Photo: Elisa Polosci

Free Flow in a Speech Grid

Read in ಕನ್ನಡ.

Scott Barnes · Language grid

Pink oleanders swayed in the gentle early morning breeze. I sat next to a flowering bush looking at the sky changing its colours. It was early winter in the village of Baraich, in the rural interiors of Uttar Pradesh. I had a few minutes to myself before the day began. Soon my colleagues would awake and we’d be on our way to screen our documentary to young women of the local community.

The oleander took me back 35 years to my home on a small island called Little Aden, off the coast of Aden in Yemen. My house faced the picturesque Red Sea. It had a huge garden with a low wall, lined with oleander shrubs and huge bunches of pink blooms. I would sit on the wall under that pink profusion and watch the intense blue of the water. I was just married, with a master’s degree in genetics and had played badminton for my university. I left a busy life in small town Mysore, to live on this tiny island with my husband and was soon pregnant. Without Arabic, I had little chance of finding employment. It was common practice then for young brahmin girls to give up their jobs and other interests to become fulltime home makers and mothers.

Twenty-five years later, having lived through the Gulf War in Kuwait and losing my husband to cancer, I returned to Mysore alone, and I went back to university. I studied French for six years, and completed a PG diploma in translation. Armed with these I began to work outside my home, for the first time in my life, in my 49th year.

As a translator/ interpreter, I’ve worked with researchers and film makers.

I worked on a film where the film maker followed her protagonist for ten years. The film is about a young girl in Karnataka who runs away from an abusive marriage to become the first woman taxi driver in South India. We took the film to festivals across the world. I accompanied her at the Question and Answer session after the screening.

We were worlds apart in class and privilege. But we were both women who had succumbed to situations where someone else made decisions about our bodies, choices and social standing. Mine were woven in protective patriarchy and hers a bloodied tapestry. She was young enough to be my daughter, and she had found the courage to break free and explore a new realm. I was intrigued by her, empathy and protectiveness stirred in me.

My job was to be tongue, ears and mind to the two of them. But was there ever a tongue without the heart?

Was it my job to think about her emotional safety? Was it my responsibility to explain what could go wrong later? Did I even know what could go wrong? How would the final product be? Would the filmmaker sensationalize the gory details of a young woman’s personal life for profit? Would I be complicit in this?

At first, I watched her for hours while translating videos. Then, I was asked to enter the field as an interpreter. The film maker tasked me with translating questions and responses. My loyalty to my employer was often at loggerheads with my loyalty to this young person - a fellow compatriot, and a woman who shared my language. It was my job to earn her trust and my burden to not let down.

I was nervous and nagged by a question.

Why had this girl given her story to a film maker? Sure, it was legal and the film was approved by an ethics committee. Still I worried whether the girl comprehended what it meant, to describe one’s secrets for the camera that would screen her story everywhere. Was it my job to think about her emotional safety? Was it my moral responsibility to explain what could go wrong later? Did I even know what could go wrong? How would the final product be? Would the film maker sensationalize the gory details of a young woman’s personal life for profit? Would I be complicit in this? On the other hand, the young woman might profit from the exposure. So many women face abuse every day in our country. Does anyone care to tell their story?

She took to me quickly, sharing her past in great detail. I would often cringe while translating. The filmmaker depended on me to get the answers she sought. There were times when I dutifully asked her questions, but silently I’d pray, “…Please don’t answer that…please don’t… you don’t have to.“ Sometimes, as she told her story, she would break down and I would go hug her, to convey that her tears required that the camera stop rolling.

I was lucky that the film was sensitively made, and the film maker became a mentor to the girl. But it took ten years for me to find that relief.

When we took the film to festivals, I saw how privileged women in the developed world appeared to her. She was amazed by the way they sat with their legs apart, “Nodi, Madam, nodi, nodi, hege kootkotaare’ (Look, Madam, look, look at how they sit). When we visited people’s homes, she’d note the absence of flowers and lighted lamps before pictures of departed family. ‘Satre nammooralle saaybeku, Madam” (If I must die, I’d rather die in my own home, Madam)

During the interaction sessions, I felt I’d become an invisible cable between our protagonist and the audience. In the developed world, forced marriages are rare, but not pain and grief. By talking to her, it seemed like they wanted to find answers, or solutions to their own miseries. I felt like an invisible cable, passing grief and comfort between them.

We screened the film in rural, unlettered communities where she touched a chord and quickly became didi or akka (elder sister). Her pain and torture were all too familiar. Nobody asked her about her misery. Instead, they wanted to learn how to drive and how she broke away from her circumstances. As an interpreter, I felt that I’d become an invisible cable again who, this time, took inspiration, admiration and empathy back and forth.

I had begun as the tongue, ears and mind of these two women and here I was connecting them like an invisible cable through which they communicated smoothly. Why do I say this? Because after ten years all three of us had changed. Communication is so much more than words and the two women had begun to understand each other’s gestures, shrugs of shoulders, facial twitches, grunts and hints of smiles. I had passed on so many nuances of cultural identities of each of them across that they had now mellowed into a comfortable camaraderie. As I watched them, I marvelled at my own growth which had gradually catalysed an amalgamation between them. In another situation with another assignment, I would have to begin again with people who want to reach out to one another but are hindered by language.

Where we are born is accidental, yet our lives become so different from one another…

The oleanders were now shining as the sunrays caught the dew drops on them. Before I got up, I took my last sip of delicious ginger tea. The dark brown, sweet aromatic elixir of India.

March 23rd, 2021

Jayashree Jagannatha lives in Mysore where she teaches French and is a freelance translator/interpreter. Her projects include working with anthropologists and sex workers of different genders, and documentary films.
Observing, reacting to, interacting with and expressing opinions about everything around her is not only a passion but also an inner need.

This story emerged from her work with the documentary 'Driving with Selvi'

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