cover of the book, Babel. A greyscale image with lots of medieval line art in the back depicting old England, with the word Babel in a decorative fond running down the middle

image courtesy, Harper Collins India

Reading Babel, constantly gave me strong déjà vu as I leafed through its pages.1
Until I realised what I was experiencing was an author enjoying their words, their lines, their exquisite craft. Where words themselves crawl into your mind, and say yes, we are. We will tell you this story. You need not make any effort here.
Richard Powers’, The Overstory was that way. So was Arundhati Roy’s, The God of Small Things. And Tamysyn Muir, with her Locked Tomb books.

This is alternate history Empire. The British still rule the world, but here they do so, on the strength of magic, silver-work and words and language.
Kuang then uses all that heft to bash our brains in.2
There’s Robin and Ramy and Victoire and Letty and it’s them against the world3

This was one of those rare books4 where I wanted very little to do with the story and just wanted to lose myself in the world. I wanted to study languages the way they did, and do magic the way they did. The way some of them come to choose violence reminded me of Bhagat and Azad.

The history’s wonderful.
The way she uses language and words, even more so!

My highlights, from the book

Inside, the heady wood-dust smell of freshly printed books was overwhelming. If tobacco smelled like this, Robin thought, he’d huff it every day. He stepped towards the closest shelf, hand lifted tentatively towards the books on display, too afraid to touch them – they seemed so new and crisp; their spines were uncracked, their pages smooth and bright. Robin was used to well-worn, waterlogged tomes; even his Classics grammars were decades old. These shiny, freshly bound things seemed like a different class of object, things to be admired from a distance rather than handled and read.

‘If you can see?’ The woman raised her voice and overenunciated her every syllable, as if Robin had difficulty hearing. (This had happened often to Robin on the Countess of Harcourt; he could never understand why people treated those who couldn’t understand English as if they were deaf.)

‘But that’s impossible for me,’ said Ramy. ‘I have to play a part. Back in Calcutta, we all tell the story of Sake Dean Mahomed, the first Muslim from Bengal to become a rich man in England. He has a white Irish wife. He owns property in London. And you know how he did it? He opened a restaurant, which failed; and then he tried to be hired as a butler or valet, which also failed. And then he had the brilliant idea of opening a shampoo house in Brighton.’ Ramy chuckled. ‘Come and get your healing vapours! Be massaged with Indian oils! It cures asthma and rheumatism; it heals paralysis. Of course, we don’t believe that at home. But all Dean Mahomed had to do was give himself some medical credentials, convince the world of this magical Oriental cure, and then he had them eating out of the palm of his hand. So what does that tell you, Birdie? If they’re going to tell stories about you, use it to your advantage. The English are never going to think I’m posh, but if I fit into their fantasy, then they’ll at least think I’m royalty.’

‘Does Mirza really mean “prince”?’ Robin asked, after he’d overheard Ramy declare this to a shopkeeper for the third time.
‘Sure. Well, really, it’s a title – it’s derived from the Persian Amīrzādeh, but “prince” comes close enough.’
‘Then are you—?’
‘No.’ Ramy snorted. ‘Well. Perhaps once. That’s the family story, anyhow; my father says we were aristocrats in the Mughal court, or something like that. But not anymore.’
‘What happened?’
Ramy gave him a long look. ‘The British, Birdie. Keep up.’

After all, we’re here to make the unknown known, to make the other familiar. We’re here to make magic with words.’

‘Which seems right to you? Do we try our hardest, as translators, to render ourselves invisible? Or do we remind our reader that what they are reading was not written in their native language?’
‘That’s an impossible question,’ said Victoire. ‘Either you situate the text in its time and place, or you bring it to where you are, here and now. You’re always giving something up.’
‘Is faithful translation impossible, then?’ Professor Playfair challenged. ‘Can we never communicate with integrity across time, across space?’
‘I suppose not,’ Victoire said reluctantly.
‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

we can think of etymology as an exercise in tracing how far a word has strayed from its roots. For they travel marvellous distances, both literally and metaphorically.’ He looked suddenly at Robin. ‘What’s the word for a great storm in Mandarin?’
Robin gave a start. ‘Ah – fēngbào?’
‘No, give me something bigger.’
‘Good.’ Professor Lovell pointed to Victoire. ‘And what weather patterns are always drifting across the Caribbean?’
‘Typhoons,’ she said, then blinked. ‘Taifeng? Typhoon? How—’
‘We start with Greco-Latin,’ said Professor Lovell. ‘Typhon was a monster, one of the sons of Gaia and Tartarus, a devastating creature with a hundred serpentine heads. At some point he became associated with violent winds, because later the Arabs started using tūfān to describe violent, windy storms. From Arabic it hopped over to Portuguese, which was brought to China on explorers’ ships.’
‘But táifēng isn’t just a loanword,’ said Robin. ‘It means something in Chinese – tái is great, and fēng is wind–’
‘And you don’t think the Chinese could have come up with a transliteration that had its own meaning?’ asked Professor Lovell. ‘This happens all the time. Phonological calques are often semantic calques as well. Words spread. And you can trace contact points of human history from words that have uncannily similar pronunciations. Languages are only shifting sets of symbols – stable enough to make mutual discourse possible, but fluid enough to reflect changing social dynamics.

