FINDING MY FEET
For Camden Kalā, Love Camden has invited curators, artists and thinkers to respond to the iconic academic text Pidginy Linguish by Sarat Maharaj in their own way. A lifelong Camden resident, Maharaj published this text more than a decade ago, but it is still relevant today. Pidginy Linguish investigates the evolution of the English language, influenced as it is by migration and cultural diversity. The text casts the Camden neighbourhood of Bloomsbury as a key figure in the flourishing of pidgin English and the richness inscribed in this curious form of translation. It is a great example of the ways in which language is involved in issues of integration, identity and cultural diversity and raises important questions of living with multiplicity, translation and difference. This month: Kriti Bajaj, arts and culture writer, editor, and researcher currently living in New Delhi.
Migrants are not churned out uniformly: they have varying status, staying power and agency determined by the legal machinery that processes them. How they are tagged makes this apparent: exile, émigré, expatriate, refugee, asylum seeker, detainee, deportee, alien, other, illegal, clandestini, sans papiers, removees, non-subject, non-citizen, job snatcher, benefits-tourist and equivalents [...]
- Sarat Maharaj (2003)
And then the category that described my own experience, but doesn’t quite fit any of the above: the international student. The non-EU international student, to be specific, whose status once the post-study work visa was discontinued in 2011-12, became more of a temporary visitation. In September 2011, when I enrolled at SOAS University of London for a Master’s degree in anthropology, such students required a Tier 4 visa characterised by restrictions of validity (four months after the completion of the course) and financial status (eligible to work 20 hours during the term, full-time during vacations, no recourse to public funds at any point).
The international student is an interesting case that defies existing discourses on migration: a state of heightened experience crammed into a short period of time; partial living with one leg in while constantly thinking about the “after”. The international student is situated within the bubble of certain kinds of interaction, and lives a somewhat diluted experience of being a citizen aided by discounts and protection that cease to exist once their purpose is fulfilled and the student status is terminated. International students are not quite (yet) job-snatchers; people aren’t sure if they’re here to stay, they pump more money into the economy and it’s kind of flattering for institutions to be in demand halfway across the world.
According to my journal entry on the day of my arrival in London, it looked “much like an Indian city except for some of the buildings”, though “the sky was different, all blue and criss-crossed”. It was only my third time outside India, and the first outside my continent, yet that early impression to me now seems unfathomable. But though differences soon began to reveal themselves, I fit right in, having all but skipped the infamous “culture shock”. Gradually London and I began to know each other, but it was like a forbidden love: wonderful and heady while it lasts, but in the end you have to go home.
One evening, after a lecture at SOAS, I was introduced to a red-haired German who addressed me in perfectly fluent Hindi. My replies were reflexes even before surprise could set in. In the following months, my new friend and I would occasionally walk back to our student housing together while conversing in our respective native/foreign languages (I learned German all through my student years) while English lay neglected.
Studying at a school renowned for its diverse student body and language courses, this was rather commonplace encounter. With so many students learning and specialising in the languages of Africa, Asia and the Middle East - students who were world-wise, travellers - such barters of language often characterised our interactions and learning. English became, as it does in entire countries and continents (India, Africa) the language we had in common.
Yet, English was a language many struggled with. For those whose English was not deemed good enough there were additional classes over the summer: a way of assisting students to cope, assimilate, even standardise. Language is, after all, considered the first step to integration; migrants and refugees in many countries are given free language classes. But even for those who considered English their strongest language, like me, it was hard to sometimes unpack the inaccessible jargon characteristic of many academic texts, leading to 2 a.m. nights with my flatmates, in shared silence in our shared space - the kitchen - where we normally exchanged food, language, and experiences.
My relationship with the English language is complicated, as is perhaps the case with all children of postcolonialism. Though I grew up bilingual, it is the language I mostly think in and, as such, I found myself on the fence between “native English speakers” and those who consider it their second language. As Benedict Anderson explains in his work Imagined Communities (1983-2006, 133), “imperial languages are still vernaculars”. I switched between my thinking-language and my “mother tongue” (Hindi), which, as I only realised after being taken out of my country, was far more embedded in my subconscious than I’d thought when it casually slipped out around people who couldn’t understand it. It was through their baffled reactions that I began to become more aware of this “splintering of locution-location” (Maharaj 2003), how my brain places the two languages and how we are accustomed to certain speech patterns and phrases, often a mixture of Hindi-English (Hinglish), that seem so commonplace until taken out of their native space.
