Trishanku―Language as Purgatory

“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”

So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.

As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.

Today, while I can wrestle the most complicated thought out in English, Hindi remains my spoken language. Which is why when I read books translated into English―from Mandarin or Russian or Bengali―if the dialogue sounds stilted, I imagine it being said in Hindi, and it comes alive with nuances of rhythm and tone. For the banality of the everyday, I need to inhabit Hindi.

Attending middle school in north India, I did have a third language in my life: Sanskrit. Rich in ancient literature and imposing in its grammar, ‘Sanskrit’ means perfect. I, however, hated my Sanskrit classes. They were dry, anodyne, devoid of any literature, filled with only the coda of grammar. I remember nothing of the language today. So, when three years ago I became interested in Sanskrit literature and started poring over English translations, it felt like stumbling upon a lost message in a bottle, addressed especially to me. The language carried the heft of ancient history. But while I read translation upon translation of Sanskrit drama and poetry, I was beset by guilt. I felt as if by reading English translations of an ancient Indian language, I was cheating.

This is because even though my mother tongue is Hindi, my interest in Sanskrit drama is an adult hobby, and my adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English. Language and class are entwined in India and as I navigated my childhood I slowly understood that while my family spoke the most chaste dialect of Hindi―proud in our multifarious vocabulary and immutable grammar―our words could never capture the power a fluid smattering of English could deliver. Even though under the layer of the bubble-wrap I still feel like a gauche, small-town, Hindi-speaking girl―in the milieu of India, English gave me the veneer of confidence. It helped me distance myself from the version of me that I thought was provincial and timid.

Sanskrit was a court language, the language of the elite in ancient India. The commoners spoke Prakrit―‘natural’―and bilingualism was common in Sanskrit drama with women and the lower castes delivering Prakrit dialogues. Hindi evolved between the seventh and the tenth centuries from a type of Prakrit. A kitchen sink of an idiom, it borrows from Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Dravidian languages, English, even Portuguese, but a large chunk of Hindi’s vocabulary comes from Sanskrit.

It was for these reasons that I wondered―does the translation of Sanskrit texts into English, as opposed to Hindi, change the bhav, the ras of the expression? Was I betraying my history by bypassing Hindi and reading ancient Indian texts in English?

So while packing my bags before returning from Delhi to New York this summer, I opened a gigantic suitcase on the floor of my childhood bedroom and filled it with sixteen kilos of books, most of them Hindi translations of Sanskrit drama that are not available in the US. Back in New York, I delved into the Hindi translations over-seriously. Pencil in hand, I read them in parks, on the subway train, waiting in line at Trader Joe’s.

But recently, my suspicions about this politics of translation received a fair battering. Last week I watched a Cambodian dance troupe perform Reamker―the story of the glory of Ram―in Khmer, using shadow puppets. Reamker is based on the Indian epic Ramayan. The Ramayan has always been a part of my narrative consciousness. I have heard and read the Ramayan’s stories in comic books, on television, in school textbooks, as bedtime stories, during all-night community gatherings, as the prayers of my grandparents.

The Ramayan is the story of an Indian prince who is exiled to the forest by his father. His wife is kidnapped in the forest by a foreign king and after an epic battle, Ram returns home victorious with his wife and younger brother. But sitting on the floor in a lower Manhattan auditorium, I needed no context as the shadow of Ram cried over the still form of his dead brother, the siblings surrounded by the debris of war, lit from behind by flaming torches. Time and place collapsed in this perfect moment of comprehension across languages: Grief.

With trade and religion, the stories of the Ramayan travelled across countries. They were articulated in sculptures, paintings, puppet plays, bas-relief on palace walls across Asia. A.K. Ramanujan discusses this in his seminal essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas. While Valmiki’s Ramayan, written in Sanskrit verse somewhere around 300 ACE, is the most influential version, Ramanujan says there are at least three hundred versions of Ram’s story present in Asia in at least twenty-two languages, including Thai, Laotian and Chinese.

When his essay was included in Delhi University’s history syllabus in 2008, it provoked the ire of fundamentalist Hindutva goons who claimed to have been offended by the many Ramayan versions mentioned in the essay. In the Cambodian version, for instance, Ram is not a god but a warrior. The famous bachelor, Hanuman, the monkey god, is a ladies’ man. And while women receive a raw deal in Valmiki’s Ramayan―they are exiled, kidnapped, mutilated, harassed, banished, blamed for the war―some alt-versions give them agency. In the Tamil story of Shatakantharavana, Ram’s damsel in distress wife Sita is a martial hero who kills the villain Ravan.

The upper caste Hindutva reaction slaps a single story over the multiplicity of narrative voices that have built on each other for millennia. Speaking of this self-reflexivity in literature, Ramanujan refers to it as “When mirrors are windows.” In my suspicion of English translations of Sanskrit literature, it worked the other way round. Narcissus-like, what I thought were windows were actually mirrors, and I was projecting my own biases into the interpretations. Perhaps, in my life where languages seem to have been thrown into a blender, being like Trishanku, reveling in the neither here nor there―a king of one’s own unique universe―is the crux of the matter.

Recently my sister in Delhi bought a swath of Madhubani fabric from an artisan from Bihar. The Madhubani style of art originated in Mithila, erstwhile Nepal, the mythical Sita’s homeland. Using natural colours, mud walls were covered with episodes from the Ramayan in Mithila. Today, besides beautiful paintings, the art is also found on sarees and scarves.

My sister took the fabric to her neighbourhood Tailor Auntie in a suburb of Delhi, who works in a tiny room surrounded by vegetable refuse discarded by the vendors. “Kurta?” Tailor Auntie asked. My sister shook her head and gave directions. Tailor Auntie was bemused but she stitched the garment anyway. A month later I received the outfit in the mail. With exaggerated bell sleeves and a hemline that would raise eyes in Delhi, the dress’ silhouette fit today’s New York trends perfectly. But when I pulled the dress down my head and smoothed it down, there were Ram and Sita gazing into each other’s eyes, surrounded by trellises of vines and spotted deer. A pastoral romance.

The story lay draped over my body, the three hundred and first Ramayan, enmeshed with my 21st century reality. For the five minutes that I preened in the mirror, the story was free from the tyranny of history and polity. I twirled with delight and the dress rose around me, Ram and Sita ballooning, my thighs showing scandalously underneath. This translation―woven into cloth, colour and ink―had my complete approval.

Aurvi Sharma grew up in the Indian hinterland, moving from river to river with her family. A Pushcart-nominee, Sharma has been awarded the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Prairie Schooner Essay Prize, the Wasafiri New Writing Prizethe AWP Emerging Writer Scholarship and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner AwardHer essay, Eleven Stories of Water and Stone is notable in the Best American Essays 2016. Sharma’s writing is forthcoming or has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Fourth Genre, Everyday Genius and Remedy QuarterlyShe is also a contributor at Essay Daily and a Blog Editor for Asymptote. A Publishing Associate at Guernica Magazine and a branding consultant at Studio 577, she lives in New York City. 


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