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Jaipur Literature Festival: Day 4

Sunday, February 13th, 2011
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Whether to write in one’s mother tongue or an ‘imperial’ one is a debate that has been going on for as long as postcolonial literatures have existed. Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o slugged it out decades ago, the latter ultimately forsaking English for his mother tongue, Gikuyu. Chimamanda Adichie, author of ‘Half a yellow sun’, faced the same question in Jaipur, as did authors in a later session on ‘Imperial English’.

Chimamanda Adichie discusses what it's like to follow Achebe
Chimamanda Adichie discusses what it’s like to follow Achebe

For Nigerian Adichie, illiterate in her native Ibo, the question was perhaps unfair. Education in mother tongues, she declared, was a prerequisite. She spoke of how she used to be punished as a schoolchild for ‘speaking in the vernacular’. I couldn’t help but think of the ‘donkey stick’ that used to be handed around to those caught speaking Nepali (by their friends) in St. Xavier’s Godavari.

JM Coetzee, in typically sparing fashion, defined the dilemma facing those with ‘dual lives’. The mother tongue is the private sphere; the imperial is the public sphere of school and work. Unsentimentally, Coetzee dismissed the idea that there was anything special about mother tongues: “You claim ownership of a language as you master it.” A tonic for those who suffer the guilt of writing in a language defined as ‘imperial’ or at best, ‘foreign’.

What then to make of Roberto Calasso, the Italian who has made Sanskrit his own? In a repeat performance of last year, Calasso held his audience in thrall as he spoke of how the Vedas describe the ascent of man. How the first seed of the mind appeared, how man transformed himself from prey to predator, how he begins to reflect on the self, and actualises meaning through rituals. For Calasso, ‘the knowledge that transforms the knower’ is a particularity of Vedic knowledge that has been lost to the moderns.

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