Immigrant Bengalis

Jayashree Chatterjee

            “Aaj khushi khusi hashi ar gaan!”  I sang.

           Aaj khushi khushi khushi khushi gaan!” repeated 7-year-old Aoife.

            ”Aaj khushi khushi haashi ar gaan!

            “But I like saying ‘khushi khushi khusi’.  It sounds better.”

            “But Aoife, people won’t understand what you’re trying to say,” I replied – and then wondered to just how many people my little granddaughter would really sing Janma Din Janma Din

I thought of high school student Maya Eashwaran’s poem at the 2016 National Student Poets Program.  17-year-old Eashwaran was born here but her parents came to the US from Tamil Nadu.  The poem, Linguistics - For my Mother is incredibly moving:

            “Ma, I haven’t spoken Tamil in three years

            Call it forgetting or just prenatal Americanization


            I have started shedding ethnicity like hair.

            Mother, I fear I’ll go bald.”

But I don’t think that either Aoife, or any of my other three grandchildren will feel that way about the Bengali language, though they will probably be aware of their part-Indian ethnicity.  My two daughters, their mothers, are of Bengali origin, but their husbands are not of Indian origin.  So my daughters – and their children -- do not speak Bengali, or any other Indian language, at home. 

When Aoife was born, I had thought it natural for me to want to teach her some Bengali. I felt that a fun way to do so would be by teaching her Bengali rhymes and songs.  Then my other grandchildren arrived, and I decided to teach all of them DD Bangla’s Happy Birthday song in Bengali.  They could sing it to one another on their birthdays, and to their mothers.

Aoife seemed to have no problem repeating the Bengali words, but that morning when I was singing Janmadin to her, I wondered how much she was really going to use Bengali.  I myself grew up in Bombay, and the only reason I know Bengali is because my mother spoke to me in Bengali all the time.  Now, looking back, I’m so glad she did, because I conversed with my siblings and my school friends in English.  But where Aoife is concerned, with whom will she speak in Bengali?  Her mother?  But it will have to be when her father is not there because he will not understand what she is saying.

I decided to ask my daughters and other young parents of Indian origin whether they thought grandparents should teach their grandchildren an Indian language, and what they felt grandparents should tell their grandchildren about India. 

I got a variety of responses.  In cases where both parents were of Bengali origin, the feeling was that grandparents should teach their grandchildren Bengali. 

“Grandparents can teach their grandchildren Bengali rhymes.  Rhymes are easier to remember because of the rhythm, and reciting them is a good way to learn a language,” a young mother said to me.

That’s true, and when parents speak Bengali at home, children get to use some of the words they have learned in a rhyme.  And, for the grandparent, there’s an inventive side to this!  I remember I had to change a line in “Dol dol dolune” when I taught Aoife that rhyme.  I had to change “bor ashbe ekhuni” to “bondhu ashbe ekhuni’, because my daughter objected to bor, and I must say I agreed with her.  So I made the change though a student of cultural history would have probably raised her eyebrows.  But then, I had had to replace the words of quite a few English rhymes as well.   My daughter had listened in horror when I chanted “See saw Margery Daw” to Aoife.  “You have to use different words!” she told me.  And again, I complied because I agreed that the original words were quite not nice at all, though I had chanted them to myself as a child, and intoned them to her, too, when she was a baby.  The thing is that for little children, the rhyme is usually more important than the words.  But why teach children words that you don’t like in the first place.

But, in continuing my conversation with other young parents, I found that in cases where one of the parents was not of Bengali origin, the attitude to learning Bengali was predictably different. 

“In order for a child to experience both the literature and the culture of the grandparents, both parents need to have fluency in the language.  And what’s the point in trying to make a child proficient in a language that he is not going to speak at home or with his friends,” said one parent.

Another young parent put it in these words:  “The historic strength of America is that as immigrants weave their way into the American mainstream, their ethnicity gets diluted.  People become American only.  And that is strength.  Think of all the ethnicities represented in the American team at the summer Olympics.  There were Americans who were African American, Hispanic American, European American.  But what was important was that they were all American.  If an American grandchild cannot speak the language of country of origin of one of her grandparents, the pain is probably that of the grandparent – not that of the grandchild.  

