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International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day

February 21, 2012

Too bad I knew the date of Valentine’s Day but was ignorant about International Mother Language Day.

When I was about ten years old, my father made a pivotal decision for me. I was not mature enough to understand the implications, hence I protested before finally complying when he decided to teach me how to read and write in Bangla. I guess he wanted me to be able to read the basic road signs, if not the rich collection of Bengali literature at home. He probably did not want me to turn out to be one of those “Bangla ma-er Anglo shontaan” (Anglicized child of Bengali parents, used often in an innocuously derogatory context) - the ones that went to convent schools, wore short skirts, rolled down their socks in school, and spoke splattered Bangla mixed with accented English.

I was averse to the idea of learning Bangla for the simple reason that I was at the age where I was averse to doing anything that my parents wanted me to do. I was already fluent in English and Hindi, and I was learning Oriya and Sanskrit in school. I was convinced that adding another language to the list would be linguistic overload. A set of “Kisholoy” books were bought, and I remember spending a long and grueling summer learning my “aw aa kaw khaw” (As and Bs). I struggled through as my disciplinary daddy insisted that I improve my spellings and my handwriting as well.

That summer, I learned to read and write functional Bangla, but things never really progressed farther. For the next few years, my writing was limited to those customary three lines for my grandmother in Patna when my mom sent her light blue inland letters and yellow postcards. “Tumi kemon aacho? Ami bhalo aachi. Ami bhalo kore porashuna korchi” (How are you? I am fine. I am doing well in school). Grandma wrote back long letters to me, which I read with incredible slowness. I would stumble through the first few lines after which, I would plead with my mother to read it out to me. On weekends, my father would expect me to read out Ananda Bazar Patrika, the local newspaper to him, and amidst the smell of luchi torkari (the customary Bengali Sunday breakfast of round and deep-fried flat bread served with potato curry) wafting in the air, it would be torture to read line after line of Bengali text.

Over the next twenty five years, I ended up reading exactly one Bengali novel. I also read little snippets from popular women’s magazines like Sananda, but only if it involved food or Madhuri Dixit. Those volumes of Bibhutibhushan, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sarat Chandra continued to gather dust at home. I did not have a justifiable explanation for my apathy toward learning Bangla, but if it makes sense, I never grew up in West Bengal, and never understood this obsession about “Bangali kalchaar” that was so prevalent in Calcutta. I felt lonely, friendless, and out of place during my vacations in Calcutta, compelled to talk to everyone in a language that was ironically foreign to me. The Bangla channels on television and radio and the Bengali movie posters on the streets felt so unfamiliar. I would often count the days until we locked our apartment and went back to the small town I grew up in, an overnight train journey from Calcutta.

I have not read Bengali books or watched many Bengali movies. My Bengali writing still resembles that of a ten year old, and I am incredibly slow at that too. I would often reply to Arnav’s letters (written in admirable Bengali) with the first two lines in Bengali, followed by “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 ended 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. I usually had no idea what they are talking about.

Things surprisingly changed after I moved to the U.S. For inexplicable reasons, I started to miss talking to someone in Bangla. For the first time, I started borrowing Bengali movies from the library. I watched the Apu trilogy, and many more. Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen became my favorite directors after Satyajit Ray. Now, I had something to contribute to the discussions about Bengali movies. I even started listening to Kishore Kumar in Bangla. Not much reading happened, impeded due to my slowness and my inability to understand the meaning of many words not used as a part of everyday language. My Bengali writing is lousy, filled with 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 used in the language). The nasal intonation of the unWos and the inWos still confuse me, and so do the borgio jo’s and the untostho jo’s (multiple J’s). Incendiary though it may sound, multiple S’s, J’s and N’s are linguistic hazards. I have still not touched the works of Tagore, and do not know how to sing Rabindra Sangeet. It is no greatness to boast of, but it is what it is. I became more of a Bengali in the U.S. than I was in India. Reading simple and understandable Bengali blogs, listening to Bengali songs and watching dozens of Bengali movies, I was swept by nostalgia. I wondered how I had deprived myself of such pleasures all this time. 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, I wish I had a Bangla blog, and wrote as much Bengali as I wrote English.

Last year when I was emailed about an informal meeting of Bengali students and professors on campus for the International Mother Language Day, I strangely looked forward to the meet. Although I did not recognize a single song they sung or poem they recited, I was happy to be there. I learned about the history of 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 were visiting Calcutta during the summer, and I was impressed with the Bangmerican English (Bengali with an American English accent) they spoke. They were looking forward to their trip and to eating the “round spicy balls of fire filled with tamarind water” (Paani Puri). I excitedly told them what all they should do, see, eat, and visit in Calcutta. I have never felt prouder.

