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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Swimmer Among the Stars


Kanishk Tharoor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




As a rule, the last speaker of a language no longer uses it. Ethnographers show up at the door with digital recorders, ready to archive every declension, each instance of the genitive, the idiosyncratic function of verbal suffixes. But this display hardly counts as normal speech. It simply confirms reality to the last speaker, that the old world of her mind is cut adrift from humans and can only be pulped into a computer. She finds it strange to listen to the sounds of her mouth. Inevitably, she mingles a more common language with her own. That common language, after all, is the speech that now keeps her company, that leads her through the market, that sits with her in the evenings by the television, that gives her the terminal diagnosis at the clinic, that pours through her letterbox, that comes in a crisp nurse’s outfit to wash her feet. Her own language does nothing of the sort. It is nowhere to be found. She pauses, silent now, staring incredulously at the microphone. How am I the last speaker of my language? How can I be its keeper? My language left me.

She apologizes to the ethnographers. You must understand, she says, that though my memory is preserved better than a lemon, it is still difficult to remember which words are my own and which words are not.

Please speak as it comes naturally to you, the ethnographers say.

Thank you, I will try.

In any case, we can help you remember.

The last speaker looks up, puzzled. But if you know already, then why do you want to hear it from me?

It means something more if it comes from you.

Do you speak my language then? Do you understand me when I say this, when I say that, and even now, when I am singing this song that my father sang every day as he disappeared down the valley? She sings and her alien words crackle about the room.

No, we do not understand, the ethnographers say. Or if we do, it is only distantly.

Oh, that is a shame, it would be nice to sing that song for someone.

Please, madam, sing it for the microphone.

She grins. So the microphone understands, does it?

Yes, it understands.

If only you could get microphones to talk! She laughs and then feels a little sorry for herself. She does not mean to sound sardonic; no one could accuse her of being indifferent to her plight. Some years before, it had occurred to her that she was no longer in the habit of hearing her own tongue. Everybody in the town seemed to be speaking the common language. She did not mind using their language, since she had dwelled in it for a long time, almost as long as she could remember, and had kept it clean and given it a good airing, rearranged the furniture so it suited her just right. It was the language of her husband and her children, and she had made it hers. But always, in the darker corners, she placed mementos of her own, a proverb, a snatch of a rhyme, some light daily expressions the glimpse of which would startle her family. With nobody to speak her language to, she began talking with objects, the pots and pans, a creaking door, the sharp corner of a table. She never spoke it with animals because—and here a foreign kind of pride sparked within her—it was never a language to waste on goats. Once, on a rare visit, her son came upon her in the living room, speaking with a teacup. He told her she was going mad. No, she sighed, you don’t understand, this is what a conversation sounds like.

Would you like a cup of tea? the last speaker asks the ethnographers. They would. Let’s have some tea and then I’ll sing for you. She rises from her seat and waits as they shift their equipment, the light stand and camera, the microphones, the attendant knots of wires. Brushing away their offers to assist her, she lights the stove with a match and stares out through the kitchen window. Poplars nod in the breeze over the mustard field. Someone’s boy is loitering at the front gate, his hands in the pockets of his jeans. At each half-step, his sneakers light up red. She thinks he must be here to look at the visitors, but she is wrong. He follows her movements with open curiosity, as if there was something surprising about the way a kettle boils. She smiles: that’s the matter with strange guests, they turn you into a stranger as well.

The tea warms her voice. When she sings, her eyes close and her chin with its gentle down of hair thrusts forward into the lamplight. The ethnographers cannot help but admire her strong set of teeth, a rare sight in so much of their work. They are used to thinking that there is half a relationship between dental health and endangered languages; languages, like people, become toothless. In her case, of course, a full mouth of teeth won’t make any difference. She is the last, the very last. After her, the language has only a ghostly future. Few even remember the time when its clambering rhythms united the valley and the uplands. Clinically speaking, it is already dead. A language cannot be alive if it exists alone in the mind of an old woman, no matter how fine her teeth.