There was also a difference between the relationships people had with their native languages. In my case, a colloquial Hindi - spoken in metros like Delhi, often substituting English words - which renders many “pure (shudh) Hindi” words unrecognisable. I had never questioned this before, and usually only realised it when fellow SOAS students who were learning Hindi said something I found completely unfamiliar. While some of my flatmates spoke an undiluted version of their languages (Spanish, Cantonese), my Palestinian flatmate, like me, tended to switch between English and Arabic during the same conversation.
For the student, though, language is considered an asset. It is not only a part of their identity, but multilingualism is a tool in their arsenal for job hunting. It defines opportunity: they may go back; they may go to another country where the ability to pick up different languages testifies to their ability to integrate; they will almost certainly need the “global” tongue of English. In any case, while one is a student, certain relaxations apply: integration is not mandatory, different experiences are encouraged to enrich the safe space of the classroom. The tag of the international student is almost synonymous with opportunity.
While the university and student residence were centres of coming together and living with exchanges of language and culture, I also had encounters with language on the streets and in “non-places” (Auge 1995). One of the most evident ways of knowing that one is in unfamiliar territory is the soundscape. Employing “listening as a cultural practice” often throws up additional aspects and details of a place, enhanced by a certain temporality lacking in visual and other mediums (Samuels et al 2010).
Compared to the chaotic loudness of Delhi, London seemed quieter, with the occasional blaring police siren or fire alarm (the latter being a concept quite unheard of in India). But the London soundscape was exciting: the many languages and accents and ways of communication that almost instantly reveal far more about a person - where they’re from, how long they’ve been living here - than any external appearance could do.
Hearing a second language all the time can be cold and exhausting, changing us in ways that may not seem obvious. In these non-places, hearing a burst of familiar language can provide a warmth and closeness to what we’ve left behind. After all, language and script “create a community” out of sounds and signs (Anderson 1983-2006, 13, 145).
The sounds of my new life were the reason I never wore earphones, even on public transport or during the daily 20-minute walk between my school and residence. I kept my ears wide open.
Walking through (student) life
When I came to London, I had with me a pair of silver shoes for daily wear, a gift from my aunt in Delhi. It took them only a few days to disintegrate. I think of them as symbolic of leaving my old life behind: those shoes weren’t made for walking. Among the other footwear I’d brought with me, a pair of canvas sneakers was used a bit. Shoes with any sort of heel lay untouched at the bottom of my cupboard.
One of the things I miss most about London is walking. Delhi is the kind of city that you can’t travel far in without transport, for various reasons - infrastructure, the weather, the pollution, garbage and dust, safety - so walking was an unfamiliar experience. It became many things to me, such as freedom and connection and learning a place. I could find my own paths, slow down or go at my own pace, discover new things by getting lost or simply wandering. Walking meant the most direct connection with the city, through the earth, as well as with its people; while walking we were equals, no matter where we were from.
Walking is a subject of interest to many anthropologists, for its nature involves participation, embodiment and emplacement in the surroundings where we find ourselves (Pink 2008, Lee and Ingold 2006). The nature of walking is distinct from travel and other modes of transport, all of which usually involve “a series of [...] destinations” and “groundlessness”, as well as a more limited field of vision (and, indeed, of other senses) than walking (Ingold 2004, Lee and Ingold 2006). A walk, on the other hand, can be an act in itself; it is, especially when mediated by a camera, a way of “sensing place, placing senses, sensorially making place, and making sense of place” (Pink 2007, citing Feld and Basso 1996).
My walks in London could be broadly divided into three categories: one was the repetitive, daily walk with a destination at its end (between my residence and university, or going grocery shopping); the second a more ambling, wandering type, a setting out with no idea of where I might go and what I might discover. The third kind of walk was a converging of the two: not quite aimless, a walk with the purpose of exploring some particular thing or theme, but exploring nonetheless. This I called questing.
What added another element to all my walks, especially the ones between my residence and university, was the constant presence of my camera, a third eye around my neck. It allowed me to view in new ways the identical paths I traversed daily out of habit. It made me notice things, be mindful of my surroundings, and also enabled me to revisit and analyse where I walked and what I documented (Pink 2007, 2008). This was aided by two projects of documentation that I embarked on: a student video on being a Londoner, and a “52 weeks” photography project which, as its name suggests, involved sharing a new selection of photos each week. These projects further provided incentives for me to notice variation in repetition as the city became my inspiration.
