“A Different History” by Sujata Bhatt
Your first step in approaching this quite awkward poem is to check out a different poem of hers, the poem that has made her famous in 16 year old circles around the country for generations. This poem, “Search for my Tongue”, has been on the AQA GCSE syllabus for ages, and it’s a wonderful poem – all about identity, language and the struggle between conforming to your new culture as an immigrant and remaining true to your past and your history: in her imagistic parlance, the clash between the mother and foreign tongues. (Clicking on the slightly blurry picture below gives you a clearer image – but even at this first, slightly eye-watering glance, you can see how Bhatt directly confronts this issue of language and identity…)
It’s a great poem. The same idea is at the core of “A Different History” but the poem (perhaps purposefully) feels less coherent. Bhatt focuses on the dilemma of identity and belonging in “ADH”: however, where the issue is microcosmic and personal in “Search for My Tongue” (relevant to the issues of language for a very specific first-generation immigrant), “ADH” looks at the issue from a more macrocosmic, conceptual, historical perspective (the place of language in literature, history and in the face of colonisation – when one race forcibly occupies another and institutes their own alien culture over the one that previously existed: ie, British Empire colonising India) . If “Search…” was close up, “ADH” is wide angle panoramic.
The two stanzas of the poem are relatively coherent in and of themselves. Stanza 1 begins by transplanting the Greek god of Nature, Pan, to India. It could be a purposeful choice of God by linking the god of nature and fauna to the animalistic polytheism of Hinduism, or a sly pun linking Pan to Pantheism (ie God all around us) and making this literal in the world and beliefs of Hinduism. At any rate, the fundamental idea in Stanza 1 is an appreciation of...