Why write the Badgers stories in pidgin English?
It all began in Mr. Patel’s shop on Ngara Road in downtown Nairobi.
The heady, exotic scent of ugerbati incense swirled and twirled and enveloped you the moment you walked in, and all the pictures of Hindu mythology and gods and goddesses that decorated its four walls was a cacophony of red, pink, gold, saffron, blue and magenta.
There were pictures of Hanuman the monkey god, and Ganesh the elephant god, and Ram and Sita and Krishna with his blue skin and his Gopi cow herders.
Krishna was clearly Mr. Patel’s favourite as he was always telling stories about the butter thief.
“Always such big mischief stealing butter isn’t it? That Krishna!” he’d say smiling, rubbing his hands gleefully and bobbing his wobbly head from side to side in a way only Indians can.
“He was always stealing butter from his mother and from the gopis in the village.”
One day he stole the butter from his mother’s churn and she got so angry with him that she forced him to open his mouth expecting to find the butter inside his mouth. Instead she found what every child holds within – the boundless riches of all the galaxies, the entire universe.
So then perhaps it began with my noticing what I did not know was already there — the richness of imagination and of infinite, limitless, borderless possibility?
Or maybe it all began when my grandfather said he did not like a bone china teacup and that he preferred the tea vendor’s mud cup, the chaiwalla’s mud cup on an Indian train, because that mud cup mixes back into the earth.
So is it about mixing comfortably back with the earth, then?
The Kikuyu vegetable ladies, who came to Nairobi from the up-country shamba, selling their vegetables from door to door, they mix with the earth.
They don’t wear shoes, because they are poor. Or is it because they are rich?
Perhaps if they wore shoes, their bare feet would not mix with the rich fertile red soil in the shamba where they grow the vegetables.
And once their feet stopped mixing with the earth they may forget who they are, and where they come from, and where they will return and mix back into.
So perhaps the collective recognition of the noble Kikuyu ladies planting vegetables, the mischievous Krishna stealing butter and Mr. Patel’s irrepressible need to tell me stories of our Indian ancestors… perhaps they all converged to light a fire in my childhood imagination.
Within the emboldening embers of that enlightening elucidation, I began to question the time-held value placed upon the elitist and eloquently educated, the effected and effortfully erudite.
Who knows what precisely was sparked in my recently recalling Mr. Patel’s shop in Nagara?
But there is one thing I did know. And that is that being articulate makes it difficult to mix.
Being articulate can dampen the spark of the spirit. It can cool the warm heart. Even douse out the fire of hope and dismiss out the imagination – banish it. Imagination becomes banned.
Being articulate can potentially build a wall of Apartheid within us: it can take the whole person and place a blockade between their mind and heart. It can divide us in two. Divide and rule.
Being articulate can cause the heart to be subservient to the extreme ambitions of the mind.
Being articulate can potentially lead to an encrusted, calcified, colonized caste system – with dividers – whereby the mind is the highest caste, the heart is the lower caste, and the soul?..
…The soul is the untouchable and invisible caste. The one that does dirty, filthy, mucky work.
What does articulate even mean?
It means to be connected – by joints.
That’s what it says in the Oxford English dictionary. And they should know.
It’s about jointing concepts, jointing together ideas, connecting them all. An old English derivative of the word articulate is from carpentry – the idea that you can joint together sections to make a whole – like the legs of a desk to the top of the desk. The joints make the sections functional and whole. Just like different sections of ideas and thoughts become functional and whole and clear, when you joint them together.
Articulate is derived from the Latin word articulatus: “to joint; unite, by means of a joint”.
So, maybe it is good to be articulate.
No one is free who has not obtained the empire of himself.
Maybe being articulate means that you can joint together great civilizations and ideas, as when Latin was jointed with Sanskrit and jointed with Greek as the original Indo-European language, so people back then could share a common language, making it easier to communicate.
Until things got disjointed and disintegrated drastically.
Latin got buried and burned and English emerged from the ashes and dusted itself off, and spread across a new sectioned world, each section jointed with another section, joint upon joint, limb to limb, like one lanky, languorous, lumbering giant.
An English queen jointed and cobbled British naval powers, colonized the homes of Mr. Patel and the Kikuyu vegetable ladies, making it possible for the very articulate lawyers and politicians back home in Great Britain to joint with each other and create new laws which allowed them to function as rulers and administrators, and drink tea in bone china cups in inarticulate African and Indian villages.
An English queen jointed to English naval powers, colonized the homes of Mr. Patel and the Kikuyu vegetable ladies, making it possible for the very articulate lawyers and politicians back home in Great Britain to joint and create new laws which allowed them to function as rulers and administrators, and drink tea in bone china cups in African and Indian villages.
Monarchs and lawyers and district commissioners and army generals and naval admirals, were all jointed together into one gargantuan Goliath… a giant Empire, with Flags, and a Crown.
That was certainly a lot of articulation.
London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers, the sycophants and lickspittles of the British Empire are irresistibly drained.
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Gentlemen never wear brown in London.
– George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, KG, GCSI, GCIE, PC, Viceroy and Governor-General of India (1899-1905)
But the old Kikuyu vegetable ladies and the faded, colorful mythological pictures in Mr. Patel’s shop on Ngara Road… how come they were not jointed and united? Articulated?
They were not part of this elaborate, erudite, educated and articulate activity. The articulate activity towered, hovered above the vegetable ladies and Mr. Patel. It oversaw them, administered them, owned them with leases and clauses, protected them with protectorates and proclamations, but never actually knew them. Why? Because they were inarticulate.
And when you tower tall and hover haughtily above, well, you are not touching the earth anymore are you? You have less and less in common with those who have their feet planted barefoot in the rich red earth. How can you mix back into the earth when you are so remote and distant and important and standing tall?
The decline and fall of empires are not affairs of greased cartridges.
– British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on India, House of Commons, 1857
When I became articulate, when I learned the Queen’s English, I, too, towered above and began becoming jointed, united, to a new power. I too grew taller.
Actually, the reason I grew taller while learning the Queen’s English is that I was seven when I went to school in England and so like most children at that age… I grew taller as I learned.
Being articulate helps you connect with the right people and the right institutions because articulation joints you, connects you.
It connects and cobbles together the world of people that matter. People in the know – the Smart Set. The ones tattlers tattle about. It cobbles you together with the shrewd and the savvy and the successful- the elevated and the celebrated.
Articulation cobbles you like connected country home countryside cobblestones that, when jointed and articulated together, help you to nimbly step over the muddy stream – as long as you indeed step nimbly and don’t fall through the cracks.
Because those that fall through the cracks from their lofty heights… they are the ones tattlers tattle about. If you are articulate you are pristine – you never get any mud on your shoes.
Your shoes have no holes to let mud in. The shoes have been cobbled together by a cobbler.
Now, perhaps that is the very answer I have been searching for all along:
Being articulate, at its very root and essence, has a lot to do with cobblers.
The foundation of Empire is art and science.
Remove them or degrade them, and the Empire is no more.
Empire follows art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.
– William Blake
To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname Empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.
…But let’s get back to Mr. Patel’s shop where all this first began:
I was thinking back to that picture of the god Vishnu high up on the wall behind the glass cabinet where Mr. Patel had his stocks of socks, and tins of chili powder and bottles of Vimto and fat vats and dripping tubs of ghee.
One day when the shop was not busy, Mr. Patel took it upon himself to tell me the story of Bali, who was the big, powerful muscle man, the man who was so strong that he managed to dominate and overpower the entire earth with his brute strength. Bali owned the earth now, it was his empire, his colony, his protectorate, the throned monarch better than his crown.
Bali was very tall. He towered and hovered high above all the small, insignificant people. And so, if there were Kikuyu vegetable ladies back in those days, I doubt Bali would’ve noticed.
Anyway, somebody asked the god Vishnu to come along and do something about it. Bali was ruthless and exploitative and good honest people despaired and were deeply unhappy.
So they beckoned Vishnu come and do something.
Vishnu was reluctant. He always felt that people should be empowered to handle their own challenges. However, he said he would try, so he appeared in front of Bali as a tiny dwarf. Bali had to squint to see Vishnu because Bali was so “big-big” and Vishnu so “small-small, isn’t it?”
That was how Mr. Patel described them as he bit into his samosa and washed it down with a cup of Assam tea. He kept one eye on the door of the shop incase we were interrupted.
He had been very proud of being an Indian shopkeeper in British East Africa.
L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.(England is a nation of shopkeepers)—Napoleon I
Mr. Patel always told his stories as if he was an eyewitness at the scene. If I ever doubted his marvelous conviction, he would give me a sort of well-you-had-to-be-there look, which made me feel I should never have doubted him, that I had a lot to learn. I should just listen.
So, there is “big-big” Bali, squinting down at a “small-small” Vishnu, and on top of this, Bali has a big booming baritone voice, and tiny Vishnu speaks with a soft, squeaky, silly little voice.
“What do you want?” Bali booms in his bold and brash bombastic baritone.
Vishnu requests that Bali, who now rules over all the earth, kindly allow Vishnu a small-small territory, in amount of three steps. Three steps of Vishnu’s little legs, a tiny territory indeed.
Just three tiny steps of territory. A very humble and harmless request.
Now, according to Mr. Patel, the mighty Bali could not hear Vishnu the first time he uttered the request, and Bali had to cup his giant hand around his giant ear, “bigger than elephant’s ear even,” and bend down closer to the dwarf Vishnu, and demand that Vishnu repeat the request. That maybe true, or it may not. My sense is that Mr. Patel added in that bit because it was a slow day, there were no new customers, and he had time to stretch out the story.
I do recall wondering if Mr. Patel was referring to an African elephant or an Indian elephant when sizing up Bali’s immense ear. The African elephant’s ear is far bigger and would suit Mr. Patel’s exaggerated extrapolation (or embellishment), but the Indian elephant would be a more natural connection to the roots of this story, which are in Sanskrit mythology. I failed to ask Mr. Patel which species of elephant he was referring to.
He did not like being interrupted, so it was better I kept quiet and just listened.
So Vishnu repeats that he wants a small-small territory in the vast Empire of Bali, and Bali, who is feeling extremely generous and thoroughly amused at Vishnu’s absurd request, laughs:
“My dear little dwarf, you can have three tiny steps of territory in my grand kingdom. Why not? Why not indeed? I shall grant your measly little wish,” says Bali, feeling magnanimous.
According to Mr. Patel, Vishnu was a very polite dwarf.
“Too-too polite he was… too-too polite, I tell you!”
In fact, all the vast numbers of people that were being oppressed by the ruthless Bali and that had been praying to the god Vishnu for help were fast losing hope. Frankly, they were all very irritated with Vishnu.
Vishnu, after all, was a god. That meant that he could have shown up for his meeting with Bali in any incarnation he wished.
It would be like you or me being invited to a very formal dinner where people might expect us to dress up. Instead, we show up in torn, faded jeans and a scruffy, unwashed tee-shirt.
And sandals rather than shoes.
So it was with Vishnu.
As a god, he could have shown up to the meeting with Bali at the same height and strength as Bali. Or even taller and stronger than Bali. Everyone knew that Vishnu had a vast wardrobe of incarnations that he could make a selection from. It was Vishnu after all, that was well-known for his Top Ten List of incarnations – collectively known in Sanskrit as the Dashavatara. Among these were matsya the fish, kurma the tortoise and varaha the boar.
Vishnu could have chosen to incarnate himself as a rival to Bali and boldly challenged him to a wrestling match and then overpowered Bali. All the people would have cheered because their prayer would have been answered and Vishnu, like Superman in Gotham City, would be their go-to superhero when they pray at temple. Instead, Vishnu shows up as a dwarf and asks Bali in his squeaky voice if he can have three steps of territory. Not exactly superhero material.
“Now before Vishnu took the three steps, something he did, isn’t it? What all he did? You know what he did first before the steps?” asked Mr. Patel intently.
It was a rhetorical question and in my view it was never a good idea to hazard a response to a rhetorical question from Mr. Patel unless one wanted to see him grimace with disapproval. It was best to wait it out. So I waited, while watching Mr. Patel pour himself a fresh cup of chai.
Mr. Patel glanced over once more at the shop door.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was clear of customers before he told me the rest of the story. And that is the story that got me thinking. The thought that occurred to me as I was recalling this story was whether Bali was “articulate”.
You know, I am quite certain he was.
Yes, Bali must have been articulate. He had a large, booming, boisterous commanding voice. If he was around today, we may see him on CNN, he may own the airwaves, or he may own his own personal G4 – that’s articulate-speak for “Gulfstream IV”. Bali would fly, tower, hover above, jet and joint, jointing one piece of his corporate empire to another piece. Jointing, articulating, jointing some more. Cobbling it all together. Being in charge and in control.
But what about Vishnu?
Well, he was clearly hard to understand. Rather meek and perhaps a touch pathetic.
So Vishnu was probably inarticulate. He obviously did not have much of a voice either. And he probably hung out with simple, commonfolk; people like the Kikuyu vegetable ladies.
Or, the boys who herd the cows in rural India.
Or, the women who herd goats in the African Sahara.
I imagine that he tried to understand them.
And when he spoke to the Kikuyu vegetable ladies, they just laughed.
And he laughed back. And they probably teased each other. You can do that when you speak disjointed pidgin. Nobody is offended, because nobody is articulate.
It’s pidgin to pidgin. Person to person.
The thing about speaking pidgin is that it mixes with people of the earth. It melts the ice. Language is not constrained. You are not thinking about how you will say something, you are thinking of what you want to say, and where you will say it from.
Perhaps from the mind, or the heart, or maybe even the soul. No limitation. No articulation.
In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast Empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth.
– William Wordsworth
It’s like writing poetry with chalk on a stone slate board, the kind they use in makeshift rural school classrooms near the shambas where the Kikuyu vegetable ladies harvest the cassava and the maize: those outdoor schools with children circled around a baobab tree with the chalkboard clumsily propped up against the trunk of the tree. The teacher’s writing on the board is messy, inarticulate, uneven, even unreadable and disjointed, like pidgin English.
Not slick, like the smart boards, titanium laptops and digital gadgetry that articulate school children use so they may avoid looking in each others’ eyes when they talk. They would rather text each other using precise, pristine, perfect fonts instead of bantering face-to-face.
When the Kikuyu vegetable ladies meet you and greet you, their gentle eyes look directly into your own eyes, and they commune with your soul. If there was an articulate laptop screen blockade between your eyes and their eyes, they may well perceive that as a sad statement.
An articulated and aggressive Apartheid against the soul.
I imagine that if Bali owned a mobile phone, it would be the luxury diamond encrusted designer cell phone. And because Bali was so tall, he would not hear Vishnu way down below. So Bali might send a text message down to Vishnu. Only Vishnu could not receive the text. Vishnu did not own a cell phone. And Bali would realize this and laugh loudly at the absurdity of it.
But Vishnu would not laugh back at Bali. That would be wrong.
Because Bali was as proud as a peacock.
Bali was not one to be laughed at, or laughed with, or trifled with. And Vishnu knew that, even though Vishnu was probably very inarticulate and simple-minded. Vishnu most likely spoke pidgin. Yes, that made sense. And that made the articulate Bali laugh at him even louder, I imagine. Vishnu must have seemed bumbling and awkward to Bali. And a touch irritating too.
Not at all like the confident, entitled henchmen that Bali deployed to dominate the Earth.
Vishnu was probably so nervous before he went to speak with Bali, that he took out his old, scratchy pencil, and scribbled notes on crumpled paper and rehearsed his lines a few times before delivering them. And since he probably travelled to see Bali on a rickety and rusty-wheeled old train from an Indian village, Vishnu probably drank tea from one of those mud cups from the village tea vendor, fired in a village kiln, as he prepared for his meeting with Bali.
…Well, I was still waiting for the end of the story, and old Mr. Patel was taking his time.
Vishnu had not taken those three steps, as yet. Not even one of them.
“What all he did, I will tell you! You know what all he did?”
Finally. I sighed with relief… Mr. Patel then explained “what all” Vishnu did next:
Vishnu looked first into the richness of his vast, infinite imagination. Vishnu the dwarf, looked deeper, then deeper still. And the deeper he looked within, the larger he grew in size.
In proportion to the depth of his imagination he grew in power and strength and size.
He grew and he grew.
And he grew.
He started growing so large and so rapidly, that he began to tower far above tiny little Bali.
When Vishnu took his first step, he was so large he stepped over and conquered the Earth.
And with his second step, he stepped over all the countless Galaxies, all the Suns and Stars.
And then, with his third and his final step, he claimed back the entire Universe.