‘Search for My Tongue’ by Sujata Bhatt is a work that describes the struggle of a person embracing a new culture and “tongue” while having the ongoing fear of forsaking the core details of who they are in the process. Though Bhatt depicts this situation in ways that express desperation to hold to that “mother tongue,” the final thoughts of the poem indicate her fears of “los[ing]” it are unfounded as it will always return to her—and even “grow” through the struggle—since the fundamental aspects of who she is are greater than the ulterior things she has had to learn. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Search for My Tongue
You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together
The conversational tone that is embraced is clear within the first three lines of the poem since Bhatt discusses a fictional conversation that occurs between the reader and herself. Specifically, Bhatt insists that the person she is addressing posed the question of “what [was] mean[t]” in regard to “hav[ing] lost [her] tongue,” and she answers that question by posing a question of her own. This stands as evidence of a full conversation that involves back-and-forth dialogue, though the unveiling of that back-and-forth dialogue is only offered in one voice (Bhatt’s) as she gives the report of that exchange.
There are a number of possibilities as to why Bhatt has chosen this approach. One is the simple possibility that this poem is addressing the person with whom she has this conversation. This possibility is a bit too obvious to be the case, however, particularly since having that back-and-forth dialogue in this method would not have required a published work. Rather, the back-and-forth conversation could have continued between the two people without additional readers being brought into the equation.
Bringing in those other readers sparks a universality of the topic, referencing that it is a concept that multiple people can relate to. This is a valid approach for two reasons within this work. The first is that if Bhatt were interested in relating her story to others who have similar stories, she has quickly rallied like-minded people to her side of understanding by creating an instant need for defense. There is no context in which this other person has asked about the “los[s of her]… tongue,” so all the reader can infer is that Bhatt’s perspective is not understood and is being questioned. For anyone reading this who does not need that explanation of Bhatt’s mentality, this method establishes a connection between the poet and the reader as they both are instantly aligned on the same side of perspective and understanding.
As an additional benefit to bringing this universality into the scenario, this poem is about various cultures interacting with one another. This can be seen specifically when Bhatt references “the mother tongue” and “the foreign tongue” as a person learns a new language. This topic has a universality about it since cultures intermingle, and that universality of bringing a private conversation into the public eye mirrors that concept.
Earlier it was mentioned that the poem’s approach creates a defensiveness within the reader due to the lack of context given for the beginning question, and the remainder of these lines solidify that notion by sparking sympathy for the poet. This tactic is tended to by showing defensiveness on the poet’s part since any time a person answers a question with something akin to “what would you do,” it entails that the person believes theirs to be the rational stance. Given that the poet is referring to a situation of “los[ing]” something so crucial to their nature and person, as well as the submersion into something that they “really [did not] know” as a replacement for what they “lost,” this concept is understandable.
The idea that this confusion of ideas is so impacting that it invades the thoughts—“even if you thought that way,” “[y]ou could not use them both together”—brings that idea of deep-rooted struggle and consequential sympathy to a higher level for the reader.
even if you thought that way.
And if you lived in a place you had to
until you had to spit it out.
I thought I spit it out
This defensive approach of referencing the situation as “if” the reader had to endure it continues in this series of lines, and the devastation that is exposed from the language controversy is taken to a higher level. In particular, Bhatt insists that “liv[ing] in a place [where] you had to speak a foreign tongue” would make “your mother tongue” “rot, rot and die in your mouth.” The repetition of the word, “rot,” is telling, as if Bhatt believes the damage to be so horrific that stating the verb once is not sufficient to get the point across. A secondary “rot” must happen to bring the idea into full-enough focus.
The response that she gives in regard to having this “rot[ting]” happening is that the speaker must “spit it out.” This wording is interesting since it parallels what a person might say when someone is struggling with their words, even if the reason for that struggle is not a language barrier. With this connection, especially since Bhatt has placed the wording in quotation marks like someone has told her to do so, frustration is represented on the part of the listener and again boosts the level of defensiveness felt from the speaker. That speaker is the one “los[ing]” her “tongue,” so rationally, she would be the one frustrated. To hear her endure external frustration from a listener worsens her tale into something that is even more worthy of compassion.
