Analysis: A Different History By SB

This poem explores the relationship between cultural identity and language. Bhatt was born
in India in 1956, studied in the United Kingdom and United States, and lives now in
Germany. The poem asks pointedly: ‘Which language / has not been the oppressor’s
tongue?’
There is a recording of Bhatt reading A Different History on the http://www.poetryarchive.org
website. In the introduction to her reading, she explains that Sarasvati, the Hindu Goddess
of Knowledge, presides over the arts and is frequently worshipped in libraries.
Comparison is made between Greek and Indian gods: ‘[Pan] simply emigrated / to India’,
and ‘Here [in India], the gods roam freely’.

Next the poem focuses on the reverential attitude towards books in a country where ‘every
tree is sacred’.

A clear shift in mood comes at the start of the second section with the first rhetorical
question which takes us to the heart of what the poem is about: ‘Which language / has not
been the oppressor’s tongue?’

Next get students to look more closely at the language of the first section (up until ‘from
whose wood the paper was made’). How does Bhatt use words and phrases to convey how
sacred trees and books are? They might consider the force of the verbs ‘shove’, ‘slam’, and
‘toss’, together with the subsequent phrases.

Consider the following metaphors: ‘tongue’ for language, and the soul ‘cropped
/ with a long scythe swooping out / of the conqueror’s face’. They should probe closely the
meanings and effects of the underlined words.
How effective do they find the final two lines of the poem? Do they find anything amusing in
the poem?

Thematic links with set poems
Identity and language: Continuum, The Cockroach
Time: Horses, The City Planners, The Planners, Summer Farm
Religion: Pied Beauty, Horses,

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