Being Telugu in English

For only the fourth time in the last 40 years, a mammoth gathering of Telugu writers and cultural figures is taking place under the auspices of the World Telugu Conference, this time, in the temple town of Tirupati. It is a special event in my family because my mother has been an honoured participant in every conference. I can mark my life with the World Telugu Conferences my mother has been to, yet I must admit that I can barely read about what is happening there because it is all, well, in Telugu. I can read and write Telugu, and appreciate its splendid imagery and powerful sentiments, but as much as I cherish it and feel it is mine, I know that I have been more at home in English. That leads me, apart from acknowledging my limitations, to ask one pertinent question about language and representation in the mixed-up world we live in: does Telugu need to be confined to Telugu?

As someone who writes in English, I have often wondered about the role of English in the vernacular world. Our debates about vernacular literature have focused mainly on issues of authenticity, especially its alleged lack among Indians who write in English. But it seems to me that writing in English can serve one important function that a narrow focus on authenticity issues distracts us from. Writing in English, I believe, can help us be vernacular without becoming provincial. Without English, or some sort of engagement with the world outside one's own, the vernacular can turn into an artifice, a state-supported pickle-jar exhibit, and worse, a language without a voice in the world to speak for itself.

I do not know if this has been the case with speakers and writers in Indian languages that have been more engaged externally through English, translation, and national and international publishing in general, but Telugu has often seemed to me to be seriously lacking in representation on a wider cultural scale. Despite being a fairly vibrant and successful emigrant community, Telugus do not quite seem to register their culture on others in the way that other communities do when they leave their homelands. We seem to be everywhere, and in every profession. We have one of India's largest film industries, and a thriving vernacular news media. Yet, we are barely known, and rarely in the manner that we know ourselves. For one thing, our language is still misspelled, frequently, in English as Tel-e-gu. Our nickname, derived from engineering hostel slang, is the improbable "Gult". I suppose one could say at least we have got one now, and that marks an improvement over the generic "Madrasi" label of the past.

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