When I was about 10 years old, my father made an identity related pivotal decision for me. Not that I was mature enough to understand what was happening; all I remember was protesting, disagreeing, and finally complying. My father decided that it was time for me to read and write Bangla, my mother language. I guess he wanted me to be able to read at least the basic road signs, if not the newspaper or the collection of Bengali books he has. He probably didn’t want me to turn out to be one of those “Bangla ma-er Anglo shontaan” (Anglicized child of Bengali parents, used in an innocuously derogatory context), the ones that went to the typical “tyNash” English medium schools, wore short skirts and rolled down their socks in school, and spoke Bengali with an English accent. I don’t know how to translate the word “tyNash”. Help, anyone?
Anyway, I was averse to the idea of learning Bengali first, for the simple reason that I was at the age where I was averse to learn anything that my parents wanted me to. I already knew English and Hindi, and I was learning Oriya and Sanskrit as well. I was convinced that another language would be a linguistic overload for me. 20 years ago, I was not the sunshine I am today, eager to read, converse in, and learn new languages. G will vouch for how I started from andre pandre and learnt some decent spoken Tamil. A set of “Kisholoy” books were bought, and I remember spending an entire summer learning my “aw aa kaw khaw”. The problem with learning anything from my father was two-fold. He is a perfectionist with a great, picturesque handwriting, and he gets very short-tempered while teaching something. This meant not only was I expected to have excellent handwriting, I would also get some serious reprimanding if I was not learning well enough.
I learnt my “Aw Aa Kaw Khaw” that summer. I even learnt to read Bengali. But things never took off far enough. My writing would be limited to those 3 lines for my grandmother in Patna whenever my mom wrote her letters. Those 3 lines were the customary “Tumi kemon aacho? Ami bhalo aachi. Ami theek kore porashuna korchi” (Rough translation: How are you? I am fine. I am doing well in school). Granny usually wrote back long letters to me, which was an issue because I read Bengali with incredible slowness. I would stumble through the first few lines after which, I would insist mother read it out to me. On weekends, father would expect me to read out the AnandaBazar Patrika to him, and amidst the smell of luchi torkari (poori subzee, the customary Bengali Sunday breakfast) wafting in the air and getting me impatient and salivating, it would be torture to read line after line of Bengali text. Reading the newspaper is boring as it is, and reading it in Bengali was worse.
Over the years, I ended up reading just one novel (Phatik Chand). I would read little excerpts from magazines here and there, but only if the content was interesting and prohibited for me to read (Like the section “kaane kaane” or kaano kaano mein in the magazine Sananda where women complained about erectile dysfunctionality of their husbands or the nosy nature of their mother-in-laws). Those volumes of Bibhuti Bushan, Tagore, and Sarat Chandra at home remained untouched.
I don’t really attribute my lack of interest in learning Bangali toward anything, but if it makes sense, I never grew up in West Bengal, and never understood why people around me were so obsessed about Bengali culture. Every time I visited Kolkata for vacations, I felt out of place, with Bangla channels on television, Bengali movie posters, and the “Vivid Bharati” station playing on radio. I was more conversant in Hindi and Oriya than I was in Bengali. Add to it the fact that I was pretty friendless in Kolkata, and I saw my visits to Kolkata as those lonely vacations when I had to stay home, listen to Bengali radio channels, and talk to everyone in Bengali.
I haven’t watched many Bengali movies. Books are out of question. My Bengali writing still resembles the writing of a ten year old, and I am incredibly slow at that too. I would reply to D’s letters (written with admirable Bengali-ness) with the first two lines in Bengali. My next sentence to him would be in English, saying, “Okay, enough of Bengali, now I need to get back to English”. I have friends who swear by Feluda, Tenida, Professor Shonku, Sonar Kella, and Uttam-Suchitra. I usually end up nodding stupidly in these conversations, trying not to show that I have not seen any of the movies or read any of these books, but giving that obvious look because people know right away I have no idea what they are talking about.
Things surprisingly changed after I moved to the U.S. I actually started missing talking to someone close in Bangla. For the first time in life, I started borrowing Bengali movies from the library. I completed watching the Apu trilogy, and a lot many movies. Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen became my favorite directors after Satyajit Ray. Slowly, I had something to contribute to the discussions about Bengali movies. I started listening to Kishore Kumar in Bangla. However, I have still not read a single Bengali book. My reading is extremely slow, and I don’t get the meaning of a lot of words. My Bengali writing is lousy as usual, with a lot of spelling errors, complicated more so by the talobbo shos, moddhonno shos, donto shos, donto nnos, and the mordhonno nnos (The 3 types of S’s and the two types of N’s). The unWos and the inWos still confuse me, and so do the borgio jo’s and the untostho jo’s. As much as what I say is incendiary, multiple S’s and N’s is a linguistic hazard. I have still not touched the works of Tagore, and don’t know how to sing a single Rabindra Sangeet song. I know it’s no greatness to boast of, but it is what it is. I became more of a Bengali in the U.S. than I was while I lived in Kolkata. I started reading simple and understandable Bengali blogs. I started listening to Bengali songs. Even though I was listening to something as crass as “Bhojo Gourango” or “Le Paglu Dance”, it was Bengali nevertheless. I watched dozens of Bengali movies, and immensely enjoyed them. I wondered how I deprived myself of such pleasures all this while. These days whenever I hear someone speak in Bangla, I feel the strange urge to go up to them and introduce myself. If this isn’t testimony enough, these days I wish I had a Bangla blog, and wrote as much in Bengali as I did in English.
Last week when I got an email about an informal meeting of Bengali students and professors for the International Mother Language Day, I strangely looked forward to the meet. I was there today, and although I did not recognize a single song they sang or a single poem they recited, I was happy just being there and listen to everyone speak in Bengali. I learnt about the history behind the Bengali Language Movement of 1952, which embarrassingly enough, I had no idea about. I felt sad that with my recently acquired interest in world history, travel, literature, and languages, I neither knew about the history of Bengal, nor had I travelled in Bengal or read Bengali literature. I met two white Americans who are visiting Kolkata during the summer, and I was impressed with the Bangmerican English (Bengali spoken with an American English accent) they spoke. They were looking forward to their trip and to eating the “round spicy balls filled with water” (paani puri or fuchka). I excitedly told them what all they should do, see, eat, and visit while they are in Kolkata, and I have never felt prouder of my mother language.
I have not read Bengali literature and I have yet to watch many good Bengali movies. I know my Bengali spelling and writing sucks. But I am thankful to my parents for that boring summer I spent learning to read and write Bengali, because it has established my identity not just as a Bengali, but also as a cultured human being. I have finally learnt over the last four years to take pride in my roots, my mother language, and the culture that I come from and belong to. My soul is finally beginning to connect with my roots.
Wish you all a very happy International Mother Language Day. Too bad I knew when Valentine’s Day was but I did not know that the IML Day is celebrated exactly a week after that. Well, now I do.