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.