Despite my incorrigible lack of knowledge about my mother tongue, I am thankful to my parents for that long and lonely summer I spent learning to read and write Bengali. It took me decades, but it finally made me see the value of connecting to and taking pride in my roots, my mother tongue, and the cultural womb from which I emerged from and still belong.

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 Mother Language Day is celebrated exactly a week after that. 


  • Devasmita Chakraverty
    Devasmita Chakraverty
    28.02.12 12:26 AM
    Susmita, got it ! Sorry, I misunderstood :)
  • Susmita Sen
    Susmita Sen
    27.02.12 10:56 AM
    Shalini here is appreciating you for echoing sentiments that so many of us feel and thanking me for 'sharing' this article on my Facebook page... :)
  • Devasmita Chakraverty
    Devasmita Chakraverty
    21.02.12 10:51 PM
    Rajpriya, you are right, this did not have as much humor as I am used to writing :) Just Google "paani puri", you will know what it is :)

    shirish, how did you smell Gujarati flavors in my writing? :)

    Shalini, errr ... you might have got the wrong person, I am not Sush :)
  • Shalini
    21.02.12 10:48 PM
    Wow! What echoes...only from a displaced mallu from the other tip of the country who could identify with everything....EVERYTHING here. I am also proud to be a mallu and I have the same regrets for my losses. Thanks for this Sush and Happy mother language day to all!
  • shirish patwa
    shirish patwa
    21.02.12 02:57 PM
    I am Gujarati and I smell Gujarati flavor in your writing.Candid!I have the privilege of reading your other article as well and I like your style of writing.Continue,many of us will enjoy.
    As regards the subject of International Mother Language Day I appeal to all readers to cultivate the habit of reading in your language i.e. mother tongue.It has divine touch.Can anything is as soothing as the touch of your mother?
  • Rajpriya
    21.02.12 10:56 AM
    I am no “Shotti Bong” to start with but I am one who feels deep inside that my children don’t make any attempts to know their mother language the way you do, leave alone any thinking about or feelings for it.

    Now to their children (my grand children) Germany is their “Vaterland” and the “Mutter Sprache” (Mother Language) is German though my daughter in law is an Indian Citizen who swears, will never give up her Indian Passport in exchange for a German one.

    Never heard of “Paani Puri” is it something like Gulab Jamun”? I did not
    Taste much hilarity like the previous two in this pos, t may be it was a serious subject that conveys a craving for something that’s your own and was born with.

    In my younger days Satyajit Ray was a favorite and sadly in some matters history does not repeat.

    Here is list of International observance days only a few explained you might never have known even existed.

    January has 9 (January 24 – National girl child day of India, recognized by India)

    February has 9 including February 21 – International Mother Language Day, recognized by the UN World Tourist Guide Day. International Mother Language Day originated as the international recognition of Language Movement Day, which has been commemorated in Bangladesh since 1952, when a number of Dhaka university students were killed by the Pakistani police and army in Dhaka during the Bengali Language Movement.

    March has 15 and April has 16,

    May has 23 (May 2 – International Day of Deliberately Unemployed),
    June has 15 and July has the least only 3 (July 08 – Writers’ Day)

    August has 7 (August 29 – Telugu Language Day)

    September has 17 (September 19 – International Talk Like a Pirate Day and September 28 – Right to Know Day)

    October has 26 (October 3 – World Smile Day (for you it's every day in the year) and October 15 – Global Handwashing Day)

    November has 18 –(November 19 – World Toilet Day and November 21– World Hello Day) and finally December has 12.
  • Devasmita Chakraverty
    Devasmita Chakraverty
    21.02.12 07:46 AM
    Ama, true. My basic assumption was more readers here will understand the word Paani Puri compared to Phuchka. I did not assume the readers are all "shotti Bongs" ... Isshh !

    Susmita, I know my mother will identify with you. I am quite ill-reputed for twisting the meanings of complex Bengali words, and in not getting most contexts and references :(
  • Susmita Sen
    Susmita Sen
    21.02.12 07:31 AM
    What struck me most about this piece is the honesty and simplicity with which it is written. I have a teenage daughter who, like you, only haltingly reads Bangla simply due to lack of exposure in our life outside of Bengal. But like your Dad, I, as her mom ,made sure that she knew the works of Satyajit Ray, Aparna sen, Rituparno Ghosh as the visual media is easier to grasp than print. The regrets are there but nonetheless she identifies with and is proud of her Bengali lineage.
    I knew that "Ekushe February" was "Bhasha Andolan Dibash" but had forgotten. Thanks for reminding me.
  • Ama
    21.02.12 05:42 AM
    Any shotti Bong knows that "pani puri" is called phuchka. Ish!

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