Now, logically, the language would not “rot” or “die” within this speaker since a “mother tongue” would have been learned so fully that adding a new language would probably not cause the speaker to forget their “first one.” Using those words then can have more extended meanings, such as providing an exaggeration of ideas that expresses the poet’s frustration. Another possibility would be that this “rot and die” idea expands the language differentiation to other cultural variations that the poet might experience. Perhaps Bhatt feels like parts of her culture and heritage must be forsaken for assimilation, and this would mean that the language concept is only a representation of her frustration.
Bhatt turns her focus away from the other person in this conversation in lines fifteen and sixteen by abandoning the strategy of questioning how they would manage in her shoes. As if the other person no longer matters, Bhatt dives into how that “mother tongue” comes back to her “over night while [she] dream[s].” This method of delivery hints that, in the end, it is not the people around Bhatt that matter, but who she continues to be, given that when her moment of importance happens, it is directly after she leaves off discussing her situation with others. Once the moment arrives, it is only about her and her reactions.
but overnight while I dream,
(munay hutoo kay aakhee jeebh aakhee bhasha)
(modhama kheelay chay)
(fullnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh)
The positioning of these lines between the English ones represents that who she is at her core still remains who she was before “the foreign tongue” became an issue. She may speak this “foreign tongue” and embrace “foreign” concepts, but deep within, she is still the same person with her heritage. Just as this series of lines is embedded between “the foreign tongue” lines, her true nature is embedded in an irreversible way within her.
(modhama pakay chay)
it grows back, a stump of a shoot
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,
it blossoms out of my mouth.
The embedded concept from the previous lines “grows” in these final ideas since Bhatt is not just saying that her “mother” concepts have stayed within her, but she “pushes” that concept further by insisting that her “mother tongue” strengthens over “time.” In fact, it is “longer” with the passage of “time” and “strong” enough that “it ties the other tongue in knots.”
The notion that it is “moist” and that its “bud opens” unveils new life and health that would be characteristic of a garden that “blossoms” even in harsh conditions. Essentially, with this perseverance and life, Bhatt finds that even when she “think[s she’s] forgotten” it, she learns that her “mother tongue” is still alive and well within her. This process of “forg[etting]” and remember is linked to the natural elements that are at play within this section since, as plants have a cycle of life that leads to “buds” and “blossoms,” this circular pattern—feeling as though “the mother tongue” has “rot[ted]” only to find that it is alive—continues to persist in Bhatt’s life.
The very notion as well that “the mother tongue” “ties the other tongue in knots” indicates the perseverance of the culture Bhatt considers as her “first” connection because, even though it only surfaces at “night” in a “dream,” it is still “strong” enough to have victory over “the foreign tongue.” In this, the reader can infer that so long as Bhatt holds to her natural culture, it will also be the “strong” component of her life, regardless of if she uses it in a lesser amount in her current life.
This contradicts the idea that she has “lost [her] tongue” because, by the declarations of the final lines, “the mother tongue” will always exist and thrive. Once more, two explanations exist for this division of rationale. One is that Bhatt has shown a level of panic in connection to “los[ing]” her culture, and she has fallen into the trap of exaggeration due to that panic. This rationale would highlight how significant her “tongue” is to her, thus boosting the severity of the topic to the reader. If the situation leads her to such panic, it can be inferred that it is massively important to the poet. The second explanation is that she only “los[es]” her “tongue” throughout her day, meaning that it is embedded within her, but it is temporarily drowned out by the “tongue” she must use in her day-to-day life. Through this explanation, the “tongue” was never gone, but temporarily “pushe[d]” aside.
Whether this poem is about language specifically or a larger idea of culture, it gives a solid view of a person trying to balance their “mother” being with a “foreign” concept. It is a balance, but in the end, the history and character of the person can remain even as more elements are added to them—though not without the fear that who they are will somehow slip away. It is an ongoing, trying process, but not one that must steal a “tongue” or culture.
About Sujata Bhatt
Sujata Bhatt was born in 1956 in India, but she moved to the United States and earned a graduate degree in Iowa. She is known for her writing and translation work, and because of these factors, she has become a popular name in the literary world. You can read Sujata Bhatt’s poetry here.