language Posts

“Where Reasons End” by Yiyun Li

No, just feeling sad, I said.

Still?

Still? I said. Sometimes I’m so sad I feel like a freak.

That sounds like self-pity unrestrained, he said.

I thought about my language. Indeed he was right. Not only was it immoderate but it was imprecise. How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a still-born baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance.

Let me revise, I said. Sometimes sadness makes me unable to write.

Why write, he said, if you can feel?

What do you mean?

I always imagine writing is for people who don’t want to feel or don’t know how to.

And reading? I asked. Nikolai was a good reader.

For those who do.

For weeks I had not read well. I picked up books and put them down after a page or two, finding little to sustain me. I was writing, though, making up stories to talk with Nikolai. (Where else can we meet but in stories now?)

See my point? he said. You cannot not write. You don’t even mind writing badly.

Because I don’t want to feel sad or I don’t know how to feel sad?

What’s the different? He said. Does a person commit suicide because he doesn’t want to live, or doesn’t know how to live?

I could say nothing.

(p.55-57)

….

Orphan, widow, widower, I thought, but what do you call a parent who’s lost a child, a sibling who’s lost a sibling, a friend who’s lost a friend?

I told you nouns are limited, Nikolai said..

Words are, I said.

(p.114)

Yiyun Li’s novel Where Reasons End is a tender-hearted, very moving, novel that delves into memories and half-finished conversations by the unnamed narrator with her dead child. It is achingly painful to read given that it seems as if the reader is eavesdropping upon very intimate moments between mother and child. Grief takes many forms. This is one. Losing a child but a teenager is terrible. Here the mother hearks back to conversations with her child. Holds on to the few memories she has. When a mother talks to her child, it is as if they cut off everything else in the world and are completely focused upon each other. It is in many ways like the oneness of being that a mother experiences with her child when it is in vitro.It may be hauntingly sad, grief-stricken book, a eulogy to one who took his life. It may mirror to some extent Yiyun Li’s life as her sixteen-year-old son committed suicide. But in an age where parenting and motherhood is spoken of ad nauseum. Motherhood narratives are rapidly becoming a critical genre of literature. Where Reasons Endbelongs very much to this literary space.

Yiyun Li is based in USA and writes in English. In a fabulous New Yorker essay published in January 2017, she explains why she chooses to write in English. Here are some extracts that shed some light on the manner in which she chose to craft her novel Where Reasons End.

Yet language is capable of sinking a mind. One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language. I used to think that an abyss is a moment of despair becoming interminable; but any moment, even the direst, is bound to end. What’s abysmal is that one’s erratic language closes in on one like quicksand: “You are nothing. You must do anything you can to get rid of this nothingness.” We can kill time, but language kills us. … When we enter a world—a new country, a new school, a party, a family or a class reunion, an army camp, a hospital—we speak the language it requires. The wisdom to adapt is the wisdom to have two languages: the one spoken to others, and the one spoken to oneself. One learns to master the public language not much differently from the way that one acquires a second language: assess the situations, construct sentences with the right words and the correct syntax, catch a mistake if one can avoid it, or else apologize and learn the lesson after a blunder. Fluency in the public language, like fluency in a second language, can be achieved with enough practice.

Perhaps the line between the two is, and should be, fluid; it is never so for me. I often forget, when I write, that English is also used by others. English is my private language. Every word has to be pondered before it becomes a word. I have no doubt—can this be an illusion?—that the conversation I have with myself, however linguistically flawed, is the conversation that I have always wanted, in the exact way I want it to be.

In my relationship with English, in this relationship with the intrinsic distance between a nonnative speaker and an adopted language that makes people look askance, I feel invisible but not estranged. It is the position I believe I always want in life. But with every pursuit there is the danger of crossing a line, from invisibility to erasure.

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.

Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. That emptiness is filled with public language or romanticized connections.

Yiyun Li, “To Speak Is to Blunder: Choosing to renounce a mother tongue.” The New Yorker, January 2, 2017, issue.