“And what of instances where each parent of a child is of mixed ethnicity.  Think of Runa’s children. “ (Runa is my younger daughter; her husband’s father is Ghanaian, and his mother, English.)  “What are her children?  American.  That’s the way it should be.” 

True, but I also have a delightful story about Runa’s six-year-old son.  Suren loves superheroes, and keeps asking me to read him stories about the Avengers and Ninjas etc.  Last year, I brought him some Chota Bhim comic books from India, and at his request, I read them to him over and over again.  Later, one Sunday, my daughter texted me to say that Suren had asked his father to read the Chota Bhim books to him, and had then started correcting his father’s pronunciation of words like “Chutki,” “Kalia” and “Bholu”! 

And what do young parents think about the second question?  What should grandparents tell their grandchildren about their country/countries of origin?  Surely there’s a need for me to tell my grandchildren about my life in India – though in my case, it would be about my life in both Bombay, where I went to school, and Calcutta, where I went to college. 

“Yes, of course there’s a need,” said one young parent, a young man of European origin.  “Stories are powerful.  One forgets places, but always remembers stories.  But what will matter is that it is a family story.  I remember the poem my great- grandmother wrote about coming to America.  I treasure it because it was written by my great-grandmother.  It hardly matters that she came from Scotland.”

Another young man of Bengali origin who went to school here, said, “Grandparents had better tell their grandchildren positive things about India.  Most of what I picked up about India while I was growing up was negative.  It was about the caste system, arranged marriages and poverty.  So before grandchildren start assuming that everything is wrong with India, their grandparents had better tell them some good things.”

I thought immediately of the young teenager of Indian ethnicity I had talked to sometime after the terrible story of the young woman who was gang raped in a bus in Delhi a few years ago hit international headlines.

“I don’t want to visit India,” she told me.  “Teenagers get raped there.”    

A young mother and her little son were visiting us, and I asked the seven-year-old boy what he thought of India.  “It’s a place full of sick people lying on the streets,” he told me.  “When I go to India, I’m going to take all those people to hospital.”  I caught the stricken look on the mother’s face, and knew there was more to this.  Later, she confided to me, “I was telling a friend that I had seen sick people on the streets of Kolkata.  I didn’t know that he was listening to me”.  She gestured towards her son.  “I’ve got to be more careful about what I say when he’s in the room.”

“Perhaps one of the best ways for children to know more about India is by encouraging them to be friends with other children of Indian origin who share their interests,” said a young parent to me.  “For example, it would be natural for a boy who likes soccer to make friends with other boys who take soccer lessons – and perhaps one of those boys would be someone of Indian origin.”

The more I thought about it, I realized that that was what grandparents did in a different way.   My reading Chota Bhim books to Suren was one such instance.  Another was teaching Aoife, who attends a Contemporary Dance class, a dance that my mother had taught me when I was a child, and that I had taught my daughters when they were girls.  The song that accompanied the dance was in Bengali.  I still remember how much fun we had dressing Aoife in a ghagra and choli, and then videotaping the performance.

Aoife also likes doing art projects, and some of the projects I do with her are based on Indian themes.  When Aoife was younger, I bought plastic pieces that, when put together, form a rangoli, and we decorated the room with rangolis.  Now we decorate the entrance to our house with alponas when she visits us in October.  I have also brought back coloring books with Indian themes from Kolkata, and we color pictures of Ganesh or Krishna together.  My daughter loves quilting, and she has introduced Aoife to the basics of it.  So I have given Aoife my old saris that have embroidery on them, or patterns that I think are beautiful.  It’s been fun telling Aoife how and when I got those saris.

Recently, I took Aoife and her family to Ananda Mandir, our Bengali community center, to show her the terracotta-style plaques that adorn the outside walls of the temple.  I pointed out the lotus motif, and showed her pictures of how that very motif had been used in Indian architecture from ancient times. 

