Could you pass me a pen please?”
I was speaking in Bengali and I used the Bengali word for “pen”—kolom. A friend was very impressed. At the time, I lived abroad and was on one of my annual visits home to Kolkata.
“So many years in America and you still call pen ‘kolom’. Most of us here just say ‘pen’ even when we are speaking in Bangla,” he said.
I was amused and flattered. But the sad fact is that while I considered myself fully bilingual, I was just deluding myself.
Recently, I was asked to write an article in Bengali for the webzine DaakBangla. It was the first time I was writing a full-fledged article in Bengali since school. And I quickly realised that my “bilingualism” was really conversational Bengali. I could talk in it. I could read billboards and memes. I could watch a film and listen to the news. I could even tut-tut at spelling mistakes running rampant all over Bengali television channels or pitch in when my mother tried to help my nephew with his Bengali homework.
But my ability to write anything meaningful in it had long gone rusty.
Ever since Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb Of Sand won the International Booker Prize, Indian media has rediscovered Indian fiction in translation. Recently, the JCB Prize for Literature announced its longlist. The press release pointed out that the 2022 longlist of 10 novels featured six translations, with Hindi, Urdu (two books) and Nepali making their language debuts alongside Bengali and Malayalam.
I realised to my chagrin that despite my “kolom-bilingualism” it would probably be easier and faster for me to read the Bengali novel in its English translation than in the original.
It’s easy to blame our obsession with English and the pedestal upon which we place it. When Salman Rushdie co-edited Mirrorwork: 50 Years Of Indian Writing, 1947-1997, he made the contentious claim “that prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called ‘vernacular languages’, during the same time”. Only one translated text—S.H. Manto’s Toba Tek Singh—made his final cut. Rushdie would probably not dare to make the same statement if he was anthologising 75 years of Indian writing right now.
But I do not think it’s just about the hallowed status we bestowed on English-medium. In his anthology To Raise A Fallen People, Rahul Sagar shares an essay from 1846 by an 18-year-old student, T. Madhava Rao, who writes that only by learning European arts and sciences could Indians “hope to raise a fallen people high in the scale of nations”. It was not enough, Rao argued, to bask in the memory of India’s glorious ancient civilisation when Europeans were still living in caves. He wrote that this was not to disparage India’s past nor to insist that Indians should study all the English poets. It was about implanting scientific and far-sighted views so that India could have its own James Watt or Isaac Newton.
Chandranath Basu, official translator to the government of Bengal, wrote in 1878 that English rule had ensured that for better or worse, India was now a “country of Europe, not of Asia”, and it had to decide whether the cultivation of its intellect would “come from within as in ancient India or from without as in modern Europe”. But he conceded that English education had “produced a schism in Hindu society, a schism in the Hindu family, a schism in the Hindu heart”.
I was not really aware of any such schism. As a child, I went to an English- medium school but my grandmothers would gift me only Bengali books. Tuntunir Boi, Abol Tabol, Mitul Naamey Putulti, alongside the usual Enid Blytons and Winnie The Pooh, filled my bookshelf. I would also officiously impart “English lessons” to my poor grandmother, until exasperated with me scribbling all over her account books she would send me packing. The only magazine I subscribed to as a child was a Bengali one—Anandamela—and I waited with bated breath for their thick annual Puja special stuffed with adventure stories, mysteries and family dramas. As children, we once took one of those stories and turned it into a play that we staged for family and friends. We didn’t think it surprising or even noteworthy that our home contained the complete works of both Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and George Bernard Shaw.
The decline began for me when we stopped subscribing to the Bengali newspaper at home after the grandparents died. The world view that was shaped by the Bengali newspaper disappeared. I slowly lost the habit of reading in Bengali and thinking in Bengali. My mother would joke that she always knew when my sister and I were fighting. The more the heat turned up, the more English we churned out till it culminated in an explosive “Shut up!” “No you shut up” slanging match in shuddh English. Even now I struggle to express love or anger in Bengali. Both sound clumsy and half-baked in my mother tongue.
Reading a full-length article in Bengali, leave alone a novel, started turning onerous. But what was worse was that many of us started taking secret pride in that. Not knowing English well was a matter of shame and embarrassment. Being less than fluent in an “Indian” language was almost a badge of cosmopolitan pride. It proved we were not provincial. English was not just a language, it was a weapon with which we could cut people down to size. In the process, something got terribly lost.
Journalist Seema Chishti said as much while talking about her memoir about her parents Sumitra and Anees in a podcast for The Indian Express. She said that while marketing buzz these days often focuses on tier-2 cities and smaller towns, it misses the point that very cosmopolitan small towns existed where people spoke of Shakespeare and Basavanna and read the poetry of Kabir. Education became, she says, about “skilling” rather than “enlightenment” and English became a skill that could be acquired and flaunted.
By the time I realised the stupidity of that attitude, I had lost the habit of reading in Bengali. Years ago I started reading Sunil Ganguly’s best-selling book Sei Somoy (Those Days) in Bengali. That was when I realised how slow my reading speed had become. I persevered, refusing stubbornly to give in and read the English translation. But I read fewer and fewer Bengali books after that though I would buy them for my mother from the Kolkata Book Fair. Sometimes my mother would read a story she enjoyed and ask me to read it. “It’s very short,” she would say encouragingly.
When I tried to finally write in Bengali, I broke into a cold sweat. First I had to figure out the Bengali keyboard on my laptop, how to type compound letters. I would forget to switch keyboards and send some hapless person gobbledygook messages in Bengali. But those were mere teething problems.
My vocabulary and my sentence construction were frozen from my teens. I was writing in Bengali but not thinking in it. The joints of my sentences creaked. They sounded staccato because I struggled with complicated syntax. I had visions of my grandmother, who suffered the brunt of my English lessons, chuckling as I floundered in my mother tongue.
Of course, many still retain a true bilingualism. Novelist Kunal Basu, for one, publishes original work in English and in Bengali. But I was clearly not like that. My publisher at DaakBangla said that if push came to shove I could write in English and someone would translate it into Bengali. But my pride would not allow that either. Eventually, she came up with a solution.
She said, “Why don’t you write in English? And then translate it yourself into Bengali?” They needed the English version anyway, being a bilingual site. That was not ideal but as I translated, I also reshaped, added, deleted, ornamented, until some of the sentences slowly started finding their own feet in Bengali.
Baby steps, but it was a start.
On Sundays, I try and pick up the Bengali newspaper. I don’t read it beginning to end but I am relearning the pleasure of reading in my mother tongue, enjoying the wordplay, relishing the musicality. One day I might even manage to have a full-fledged rip-roaring argument with someone in Bengali.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.