And the influences on English were so much deeper and more diverse than they thought. Chit came from the Marathi chitti, meaning ‘letter’ or ‘note’. Coffee had made its way into English by way of Dutch (koffie), Turkish (kahveh), and originally Arabic (qahwah). Tabby cats were named after a striped silk that was in turn named for its place of origin: a quarter of Baghdad named al-‘Attābiyya. Even basic words for clothes all came from somewhere. Damask came from cloth made in Damascus; gingham came from the Malay word genggang, meaning ‘striped’; calico referred to Calicut in Kerala, and taffeta, Ramy told them, had its roots in the Persian word tafte, meaning ‘a shiny cloth’.

English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular. And Robin found it incredible, how this country, whose citizens prided themselves so much on being better than the rest of the world, could not make it through an afternoon tea without borrowed goods.

‘The Germans have this lovely word, Sitzfleisch,’ Professor Playfair said pleasantly when Ramy protested that they had over forty hours of reading a week. ‘Translated literally, it means “sitting meat”. Which all goes to say, sometimes you need simply to sit on your bottom and get things done.

He waved a hand, gesturing at an invisible map. ‘It’s junctures like that where we have control. If we push in the right spots – if we create losses where the Empire can’t stand to suffer them – then we’ve moved things to the breaking point. Then the future becomes fluid, and change is possible. History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’5

Oxford, and Babel by extension, were, at their roots, ancient religious institutions, and for all their contemporary sophistication, the rituals that comprised university life were still based in medieval mysticism. Oxford was Anglicanism was Christianity, which meant blood, flesh, and dirt.*

‘The British aren’t going to invade with English troops. They’re going to invade with troops from Bengal and Bombay. They’re going to have sepoys fight the Afghans, just like they had sepoys fight and die for them at Irrawaddy, because those Indian troops have the same logic you do, which is that it’s better to be a servant of the Empire, brutal coercion and all, than to resist. Because it’s safe. Because it’s stable, because it lets them survive. And that’s how they win, brother. They pit us against each other. They tear us apart.’

‘I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.’ He rested his elbows against the bridge and sighed. ‘Rows and rows of flowers. A whole ocean of them. They’re such bright scarlet that the fields look wrong, like the land itself is bleeding. It’s all grown in the countryside. Then it gets packed and transported to Calcutta, where it’s handed off to private merchants who bring it straight here. The two most popular opium brands here are called Patna and Malwa. Both regions in India. From my home straight to yours, Birdie. Isn’t that funny?’ Ramy glanced sideways at him. ‘The British are turning my homeland into a narco-military state to pump drugs into yours. That’s how this empire connects us.’

Free trade. This was always the British line of argument – free trade, free competition, an equal playing field for all. Only it never ended up that way, did it? What ‘free trade’ really meant was British imperial dominance, for what was free about a trade that relied on a massive build-up of naval power to secure maritime access? When mere trading companies could wage war, assess taxes, and administer civil and criminal justice?

Robin saw a great spider’s web in his mind then. Cotton from India to Britain, opium from India to China, silver becoming tea and porcelain in China, and everything flowing back to Britain. It sounded so abstract – just categories of use, exchange, and value – until it wasn’t; until you realized the web you lived in and the exploitations your lifestyle demanded, until you saw looming above it all the spectre of colonial labour and colonial pain.

My point being, abolition happened because white people found reasons to care – whether those be economic or religious. You just have to make them think they came up with the idea themselves. You can’t appeal to their inner goodness. I have never met an Englishman I trusted to do the right thing out of sympathy.’

Anthony laughed gently. ‘Do you think abolition was a matter of ethics? No, abolition gained popularity because the British, after losing America, decided that India was going to be their new golden goose. But cotton, indigo, and sugar from India weren’t going to dominate the market unless France could be edged out, and France would not be edged out, you see, as long as the British slave trade was making the West Indies so very profitable for them.’

Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.
— FRANTZ FANON, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox

‘It’s so odd,’ Robin said. Back then they’d already passed the point of honesty; they spoke to one another unfiltered, unafraid of the consequences. ‘It’s like I’ve known you forever.’ ‘Me too,’ Ramy said. ‘And that makes no sense,’ said Robin, drunk already, though there was no alcohol in the cordial. ‘Because I’ve known you for less than a day, and yet . . .’ ‘I think,’ said Ramy, ‘it’s because when I speak, you listen.’ ‘Because you’re fascinating.’ ‘Because you’re a good translator.’ Ramy leaned back on his elbows. ‘That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.’

how could there ever be an Adamic language? The thought now made him laugh. There was no innate, perfectly comprehensible language; there was no candidate, not English, not French, that could bully and absorb enough to become one. Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation – a necessary endeavour, however futile, to move between them.

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  1. ok, I swiped on my Elipsa. But you get the idea! ↩︎

  2. in a good way ↩︎

  3. a lot like Bardugo’s, Six of Crows ↩︎

  4. the only other one for me, was The Lord of the Rings. I suspect Kuang, just like Tolkien, had the words and the language and the world ready. And then she just when and wrote a book to show some of it. ↩︎

  5. reminds me of Steve Jobs, and his dent in the universe↩︎