Language and its shadow dwellings

Angana Sinha Ray complicates the idea of Linguistic Hospitality, as theorized by Emmanuel Levinas.

One of my relatives has been calling my mother to say they will come to Delhi and stay a few days, my mother welcomes the idea but dreads having to make tea differently – with milk and sugar, so the guest feels home. She can perhaps accommodate this for a few days, but soon resentment will seep in. She will say, “Amaader baachar bhasha khoob alaada.” Our lives’ vocabularies are very different. It is not without irony that ‘bhaasha’ (language) and ‘baasha’ (home) sound so similar in Bengali. Languages provide us an address, the concreteness of the walls of our homes, and simultaneously a site to address the world from. No wonder we are possessive of it, and even when we open our doors to the risk of a guest, we hope they will leave soon enough for us to not be permanently altered, translated into something beyond our own recognition.

Put simply, opening our doors to another language, or linguistic hospitality, allows for the ‘guest’ language to dwell in our own home. It is an ethic of translation that resists totalizing impulses of one language over another, as Levinas would say. Rather both languages are altered by each other’s touch.

But to what degree is hospitality possible without turning into hostility?

Some languages are historically chauvinistic. Bengali speakers reject all “va” sounds in favour of “ba” – a migrant called ‘Vikas’ from Northern India must become ‘Bikash’! Bengalis are somewhat hospitable to non-Bengalis in so far as they bring capital to the state, not if they are laboring bodies. The question then to ask is, hospitable to who, and to what degree? To truly allow a guest to dwell, one has to let go of the image of self-sufficiency in a self-contained language, to trust the guest as one who aids the home, rather than an infiltrator to be tolerated. The dominant Bengali language does not hold space for its Bihari migrants. We only need to think of Mamata Banerjee’s 2017 move to make Bengali compulsory in state board schools up till 10th standard – regardless of whether the student is Oriya, Assamese, or Bihari. The host, despite appearing benevolent, can soon turn to a linguistic patriarch – schooling all forms of ‘otherness’ into discipline. All encounters perhaps do not cohesively arrive at a ‘pure language’, the way Walter Benjamin writes – think of the Bengali chauvinism where Oriya is thought of as a dialect of the language.

The host has the luxury of assuming a permanent address, while the guest language, by the very virtue of its travel, can be deemed stateless. The idea of the ‘host’ solidifies the idea of a unity which does not exist, refusing to see the ‘otherness’ in one’s own home. To think of the Gorkhaland secessionist movement in Bengal is to consider the ‘otherness’ that is turned into a refugee status in its very own home.

Reading Derrida, we learn that the idea of a ‘center’ is not a fixity, rather that it resides both inside and outside the structure itself, dismantling the idea of its very cohesiveness. What linguistic hospitality may offer then, when stretched to its limits, is the very fragmented-ness of languages when one tries to play host, and encounters its own limits, its own otherness within itself, and its impossibilities of completion by itself. Perhaps a form of mourning on being shown its own cracks, before the guest can on equal terms, even begin a conversation.

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