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Remembering in English

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By Rashida Murphy

My paternal grandfather died when I was six years old but my memories of him are lucid and visceral, reinforced by old black-and-white photographs. Photographs that show an unsmiling man, short and portly, dressed in pinstripes and waistcoat with a fob watch looped around his waist. He leans on a stick and his rimless spectacles suggest short sightedness. Yet I remember laughter, deep belly-shaking laughter and energy; energy and robustness that defied the weariness I see in the photos. And I remember him in English, a language I am certain he never spoke.

So what is it about memories and language? I dream in two languages, sometimes three. With my siblings and cousins I spoke Hindi/Urdu (and still do, despite Hindustani not being my mother tongue), but our parents and grandparents obliged us to speak to them in Gujarati, which we did. At the obligatory convent school that most middle-class children of my generation were politely sent to, we spoke English properly, rounding our vowels and learning the difference between the s in whispering and the one in cosmic. Also, at our convent we encountered Jesus and Mary and all the saints whose days were observed with a piety we couldn’t summon for our own rituals at home.

My grandfather’s rituals were not of a religious nature, or none that I can recall. His wife, my grandmother, was the devoted one, cleansing and purifying and blessing everything from clothing and flowers to children and birds. Grandfather preferred to walk and talk with us at dawn, in the park, before school. Sometimes he liked to sit on a bench and watch as we ran the length of the park and back. He talked as if we were equals, asking questions about school, telling us he’d once spent six months in a villa in Italy and made friends with an Abyssinian sailor he’d brought back to India with him. He ignored Grandmother’s histrionics, especially when she erupted into a week-long rage and refused to speak to him or us for reasons we never understood.

My father remembers a different man; a quick-tempered, angry man who frittered away his inheritance and health and was gone too soon. My father picked up the pieces, patched up the torn family fabric and became an elder before his time. He vowed not to leave a mess for us.

My grandfather was the first dead person I ever saw. It’s not something you forget – ever. The sight of him on a white hospital bed with his eyes closed and you being urged to kiss that clammy cold dead face by someone who pushes you right up beside him. Afterwards you spill your guts out in your mother’s lap on the ride home and your memory of him will always induce nausea. But that is not how you want to remember. So you translate his living into another language.

In English, my grandfather’s life was intriguing. He was born probably around 1900 or earlier, a child of Empire who lived through the two World Wars, Partition and Independence. His older brother went to Pakistan and they never met again. His younger brother went to Kenya and returned to the ancestral home where they spent several years ignoring each other. In a family prone to volatility, my grandfather stood apart. He had been to Italy. He had chosen to stay on in independent India. He had an opinion on Rudyard Kipling. He was not cuddly; he sent us home firmly if we hung around too long.

I never dream about him. My grannies, however, appear erratically in my dreams and I wake with thoughts of my daughter, my hand reaching for a mobile to send a text, in English.

Aatish Taseer says that for Indians, English re-enacts the colonial relationship and renders the country voiceless[1]. Perhaps. But somewhere in the inherited cacophony of our multilingual selves, there is room for voicing something that can only be rendered in a foreign language. Something that can be re-membered and re-lived and re-gifted.

[1] How English ruined Indian Literature: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/opinion/sunday/how-english-ruined-indian-literature.html?_r=0

Photo-credit: Rashida Murphy

Author:

Rashida Murphy is a Perth-based writer and poet. She has been published previously in Cafe Dissensus, Westerly, Marginata, and Poetry D’Amour. She has just finished writing her first full length novel.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on the poet of love and protest, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, edited by Pooja Garg Singh, poet and writer.

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13 Responses to “Remembering in English”

  1. Karen M

    Wonderful stuff Rashida, evocative and containing a universe of things to think about. Your family is so colourful, and so alive, at least in the way you write it’s various members and dynamics! And the question of language and identity, language and politics, language and the edge of awareness is a huge one, touching on many aspects of being as you capture so well here. Your piece is like a prism, sending light in many directions, containing rainbows and darkness both. Gorgeous.

    Reply
  2. lopu123

    Such a heart-warming creative nonfiction account that weaves together so many different layers and strings them together so beautifully and eloquently! Loved reading every line of the piece and the connections that you make are so universally relevant!

    Best,
    Lopa.

    Reply
  3. louisehelfgott

    What wonderful evocative writing with so much psychological insight! I could visualise your grandfather well and I had a glimpse into some of your earliest and life-shaping experiences. Well done, Rashida.

    Reply
  4. Gulara

    What an amazing piece, Rashida. I find I relate to so many things you write about: dreaming in one language and speaking in several other languages, while English gradually becoming the dominant one… I too witnessed my grandpa’s death. Managed to kiss him before he took his last breath but it was really scary. I had one dream of him where he beckoned me and I was so freaked out I couldn’t sleep for days afterwards. Maybe he came once or twice since, but not much, whereas grandma is in my dreams a lot (she is alive). Anyway, brought up a lot of memories for me. Thank you for sharing and writing so vividly. I could literally see your grandfather, both on photos and as you remembered him.

    Reply
    • rashidamurphy

      Gulara, thank you for this insight and connection. I think that when we speak other languages, our dreams are jumbled and perhaps richer, who knows?

      Reply
      • Gulara

        So true. Like you, I am fascinated by it all, so deep gratitude for writing about this subject.

    • rashidamurphy

      Thank you very much dear Gulara. Your writing is beautiful and speaks to me in ways I intuitively feel. Your comments are like balm!

      Reply
  5. marlish glorie

    I’m with Gulara, this is amazing and beautiful piece of writing, Rashida. I love your writing and what you have to say! And I was thinking , we’re indeed fortunate in this country that you write in English! x

    Reply

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