A conversation heard in a crowded bus gave me goosebumps recently (a big reason I prefer taking the public transport rather than driving in isolation is the variety of people I get to see). In a tiny North German city, of all things, two people were conversing in Oriya!
You see, I am Bengali by ethnicity. Sure, we speak Bangla at home. However, I was never raised in Bengal. I was born in Bihar, and spent the first 16 and formative years of my life in Orissa. That's more years than I have lived anywhere else (9 in Kolkata, 8 in the US, 1 in Germany). I learnt to read and write the language in school, and used to speak fluently until I left Orissa. In school, most of my friends were native Oriya speakers. I was one of them. They were one of me.
We did not start growing roots in Bengal until my father decided to buy an apartment in Kolkata in the early nineties, forcing me to spend lonely summer vacations there. I had no friends. The topmost-floor, west-facing apartment that remained locked rest of the year was unbearably hot and smelled of concrete and cement, and the few highbrow, big-city coevals I met made no qualms in letting me know that I was not one of them and I was not welcome (although I spoke perfect Bangla with them). So I spent the summers reading voraciously, learning my Bangla alphabets at home, and finishing math chapters ahead of time. Oriya had such deep and comforting roots for me that the moment the train entered home (home being Orissa then), I would get dizzy with excitement seeing the Oriya letters imprinted bold black on a yellow background at the railway station.
It is not surprising that hearing the language after so long gave me goosebumps. A person who raises you is as much your mother as a person who gives you birth if they are not the same people. Although Bangla is my mother tongue, it is Oriya that raised me. I had barely started school when I said my first swear word (ghusuri, meaning a pig) in Oriya, long before I knew any Bangla swear words. Somehow, the other languages I spoke always stayed with me. Bangla, I speak everyday with my family or close friends. Hindi, I hear every day because of my addiction to Bollywood movies and music. But somehow, Oriya left me. I was never able to find people I could converse with on a regular basis. Suddenly, I was swept with nostalgia. I longed to visit the towns, the homes and the schools I grew up in. The guava tree where the monkeys lived and regularly invaded our home. The mango tree whose branches we used to hang ropes from, swinging with cousins in the summery afternoons. The huge black gate wherefrom our physician landlord used to enter in a bottle green ambassador every day. Such is the power of language that it took me on a 34 year long road down the memory lane.
My parents (both Bengali) have similar relationships with other languages. My mother with Hindi, and my father with Bhojpuri, because both of them spent significant years of their childhood in different places of Bihar. I wondered what language my children would yearn to hear, like I am doing for Oriya. Other than Bangla, they might grow up learning German. Or American English. I don't know. The deeper our roots grew, the wider our branches spread, the more we embraced different cultures. Maybe someday, I would feel similar nostalgia hearing German. The next time I am in Calcutta, I might make a trip to my childhood places. Walk the streets I haven't walked in 18 years. Touch the walls. Get excited reading off movie posters stuck on the walls, like I used to do as a kid. You see what havoc two strangers I heard speaking in the bus today wrought? They opened floodgates of nostalgic memories for me. They enlivened chapters from my childhood I had almost forgotten about.