Immigrant Bengalis

Certain memories seem brilliantly inscribed into the landscape of my mind, and I can recall them as though they happened only this morning. One  such image has been coming, unbidden, to me more and more frequently in recent years. I am seated at the kitchen table, the bottoms of my eight-year old thighs sticking to the plastic cover on my chair, my right hand fiercely gripping a pencil marked Niskayuna School District. My mother is at my side, one hand on the small of my back, and she is pointing first to a snail-shaped design and saying “oh”, then to a contorted octopus and saying “ouh.” I trace the shapes so hard that the tip of my pencil keeps breaking. She asks me to repeat after her, “oh” and “ouh”. Knowing, in the sentient way that children have, that this exercise means something to Mommy, I try to say these two syllables. Before she says even a word in response, I see in her face that I’ve not gotten it. I wish then and there that I will be excused soon so that I can run around in the backyard with my sisters or retreat to my room and throw myself into another Beverly Cleary novel. Anything but here, where I can’t even hear the difference between the sounds my mother is making, much less write the corresponding and mind-numbingly difficult designs. Ramona Quimby doesn’t have to learn Bengali, I think bitterly.

My mother tried with such patience to teach me her aptly-termed mother tongue. She cajoled and prodded, encouraged and applauded. Every attempt I made put a smile on her face. When I could write my entire daaknaam, Mou, her eyes welled. When my other sister had come home from kindergarten, a note from her teacher informing my parents that she was apparently having trouble telling the difference between English and whatever language we spoke at home, I imagine the deflation in my mother’s heart to have been something near physical; the passenger side tire becoming slowly depressed, carrying its load with a grinding protest. Still, I imagine she wrote home to her parents of our developments, optimistically describing our slow but steady immersion into the familiar language. At the bottom of the aerogramme letters my mother sent to her parents, regardless of her hours of tutelage, we’d obediently print our names and nothing more. Intent with the ferocity of children writing for the first time, the heavy loops of our curls and the strenuous eraser marks would bear the thin paper even thinner. “Accha, bas”, she’d say. I’d run back to my books, all the English I could read coming so easily to me,  jumping off the page into my mind and creating entire vistas for me to inhabit all by myself.

I don’t recall exactly when she gave up, only that she did. In my teens, she would occasionally tell me how beautifully and fluently so-and-so’s son could speak Bengali or ask me to go with her to hear her friend’s daughter sing Bengali songs. I would listen to her voice, so mellifluous in her native sounds, but I could answer her only in English. My sense of guilt about my inability was the same in either language. Her kids could not speak Bangla, she’d tell her friends, but they understood it all. They would smile and nod at us, in my imagination wondering at our deficiencies, and then speak in English just a bit too loudly: “Do you want a biscuit, Mou? Here, take the biscuit and watch TV in the family room.” – No, I didn’t go with her to hear other kids who would speak Bangla or dance Bharat Natyam or sing Rabindra Sangeet or write ornate poetry in the script of our heritage. I worried that I would only remind her of my refusal to learn the language, a task she would see as her own failure, rather than her children’s.

Of course we heard plenty of mashees and kakas speaking Bangla; of course, we head our relatives long-distance over the phone; of course, we listened from a nearby room when our parents sang along together to some old Bangla record, their eyes moist in a way that only embarrassed us. Our father grounded us from the phone in Bangla; our cousins in India asked us about our summer vacations in Bangla; our mother told us how beautiful we looked on our prom nights in Bangla. The sweet, melodious language was all around us, though perhaps never in us.

But then we grew up and moved out, first temporarily for college and then permanently for jobs and significant others and a myriad of other life choices that had very little to do with our parents. This is the part of the story that is the same in every culture, every language; children putting away childish things and leaving behind make-believe, only to pull them out in periods of later-in-life nostalgia or unhappiness. Suddenly, decades later, in my thirties, picking up the phone to call my retired parents in Florida, I shakily grasped a new truth: somehow, sometime, at some point, they have become the only Bangla I hear in my life. The friends and aunts and uncles still call, but the phone does not ring in my house. The CD player in the car still belts out Rabindra Sangeet but not in my car. In order to hear Bangla, I must call Mommy and Daddy.