Then we went into the main temple.  Earlier, I had been wondering how to explain the various statues inside the temple to her.  On our way to Ananda Mandir, I found the perfect explanation.  Right after we left our house, my daughter and son-in-law, loyal customers of Starbucks, stopped off to buy coffee.  At Starbucks, I looked at the Siren logo and said to Aoife, “What do you think that is?  A mermaid with two tails?”  “It’s the Starbucks symbol!”  She replied in a bright tone.  No doubt her parents had imparted that piece of information to her.

Now, inside the temple, I held Aoife’s hand and led her to the statue of Saraswati.  “I love reading, learning new things, and music”, I told her.  “We can see books so we know what books look like, but we cannot see reading or learning or music. But we can make a symbol for those things.  Many, many years ago, people in India decided to use this as a symbol for those things.” 

I don’t know what exactly Aoife understood, but she looked at me, smiled, and then nodded in reply. And I was overwhelmed by an inordinate surge of happiness! 

(Posted February 1, 2017)


Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to or

Comments received from Anindita B. on Feb 11, 2017: "I am in the same boat  and ask the same question, Is it  worth teaching our grandkids Bengali?  How much and how?

I think  if the child does not hear the language consistently in his/her environment s/he will not really be able to speak . For example I  learned English in India but unless I heard it enough in my surrounding, and absolutely  had to speak,  I could not speak fluently.  

Then again, if a child is immersed in that language at home, s/he may refuse to use it when she finds out that the mainstream language is American.  Aria, whose mother is Bengali- American and father from Russian background only heard Russian as the main language in her waking time when she was a baby.  Until three years of age she had more Russian in her vocabulary than English.  As she started preschool she figured out that we all  can understand English, and some cannot understand Russian at all. Her great grand parents from Israel can only understand Russian, and no English.  And Aria  speaks Russian with them only.   Even though I am fully aware that early childhood is the best time to introduce various languages, I refrain speaking Bangla with her, except one or two loving addresses, sentences or  words. Mostly I speak English with her.

Zoe, on the other hand have her mother as Bengali- American and her dad American.  She hears only English except when my husband and I speak Bangla to each other, or speak to her mom in Bangla occasionally.  Zoe wants to learn Bangla, she says,  because she saw that could be used  as a code language too. 

Zoe loves when I sing Zoe amar shona…sakra deke mohor kete goriye debo goyna. She tries to copy and bursts into giggles.  I do not correct her pronunciation or explain the meaning more than what she wants to know.  Zoe, 7, still loves me holding her close, rocking her with that song. Let it be like that; a silly, gibberish lullaby that Didun sang. 

I wish my Zoe to remember these emotions wrapped up with the sweet  Bangla language, even if those words are not  correct and will not be perfect in her lips.  I try to translate the story of Kheerer Putul and feel sad and helpless, how can I give her the real essence of Aban Thakur’s language.  It gets lost in translation.

I find that I, we want to give our beloved grandkids the most precious things in our possessions.  It is our language, our songs, our alpanas, our art… and that is why we try so hard.  It is perfectly  normal and all right Jayasree, what you are doing. That is the best  thing you, or we can give them. 

How much they will retain,  or can accept will be up to them.  Would it be of any value to them? Only future can tell, and we will not be there to see. 

At the same time I do not want language to be a barrier between my relationship with my grand kids.  If I am too strict,  choose to speak only Bengali with them,( while they understand that I am  perfectly capable of speaking their language) and  require 

“ Speak to me only in Bangla then I’ll give the cookie ( or sandesh)” , I am afraid it may back fire. I am afraid they may remember their Didun as that dogmatic, strict, old lady who demanded Bangla only.  

To me, language is for communication. 90% of our communication is body language, non verbal, with nothing spoken. I want to be close and frank to them.  I want them to remember me as an honest, caring person  which will be associated with Bengali words, smell of my cooking, touch of my soft cotton sarees, and the way I carry my self in different situations.  That will be knitted with their impression about India.  When they are bombarded with  obscene and vulgar  news about India I hope they will be able to evaluate it with the positive impressions they have stored . 

But then, in order to restore my beloved mother tongue may be that strictness, that challenging dogma is needed.  That is the only way to ground it, perhaps!

See, I am back to square one again!"