But sometimes, I was a flâneuse, going where my feet took me on impulse. I first came across the word flâneur in a classroom in Delhi reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, as we followed Peter on his wanderings through London. Of course, Clarissa Dalloway, too, was as fond of walking as any man, and so was Woolf herself - or ‘street haunting’, as she referred to it. Finding myself feeling secure enough to wander by myself and chase paths and alleys in Bloomsbury (some of which perhaps Woolf herself had walked) and beyond, I realised how my gender, too, had previously limited walking.
Thinking of walking as a multi-sensory engagement with the environment, rather than simply visual, added layers to the experience (Pink 2008). Diversity was everywhere: restaurants and food stalls at markets offering every cuisine imaginable, music and language and soundscape, the student body of the many universities located here, museums and libraries; and markers such as the statue of Gandhi and a plaque dedicated to Raja Ram Mohun Roy. But it was when I was, on two separate occasions, questing after literary figures - once while looking for the famous blue plaques in Bloomsbury, the other in Highgate Cemetery - that I happened to take a couple of photographs. These, though they are points of juxtaposition, imaging difference, to me quietly and unpretentiously represent the coexistence and multiculturalism so intrinsic to London.
As winter approached, I bought a pair of sturdy black boots. Not long after, as I walked back from Russell Square one evening, I caught a glimpse of my silhouette - coated, booted, familiar - and felt like I belonged. I had arrived.
The second tier
“[...] Migrants are shaped in these convoluting spaces -- a hurly burly even when they are said to have ‘found their feet, to have settled down’.”
- Sarat Maharaj
Handing in my dissertation was a turning point of sorts. No longer a student, I found myself outside the bubble I’d grown used to, inhabiting an in-between state that became increasingly isolating as I realised I was locked out of job opportunities (literally, as many online forms only allowed one to proceed if one already had a work visa, also known after the changes earlier that year as the Tier 2 visa). I belonged to a category of students that weren’t entitled to any state support, and each day I spent in the expensive city searching for a job caused me to fall deeper into debt. The phrase “equal opportunities employer” began to feel as though it were mocking me; some employees are more equal than others.
Because I was running out of money, I didn't use public transport for two weeks. The role of walking in my new neighbourhood changed - I walked for a change of scene, for fresh air, to get outside the four walls of my rented room. I walked in the beautiful park with a nagging feeling of running out of time; I walked my CV to all the shops in the area. The cafe with the amazing banoffee muffins, the florist, the violin shop, the bookstore, the boutique, the film rental shop, all became merely places where there were no job openings.
A couple of things were clear: one, that I was no longer wanted; and two, that London had changed. For the first time since I’d arrived over a year ago, it felt like a foreign land. As the days went by sending off more applications, it seemed unlikelier that I would be able to call it mine for much longer. Already it was slipping away, faster the more I tried to hold on to it, as dreams are wont to do. Gradually, reluctantly, I began to reconcile myself to the fact that I would have to leave soon. I had overstayed my welcome; I’d have to take my expensive qualification elsewhere.
And then my room began to attack me. One night, the curtain rod tumbled down. Another night an object flung itself off the top of the bookcase. The night after that, the fabric shelf detached itself inside the cupboard, taking my clothes with it. I understood what they were telling me. It was time to leave.
 Lee and Ingold explain, however, that no a priori embodiment should be assumed while walking.
Anderson, B. 2006 (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso
Augé, M. 1995. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. London and New York: Verso
Ingold, T. 2004. “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet”. Journal of Material Culture vol. 9(3), pp. 315-340
Lee, J. and T. Ingold. 2006. “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing”. In: S. Coleman and P. Collins. 2006. Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury Publishing
Maharaj, S. 2003. “Pidginy Linguish, Proto-Pratter, Ur-Creole: Soundiing the ‘Dictionnaire Elementaire’ on Cultural Translation”.
Pink, S. 2007. “Walking with Video”. Visual Studies vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 240-252
Pink, S. 2008. “An Urban Tour: The Sensory Sociality of Ethnographic Place-making”. Ethnography vol. 9(2), pp. 175-196
Samuels, D. et al, 2010. “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology”. The Annual Review of Anthropology 39, pp. 329-345
Woolf, V. 1925. Mrs Dalloway. Wordsworth Classics
Woolf, V. 1930. “Street Haunting: A London Adventure”. In: V. Woolf. 1942. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Retrieved via eBooks@Adelaide https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter5.html