4 April 2019

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today

I wrote a long essay on India’s women writers from the early 20th century to today for Bookwitty. Here is an extract from the essay:  

India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.

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Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi

at the 1942 All India Congress Committee Session

Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.

Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.

1984’s violence and revisiting of the past coincided with a maturation of the Indian publishing industry. In that year, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon set up the first independent women’s publishing firm in India (and indeed, in all of Asia), Kali for Women. They looked at a range of literature from fiction to non-fiction, including reportage and oral histories. Kali for Women, and its founders’ subsequent projects, Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited, have published many women writers in original English and in translation, such as the brilliant short story and spec-fic writer Manjula Padmanabhan (Three Virgins, 2013) food and nature writer-cum-illustrator and delightful storyteller, Bulbul Sharma (Eating Women, Telling Tales, 2009), environmentalist Vandana Shiva (Staying Alive, 1998), and numerous other writers, historians and freedom fighters.

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Vandana Shiva at the 2009 Save the World Awards

Along with independent publishers, little magazines were on the rise, while multinational publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin also began establishing offices in India. Meanwhile, a growing recognition that the work of women writers had sales potential meant more opportunities for them to be published. In 1992, Oxford University Press (OUP) India published an unprecedented memoir by a Tamil Dalit Catholic nun, Bama, who had left the order and returned home. Karukku proved to be a bestseller, and has remained in print. At this time OUP India also published the seminal volumes on Women Writing in India: Volume 1: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century(1991) and Volume 2: The Twentieth Century (1993), a collection of hundreds of texts representing the rich variety of regions and languages in India.

Indian women’s writing hit a new high when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for her 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Thingsexploring forbidden love in Kerala. (Roy’s second novel, 2017’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, addresses some of the most devastating events in India’s modern history. It has enjoyed a global release with enviable media hype, further demonstrating the remarkable progress in how women’s writing is received by critics and the public).

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Arundhati Roy in 2012

Soon, an increasing body of women writers representative of groups that have been marginalised on the basis of sexuality, language, caste, and religion began to be published. These included Urmila Pawar(The Weave of My Life, 2009), and Tamil Muslim poet Salma whose memoir The Hour Past Midnight (2009) was made into a documentary (Salma) and screened at the Sundance festival. Once housemaid Baby Haldar’s memoir, published in English 2006 as A Life Less Ordinarybecame an international bestseller, many more memoirs and biographies began to be published—including those of novelist and entrepreneur Prabha Khaitan, academic and activist Vina Mazumdar, actress and singer Kana Devi, trans activist A. Revathy, and activist and actress Shaukat Kaifi.

Such robust publishing by and for women has ensured that the contemporary generation of writers is far more confident of their voices, experimenting with form as they explore a range of issues.

In particular, these writers are exploring and interrogating the concept of the strong woman. Most of these stories depict an ordinary woman negotiating her daily space, thus defining herself and by extension living her feminism, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not. Just a few of the modern writers who are contributing to this conversation in English are: Namita Gokhale (Things to Leave Behind, 2016), (Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni (Palace of Illusions, 2008), Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, 2017), Scaachi Koul (The One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, 2017), and Ratika Kapur (The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, 2015).

Adding to this conversation, there are many relevant writers now becoming available in translation, including Malika Amar Shaikh (I Want to Destroy Myself, 2016—more on this memoir below), and Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok: Defying Winter, 2013).

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Nabaneeta Dev Sen in 2013

A number of women writers are addressing family and domestic issues with humor, notably Manju Kapur with Home (2006), her Jane Austen-like novel about family dynamics; Andaleeb Wajid with My Brother’s Wedding (2013), a gorgeous novel about the shenanigans of organising a Muslim wedding; celebrity Twinkle Khanna with Mrs Funnybones (2015), based on her delightful newspaper column; and Veena Venugopal with a powerful collection about The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in your Marriage (2014).