The reality is that while we soaked in Bangla, grew up surrounded by it, I long ago put away the question of whether or not I’d one day learn my parents’ language. I took for granted that I would not. Would became could. My mind spoke to me in English, questioned in English, interpreted the world around me in English. Just like one of my Beverly Cleary novels.

These epiphanies came last summer, just as my niece was beginning to babble a language of her own making, just as my aunt and uncle were making their trek to the US to attend her annaprasan ceremony. It had been years, too many of them, since we had all been together. Knowing this, we talked as much as we could, each of us, sometimes over one another, voices competing to make up for the silence of the physical distance among us, in the baby’s language and in our own, the noise collecting above us as though in a cartoon cloud. Mommy would  wake up late in the mornings, her eyes tired from the late hours she spent talking with her brother but somehow lighter than I’d ever seen them. I could hear Daddy humming in glimpses, his right hand playing tabla against his thigh – the only indication he was singing in the language of his heart. My sisters and I, no longer self-conscious as we’d been as gangly teenagers with frizzy hair and braces, fought for space in the conversations. Lying almost on top of each other, heads on laps and feet dangling of armrests, we chattered as only Chatterjis can do.

“Booley-booley my matha”, I said quietly to my mother while my aunt told a story about my nephew. My mother, only half-hearing me, reached and soothed my forehead, her hands smelling like garlic and the dough for parothas and the L’Oreal compact she has used all of my life.

“What did you say?” Babla-mama asked me, suddenly amused.

Puzzled, I didn’t know what he meant.

“Mou kee bolchay?” he asked my mother, his older sister. Her hand stopped caressing my hair, she didn’t know either what he meant. The sudden lack of movement on my head made me understand.

“Oh! Booley booley. I asked her to booley booley my matha”, I explained.

Mama seemed on the brink of laughing, without quite getting the joke. Mommy began to understand why my explanation had only muddied the waters. She explained to him and to my aunt that we were little, and she “booleyed” our heads, we turned the word into our own verb, booley booley. Understandably, they laughed, my aunt covering her mouth with her hand, her shoulders shaking with mirth. Mommy went on to tell them more of the same: how after hearing her say, “Asthay, asthay!” whenever we played too loudly, we repeated what we thought we heard, without understanding, and re-dubbed it as “asthay-pisthay”. There were apparently many tales of this sort, and the conversation picked up speed and sound as my mind drifted.

Since when was booley booley not a word? And asthay-pisthay was just the way one walked when one was trying to be quiet, wasn’t it? Hadn’t Mommy used these exact words, I thought to myself? These were our words, the currency of communication in our family. We used these words; they were words that had meaning for us – not meanings that were open to interpretation or discussion, but fixed and unalterable meanings. Like “branch” or “tooth,” these words would be in a dictionary someplace. I knew though, as I thought these things as if through a fog, that I was wrong. The Bangla we knew, we had created ourselves. It was not unlike a secret language, what my sisters and I knew, and it was all the more imaginary because we created it as we grew up.

Language is a home we do not acknowledge until we are outside of it, having lost our keys, stranded on the front steps. From that vantage point, it looks so safe, so comfy, just like a home in a storybook. I sometimes have dreams in which I am speaking Bangla fluently. Other times, just before I am about to leave a message on my parents’ voice mail, I can hear in my own mind full sentences I’m about to say in Bangla. The words, I think, will come smoothly and perfectly because I know them; they are my words to say. But then I open my mouth, and again I am far away, no closer for having tried, standing in the driveway and looking at the home where my parents so easily live. They answer the phone, and I see that the house is well-lit.

