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CategoriesLanguage and SexualityThe I Column

The Absence of a Queer ‘Mother Tongue’

A couple of years ago, I began toying with the idea of coming out to my parents.

I tried to write down what I’d like to say, tried to practice saying it in front of the mirror, and even tried inserting little hints in my day-to-day conversations with my parents. Ultimately, I did not end up going through with it.

There were some obvious reasons which held me back – after all, coming out to one’s conservative (albeit well-meaning) Indian parents often veers into messy, complicated territory, especially after years and years of internalised homophobia. But there was one not-so-obvious reason too, a hurdle no less complicated and messy: the issue of language.

My parents don’t speak English, not fluently at least. Our ‘first language’ or ‘native language’ (for lack of a better word) is Bangla, in which all predominant forms of verbal and written communication are conducted. Like a lot of middle-class Indian millenials, I am merely a first-generation learner of English, having had the cultural capital to learn and perfect the language in a way my parents did not.

Hence, if I were to chip away at their homophobic conditioning, it would have to be done in a language they fully and unquestionably grasp.If I were to declare my queerness in a way my parents could truly grasp the depth of, it would have to be in Bangla, and Bangla alone.

But does my so-called ‘mother tongue’ have the potential to illustrate the nuances of my sexual identity?

I remember, in my initial introduction to Hindi, being deeply confused by its unnecessary gendering. I could not fathom why even inanimate objects required a ‘male’ or ‘female’ designation. My confusion was valid, considering that Bangla (the first language I ever learned) has a distinct absence of gendered pronouns. While in Hindi the male/female binary dominates even the most trivial of words, Bangla is a bit of a contradiction. It may recognise the same binaries Hindi does, but is refreshingly gender-neutral in its phraseology. In Bangla, there is no equivalent of a ‘he’ or ‘she’; instead, we say ‘shey’ (pronounced ‘shay’) or ‘o’, which are both gender-neutral pronouns.

But what Hindi and Bangla do have in common is a lack of vocabulary to acknowledge diversity in sexual orientation. What we have instead are vague, generalised words for same-sex attraction: ‘samalaingik’ in Hindi and ‘shomokaami’ in Bangla, and that’s about it.

Indian history is full of ambiguous identities; rigid binaries are a Western import. So it’s ironic that while Western languages have clearly laid out their demarcation of identities and have put names to a whole spectrum of queer and non-conforming genders and types of sexual expression, Indian linguistics have hardly allowed for the same. Though there are culturally specific terms for gender-variant people in various regions –Aravani (in Tamil Nadu), Kothis (in North India), Jogappas (in Maharashtra and Karnataka), and so on –these only include people some of whom in contemporary times could be called transgender women. There’s hardly a Bengali or Hindi translation for the words ‘trans man’, ‘non-binary’, ‘gender queer’ (or any other words used to describe non-cisgender identities beyond transgender women). In looking for a concrete, sociologically, and historically backed reason behind this, I could only somewhat conclude that this is to do with our general disinclination to talk about sex and sexuality. In nearly every discussion on sexuality I’ve had in my vernacular, regional language with peers and adults alike, the vocabulary has consisted of euphemisms.

As a child, I had heard euphemisms being often employed by my parents, relatives and teachers to make me aware of sexual organs, bodily processes, and so on. But even as an adult, I have barely heard the word ‘sex’ (or any other words related to sex or sexuality) being directly uttered in Bangla by other, older adults.

Therefore, it’s not really a surprise that when it comes to identities that defy the notions of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, we fall back on the same often bigoted euphemisms our parents (and their parents before them) taught and continue to perpetuate. These euphemisms, shrouded in their sense of forbiddenness and scandal, often turn into slurs and an unconscious ‘othering’ of queer identities. In Bangla, words like ‘onnyorokom’ (a derogatory term for gay people), ‘meyechhele’ (a derogatory term for transgender people), both of which imply sexual deviance, are liberally thrown around to refer to queer sexual orientations instead of terms with positive, healthy connotations.

More often than not, it is these derogatory slurs which become normalised, simply because there is no ‘safe’ and bias-free alternative. We do not know how to articulate queer sexuality in our mother tongues without attaching connotations of shame or stigma to it.

Here I come back to my original dilemma, which is much the same. In my quest for a vocabulary to use while coming out, I did some more digging. I consulted a few English-to-Bengali dictionaries, and (unsurprisingly) came up with no appropriate phrase to describe bisexuality. I did, however, stumble upon the loose translation for queer, ‘bichitro’. It’s almost a little ironic how in other contexts and usages of the term, bichitro actually implies something vivid, something versatile, something with multiple facets. But also, something confounding.

Bangla might use ‘bichitro’ to refer to queer people, but what it lacks, what is decidedly not ‘bichitro’, is how the language itself does not allow for such variety.

When I do come out to my parents, I will still have no one word to which I can tie my sexual identity. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – at the end of the day sexuality is a spectrum, and labels aren’t always necessary – it still frustrates me how the language of my ancestors does not even allow for a sexual orientation which might be beyond the confines of ‘bichitro’ or ‘shomokaami’.

I know that I am perhaps not alone in this dilemma, that many queer Indians who converse largely in their respective regional languages might also find it difficult to put a name to their queer identity in their ‘mother tongue’. A culture of silence has spawned this lack of vocabulary, and without the words to talk about queer sexuality, this silence will continue.

For us to challenge homophobia and come out of our closets, we first need the (non-Western) language to do so.

Cover Image: Flickr