The song is about a wedding. At the end of the festivities, the bride leads the groom out from the town, through the fields and up the slope of a mountain. Where will it happen? the groom asks. The bride kisses him and beckons him to follow. He does. She allows him another kiss after a hundred steps, and another after another hundred, and so on until they can walk no farther and are forced to start climbing. Perturbed, the groom grabs her wrist: Why not here? She shakes her head and slips out of his grasp, removing a scarf and draping it over his shoulder. She hoists herself up the face of the mountain. The groom can see the stars shining through her hair. As they climb, she leaves bits of clothing and jewelry for him to gather: bangles, her belt, a necklace, a vest, socks. When he reaches the top, he finds her naked and motionless. Only when he touches her does he realize that she has turned to stone.

The last speaker stops. She apologizes again. Our songs are sad songs. Nobody ever gets to have sex.

The ethnographers smile vaguely. Even the most capable among them can understand at most a handful of her words, an occasional phrase. The full meaning of the song awaits its patient digestion in a computer lab. For now, their responsibility is only to the collection of raw material and the husbanding of its source, a happy task. They are growing fond of the last speaker, softened by her unabashed, tuneless singing. Privately, they all feel the stirrings of great affection, the sort that civilians might call sympathy but they know to be truer still, the love of the student for the studied.

Can I sing it again? the last speaker asks. I would like to change the ending.

By all means, they say, whenever you are ready. The ethnographers, after all, are modern enough to know that nothing can be totally genuine. Traditions are invented to be reinvented. If the last speaker wants to sex up a folk song, so be it. In any case, it’s the form of the words that matters, the syntax and structure of her speech. Everything else is just pleasant air.

This song departs entirely from the previous version, but the ethnographers cannot sense the fullness of the difference, nor can they tell that she is improvising fresh phrases. The bride eludes the groom and disappears from the wedding festivities. She journeys to the mountain. At its summit, she finds a rocket (here, the last speaker pauses to construct a suitable compound for the noun “rocket,” which she renders with verbal suffixes as “fiery flight in void into void”). The bride enters and speeds up to the heavens. Everything recedes beneath her. The bride has never wanted to be a bride, but rather an astronaut (“swimmer among the stars”), and fair enough, why should brides be brides when they can be astronauts? In space, the astronaut dances between satellites (“invisible lightning moths”) and befriends the moon. They drink wine and watch TV (“chaos of shadows in stillness”) together. The sun grows jealous, since the moon is its bride. It asks mankind to fetch the astronaut back: Why do you let her be up there? If your women become astronauts, who will be your brides? Mankind agrees: this is a worrying situation. The prime minister (“temporary rent-collector”) is sent to the moon to reason with her. He sets up a table on the surface and waits for her to appear for negotiations. He waits and waits, not knowing that the moon has whisked the astronaut to its dark side. The vastness of space inspires only a deep resignation in him. But he has a mission to fulfill, so he remains seated on the surface of the moon, facing an empty chair, expecting a woman who will never come.

Look what I’ve done, the last speaker says after finishing. I’m such an old fool, I haven’t changed the ending at all.

The ethnographers chuckle. There’s no sex this time either?

Not a drop, she says, not a drop. She falls silent, her face sinking. The ethnographers think she must be tired—it is always a little unfair to bustle into the homes of lonely pensioners and force them to talk. Indeed, the last speaker is tired, but not from the physical exertion of speech. If anything, inventing within her language is invigorating. Why haven’t I done this before? she wonders. Why haven’t I made with my language?

But another realization exhausts her: there is no simple direct way in her language to express the idea of a “tractor.” Perhaps there was a time long ago, before she was born, when her language could tackle all concepts of the fields and towns, when it was large enough to be its own world. In her life, it has only ever been in retreat. She grew up hearing it at home, in the living room and around the stoves and in the whispering dark of the bedroom she shared with her sisters. At school, they made her speak the common language. The teachers slapped her wrists if she ever misspoke and emitted the unwelcome sounds of her own tongue. As she grew older, the living room was overtaken by the radio, then the TV. She lost her bedroom and gained her husband’s. The language survived a little while longer in the kitchen, nourished by the memory of food. Then her sisters passed away. For most of her life, funerals were the only occasions she would hear her language outside the home. Now there is no one else left to die. When it comes time for her funeral, she will be remembered by common people, in common words, with common ideas.

One way to represent “tractor,” she thinks, could be “making absence of presence,” the way a tractor levels a field with its roaring bulk, but surely that is a bit vague. “Tilling with power of many men” seems too literal and inelegant for her liking. Piling on the suffixes to a verb, she settles on an image, “smoke mowing through grass.” That might do for “tractor,” but this is an impossible task. She looks at all the equipment brought by the ethnographers. Her language has no natural way of referring to a camera, a microphone, a digital recorder. It has been in exile from this world, and so it is no longer of this world. She could come up with phrases for all these objects, but what would be the point? No matter how innovative she is with her language, it does not have the force to take possession of an idea. In later years, they will say that her term “swimmer among the stars” means “astronaut.” They will never say that “astronaut” means “swimmer among the stars.”

Have you done this before? she asks the ethnographers. Have you listened to other old women sing?

Yes, they say, but none sing as magically as you.

You shouldn’t flatter me. The ancient know their weaknesses better than anybody else.

When you are rested, we’d be happy to record more of your songs.

I don’t need to rest. What do you do with these recordings? Where do they go? Who listens to them?

We’ll take them to our university, the ethnographers say, we’ll study them, we’ll write about them, we’ll archive them. We’ll organize them such that all future generations can learn about you and your language.

It must get noisy over there, with all those voices of old people trying to make themselves heard. She laughs. She knows how computers work, how she can be skimmed into light, vanished into the whirring density of a hard drive. That’s what will happen to me, she thinks, what a drab afterlife. Technology can be so deadening. She worries sometimes that in the future all language will disappear, never mind just her own. When her grandchildren visit, they strew themselves about the house and play games on their little black phones. If they speak to each other, it is in timid bits of sound she does not understand.

What are the ethnographers making, this archive of languages? She imagines a cavernous exhibition hall, its walls lined with screens. Old women and men stare out of each one, speaking their lonely languages in an unending loop. During the day, visitors come to marvel at the spectacle of so many lost tongues. Inevitably, they feel sad and perhaps light candles or leave flowers, as if they were at a mausoleum. The figures in the screens wait patiently for the visitors to leave. At night, after hours, they interrupt their own digitized soliloquies, listen to one another, and laugh at all the jokes.

Where is your university? she asks.

In our country, very far away from here.

She squints at them and makes no attempt to veil her disappointment. Why didn’t you take me there? It would be much easier. When you do this again, fetch the next old woman to your university. All of you wouldn’t have had to go through this hassle or had to bring your van into our narrow streets. I would have gotten to see your country. Maybe I would have even recorded the way your people speak. Then, I could return home with your words and study you!

The ethnographers look at each other. In our work, they say a little hesitantly, it’s best to talk to our informants in their native surroundings. In any case, we were worried about your health, we weren’t sure if you would cope with the rigors of travel.

She straightens. I’m well aware that I’m on my way. It makes no difference to me where I die, in this chair, or on a plane, or in your university.

Why don’t we let you rest for a bit? The ethnographers feel wretched for making her morose.

No, no. She waves them away. You’re not tiring me. It’s just … until you came, I never thought of my language as a burden, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? You want to take it from me so I no longer have to carry this weight.

It should not be just yours to bear.

Will you do me this favor? Whatever recordings you make of me speaking my language in the coming days, please put together a little package and have it played at my funeral ceremony.

The ethnographers want to hold her. Their words seem to come through a mist. We can do that, they say.

I’m much obliged to you, she says, I’m very grateful that you have come here to see me and let me feel old in my language. She means it, too—to whom else can she pass this inheritance? Her children may have known a handful of words when they were young, but their mother’s tongue was always too much of a responsibility. They would come home from the fields or the houses of their friends or from school and look at their mother with a kind of fatigue, as if her language was only another chore, as tedious as dishes. She thought about making a more concerted effort to teach them, but where could she begin? As far as she knew, her language was not something that was ever taught. How could she explain its quixotic use of tenses, its habit of piling on suffixes to verbs, its wealth of nouns, when she had no knowledge of all that herself? Her ability was only intuitive, the work of habit, not understanding. In their classrooms, her children would go to the blackboard and write out conjugations in the common language. They memorized ditties that helped explain the subjunctive and mnemonics that guided correct spelling. Against this ordered system of rules, her own language seemed amorphous, entirely shapeless. What was allowed and what wasn’t? she wondered. When her father sang his songs or when her sisters gossiped about the grocer in front of him, could it be that in speaking they had often misspoken? She didn’t begrudge the fact that her children eventually shed what language she had given them. How could they know that the babble of their mother was a language at all?