Meanwhile, other authors have been exploring the theme of the strong woman in harrowing—though by no means unusual—circumstances. Samhita Arni retells the Mahabharata war saga from a woman’s point of view in Sita’s Ramayana (2011). K R Meera’s multi-layered novel Hangwoman (published in English in 2014) is about a woman executioner who inherited the job from her father. Meena Kandaswamy’s autobiographical novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) reveals devastating and isolating violence in a marriage. In the same vein, Malika Amar Shaikh’s aforementioned I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir explores the horror of living with a man who in his public life spoke out for the rights of the oppressed, but showed none of this humanity at home.

Building on the tradition of more than a century, today there is a long list of women writers in the Indian sub-continent who are feisty, nuanced in their writing and yet universal in many of the issues they share. They are fully engaged with themes such as independence, domesticity, domestic violence, professional commitments, motherhood, parenting, sexual harassment, politics, and identity. This is undoubtedly a vibrant space of publishing, and this article has just about explored tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For more recommendations, please explore the Related Books carousel below. And as always, please join the conversation: use the comments section to add any further books to the list.

India’s Women Writers, from the Early 20th Century to Today” , published on Bookwitty ( 3 August 2017) 

10 August 2017 

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

WAACBOLanguage is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it. 

( p.85, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)

Karen Jay Fowler’s award-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , is about the Cooke family. It consists of the parents who are research psychologists and their three children — Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. A normal family except for a minor difference, Fern is a chimpanzee who has been brought up with Rosemary from infancy as twins. It is an experiment the parents conduct, funded by their university and it entailed having a “village” of grad students living with them at home to help. For the first five years of the girls lives, all is well. Then Rosemary is sent off to her grandparents, when she returns she discovers her sister is nowhere to be seen, her parents have moved into a new home, with no extra bedrooms and no grad students. Her brother too vanishes only to send postcards periodically and one brief visit, many years later. Rosemary begins telling this story when she is a college student and completes it when she is a kindergarten teacher for some years. The story spans over thirty years. As the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, says:

My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn’t there, and I can’t tell you that part. I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine, and still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story. (p. 304)

It is not surprising to discover that this novel has been shortlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2014. The story is a sensitive understanding of sibling relationships, loneliness of a woman and the ethics of scientific experiments–anthropomorphize a chimp and what are the human complications/repercussions of conducting such an experiment.  This is a story based primarily on Winthrop Kellogg’s work at Indiana University, but also of many others; most notably Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees. Jane Godall, 1965In an interview with the Book Slut ( Oct 2013), the author says “I did hear from a daughter in the Kellogg family, I didn’t realize that there was another child. She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family, that experiment that was so much briefer than the one I put in my book. She emailed me and said she realized I must have based this on her father’s work. One of the things she said that had happened to them, something I did not think about in my book and did not anticipate, was that they got hate mail and death threats from fundamentalists. …She wished to tell me how horrible it was to be part of the experiment, and what it did to her brother, what it did to her family. Although it’s not clear to me — to go back to my daughter’s original question — whether the damage to the family was done by the experiment itself or by having the kind of father who would do an experiment like this and who, therefore, was the kind of father who did other things as well; clearly, not a great father. It was a shock too, because I knew that the boy, Donald, who was involved in the experiment, had died quite some time ago. And I did not know there was another child. So I wrote about this family and it did not occur to me that any of them would be reading it.”

Karen Jay Fowler also refers to Keith and Catherine Hayes experiment at raising Viki ( a chimp) in the same manner as a human infant. “…Mr. Hayes said that the significant, the critical finding of their study, the finding everyone was choosing to ignore, was this: that language was the only way in which Viki differed much from a normal human child.” ( p.288) Karen Jay Fowler is known for her science fiction writing, her strong sense of storytelling. She has brought to the fore in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by telling an extraordinarily beautiful story, but also making one think ( as good scifi should do!) about experiments conducted on animals in the name of research and what does it mean for animal rights. Coincidentally, the August 2014 issue of the National Geographic has an essay where Jane Goodall celebrating her 80th year reflects on her career of getting to know unforgettable chimps. ( http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/gombe-chimpanzees/shah-rogers-photography ).

Read this book. Just as all good science fiction blurs the lines between reality and experimentation and continue to be influential such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451  and Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, so will We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — it will dominate conversations about literature, science, animal rights, literary fiction for many years to come.

