An image of classical Indian poet Kalidasa

Fifth-century writer Kalidasa is considered India's greatest classical poet.

It was while listening to a Tamil story on Spotify that the thought occurred to me: Listening to stories in vernacular Indian languages had changed my writing. Some of the influence came from the cadences of speech. Some came from how Tamil authors phrased and composed their thoughts into words. And some traced to metaphors that were quite different from the English ones I was used to hearing.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, coming up with an original turn of phrase is central to your craft. There are many ways to do this. Some writers, like David Sedaris, carry a notebook at all times to jot down phrases that appeal to them. Others begin the day with journaling to let unconscious and hopefully original thoughts bubble to the surface. Still others, like Margaret Atwood, read their writing aloud to get the rhythm right.

Here is one more option: start absorbing other languages.

Metaphors that reflect culture

My mother tongue is Tamil, a language that is spoken in Sri Lanka and my native state, Tamilnadu, India. I also speak other Indic languages — Hindi, Kannada, and Sanskrit, although not fluently. Having learned English since kindergarten, it has become my default language. That said, since moving back to India from New York City several years ago, I listen to Bollywood music in Hindi. In Bangalore, where I now live, the language on the street is Kannada.

…our native or “mother tongue” is the language that we use to instinctively coo to our children, complain to our mothers, curse at the other driver, and murmur when we have sex.

But the language of my family is Tamil. And it is this language that seems richest to me.

Take a common metaphor in Tamil, often used to describe a person who went from rags to riches, and remains of good, even noble character: He is like a lotus flower that grows in slush.

The lotus is the purest of flowers in Indian culture, so what is implied here is not just beautfy, but character. In other words, this particular metaphor cannot apply to robber barons, even if they rose from rags to riches, because the assumption is that they used devious means to gain their wealth and status.

When a prince flirts with a princess in an ancient Tamil tale, the phrase could be translated thus: She heaved, turned red. Blushing, she dropped her head. The natural rhythm of Tamil, it turns out creates a rhyme in English.

Similes and metaphors have long been an essential tool of a writer’s trade. A simile, with its straight comparisons — this is like that — is usually what we English-language writers first gravitate towards. Tamil, however, prefers the more complex form — the metaphor — with its layered meanings. Rather than going for the obvious — She is as beautiful as a lotus. — Tamil prose and poetry observes a lotus’s behavior and location. Comparing a lotus to a person’s character digs into into the collective consciousness of a culture.

Kalidasa, a 5th century Sanskrit poet who often is considered India’s greatest classical writer, uses metaphors and similes in startlingly original yet supremely apt ways — for the Indian reader, that is. Rivers and elephants, for example, make a frequent appearance in his works. In one poem, he compares the frothy river Ganga which flows on a moonlit night to an elephant’s skin cleaned with the sacred ash that is used in Hindu temples as adornment. This particular comparison may not make immediate sense for a Western reader. But it is both specific and vivid for Indians.

How about birds flying in a formation that resembles a garland hung in a doorway? Can you visualize that specific soft V-formation? It, too, is used by Kalidasa.

Returning to the mother tongue

How then do you access this rich vein of adjective, phrase, simile and metaphor?

It helps, of course, if you are bilingual. The cadences of Spanish, Sinhala or Swahili are different from those of English. Another way is to listen to stories in another language. The simplest way to do that is to listen to music or podcasts or watch shows in other tongues, preferably ones that are geographically distant from English.

I began with stories told in Tamil, which are now widely available. The one I was listening to on Spotify was a sprawling historical tale called  “Ponniyin Selvan.” As I listened on my morning walk, I discovered that the influence of its tales was affecting my English writing. My words were becoming more emotional, more intimate.

This made sense. English has become the global lingua franca. But for those who are bilingual like me, our native or “mother tongue” is the language that we use to instinctively coo to our children, complain to our mothers, curse at the other driver, and murmur when we have sex. Speak — or write — in your native tongue, and you will become more vulnerable, more open, more like the baby that you were when you first heard the language from your parents.

