[Issue 1 / May 2012]
Traveler’s language by Nishant Batsha
“Brother, brother! India? Pakistan?” The Turkish shopkeeper called out to me in nearly perfect Hindi. “Come in! Come in! Good price!”
Between when he called out and when I understood what he was saying, I managed to turn around. Nestled in that moment of physical contortion was a transformation: I became him. One marked to understand foreign words in a foreign place.
I wondered: how did a shopkeeper in the middle of Istanbul learn to speak Hindi? But the persistence of this memory has little to do with the novelty of language. I now ask myself: Why did he assume that I—ostensibly an American—would understand him? Why did I turn around?
I’ve found tourism and foreign languages to be two concepts linked beyond the loud entreaties of those lost in translation. The disoriented tourist, stuttering through a phrase book to find his hostel, is merely one iteration of these intertwined ideas. I didn’t always know this—it took a whiskey-drowned evening with my cousin to fully grasp their connection.
He lived in a flat just outside of Delhi, in Faridabad. His apartment neatly fit into the accoutrements of a newly formed Indian middle class: it was located in a cluster of boring, white concrete high rises, complete with a dhobi and shops. Outside the guarded complex was the rest of India: unpaved roads, garbage, and the shack-housing for those who cooked the daily rotis and cleaned for the nearby bourgeoisie.
Due to a complex marital situation, he was effectively a bachelor; tonight we were to partake of what he thought bachelors should do: drink blended whisky and eat masala-fried chicken wings.
Seated across from us were two of his friends. After their requisite Gold Flake or Navy Cut cigarettes were smoked, we sat down for our meal. They told me they ran a tour company that took Westerners from Delhito the yoga-and-pot infused Rishikesh.
“Do you smoke ganja?” They asked, between swigs of whisky.
“Umm,” I replied, not knowing where this was going.
“We charge over 800 rupees for what should cost 100!” They exclaimed, bits of chicken flying from their mouths, “These dumb tourists don’t know what they’re paying for. They just want to travel and smoke!”
We all laughed: yes, tourists could be dumb, with their expectations of achieving transcendental awareness in a tourist trap. What they would tell me next though, was neither surprising nor of any importance at the time.
“You should always know a little bit of every language. English is best, but know others so that they can feel at home.” I was honored to be given a trade secret. Maybe I could have gone ahead and founded my own tour company and made my living from overcharging would-be yogis for pot.
The rest of the night passed pleasantly: a mixture of chicken bones, useless banter, andJohnnieWalker. They eventually left. I haven’t seen them since and have written off their advice as nothing more than a memory in a summer filled with monsoons and boredom.
I didn’t expect that memory to creep back towards me in Istanbul. Like Flaubert, Melling, and Byron before me, I visited that which must be visited: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Bosphorus Tour, and the various bazaars that dot theGolden Horn. In each of these tourist traps, over-excited hawkers would sing their siren song to passers-by. When I would saunter in front of their businesses, they would exclaim in their grammatically-perfect Hindi. And while these shopkeepers’ attempts were universal in their profit-seeking simplicity, the experience encouraged an anamnesis akin to a bad date or a fever.
Unlike what my cousin’s friends had exclaimed, these words did not transport me back home. The pact of travel—an understanding that in my Grand Tour, I could be a completely anonymized no one—was broken. Instead of being the empty signifier that is a traveler, I was just another brown-skinned someone to be yelled at in a tongue I was expected to grasp.
“So they can feel at home.”
My home? I’ve been surrounded by Hindi since the moment of my conception. While others were listening to their parents’ collection of Bob Dylan, I took in the crooning of K.L Saigal. When collective tears were being shed for Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic, I let loose a few of my own for Renuka Shahane as she fell down the stairs in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. But, I never actively made the language my own. My mother would always talk to me in Hindi and I would respond in English. This suburban Tower of Babel continued until I reached college, where I finally made the effort to learn the language of my youth.
Here, I wasn’t lolling about in my suburban Shinar. I was on vacation, trying to “get away from it all.” Instead, I found myself as a vagrant amongst tourists in translation. Neither Hindi nor English would have been able to call out to me in that moment.
I truly abhor admitting this. It’s a trite feeling, one that I’ve come to know and recognize through the diasporic literature that has seeped through the bones of my cultural experience(s). Films, novels, and articles have taught me that it’s difficult to adapt to a culture that may or may not feel like my own.
This is why I was drawn to that tourist-laden market in the first place. If I could neither feel quite at home in the country of my birth nor in the land of my forefathers, I could theoretically find some solace in the in-betweeness of travel. I could be a signatory to the anonymous treaty.
This rarely seems to be the case.
Instead, like the grin-and-bear-it unease felt when answering the “where are you from?” with “Californiathen, New Yorknow” and being forced to answer the follow-up “where are you really from?” travel encourages a similar sense of unbalance. Split-second assumptions found in bazaars or restaurants lead to a precarious comfort with being uncomfortable.
This is all skirting my question: why did he call out to me in Hindi? This, of course, was never what bothered me in the first place. Perhaps I have to grapple with the other side of the siren song: why did I care to listen?
As I’ve come to learn, all those hyphenated characters in all those books seem to be melancholy because they become conscious of the same thing: their difference defines them and they see it in everything they define. Even for those who care to listen, no phrase, in any language, will ever make a home.
Nishant Batsha (http://nishantb.tumblr.com) is a writer living in New York. His work has been featured in The Awl, PANK Magazine, and The Bygone Bureau, amongst others. He is currently at work on his first novel.