Miscellaneous

An interview with Karen Jay Fowler, Book Slut, October 2013 ( http://www.bookslut.com/features/2013_10_020334.php )

Is your process for writing a novel dramatically different from writing a short story?

Yes, it is dramatically different. When I write a story I can keep the whole thing in my head. I usually pop backward from the climax so I know what I want the climax to be, how I want it to work, what I want the effect on the reader to be. It’s just a much more conscious kind of creation where I’m very aware of the reader, I’m very aware of what I think the readers experience is going to be and try to make it what I want. And then, of course, readers are obstreperous and go and have all kinds of experience that I did not intend, but I like that too.

With novels, I’m much more muddled, muddling my way through them. What I do like about novels is being able to spend that extended period of time with the characters. I get to know those characters in a much more deep and attached way. I’ve never missed one of the characters of my short stories when I finished the short story — I wish I were still thinking about her, I wish I were still making her up. But I do have that experience with a novel. I am very sad to say goodbye to Rosemary and Fern. I liked them both a lot.

In conversation with Karen Jay Fowler, The American Reader ( http://theamericanreader.com/an-interview-with-karen-joy-fowler/ )

Carmen Maria Machado: Your fiction tends to move between (for lack of a better word) genres. What do you find so compelling about the borderlands between fantasy, realism, historical fiction, and science fiction?

Karen Joy Fowler: I think I like places where the rules are still visible, but need not apply. I get a lot of energy from having conventions I can push against.

And I’ve long felt that reality is so strange that realism really isn’t up to the task of adequately presenting it. The world is a whole lot more horrible than I imagined as a child. But it is also considerably funnier. I try to make do with that.

I always say that I write history as it might have been reported in the National Enquirer. And I guess I’m more interested in the fact that someone believes he’s been abducted by aliens than I am in exploring actual alien plots and connivings. An interest in the abductees as opposed to the aliens seems to me to be a borderland concern.

Karen Jay Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Serpent’s Tail, London, 2014. ( Distributed in India by Hachette India.) Pb. pp. 340. Rs. 499  

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

Literati – “Stories on Conflict”

( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 August 2014) and in print ( 3 August 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/stories-on-conflict/article6274928.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

 Jaya Bhattacharji RoseOff late images of conflict dominate digital and print media– injured children, rubble, weeping people, vehicles blown apart, graphic photographs from war zones. We live in a culture of war, impossible to get away from. What is frightening is the daily engagement we have with this violence, to make it a backdrop and a “normal” part of our lives. The threshold of our receptivity to it is lowering; the “appetite” for violence seems to be increasing.

Take partition of the sub-continent in 1947.  Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of the brilliant anthology of graphic stories with contributions from three countries, This Side, That Side, remarks, “Partition is so much a part of the lives of South Asians.” It exists in living memory. Generations have been brought up on family lore, detailing experiences about Partition, the consequences and the struggle it took refugees to make a new life. For many years, there was silence. Then in India the communal riots of 1984 following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened. For many people of the older generation who had experienced the break-up of British India it opened a Pandora box of memories; stories came tumbling out. It was with the pioneers of Partition studies–Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia–that this tumultuous time in history began to make its mark in literature.

