Indian and English

Sujata Bhatt has two main cultural identities Indian and English, which are represented by her use of language. Her ‘mother tongue’ is Gujerati, and her English voice, an adopted, becomes a ‘foreign voice’. This is the conflict between cultural identities. However, this is resolved because her ‘mother tongue’ reasserts itself – she remembers her first language and how it represents the culture of her birthplace.

To represent this language, the re-emerging ‘mother tongue’, the poet uses the metaphor/image of blooming buds and blossoming flower. This is a positive image. The writer also represents her shared language/culture by the way the poem is presented on the page. The middle section of the poem is written in Gujerati. This is framed on either side by her English language. Therefore, the Gujerati voice is presented as a shared part of her English voice.

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On the other hand John Agard uses the term ‘half-caste’ to obviously represent the idea of a shared identity. A key feature of this poem is how it uses satire to make important points about individual identity and racism. He ridicules the idea of seeing anything or anyone as half of something by asking a series of rhetorical questions so that the overall message is – should we refer to someone as ‘half-caste’? The echoing answer is always ‘NO’. These poems can be linked as protest poems, poems that raise and to a degree complain about issues related to their cultural origins, but which could be universalised.

Sujata Bhatt was born in India in 1956. Her family moved to America in the 1960s and she now lives in India. She writes in both English and Gujerati, her mother tongue. This poem is part of a much longer poem which explores these ideas in detail The poet describes the experience of living in a foreign country and speaking in a language which is not the mother tongue. To start with, both languages live side by side in the mouth, but gradually the mother tongue starts to shrivel up, ‘rot’ and die, as it is not used.

The poet thinks that the mother tongue has been spat out and lost, until she has a dream. At this point, half way through a sentence, the poem moves into Gujerati. This section of the poem means much the same as the part that has gone before. In the last section of the poem the mother tongue starts to grow back again, initially as a stump, but it gradually becomes stronger and stronger and “ties the other tongue in knots”. Then it sends out a bud, pushes the foreign tongue to one side and flowers out of the mouth.

The poem is constructed round the extended metaphor of the mother tongue as a plant, which first of all dies away in the mouth due to lack of use and later blossoms again and becomes stronger than the foreign tongue. In the first section of the poem the imagery associated with the mother tongue is all negative and unpleasant – “rot”, “die”, “spit it out”. However, in the final section of the poem it sends out a “shoot”, becomes “longer”, “moist” and “grows strong veins”. Then as it grows in strength it becomes dominant and “ties the other tongue in knots” and “pushes the other tongue aside”. The mother tongue is like a plant in that it has roots deep inside the person and will always shoot again, even if it is cut right down and appears to be dead. It can be dormant, but will never really die.

The central section of the poem is written in Gujerati, Sujata Bhatt’s mother tongue. This section, which means much the same as lines 15-16 and 31-38, divides the poem at the point where the poet is just starting to dream about the tongue growing back. The Gujerati section comes in half way through a sentence, indicating the strength of the mother tongue, which can interrupt a thought or a dream in the foreign language. This is exactly what the metaphorical tongue does in the last section of the poem, it takes over from the foreign tongue and pushes it out of the way. The poet has chosen to follow the Gujerati script with a phonetic presentation of the words. This allows readers who cannot read Gujerati to have an understanding of the sound of the powerful language which is interrupting the English part of the poem.

The poem Half-cast is written by one my favourite poets Jhon Agard. The poem explores an incident that really doesn’t take place now days but was a really common thing in the early days. The poem looks into the issue of racism and shows how foolish it is even to think about people being different just because of their skin colour. It is not clear whether Agard speaks as himself here, or speaks for others. The poem opens with a joke – as if “half-caste” means only half made (reading the verb as cast rather than caste), so the speaker stands on one leg as if the other is not there. Agard ridicules the term by showing how the greatest artists mix things – Picasso mixes the colours, and Tchaikovsky use the black and white keys in his piano symphonies, yet to call their art “half-caste” seems silly.

Agard playfully points out how England’s weather is always a mix of light and shadow – leading to a very weak pun on “half-caste” and “overcast” (clouded over). The joke about one leg is recalled later in the poem, this time by suggesting that the “half-caste” uses only half of ear and eye, and offers half a hand to shake, leading to the absurdities of dreaming half a dream and casting half a shadow. The poem, like a joke, has a punchline – the poet invites his hearer to “come back tomorrow” and use the whole of eye, ear and mind. Then he will tell “de other half of my story”.

Though the term “half-caste” is rarely heard today, Agard is perhaps right to attack the idea behind it – that mixed race people have something missing. Also, they often suffer hostility from the racial or ethnic communities of both parents. Though the poem is light-hearted in tone, the argument of the last six lines is very serious, and has a universal application: we need to give people our full attention and respect, if we are to deserve to hear their whole “story”.

The form of the poem is related to its subject, as Agard uses non-standard English, in the form of Afro-Caribbean patois. This shows how he stands outside mainstream British culture. There is no formal rhyme scheme or metre, but the poem contains rhymes (“wha yu mean…mix red an green”). A formal device which Agard favours is repetition: “Explain yuself/wha yu mean”, for example. The poem is colloquial, written as if spoken to someone with imperatives (commands) like “Explain yuself” and questions like “wha yu mean”. The punctuation is non-standard using the hyphen (-) and slash (/) but no comma nor full stop, not even at the end. The spelling uses both standard and non-standard forms – the latter to show pronunciation. The patois is most marked in its grammar, where verbs are missed out (“Ah listening” for “I am listening” or “I half-caste human being” for “I am half-caste”).