Learning Bengali and Comparing Notes with Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words”
By Anandi MishraOctober 6, 2021
My partner M was born and brought up in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) an only child. I was my parents’ second born in the north Indian town of Kanpur (erstwhile Cawnpore). Apart from the shared colonial past, these two parts of India have also shared a thick Bengali population. As a kid, I spent at least two weeks of Durga Puja every year in the company of my parents’ Bengali friends. Even as a kid I could sense a remove in their existence, a kind of an anomaly in the otherwise Hindi-speaking heartland. With the exit of summer season, to mark the onset of a pleasant spring season, we would celebrate the Hindu festival of Durga Puja. Nine days of festivities bookended by the final day marking the victory of light over darkness.
Bengali tradition celebrated it a bit more grandiosely. There were pandals, goddesses, Durga’s idols, fair, food stalls, dance shows, literary readings, all running through this entirety of nine days. My parents’ friends would take leave from work, their children skipped school, awash in a peculiar festive mood.
This was odd to me.
As much as we were a part of the same religion, we did not celebrate it at such lengths. Whenever around them, I would try to listen in on their conversations. I wanted to know the real reason behind the celebrations, and somehow it seemed to me that their language was a portal to that. At my house, we only ever celebrated weddings this way, for days on end, stretching to a couple of weeks, at times.
Bengali then to my naïve ears came across as a cacophonous, loud, boisterous, a celebration of the spoken word, of life, and of being the moment. Whenever I heard people speak, it felt like they were celebrating the fact that they could speak. Its mellifluousness showering the entire room in a gentle cadence of its own. The intonation, their expressions, the shifting tonalities — I watched them in silence, letting my ears do the note taking.
In mid-2018 when I moved in with my boyfriend, I didn’t realize that Bengali would re-enter my life. And this time it was designed to stay.
Writing about the word “sondare” in the book In Other Words, Lahiri says, “It means methodical, stubborn research, into something that remains forever out of reach.” She calls it “[a] well-aimed verb that perfectly explains my project.” This would become the word I would go back to fill my senses in. I noticed stark resonances between my love for Bangla (the word for Bengali in Bengali is Bangla) and Lahiri’s passion for Italian.
It started with the sweetest, shortest, most pointed Bangla word: keno. It was a sumptuous query, often thrown around in vain. I had heard it on the roads, in my neighborhood, in office, amid a flock of Bengali colleagues, with my previous flatmates who were Bengali sisters and now with my partner. It whizzed by whenever spoken, an “o” sound toward the end inviting me in. It meant “why,” I would later learn and promptly employ with my Hindi while speaking with my Hindi-speaking family.
I would hear M speak with parents, argue with friends, politely chat with a colleague, or bargain with a vendor. Subconsciously the language started making home in the crevices of my being. Without even the slightest of prodding I would be able to recall words before colleagues, displaying an unending eagerness to learn more and more.
“Tumi kicchu jaaano na (you know nothing at all),” came to be my first favorite Bangla sentence, catchphrase. I would throw it playfully at friends who would tease my pronunciation to be that of someone from East Bengal. I would take small steps like this every day, going further away from my fear and apprehensions of mispronouncing. On our way from office, both M and I would chat about work or a movie we’d just seen, and I would slip in a Bangla word or two casually. I did not want to draw attention, I wanted to change into the language in the stealth of the night, without any baggage of performance, expectations, or naïveté. Walking home from the metro station, amid the bulbous noise of the traffic, from inside my N95 mask, I would sneak out a timid “Taarpor (what else).” M would notice, but the sharp man that he is, he would never highlight it.
In her essay, Lahiri writes how Italian entrances her. “Like the tide, my vocabulary rises and falls, comes and goes. The words added every day in the notebook are transient.” Airing my Bangla out like that, bit by bit, I build a cache of words, sentences, fragments, just like Lahiri. Just like her, I would start using these on a daily basis.