Her son now farms in his wife’s town on the other side of the valley, not far, but far away enough that he does not see his mother often. Her daughter was always the cleverer of the two, destined for the city and its indispensable comforts: air-conditioning, coffee, the admiring glances of strangers. Every month, her daughter sends her some money. They speak often on the phone, and their conversations are loving and repetitive, as all loving conversations should be. She is proud that neither of her children is vulnerable to false nostalgia, that they find full satisfaction in the present of their lives.

In my language, she tells the ethnographers, words for gratitude are much different than in the common speech. We have many kinds. This, for instance, is used to express a very dark kind of gratitude, to be thankful for the loss of something. This means to be grateful despite yourself, with a hint of bitterness. This is used to describe a sudden, overwhelming feeling of gratitude. This is the feeling children have when they receive small treats, like sweets, or when they are lifted by an adult and spun and spun.

The ethnographers take notes. Nobody ever compiled a complete grammar or lexicon of the language, so part of their mission is to attempt to reconstruct the language in its fullness. They will never know that in her language there were more than a dozen ways of indicating and describing gratitude. Here are a few more: the gratitude of natural things for one another, like the hive for the branch, the tree for the bees, the cloud for the sun; collective gratitude, the thanks of a family or a town or a people; gratitude—directed to the cosmos—for superiority, for knowing that one is better than everybody else; the gratitude of one saved from death by starvation.

Her language boasted many verbs for which no simple equivalents exist in the common language. For example, this means to be afraid of seeing time pass. This means to tell stories in the depths of winter. This is the action of stirring a kind of gravy in a pot; this also denotes the motion of a pig rooting around in the mud. This refers to the way light splinters against a range of mountains at dusk. This describes in one word how mountains gain mass and shape at dawn. This means to feel strange in an unfamiliar place. This means to be patient for spring. As does this. And this.

If she remembered all or some of these words, the last speaker’s testimony would be a little more refined. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember them. Some she never knew in the first place. It’s not her fault, no measure of her intelligence or sophistication. When the number of speakers of a language shrinks, so does the language itself. She grew up with an impoverished vocabulary, a skulking tongue, never with the means to recover those lost words. The ethnographers, despite their best efforts, won’t be able to restore her language. How can anybody learn that which has never been written down, that which nobody knows any longer? It is sad, but sad in an unremarkable way. Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.

Speech, however, can be added to, no matter its condition. When she cannot find the word she wants in her language, she builds compounds with the words she does have. Occasionally, she imports one from the common language. She sketches her life for the ethnographers, narrates in her language the sequence of events and relationships that brought her to this chair before their camera and its severe lamp. Our father raised us in my mother’s absence, which means that we raised ourselves, because he was away during the days, and often for many nights. He would come back with new clothes and boxes of contraband goods—electric fans, flyswatters, medicines, beer, and so on—that he would then shift along. (In his childhood, there was no border on the other side of the valley. I would ask him, why do you have to go over there all the time? Oh, I’m not going far, he would say, laughing, before reminding me that when he was young, over “there” was still “here.” He would say that in the common language, because in our language the word for “here” is the same as the word for “there.”) My favorite thing to do in the summers was to wade into the irrigation channels and feel the chill of the mountain water on my ankles. I don’t remember anything from my wedding night, I got very drunk. Neither of my children likes eating cake, which is a real pity; life isn’t complete without confectionery. The army installed solar (“fed by sun”) streetlamps—look, they just came on!—in the village so now it’s never dark at nighttime in the way our nights were once so totally dark. I miss that darkness, I miss angling lanterns and torches around corners. I only recently learned that I was the last. I had assumed there were others elsewhere, just not where I was, not here.

