The poet explores the relationship between cultural identity and language. When you speak a language you also learn its culture. Lines 19 and 20 sum up the theme. Which language has not been the oppressor’s tongue? When another country is the conquerer, that country brings its language and culture to those who are conquered.
‘A Different History’ is in two linked parts: lines 1-18, then lines 19-29. The first stanza draws the link between western and Indian culture as Pan, the Greek god also exists through Indian gods and goddesses that roam freely. She points out the difference as well in the way Indians treat books with much respect, in order not to disturb or offend Sarasvati or the tree from which the paper comes. Stanza 2 returns to the idea of a foreign language; all languages, it says, have once been the language of an invader or an oppressor, but despite this there always comes a time when younger and newer generations not only speak the oppressor’s language but they actually come to love it. TONE (Tone means the attitude of the poet)
At first the tone is critical of the culture of the west (e.g. the way the west does not show respect for books). Later the tone is accepting. She says that once people have assimilated the new culture, the later generations love the language and culture.
The poem is divided into two stanzas with each dealing with a different idea on language and culture. The visual arrangement of lines differ in the two stanzas. In stanza 1, the different indented lines give a wavy appearance to suggest perhaps the idea of gods roaming freely and to match the humour in the stanza.
The second stanza has all the lines indented similarly as the author conveys the serious message that all languages are imposed by the oppressor.
The rhythm matches the content. The enjambment (run-on lines) in stanza 1 gives a light-hearted, tripping rhythm. In stanza 2, the rhythm is insistent as the poet uses rhetorical questions and the mood turns serious.
POINT: Stanza 1 begins by comparing the Greek and Indian gods. Next the poem focuses on the reverential attitude towards books in India.
Great Pan is not dead;he simply emigrated To India| Meaning- Pan the Greek god of nature also exists in India. The effect is that cross-cultural links happen. | Here, the gods roam freely Disguised as snakes or monkeys | The poet refers to Indian gods in the form of snakes or monkeys. | And it is a sinto be rude to a book(repeated 4 times) | By repeating ‘it is a sin’ the effect is of persuasion and emphasis. Repetition in a pattern of three or more is a persuasive device. She uses strong words ‘shove’, ‘slam’, ‘toss’ to stress that ill-treating books is sinful to the Indians because they have a reverence for knowledge.| You must learn how to turn the pages gentlywithout disturbing Sarasvati, without offending the treefrom whose wood the paper was made|
The word ‘without’ is repeated for emphasis. In India, books are handled carefully ‘gently’ to show respect for Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of Knowledge, and for the trees where the gods are. | *Pan- In Greek religion and mythology, Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, mountains, hunting Sarasvati – the Hindu goddess of Knowledge presides over the arts and is frequently worshipped in libraries.
POINT: Stanza 2 the poet states that every while every language has come from the conquering nations and is at first resisted, it is later embraced by the future generations.
Which language has not been the oppressor’s tongue?| This rhetorical question ( a question that does not need an answer because the answer is obvious) contains the main idea of the poem – all languages have once been the language of an invader or an oppressor. | Which language Truly meant to murder someone?| The repetition ‘which language’ is another rhetorical question which does not need an answer as it is obvious that language does not intentionally kill people.| that after the torture, after the soul has been croppedwith a long scythe swooping out of the conqueror’s face-| The poet now explains that it is the soul or the culture that is destroyed by the conqueror.
The metaphor of the ‘long scythe swooping out’ is an image of the brutal destruction of the culture of the oppressed and replacing it with the culture of the conqueror. | the unborn grandchildrengrow to love that strange language| The poet concedes that ironically over many generations, the oppressed people come round to speaking the conqueror’s language and what is more to embracing its culture. She points out the irony of history.|
Sujata Bhatt – ‘A Different History’
In ‘Search For My Tongue’, another poem by Sujata Bhatt, she talks of the strangeness and difficulty of having two languages, and the fear of losing her “mother tongue”, the language she was brought up to speak by her mother. Bhatt was born in India in 1956, moved to the USA in 1968, and now lives in Germany, so she is well aware of how much a change of culture and language can affect people.
‘A Different History’ is in two linked parts: lines 1-18, then lines 19-29. The first suggests that although life in India is – or should be – free, there is constant pressure to conform to other ways of life; the poet uses the way we should or should not treat books as an example or symbol of this. The gods roam freely, but because trees are sacred it is a sin to ill-treat a book in any way, in order not to disturb or offend Sarasvati or the tree from which the paper comes.
The second part of the poem returns to the idea of a foreign language; all languages, it says, have once been the language of an invader or an oppressor, but despite this there always comes a time when younger and newer generations not only speak the oppressor’s language but they actually come to love it.
Some points for classroom discussion:
Are the two parts of the poem really separate, or have they a common theme that links them together? How serious is Bhatt in this poem? Is there any humour in it?
Sujata Bhatt’s poem ‘Search for My Tongue’ can be found on
There is some brief biographical material on these websites: