Where do words go when people stop speaking them?

feature image with the words "shabdon ka antim sanskaar" and "Where do words go" along with the logo of purple pencil project on a black background
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A few months ago, barely weeks into lockdown, I was having chai with my grandparents in the morning while they regaled me with anecdotes of their childhood. As they took turns describing what life was like in the villages and towns of India on the heels of attaining independence, they peppered their tales with rustic colloquial terms, terms I had never heard before. One was about furniture – a cross between a chaarpai and stool. Another was a technique to separate and chop strands of vermicelli noodles. They had their own tweaks on the words too, spoken differently in their families. They did their best to explain it but I couldn’t visualize it. My mother, the generational bridge between us, wasn’t home. The conversation changed its course like a river charting its own flow and it deposited the silt of those words behind.

The cousins of my grandparents have since either passed on or have no contact with them. The time they talked of has gone. The things they described aren’t here. The words they spoke were so rare that I may not hear them again. Ever.

Where do words go when people start forgetting them?

The words I’ve grown up speaking at home come from three languages – English, Hindi, and Punjabi. Or Punjabi, Hindi, English. Or Hindi, English, Punjabi. The order is beside the point. At times, a thought started in one language streams into another mid-sentence. There is no consensus on replying in the same language. Conversations at home have been a trilingual affair – a yarn of three threads wound so tightly that you’d have to snip one to separate the three.

I find videos on YouTube that build on the richness of a brain fluent in more than one language. I secretly pride myself on the claimed richness the creases and folds my grey matter possesses although I have nothing to show for it except words. But words can fail and pride can stumble.

The other day I couldn’t recall the Hindi word for kidney. I tried to pass it off as a momentary lapse. It was slipping my mind, as the phrase goes. But minutes turned to hours. I started thinking of other organs in Hindi. Repeating them over and over. As though remembering others was enough to excuse this failure. As though I could trick my brain into conjuring what it hadn’t deemed important enough to remember. Like oil that lubricates the rusty chains that hinder the cycle’s motion, I wanted to get my mental gears greased enough to churn up the word. It had indeed slipped my mind. But after slipping, it might as well have fallen off a cliff. Like the Memory Dump in the movie ‘Inside Out’ – the chasm where memories and words and phrases and sentences pass into oblivion.

गुर्दा. That’s kidney in Hindi. I had to call upon Google for help. My pride was shattered in all three languages.

Where do words go when people start forgetting them?

I wish it were a one-off incident that a word in Hindi eluded me. When you stop exercising your muscles, they begin to atrophy. Use it or lose it, as the phrase goes. But it’s not as if I know everything there is to know in English. I slip, slide, and fumble my way through it too. At times, I think of a word like ridiculous and I think and think and think until the spelling stops making sense. My brain has no time for whatever cerebral duel I wish to engage it in.

When my slipping grip begins to concern me, I turn to a book I purchased a few years ago from the Delhi Book Fair. It’s a collection of short stories by Premchand. प्रतिनिधि कहानियाँ. Representative Stories. I turn to them to prove to myself, Look, I can do it. It’s like turning to Shakespeare to validate your English. But I confess to not having read beyond a few pages. The first story is one I had read in my textbook in Class X and I like re-reading it because it reminds me of my class. The book sits on my bookshelf, embarrassingly, the lone Hindi book in a sea of authors from over the world, mocking me. You said you could do it, but did you?

I think to myself, I’m just as comfortable articulating in Hindi but on occasions when an app or website switches to Hindi due to some error, I reach for the English button as a reflex. I’ll indulge myself now and then but that’s what it tends to be. An indulgence. A moment given away. Let’s see what this post sounds like in Hindi. Oh, that was fun but it’s enough for today. Hindi pervades my music, movies, conversations, and in moments of frustration, curses. But it hides during my reading, playing second fiddle. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Where do words go when people start avoiding them?

When I was in Europe last year, me and my friends spoke a lot in Hindi. More so than I recall doing in the last few months, if not years. It was fun. It was a tether to home. It was conspiratorial. It raised eyebrows. It turned heads. It broke the ice. It froze it further. It was the most rebellious a bunch of law-abiding exchange students could afford to be. Those who believe that language always binds, haven’t been in a land where no one else speaks it.

On a tram in Lille, France, I spotted a woman reading a French translation of Harry Potter. She was at ease with her book, unbothered about challenging the purity of the author’s words in the original language, unperturbed about what may be lost in translation. Why didn’t I ever do it? I grew up watching (some of) the Harry Potter movies in Hindi but even then, among myself and my friends, there was an implicit understanding that this experience was a placeholder until we got access to it in English – ‘the way it is supposed to be’.

Dur-e-Aziz Amna, the author of the award-winning essay, Your Tongue Is Still Yours, writes, “I have the privilege of knowing English and choosing to intermittently reject it, like an on-again off-again lover on speed dial.” Why can’t I?  

A lyric in an Annie Lennox song goes, “Language is leaving me”. I feel that now.

My guilt over my Mother Tongue is a wave that drowns and lifts me alternately. Like Holden Caulfield, I must be the Catcher in the Rye and make sure no word falls over the cliff. I have nothing to show for my guilt except words. I have nothing to show of my resolution to erase that guilt but words. They have traced their way from the recesses of my mind onto this prose. What do I hope to achieve with them? It’ll suffice that they are read by you. If not…

Where do words go when people stop reading them?

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Chaitanya Sethi

Chaitanya Sethi

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