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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Speak easy: The Lode Star for Identity

For language and literature to thrive in a diaspora, there needs to be a guardian angel to champion its cause.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
Updated: September 17, 2017 12:09:03 am
Lone crusader: Festschrift for Iyer, published last year.

Feroz Abbas Khan’s splendid musical, the third iteration of Mughal-e-Azam produced by Shapoorji-Pallonji, has amazed Delhi with live singing and sets brought in on 50 trucks, manned by a crew 300-strong. But an interesting aspect has been overlooked — by popular demand, subtitles are provided. Translations of the dialogue scroll down the walls just off the wings, and they are required reading. The Urdu of 1960, when the blockbuster premiered, is no longer understood in the city of Mir and Ghalib.

Languages live in the ear. If you don’t hear them regularly, they vanish from memory. The Urdu vocabulary has receded from popular cinema and everyday speech. “Khat” used to be the common word for a letter; now it’s “chitthi”. The “khwabgah” has yielded place to what property dealers call the “badroom”. “Janab” lingers on only in the courtrooms of fussy judges. On the street, it has been replaced by the energetic, “Oye!” People in the capital hear very little Urdu in everyday life, and are slowly forgetting the language.

Massive demographic change is also instrumental. A city which was dominated by people from Punjab and Shahjanabad now has neighbourhoods where Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam are commonly understood. We celebrate the international diaspora, but large countries have diasporas within, too, created by the internally displaced. In Delhi, the wavefronts of numerous internal diasporas meet. They have changed the soul of the city, generally for the better. But the old lingua franca has suffered collateral damage.

With labour seeking mobility on par with capital, the diaspora could become the default population entity. About 40 million people claim Irish descent, while Ireland’s population is just 4.7 million. Between 1870 and 1970, 27 million poor Italians struck out for the Americas in search of better lives. The Tamils provide the biggest and oldest emigrant subcontinental diaspora, and its geographical spread is vast.

Diasporas try to maintain their identity as they globalise. Religious identity is easy — all it takes is a priest and subscriptions for the traditional festivals. Holding on to culture is more difficult, and literature especially so. Essentially hieratic, the literature of the diaspora is often maintained by lone, heroic editors who are the lodestars of the firmament of their language, but obscure outside it. I met one of them last month, with whom I have corresponded with for over a decade, but never spoken with face to face.

A friend from Chennai took us to R Pathmanabha Iyer’s tiny council flat in the east London suburb of Plaistow. It is an apartment made out of books. You have to walk sideways, like a crab, between walls and towers of books. Before you can sit down, you have to move some stacks to make room. Sitting down is disruptive, since it displaces the literary matrix in Iyer’s mind, which allows him to pull out from the gigantic library that is his home, with marvellous accuracy, books that he wants to talk about. That day, it was a book yet unwritten — Iyer is in search of a writer for a definitive volume on ‘Tambi’: Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, the pub-crawling Sri Lankan poetry editor of Fitzrovia, who was once almost as influential as his model, TS Eliot . He was pleased when I recognised the name, for not many do any more. He looked at me speculatively for a moment. No. Not this, not this…

Tambimuttu (1915-1983), a Tamil from Jaffna, burst upon London’s literary scene at the age of 23, when he founded Poetry-London, a small publication which would become a driver of the modernist movement. In a career spanning London and New York, he published the top names of Beat — Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso — apart from modernists like Katherine Raine, Lawrence Durrell and Robin Skelton, besides Vladimir Nabokov. Shortly after the liberation war, he introduced the world to Bangladeshi literature. Colourful pub-crawling poet of Fitzrovia, the famous creative district of London named for the long-defunct Fitzroy pub, Tambimuttu died in 1983 after a fall in his Bloomsbury office. Now obscure, he is indeed in need of a chronicler.

From the heart of towering piles of books, Iyer prestigidates early volumes of Poetry-London which Google Books would die to get their hands on. One wonders how he will navigate his world when they are all gone, as they will be. His books are bound for the University of Toronto library, to form an important resource for students of Tamil. Since the Eighties, Iyer has served as a bridge joining Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil literature. He worked with the Lankan government before moving to the UK, an economic refugee, to work in a gas station. Now 76, he is still a bridge spanning the Tamil world, and is a hub of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. A few of them have gained fame, like the rapper Mathangi Arulpragasam or M.I.A., daughter of Arular, a founding member of the LTTE-affiliated EROS — Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students. Many more depend on guerrilla editors like Iyer to bring their work to readers.

In the labyrinth of books in Plaistow, he pulled out dozens that he deemed worthy of notice, which might interest or educate us. Finally, as he ushered us out, an improbable figure in east London in his veshti, he gave my daughter Sanjay Patel’s illustrated Ramayana (Chronicle Books, San Francisco). This is the essential role of an editor — to draw your attention to a text that could have passed you by otherwise.

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