When the only Bangla you hear is from two people, and those two people are your parents, it is not the Bangla of millions of other Bengali speakers all across the globe. It is your very own, the language of your kin. “Kothai lagchay?” is a kind question to me, one that is said with a worried face and a soft touch. “Parashona karo” is an anxious phrase, someone’s brows furrowed while dishes are washed in the background after dinner. “Haschho kano?” is silly, amused, my mother about to laugh while we roll about on the bed in giggles. “Aschee,” my father says with a liss to each of my mother’s cheeks, then her forehead, then her lips, whenever he leaves the house. It is said at the top of the steps to the garage, and he is always dressed for work and carrying a leather briefcase. When “ayso” is said, I see in my mind’s eye my mother turning her face to meet each hamee, her chin tilting down and then up. These words, our words, are said no other way.

When my aunt and uncle were here, we children had to go to work while our parents stayed at home and, as it were, played. At my desk one summer afternoon, browsing for educational titles for the class I would teach in the new school year, I stumbled across a language-learning series of kits. “Teach Yourself Bengali” read the title of one such package, a combination book-and-CD, the yellow flowing font in bold as though written in turmeric. Some days later, I am at my kitchen table, that same hand clutching the pencil, its sharp point threatening to tear across the paper. Some British man, ironically, is speaking to me through my iPod earphones, and I have no choice but to hit “pause” when he gets to the difference between “oh” and “ouh”. I am simply laughing too hard.

Forty five minutes a night, I tell myself, plus twenty minutes each way to and from work in the car. Follow-up with the homework assignment in the workbook for each unit. I am a teacher, aren’t I? I must be able to teach myself. Seated at the kitchen table, I repeat the words aloud; ini amar ma. Uni amar mama. Amar naam Raul. Amar rumal nin. It takes only one month before I can write my first letter to my parents. Essentially as proud as I’d been when the training wheels on my first bike came off, I skip to the mailbox to mail my Bangla chithee.

Dokanta bondho, Rode ghurbena – matha dhorbe, Se somosto prithibi ghureche. The British man’s voice greets me in my car, in my home, on my computer at work. I’ve secretly hoped that my mother will open the letter, be puzzled as to its possible sender, and wonder for hours before I call to explain. Instead she calls the next afternoon, the lullaby sound of her laughter reaching me before her voice does over the cellular connection. She knows it was my note right away, of course; my father chimes in, it was written in the handwriting of a five-year old, after all! My aunt and uncle I can hear in the background of the car. They are passing my note from the front seat to the back, each studying the words of this thirty-two year old adult who can finally tell the difference between “oh” and “ouh”.

At my sister’s house a few months later, I am making dinner in the kitchen while she plays with her baby on the bed. Amid my niece’s shrieks of delight, I hear my sister telling her that she is going to put on her “mojas” before her “joothos”. I am smiling when my sister walks my way and then asks, “Isn’t it funny that sock and magic are almost the same word?” Confused, I give her an odd look.

“What are you talking about? Moja means sock, mawja means fun”. The difference in my inflection as I pronounce these two words is humorously negligible. The way I say them, the words could be interchangeable.

“No, it doesn’t. Ekta mawja katha bolbo, that’s what Mommy used to say. ‘I am going to tell you something magical.’”

I may be able to write my name and a sentence or two in Bangla, but I am nervous about this conversation. I would – always – argue with my sister if I thought I were right, but I don’t know here; this landscape is still uncertain.

“I think you are wrong,” I say, frowning. “I think mawja means fun or humor.”

“Fine. Call Mommy,” she dares, ever the bossy older sister.

“Fine,” I retort. And I do. Turns out I was right about this one small thing. “Moja” is sock, “mawja” is fun, humor. But it’s okay, I think as I am driving back to my own house. I like that we knew the Bangla word for magic.

Editors’ note: This article was published in Anandalipi 2008 (Ananda Mandir, Somerset, NJ). It has been reprinted here with permission from the Editor-in-Chief of Anandalipi.

(Posted on February 20, 2013)

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The Language of Our Kin
Kooheli Chatterji

“What words say does not last. The words last. Because words are always the same, and what they say is never the same"

-                                                                                                     --   Antonio Porchia, Voices, 1943 (Translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin)