This poem (or rather extract from a long poem) explores a familiar ambiguity in English - “tongue” refers both to the physical organ we use for speech, and the language we speak with it. (Saying “tongue” for “speech” is an example of metonymy). In the poem Sujata Bhatt writes about the “tongue” in both ways at once. To lose your tongue normally means not knowing what to say, but Ms. Bhatt suggests that one can lose one's tongue in another sense. The speaker in this poem is obviously the poet herself, but she speaks for many who fear they may have lost their ability to speak for themselves and their culture.
She explains this with the image of two tongues - a mother tongue (one's first language) and a second tongue (the language of the place where you live). She argues that you cannot use both together. She suggests, further, that if you live in a place where you must “speak a foreign tongue” then the mother tongue will “rot and die in your mouth”.
As if to demonstrate how this works, Ms. Bhatt rewrites lines 15 and 16 in Gujarati, followed by more Gujarati lines, which are given in English as the final section of the poem. For readers who do not know the Gujarati script, there is also a phonetic transcript using approximate English spelling to indicate the sounds.
The final section of the poem is the writer's dream - in which her mother tongue grows back and “pushes the other tongue aside”. She ends triumphantly asserting that “Everytime I think I've forgotten,/I think I've lost the mother tongue,/it blossoms out of my mouth.”
Clearly this poem is about personal and cultural identity. The familiar metaphor of the tongue is used in a novel way to show that losing one's language (and culture) is like losing part of one's body. The poet's dream may be something she has really dreamt “overnight” but is clearly also a “dream” in the sense of something she wants to happen - in dreams, if not in reality, it is possible for the body to regenerate. For this reason the poem's ending is ambiguous - perhaps it is only in her dream that the poet can find her “mother tongue”. On the other hand, she may be arguing that even when she thinks she has lost it, it can be found again. At the end of the poem there is a striking extended metaphor in which the regenerating tongue is likened to a plant cut back to a stump, which grows and eventually buds, to become the flower which “blossoms out of” the poet's mouth. It is as if her mother tongue is exotic, spectacular or fragrant, as a flower might be.
The poem's form is well suited to its subject. The flower is a metaphor for the tongue, which itself has earlier been used as a (conventional) metaphor, for speech. The poet demonstrates her problem by showing both “mother tongue” (Gujarati) and “foreign tongue” (English), knowing that for most readers these will be the other way around, while some, like her, will understand both.
The poem will speak differently to different generations - for parents, Gujarati may also be the “mother tongue”, while their children, born in the UK, may speak English as their first language. The poem is written both for the page, where we see the (possibly exotic) effect of the Gujarati text and for reading aloud, as we have a guide for speaking the Gujarati lines.
• What is the effect of using Gujarati script and an English transliteration in the poem?
• Does the way you read this depend on whether or not you know Gujarati as well as English?
• Many writers of classic English poetry often quote in Latin, French or other languages - is this a modern equivalent, or is Sujata Bhatt doing something different?
• How does the poem present the argument that our speech and ourselves are intimately connected? Do people not have to search for their own tongue - or authentic voice - even if they have not had to move from one language to another?
• What does the last sentence of the poem mean?
From - Universal Teacher