meaning of being two things at the same time. Of being something undefined, ambiguous. Of having a dual identity.” Lahiri muses further on this and comes to a realisation of a fight/flight response at play:

... Dissecting my linguistic metamorphosis, I realize that I’m trying to get away from something, to free myself. I’ve been writing in Italian for almost two years, and I feel that I’ve been transformed, almost reborn. But the change, this new opening, is costly...I find myself confined. I can’t move as I did before, the way I was used to moving in English. A new language, Italian, covers me like a kind of bark. I remain inside: renewed, trapped, relieved, uncomfortable.

Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?

The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me. For practically my whole life, English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy... aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.

The idea of a tension, of a language that creates a weight is suggested as something to be circumnavigated, avoided or best dealt swiftly with but it must be said that some weights can be comforting. A measured, consistent pressure that offers us boundaries, placement, a knowing tension between worlds, between tongues perhaps that orientates?

Xuemei Li highlights in his essay, “Souls in Exile: Identities of Bilingual Writers”[4]:

the [societal] relationship between language and identity...language as a symbolic resource...and language as a badge of identity... and issues such as ‘writer as a migrant,’ ‘double belonging and betrayal,’ ‘awkward betweenness,’ and ‘reconciliation of languages and identities.’” Li further asserts that:

the expression ‘souls in exile’ best describes the condition of being for many bilingual writers during their process of looking for the self in writing and in the host culture. It is usually through painful and painstaking struggles that many bilingual writers are able to reach reconciliation between their first and second languages, and to create an enriched self in writing.

There is no doubt that these issues are complex and subtle and deserve to be discussed animatedly and listened to closely. There are things that are lost, new meanings found and ingenuity at play to discover what our bi- and tri- and quad-lingual mouths can accommodate and accept, what shapes they can adapt to and sounds and meaning they choose to author. This is a fertile, borderless terrain.

I began this project with the aim to create images, text and audio content based on interviews with others who have bi and tri lingual identities. The Covid 19 pandemic arrested and ironically silenced some aspects of my methodology, process and creativity. Original plans included an installation and public events at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow. In a time where we are spending a great deal of time connecting virtually in order to maintain communications and connection, it feels apt that Mu Vich, Ajeeb Jeeb :: In My Mouth, Strange and Curious Tongue should manifest in a virtual form. May it speak to you outside the square or rectangular screen space of your device and begin an ongoing, nuanced conversation that is in a bold bolee*

* (Punjabi for language)

Raman Mundair (@MundairRaman on Twitter) is a writer and artist. Born in India, she was raised in Manchester and Leicester and lives in Scotland. She is the author of two volumes of poetry: A Choreographer's Cartography (2007) and Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves (2003); and the play, The Algebra of Freedom (2007), produced to great acclaim by 7:84 Theatre Company. In 2006 she also collaborated with the National Theatre Scotland and Òran Mòr - A Play, A Pie, A Pint on Side Effects, a one-act play.

Sources cited

[1] Andrew Harlem, “Exile as a dissociative state: When a self is ‘lost in transit’” in Psychoanalytic Psychology 27.4 (2010), 460–74.

[2] Imre Kertész, “The Freedom of Self-Definition” in Witness Literature: Proceedings of the Noble Centennial Symposium, ed. Horace Engdahl (2002).

[3] Jhumpa Lahiri, “Teach Yourself Italian” in The New Yorker (30 November 2015).

[4] Xuemei Li, “Souls in Exile: Identities of Bilingual Writers” in Journal of Language, Identity & Education 6.4 (2007), 259–75.