The question “what’s your mother tongue” is forever being asked in India. In a country divided into linguistic territories, it’s a deeply significant question. The answer places you, signals your fundamental origins, wherever in India you now live. I started thinking about how much we take for granted being multilingual, yet tied to that basic mother tongue identity. What if, amidst all this, you spoke a language different from any other? What if substituting “murder tongue” for “mother tongue” could mean something more than wordplay? The first line more or less wrote itself and then the rest of the story followed very quickly.
In my head I hide a murder tongue. It is different from the tongues of those I find myself among. If I were to utter a word with it, there would be murder, and I have not discovered whose. So I hide my tongue and am mute while all around me chatter and jabber, their utterances merging in a gestalt of gibberish that causes the bile to rise in my throat—but I dare not open my mouth to retch, dare not risk exposing my murder tongue in public.
At home I have a cot, a chair, a stove, a sink, a water closet, and a shelf.
I lie on my cot at night, scrutinising the ceiling, seeing writings in its patterns of stains and discolorations, writings in some unknown script that for all I know is the one in which my murder tongue’s words would be written, were I to speak them, and thus know them.
I sit on the chair much of the day, weaving baskets that I leave at the center down the road, where I am given a few coins in return. As a mute, I am deficient, but not so much that I cannot be a part of the community in some small way.
I purchase oatmeal and coffee at the corner store and sometimes dried fruits and nuts to mix in my oatmeal. I cook at my small stove, buy stocks of paraffin once a month, and wash everything, including myself, with water from the sink. The purpose of the water closet is obvious.
As for the shelf, I have filled it with notebooks, all blank. There are pens and pencils as well. One day, maybe, I will be able to write what I dare not speak with this murder tongue.
Sometimes I walk the streets with no particular purpose. I see people going about their lives, talking with their normal, safe, everyday, acceptable tongues. And I wonder about my mother and my father and what sin or misdeed in them or their blood gave me this murder tongue. And I bite my tongue lest I cry out at the injustice, and I go home and sit on my cot, open an empty notebook, stare at its empty pages, then I put it away because time’s a-wasting and I must weave baskets as it is not safe for me to weave words.
But one day I will. And on that day I will know whose murder my tongue portends. For now, it’s a secret only my tongue knows, my murder tongue, sheathed and stifled, different from all others in this land, daring not to speak.
A dream: I am on a podium in the town square. I am speaking eloquently, singing beautifully. The people are all gathered, dying with joy at my utterances. Everyone hears me, sees me, knows me, embraces me even as death steals upon them. Only I cannot hear myself. Only I do not know what I speak, what I sing. As I continue, I am helpless to hear, helpless to stop, helpless as the last of the crowd gathers around me, ecstasy turned to rage, determined to kill me, to take me down with them.
I wake up shivering, my murder tongue twitching in my dry mouth. I fill a glass from the tap and drink down my fear, drink down my bile, drink down my words unknown. Not tonight, I tell myself. Not tonight, not tomorrow.
Spread the word!