It was jittery, an exercise in extreme patience and anxiety, but I felt charged. I moved through it electrically, responding to this urge that emanated out of nowhere. I had to fight the natural instinct to give in, back off, be my lazy self, but I continued learning.
In my extended friend circle, I was probably the only one who did not know more than three languages. The Indian equivalent to the dumb, vulgar, uncouth, uncultured American. I hated it and wanted to get rid of the tag. I wanted to show off too, like a guy from the Hindi film industry I was once friends with who knew a sum total of seven Indian languages, and then English. Ashen-faced, I had not been able to look him in the eye then. In this way, learning Bangla for me was an attempt to belong to a bigger populace, to outdo myself and to keep my language-oriented brain engaged.
Reading then rereading the essays in In Other Words, I find a shared knowledge. To learn a new language had now become my way of making sense of this new thing, a new person, and his part in my life. There were many parallels with Lahiri’s journey. Like me, she charts in her essays the journey of someone who is learning a new language. Like me, she is hesitant, underconfident, and doesn’t understand a lot of the language.
And so were the differences. While she was learning to not just speak, but also to write and read a new language, I was learning just to speak it. While she resided in a geography, had the help of tutors, books, and the written word to guide her, I was doing everything pretty much on my own, risking looking like a fool. While she had a collection of essays, a house in Rome, a host of friendships with Italian writers and publishers, I had nothing of substance to hinge on, except this book. Through In Other Words, I found company. Keeping its company, I found that Lahiri’s and my underlying emotions, motivations, and affectations were the same.
We were both anxious creatures, trying, failing, and falling at the hands of our love for a new language. An alien grammar serenaded us and charmed us so much so that we were both willing to get intellectually uncomfortable to get a grasp at it. And in both the cases, the languages didn’t escape us. As Italian came to her in fits and bursts, Bengali jumped on me in words, half-sentences, conjured fragments in the recesses of my sleeping mind. We both embarked on a journey, separated by time and geography, but motivated similarly. They were both unscholarly hauntings. They were both moved more by a love, an affection, and a serious flirtation. We drank from the new languages, leaving behind the old ones, like weather-beaten lovers.
Colleagues, friends in my circles were busy attending to their more careerist rewarding language obsessions, learning French, Spanish, German, Korean, and Mandarin. In comparison, my dedication toward Bangla seemed small, inconsequential even. I was not paying for classes, spending time on commute to reach centers of learning, writing tests, or having forced conversations in the fullness of a foreign tongue. Instead, I was walking from my seat in office to the pantry, with words “tomake chai (I’ll love you),” circling inside my head. As the dispenser filled up the glass water, I thought of the unique way in Bangla where one does not drink any liquid, but they eat it. “Tumi cha khabo (will you have tea)?” Was my fondness then toward Bangla in any way lesser than that of my friends?
About Italian, Lahiri writes: “It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond. As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover.” It feels strangely similar to the way I feel connected with Bangla. I did not grow up hearing it, the first language to fall on my ears for the longest time was Hindi, but I remember its dulcet tones when I heard it as a kid. I remember feeling taken in, like it could show me a new world. I felt a pull, an awkward tug at my heart, telling me to delve deeper, understand, and unearth what lay underneath the apparent foreignness of the language.
I spend weekend hours with M, or if he was working, on my own, watching and rewatching Bangla movies. At first, I watch them with subtitles. Matching the audio to the English literature underneath. Words in Hindi take more space in time as compared to Bangla, but I mustered on. Making notes of the words whose sounds I could remember. A few weeks later, I watched the same movie without subtitles, testing my knowledge like a trying student. I asked M to give me 10 words the meanings to which I should have known by now. Seeing me unable to parrot a few out, he consoled me, “It will come gradually, you shouldn’t force the language.”
Lahiri writes about what fervent passions attend to her when she finally starts picking up Italian: “When I discover a different way to express something, I feel a kind of ecstasy. Unknown words present a dizzying yet fertile abyss. An abyss containing everything that escapes me, everything possible.” And this captures my flirtations with Bangla, too. I feel there are ways in which I tease words out of me, letting them linger on at the furthest drawer in the recesses of my mind, and coaxing them out only after a few moments of giddy tension have passed.
