I LIVE in a country where I don’t speak the language. By language I don’t just mean spoken language, but the language of culture, of mannerisms and manners and intertwining conflicting histories. I have always felt as though it should come naturally to me to understand some of the languages of India, since I’m half-Indian and have spent about a third of my life here, but I fail as often as I try. This isn’t always a bad thing, however. Every failure is a new piece to the puzzle. Even though the puzzle is hellishly complicated, multi-dimensional and changes continuously.
I discovered, instead, that I could find kinship with people despite the absence of a common language. We fell back on the basics, on the wordless gestures that ultimately say the most. Smiles and eye contact and offers of food. “I like you, you like me, let me feed you.” The friendship that stands out most in my mind, from my time spent on the edge of the rainforest, was one I developed with the woman who cooked for my roommate and me. Through the combination of my English-to-Tamil book (used as a rudimentary dictionary), and her bubbly nature, we became friends. She was convinced that my roommate and I were going to waste away because there was no fish in our diets. Despite my protests that I didn’t like fish and was perfectly healthy , the language barrier meant that her enthusiasm won out over my arguments.
So one evening I found myself making my way down to her little place by the river, where she could feed me what she considered proper food. It was fish, cooked in some magical way I found delicious, when I’ve never had a taste for fish in my life. I was on display as I ate; the neighbours clustered round to see this peculiar half-white girl come to eat dinner, asking me questions and scolding me for not knowing Tamil.
The second time I came down to the bottom of the hill was to say goodbye before leaving for Bengaluru. Through sign language and English and bad Tamil, I told her I was leaving, and did not know when I’d come back. She was distraught, as was her little wisp of an old mother. I had no words I could use to make them feel better. On my way out I touched her mother’s feet. I had no idea if this was appropriate, but it seemed it might show how much I appreciated their kindness.
In the absence of language, we fell back on the basics, on wordless gestures. ‘I like you, you like me, let me feed you’
And as I stood up, her mother started weeping. She seemed impossibly, and to me incomprehensibly, moved by my gesture. This frail, white haired lady with whom I could only communicate through smiles took me by the hand and walked me halfway back up the hill to where I was staying, taking the steps slowly, solemn and sad. There was a narrative here that I could not grasp; a story I caught a glimpse of and then lost without having ever quite known what it had been about.
I call India home, but I am not fluent in any of its many languages. Consequently, I cannot ever be quite at home here: my role tends to be that of an intensely curious and often befuddled fly on the wall. Except that sometimes I find myself swept into the thick of things. As I was led through the village by a sweet old woman who was sad and moved by my actions to an extent beyond my comprehension, I felt as though I had strayed unknowing into some Greek tragedy, the strange pathos of which teased at my understanding and haunts me still.