My purpose in learning English is to master it – with purist respect for grammar and syntax. For some reason I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to do this I just need to mentally rewire.
It was in English that I began to enter literary life – through my school and college, and then through my half-hearted reading and writing. My purpose in learning English is to master it – with purist respect for grammar and syntax. For some reason I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to do this I just need to mentally rewire. I firmly believe that just knowing the language is not enough. I had to absorb it somehow; I had to start thinking in English because it was possible to think in language.
That’s how my marriage to English started, in my early twenties. That’s when I decided to subject myself to a language detox to clear my native language influences. I no longer speak Hindi and only use it when absolutely necessary (and when I’m with my parents). When friends say something to me in Hindi, I respond in English and often have full conversations in this bilingual mode, like some babes in colonial India. (For the record, my wife and I still talk to each other this way, across languages - she’s in Hindi, I’m in English.)
One thought, one language. This is the monolingual dictatorship model I crave. Because I wanted to be a writer, and at that time, in that particular culture I grew up in, for various historical and bureaucratic reasons, the language of writing was English.
Naturally, then, I felt – and still feel – like an outsider in Hindi. It is not without irony that I say this because I was born in Hindi and made my first verbal connection with the world through this language. Indeed, there are some innate linguistic theories that give me ownership of Hindi, telling me that I carry this language in me, somewhere in the genetic mix.
However, as I hesitated to embark on a journey of rediscovering Hindi, my distance from Hindi had been established – but this time, I was fully aware that I was an outsider to the language. As it turns out, the journey begins with a piece of literature. Picked up at a roadside stall in Delhi, the book is Shabd Aur Smriti (Words and Memory) of Nirmal Verma, a collection of essays on literature – more precisely, world literature collection of essays, the term is now forgotten. As I moved slowly through it, I was amazed at how quickly I was drawn to Velma’s dreamy, clear, long-sentence prose, and I realized that I was at a moment that marked a major turning point in my reading life. . Most serious readers have experienced moments like this. John Keats likens it to the excitement of “a certain sky watcher/when a new planet swims into his field of vision”. This is the moment of discovering something new – a form, a writer, a tradition – with which we know we will spend the rest of our lives. During that encounter with Verma, I of course discovered Hindi for the first time. But there is another discovery here, and it has to do with a particular kind of literary imagination that is prevalent in the world.
Shabd Aur Smriti is the slimmest book in Verma’s books, but its size doesn’t say much about the impact it had on readers when it was published (1976), let alone on me. My experience reading it was rather bizarre—as the critic Harold Bloom told us, bizarreness is the hallmark of literary genius. I was fascinated, impressed, confused and disoriented at the same time. First, Verma is tackling the “big problems” of life and literature. “The Crisis of Communication,” “The Decline of Prose,” “The Creative Process and Value Judgments”—chapter titles that are enough to put off the casual reader, especially one trained in a staunchly empiricist, somewhat anti-intellectual Anglo-American literary tradition. I was taught to scoff at such grandstanding. However, here is a writer who seems to be saying that, contrary to the zeitgeist, ideas matter.
Verma’s unabashed commitment to spiritual life was a gift from his immersion in European culture—the book’s epigraph was written by the French philosopher Simone Weil— — also part of his legacy as a Hindi writer, as it was later understood. But I soon understood that Velma had opened up two different routes for me – one to Hindi and the other to Europe, the memory of which was long gone, a globalized, commercialized, Americanized Europe replaced by dreams of progress.
Verma’s own discovery of Europe in the 1960s was a turning point in his writing career. This freed him from the intellectual monopoly of the English-speaking West (and politics here too; Velma was a colonial kid born in the summer capital of England, Shimla). Europe exposed him to a variety of literary traditions, both successive and distinct, local and international. Europe and India are similar in this regard. But, as Nabokov reminds us, just noticing the similarities is a sign of inferiority. As such, Verma is equally (if not more) interested in grasping the differences between India and Europe, which he will explore and articulate time and time again throughout his career.
I believe Europe’s attraction to Verma has a lot to do with the indefinability of European culture. “Europe” is a meaningless term as it is intended to define a shared set of kinship and lineage. This is not so much a tradition as it is a concept, an idea. It is in this context that Borges’ identification with “the whole of Europe” begins to make sense to us. Like John Berger’s desire to “be a European writer” one day. These writers are not talking about Europe as heritage; they are talking about Europe. For them, Europe is likewise an invention – it is a utopia that stands for openness, cultural integration, modernity and individuality.
Traces of Verma’s invention of Europe can be found in all his books. But it was with Shabd Aur Smriti that I first encountered this imaginary continent, and suddenly a whole new world seemed accessible to me: the world of European thought. Oddly, what connects me to it is Hindi, making me feel like early readers of Verma were reading Hindi translations of the Czech novels he had been doing in the 60s, or the myriad of indirect translations he did feelings at the time. Paragraphs from Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Proust, and Pasternak, among others. It’s not just a matter of discovering these writers through Verma – I’ve read or read many of them before coming to him. Instead, I’m learning to see them in a new way, to relate them in a new way, despite the obvious incompatibilities. I am learning how writers create literary traditions through writing. The names mentioned above are as central to Verma’s imagination as the names written in Hindi by his ancestors and contemporaries. They are all part of the same tradition – and I always find myself talking to that tradition when I read Verma.
(From Vineet Gill’s forthcoming book, This Life and This World: The Literary Life of Niermal Velma, with permission from Penguin Random House, India.)
Vineet Gill is a writer and editor. His essays, usually literary criticism and occasionally personal, have appeared in various Indian and international publications. He has spent much of the past decade struggling to read and write, trying to build his life around these two interconnected pursuits. This is his first book.