After a year, I come alive, the fullness of a new happiness at being able to construct one full, albeit short, sentence on my own. One August evening waiting for M at the press club, I dial him. After several rings when he picks up, I dart, “Tumi kuthai thako (where are you)?” And I hear the smile on his phone. The creases of worry on his forehead iron out, as he responds to me in Bangla: “Aami office e aachi (I’m in office).” I practice words on him, throwing them in his direction, querying so much at night that he would just ask me to go to sleep and let my brain rest.
What was once a discovery of a language was now turning into a slow growth. I was making room inside the crevices of Bangla, a room of my own. With my chipped, often incorrect and inaccurate Bangla, I continued to plod on, softly kneading the dough of my mind’s affinity for languages to yield more and more with each passing day.
About her purple passion for the new language, Lahiri writes: “I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.” When I think about the miniature way in which I try to burrow my way into Bangla, it looks to me like a small-scale simulacrum of the skyscraper of Lahiri’s affair with Italian. It’s a long road uphill, but like Lahiri I too shall get there.
“Learning a foreign language is the fundamental way to fit in with new people in a new country. It makes a relationship possible. Without language you can’t feel that you have a legitimate, respected presence. You are without a voice, without power.”
My tiff with Bangla comes when I try to eviscerate the words out of me. In conversations with people who don’t know me, I feel like a cheat, trying to rob people of their gentleness. People are rude and impatient with my haltering, stammering language. They lose interest, cut me short, and quickly switch to Hindi. In that act, they seem to be saying that the conversation is not important, the exchange of ideas and how quickly we do it is. And since Hindi necessitates that, we might as well stick to it. I back off.
I stay in a small pocket of south Delhi that is interspersed with Bengalis and Punjabis. Since I have dipped into Punjabi a lot more than Bangla, my ears are more attuned to awkwardness of Bangla. Before the pandemic, I used to walk to the nearby market to buy groceries. There, unsupervised, I would launch myself into broken but earnest efforts of speaking in Bangla. I would muster out a string of items to the vegetable vendor: “Doo-to bell paper, pau kilo pyaaz koli, ek kilo notun aaloo (two bell peppers, 250gm spring onions, 1kg small potatoes),” waiting for him to fill in the blank spaces, if any. He would shoot a look of disbelief at me, put together the order, and inform me about the bill in Hindi.
Defeated, I thought back to what Lahiri writes about this: “There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I’m in love but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.”
Exhausted, stretched out, I lean back on such days. Letting Hindi run the course of the interaction. Not coming in the way of the language not wanting me back.
As the days plod on, I learn to cherish the small victories. On some days, being able to glean over catchy Bangla words that are cool enough to be used with English by people makes me happy. On others, I take pride in understanding the word “nikochikoreche (fuck this shit),” and smile to myself.
Now, my understanding of the language is at a level that, upon my request, when M talks to me in Bangla, I am able to understand almost 85 percent of it and reply in about 60 to 65 percent jittering Bangla mixed with English. And for now, I feel content with this. During the lockdowns, I watched all of Satyajit Ray movies in Bangla (mostly without subtitles) to invite it deeper into my head. I listened to “Aaami Chini Go Chini Tomae” on repeat, allowing the intonations of the words nestle into shapes of their own in me. I eavesdropped on M’s phone chats with friends and congratulated myself when I was able to understand most of it.
Lahiri writes about coming to terms with the slow pace at which growth usually takes place, and it comforts me to understand that in my halting failures, she, too, is with me.
As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t torment of grieve me.
For all of language is work in progress, and Lahiri and I are, in some way, both in the same boat.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has been published by or is forthcoming in Chicago Review of Books, Mint, Popula, Transformations, Rejection Letters, Berfrois, and elsewhere. Her essay “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020).
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