the limitations of language
A little over a fortnight ago, I wrote this. About old neighbours leaving and new neighbours moving into the home beside ours.
Yesterday, my new neighbour, Jana, saw me outside and came over to say Hello. She asked me to come over for coffee today. I went to her place shortly after lunch with a packet of Indian sweets in my hand.
Jana speaks very little English. I speak no Macedonian. Yet, I spent almost an hour at her place, as we conversed with each other using discrete words rather than full sentences, plenty of gestures, and lots of laughter and smiles and hugs.
She will turn 64 this coming Saturday, she has two sons, 41 and 36 years old, the older one has an 8-month-old daughter, Jana and her husband first moved from Macedonia to Canada about 20 years ago, their older son followed three years later, and her younger son followed several years after that. She and her older son don't each much meat, whereas her husband and her younger son are ardent meat-lovers. They first lived in Windsor for a decade, then in Hamilton for several years, before moving to Burlington four years ago. They go to church. There's no Macedonian church in Burlington, but there's one each in Hamilton and in Mississauga, and three in Toronto alone. She never went to school as she began working from an early age. She also speaks Serbian.
This may seem like mere factual information at first but all this is helping me piece together the kind of person I perceive her to be. Warm. Generous. Someone who has faced struggles yet plowed on.
I took with me a small box of Indian sweets for her, and I came back with a bunch of Macedonian goodies for D, who is nursing a cold and could not accompany me (and Jana understood it when I communicated that, and in response, she pointed out the window towards the overcast sky, attributing D's illness to the fluctuations in weather). She also thrust in my hands a bottle of red wine for me to share with KrA, who had stayed back at home with D.
My visit to Jana today reminded me of KrA's dad's sister (whom we call Bua), who lives in a remote, rural village in Bihar Sharif. Several years ago, we found ourselves staying together for a few days in a rental apartment down south to attend to a family emergency. She only spoke Bihari. I spoke Hindi. People tell me there are similarities between the two languages, but there was none I could discern in those early days when Bihari was completely new to me. (It still is.) Nevertheless, there were occasions when Bua and I were the only ones at home, and we shared a jovial time with each other.
The lack of a common language to converse in meant that we were compelled to pay each other complete attention so that we could understand each other at the very least.
Comprehension demanded a lot more effort than usual. We had to pay attention to each others' gestures and facial expressions to make sense and derive meaning. This, in turn, compelled us to be completely present with each other.
Unlike in a conversation between two people speaking the same language, when two people are mostly ignorant of each other's language, there is never any expectation of being completely understood. Any misunderstanding is easily written off as miscomprehension and not attributed to malicious intent.
Once I came back home to find that Bua had stitched up a rip in my salwaar of her own accord. I bought her a saaree on the way back home one day.
There is an exquisite simplicity and authenticity in such relationships despite, or perhaps because of, the very barrier that seems to stand between two people who do not share a language in common.
On the contrary, I have witnessed misunderstandings galore, utter lack of comprehension, and a stubborn unwillingness to even give each other the benefit of doubt when two people with the same mothertongue engage in conversation.
One of the books I read and talk about in this month's forthcoming newsletter is Jhumpa Lahiri's Whereabouts. I will say little about the book itself in this post as I will talk about it at length in the newsletter, but it is relevant to our discussion now that Lahiri wrote it first in Italian and then translated it into English.
I was looking up more of Lahiri's works when I came across an article in The New York Times in which Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Benjamin Moser, who lives in Europe, describes what it was like to visit London after the pandemic kept him away from the English-speaking city for two years.
Last fall, I made my first visit to London since the start of the pandemic. A routine commuter flight from Europe felt like a great adventure, and once I’d jumped through the bureaucratic hoops, I was excited to arrive. But the city looked disappointingly unchanged after everything the world had gone through. The only thing that really shocked me was something I hadn’t expected: hearing people speaking English. After two years away from it, I had never felt so moved to encounter my own language.
Hearing a mother tongue is like stepping into a warm bath. But one of the disquieting discoveries that studying foreign languages brings is the awareness that your own can be a trap. By providing a steady drip of prefabricated words and ideas, your only tool for thinking and feeling can just as easily become a tool for not thinking, for not feeling; and when forced to do without those words and ideas, you realize how many of your so-called thoughts are nothing more than clichés grafted onto you by the language with which you grew up.
~ Benjamin Moser, an excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri Leaves Her Comfort Zone, The New York Times
Isn't that second paragraph breathtakingly beautiful? Doesn't it force you too to sit up and take notice of the words we utter, the ease and thoughtlessness with which we utter them, the words we hear, the half-attention we pay them as we juggle our own thoughts in our head simultaneously?
I've often wondered why we use phrases in English such as "I broke my leg" or "I hit my head", as if we did those things to ourselves deliberately and it wasn't by accident that we ended up with a broken bone or a lump on our head.
I have a feeling that I'd be spending more time at Jana's place than I ever did when my previous neighbours, John and Natasha, lived there.