A neighbor interrupts the recording with a platter of pastries, a generous pretense with which to inspect the visitors. The ethnographers are ravenous. For a few moments, the sounds of grateful munching overwhelm conversation. The neighbor studies the ethnographers and their equipment, and then, for a long while, her. How quickly something familiar becomes strange when it takes shape in another language. He makes his excuses and leaves. At the door, he passes the loitering boy, who is still poking about on the threshold. The last speaker beckons to the boy. Why don’t you come in? The boy shakes his head, backs a few steps away, and stares.

It is getting late. Stray dogs growl in the dust. Bicycles rustle down paths. The most popular soap operas blare from the televisions in nearby houses, where families assemble for dinner in the glow. My nurse will be coming soon, the last speaker reminds the ethnographers, and she will want to settle me for my bedtime. She won’t be happy that I’ve strained myself like this.

Oh no! they protest. You should have allowed us to give you a break.

That’s all right, I’m beginning to enjoy myself. It’s coming back to me. Tomorrow, I hope I’ll be able to tell you even more.

We’ll return after breakfast. In fact, we’ll return with breakfast.

How sweet, but don’t go just yet. I’ll sing you one more song today. Make certain your recorders are working, are they properly plugged in? Are you sure? I want a snatch of my singing played at my funeral, too.

Eager to please her, the ethnographers vigorously double-check all the controls and settings before signaling to begin. She sings, tuneless and a bit rasping, but still full.

On their wedding night, the bride and the groom retreat to the chamber prepared for them. He undresses and rushes to get under the covers. Awaiting her arrival in the pregnant darkness (a rough translation of one of many kinds of darkness in the last speaker’s language), he realizes that he has not heard her talk at any point during the day. She must be shy, he thinks, she must be as nervous as I am about this moment. Is she? He feels her weight on the bed, her fingers now on his shoulder, her knee in the space between his knees. Her face looms above him, all light concentrated in the teeth. He moves to bring her mouth to his, but she pushes away and raises her torso, her hands firmly on his neck and chest, straddling him.

The last speaker stops. Thinking that she is done, the ethnographers start to commend her singing and to turn their thoughts toward dinner. She has not finished. Her eyes search the camera lens. She sings again, not quite song, more like an incantation urgent in its rhythm, her feet tapping a measure on the floor. The ethnographers strain to discern the sequence in the flow of words. Weeks later, in the computer lab, they will discover that there is no order at all in this passage. It is merely a list of unconnected phrases, shards of speech, jagged and inscrutable, the debris of a language swept clean. But in the moment, in her living room, it rises in pitch and volume and dissolves the ethnographers’ scholarly attention. They surrender to the unlikely beauty of it. She looks up when she finishes. Was the song racier this time? the ethnographers grin. Was there sex? She smiles, exhausted.

Her nurse enters and looks balefully upon the scene. I’m afraid your interviews are over for the day, the nurse says, it’s time for me to take care of her. The ethnographers pack away their things. They linger at the door, watching the last speaker as she settles into an armchair, puts up her feet, and turns on the TV. Until tomorrow, they say.

Until tomorrow, she replies, staring closely at the buttons on the remote. The ethnographers sputter away in their van. While the last speaker watches TV, her nurse does all the required nursely duties, checking blood pressure and temperature, feeding her the nightly quota of pills, talking to her about the antics of celebrities she only pretends to recognize. Restless, the last speaker eventually goes to the kitchen and insists on preparing dinner for both of them. What is the point of living if I can’t exert myself? The nurse, who knows this routine well, protests and then acquiesces, expressing her earnest, simple gratitude. While the last speaker cooks, the nurse sinks into the armchair and starts to channel surf on the TV.

The last speaker turns to the stove. The pots begin to murmur. She whispers in her language to a smattering of onions and garlic and greens and lentils: Soon you’ll become delicious and then, I’m afraid, I’m going to eat you … Don’t worry, there’s much more of you where you came from. Through her kitchen window, the wheezing solar lamps cast a light gloom over the village. She is surprised to see a hunched form sitting on her courtyard wall. It is the boy from earlier. He’s been here the entire time, she thinks. Whose son is he? At her gaze, he drops from the wall and runs down the village path, red flashes in the dark, leaving her wondering if there was ever a time when she knew his name.


Copyright © 2016, 2017 by Kanishk Tharoor