Contemporary sub-continental literature comprises of storytellers who probably grew up listening to stories about conflict in their regions. It is evident in the variety, vibrancy and strength discernible in South Asian writing with distinct styles emerging from the nations. There is something in the flavour of writing; maybe linked to the socio-political evolution of the countries post-conflict—Partition or civil unrest. In India, there is the emergence of fiction and nonfiction writers who have a sharp perspective to offer, informed by their personal experiences, who are recording a historical (and painful) moment. Recent examples are Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots, Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour, Chitrita Banerji’s Mirror City, Sujata Massey’sThe City of Palaces, Sudipto Das’s The Ekkos Clan,  Shahnaz Bashir’s The Half Mother and Samanth Subramanian’s The Divided Land , a travelogue about post-war Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankn literature conflict is a constant backdrop, places and names are not necessarily always revealed or easily identified, but the stories are written with care and sensitivity. Shyam Selvadurai in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of varied examples of Sri Lankan literature, Many Roads to Paradise writes “In a post-war situation, this anthology provides an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities by allowing Sri Lankans access to the thoughts, experiences, history and cultural mores of their fellow countrymen, of which they have remained largely ignorant due to linguistic divides.” Contributors include Shehan Karunatilaka ( The Chinaman), Nayomi Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors) and Ashok Ferrey ( The Colpetty People and  The Professional). Bangladeshi writers writing in a similar vein are Shaheen Akhtar’s The Search ( translated by Ella Dutta), Mahmudul Haque’s Black Ice (translated by Mahmud Rahman), Tahmima Anam The  Good Muslim and Neamat Imam’s The Black Coat. Pakistani Nadeem Aslam’s last novel Blind Man’s Garden is a searing account of the war in Afghanistan and its devastating effect on the lives of ordinary people. In his interview with Claire Chambers for British Muslim Fictions, Nadeem Aslam said his “alphabet doesn’t only have 26 letters, but also the 32 of the Urdu alphabet, so I have a total of 58 letters at my disposal”.  Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone uses fiction (the story is set during the World Wars) to comment upon contemporary socio-political events (Peshawar). Earlier this year Romesh Gunaseekera told me while discussing his latest novel, Noontide Toll “All over the world, including in India, people are trying to grapple with the memory of conflicts, and trying to find a way in which language can help us understand history without being trapped in it.”

From Homer’s The Odyssey onwards, recording war through stories has been an important literary tradition in conveying information and other uses. Today, with conflict news coming in from every corner of the world and 2014 being the centenary year of World War I, publishers are focusing upon war-related literature, even for children. For instance, Duckbill Books new imprint, NOW series about children in conflict has been launched with the haunting Waiting Mor, set in Kabul and inspired by a true story. Paro Anand’s No Gun’s at my Son’s Funeral was one of the first stories written in India for young adults that dealt with war, children and Kashmir; it is soon to be made into a feature film. All though ninety years after the first book was published Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, about a mischievous 11-year-old boy set during WWI, continues to be a bestseller! The culture of war has been inextricably linked to literature and media. As the protagonist, Adolf Hitler says in Timur Vermes must-read debut novel Look Who’s Back “after only a handful of days in this modern epoch, I had gained access to the broadcast media, a vehicle for propaganda”.

2 August 2014 

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007

( As the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been the patron of Sahitya Akademi. The following are extracts from a speech he delivered extempore at the awards for 1962. These are given to books of outstanding literary merit published in the Indian languages during the preceding years. This has been reproduced in the Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Editors are Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas. They have edited four volumes of stories, essays, speeches published in the institute’s journal, Indian Literature for fifty years. Many of these have been translated into the English language. A pleasant surprise was to discover this wonderful speech by Nehru and another one by Aldous Huxley on “Literature and Modern Life”, delivered in 1961.)

“…Sahitya Akademi deals with all the languages of India and tries to encourage them and to bring about as much as possible, not a synthesis of them, but a mutual understanding and comprehension of them by translations from one language to another. ….

Really the growth of the Indian languages took place afresh about a hundred or hundred or twenty years ago. That period coincided with the introduction of printing, etc. in India and it was influenced naturally by ideas which had come to India through the English language mostly, through other languages too. The modern world gradually crept into India and that influenced our languages. And the modern literature in these languages is naturally much affected by the modern world, modern problems. That is as it should be. And so we find an interesting aspect of this questions, that, in a period when English was more or less the official language of India under the British Rule and was affecting large numbers of our people, the coming of English affected the Indian languages in a different way by indirectly encouraging them, because English happened to be the vehicle through which we came into contact with the new world. And, therefore, modern ideas, modern concepts began to enrich our languages through English or because of our knowledge of English, and our languages grew. I have no doubt they will grow. Even now they are strong and very effective languages and a large number of books are being published, books of merit. I have no doubt this will grow. But to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” ( p.319-320)