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Tongue-tied in Toonistan

Tongue-tied in Toonistan
History has been rewritten. It’s now hsstroy. Thus opens Altaf Tyrewala’s titular short story, which he qualifies as a ‘fictional dispatch from a hyperreal nation.’ ‘Engglishhh’, he writes, will be an ‘antidote to the world’s most inauspiciously spelled language.’ Evidently, given the television serials and their illustrious, numerologically nimble star cast, this doesn’t come across as a surprise at all.

This was waiting to happen: a ticking time bomb that makes out of the alphabet soup a sanitised, sanctified, calibrated version of the lexicon. Perhaps the next Oxford English Dictionary wouldn’t come in as many volumes; perhaps the abridgment is the entirety. Is Tyrewala’s a linguistic utopia or dystopia? Who knows; he leaves the question open.

Engglishhh is a marvel: not only for its imaginary leaps into the limerick of the lexically lopsided, but in fact, it’s a scathing satire on India’s obsession with inserting and excising the supporting cast of vowels and consonants to please gods that be.

Where are these gods? Most probably they are jutting out from enormous television screens, wall-mounted and LED-flat. Their colour-coded hyperreality, their larger-than-life glare must have an army of acceptable words, stretched or compressed to suit them of course.

Words are now vocab sentinels: they have international barcodes. Any breach, whether out of sheer creative bravado or plain lapse of memory, is a punishable offence. So says the ‘Guuidee Too Engglishhh’, compiled by a panel of erudite numerologists. It’s a zero-sum game, as far as India is concerned.

Readjustment of the written world aside, Tyrewala also accomplishes a stellar literary feat with his other dispatches. The opening story, ‘New and Second-hand,’ declares at the outset: ‘Literacy is overrated. I haven’t read a book in years and I’m doing fine, thank you.’ This, coming from a bookseller making a living trading in carefully selected old books is a stunner.

But is it? It’s the age of digital marts and online libraries. Books are pdf files, their Kindle versions come cheaper than those printed on paper. Some say digital books are ecologically sensitive! Yes, as much as your organic curtains and biodegradable superplastic selling packaged spring-fresh mineral water.

Flattening of literary space-time, in Tyrewala’s universe, has, however, created invisible, partially manifested protrusions. Senses are pulled and pushed into them.

So even if one of the last second-hand book shops in the city is thinning its battle against giant commercial overtures from a mega restaurant franchise, enjoying the fleeting rage of beautiful people whose pastime coincides with protest marches when they get bored of their air-conditioned affluence, the man in the centre of this storm has a wink in his eye. Books are paperweights. Or bricks lining Mumbai’s footpaths. Or lying along with the discarded bottles of Coke or Bisleri.

But we make a big deal of this monumental impatience with words. The FAQs have been circulated. Now SMSs, sexts, tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube musings can be duly filtered via this language police, who is naturally doing a brilliant job of simplifying and codifying this protean beast: Queen’s English. Why even United Kingdom had threatened it would not allow an independent Scotland to speak and trade in that patented item? What? No! You must be joking? Is Tyrewala joking?

Are satires elaborate exercises in fun? Sure, they are. Ask Salman Rushdie, the posterboy of the hyperreal. He had brown immigrants growing horns so that they look like the devil they pay obeisance to. Tyrewala’s Mumbai, a far cry from Rushdie’s Bombay, have their dark corners illuminated with a literary pathos. The universe is shrinking and wormholes of time, history, connections are being plugged off. There’s the ubiquitous watchman doing what a spy-cam does in this world of universal surveillance. Much like laptops, the human congregations are upgrading their firewalls. Only, pigeons, who come to roost on forgotten lamp posts in some distant corner of the amnesiac city, will know, will remember.

In Rana Dasgupta’s Solo, last of the birds that had picked up words from a dying tribal language, die off. They take down a language hardly known or heard about, outside the canopied confines of a strange world. Dasgupta, Tyrewala are trying their best to keep alive a kind of imaginative freedom enjoyed by say a  Marquez or a Borges, even a Kafka or a Calvino.
The continents are drifting, sliding, clashing against each other. They are pregnant with highrises, not possibilities. Their thirteenth floors hold loud, crazy parties broadcast live. It’s compulsory to watch them. Until, they are suddenly vacated and they are thrown back into the opprobrium of inauspiciousness.

Tyrewala’s universes are squeezed into the blackhole of submission and supervision. They are dark, with million-watt glare; they are inaudible yet deafening screams. They are monstrous and beautiful, like your glitzy brand new cell phone that secretly ferries out your naked selves: in words and selfies. Misread them.               

Angshukanta Chakraborty

Angshukanta Chakraborty

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