Some of it is basic sentence construction. Different languages link nouns, verbs and adjectives in various permutations and combinations. In Tamil, for example, a fairy tale does not begin with “Once upon a time,” but “In a town, there was a king.” Indian tales use place instead of time as the anchor — geography instead of history. The “Jataka Tales,” which are grounded in Buddhism, most often begin with the phrase, “Once on a time when Brahmadatta was reigning in Benares….” In other words, the tales were told in the time before the Buddha became, well, the Buddha. “The Arabian Nights,” on the other hand, have a different way of organizing tales: Each night, the storyteller, Shahrazad, simply breaks off the story in the middle, lending to its suspense, allowing her to stay alive another day. This is quite unlike how we organize creative material these days.

For this reason, historical fiction is a rich vein to tap. Even English translations of these ancient tales can offer a window into a way of writing that is quite different from, say, The New Yorker of today.

Acclaimed writer Vivek Shanbhag says that “English is not the language of the street anywhere in India.” He lives in my city, Bangalore, and writes exclusively in Kannada, his native tongue. Shanbhag speaks fluent English — as seen in this explanation that he gave at the Jaipur Literature Festival about the origins of his novel.

He uses English for his professional work as an engineer, which carries a a different rhythm, and is devoid of emotion. His creative writing taps into a part of his brain that goes back hundreds, even thousands of years, he says. And the vehicle to tap into this liminal self is his native tongue. Things bubble up from the unconscious and images flash from memories. Links are forged that surprise even him. “They (images) appear because there is a deep connection you have with the language,” he said. “Which is why, we are surprised, many times, where did it come from?”

His last phrase is a typical Indian-language construction.

Shanbhag approves of the English language translation of his most famous work, “Ghachar Ghochar.”  As he said in an interview in Mint, “A translation is not about getting the meaning of one sentence in another language. It’s about bringing that unsaid (element). That has happened well here. He (the translator) has understood what the unsaid in Kannada is and has brought that in.”

Poetry as it was written

Yes, but what if you are not bilingual? What if your mother tongue is English? Can you expand your linguistic imagination somehow? For this experiment, I decided to try Spanish and French, two languages I have heard spoken while living in America but had no proficiency in.

I began with Pablo Neruda. I took to playing his love poems as background when I did chores. There was one in particular, “Love Poem XVI,” that I grew to love even though I didn’t understand it.  As I played it in a continuouse loop, some phrases stuck with me: “Infinitos suenos….suenos solitarios….”  What did it mean? I wasn’t sure. But my brain had put together the phrase as “infinitos solitarios,” or infinite solitude, sparking in me a certain kind of pathos. Infinite solitude conjured up mountains, midnight, defeat in love, death, the depths of the ocean. All these images were useful; they enriched the mood of my writing.

As I listened to poems in Spanish, French and Slovenian, I came upon a site that links to poets from around the world, reciting their work in a buffet of languages. One of my favorites was a young Russian female poet, Galina Rymboe, reciting her poem, “There is a monster living in my ovary.” Listening to her — I must have heard this poem over a hundred times — caused certain feelings, long held but mostly forgotten, to rise up. I found myself caught up in a certain sadness that infused my writing. To quote Cambodian poet Lang Leav, “I don’t think all writers are sad. It is the other way round. All sad people write.”

Perhaps poetry in foreign tongues was the engine to writing discipline. At least, it turned out to be true for me.

Different languages; same feelings

Languages, too, are subject to stereotypes. Russian, they say, is rough; it is, in fact, not. Italian, they say, is musical; but it is also staccato. Chinese, they say, is sing-song because of its tones. And it is. Listen to the late Hu Xudong recite his poem, “The River Bank,” and you will hear this instantly.

…what touched me most profoundly was not the variety but the commonality.

As I worked my way through the international poetry website, choosing to listen to voices from Brazil and Burma, Egypt and Estonia, the United States and Uganda, I marveled at the dazzlingly different ways that humans have invented to express their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, ideas and convictions, conflicts and confusions.

The more I listened, however, what touched me most profoundly was not the variety but the commonality. Underneath it all, when you stripped away grammar, sentence structure, cadence and syntax, all that remained were two constants: feelings and ideas. All the languages that humans have invented, no matter when and where, have been vehicles to express those two things.

How marvelous to have so many permutations and combinations to do so?


Shoba Narayan is a journalist, columnist, content creator and author of four books. She has won a James Beard award and a Pulitzer Fellowship. 

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