Language, Lost And Found

Bengali was the language of home and of intimacy. Yet somewhere along those years, with a sigh drowned out by babel, the language left me.

Ciara Quilty-Harper for Noema Magazine

Anuradha Roy is a writer and potter. Her latest book is “The Earthspinner” (Harper Via, September 2022).

It was a red paperback with a green, winking cat spread across its large front. Just a few taps pulls it up on my screen now, and I wonder if my mental image of the day my father came with it as a gift for my brother and me is the work of memory or imagination.

He walks in as if he has a happy secret and lounges against the headboard of the big double bed, my brother on one side, me on the other. My mother leans over, looking at the page from behind him. And then he begins to read aloud. My father isn’t much of a talker, but reading poetry aloud is a kind of music for him. His record collection includes Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry in the declamatory style of recitation called “Abritti,” popular among Bengalis. But today my father is not performing for an audience; he is reading in the intimate, rhythmic tones he keeps for us, and he has to keep stopping because he is laughing too much for words.

Partly because his laugh has always been incurably infectious and partly because the poems he is reading out are so bizarre and funny, my brother and I crack up, too. There are strange beings in this book, violent oddballs, creatures with two tails, vicious monsters with incongruously sentimental thoughts and poignant problems. There are the offspring of Ramgorur, who are forbidden to laugh, and large round pumpkin-like beasts called Kumropotash, whose every sneeze or whimper leads to dire consequences for humans. One of our favorites is the office clerk who thinks his mustache has been stolen.

He sat up with a vicious start and thrashed his limbs about

And rolled his eyes and cried, “Be quick! I think I’m passing out.”

So some call for an ambulance and some for the police,

And someone warns, “He’ll try to bite, so gently if you please.”

In the midst of this, with thund’ring voice and features grim and swollen,

The Baboo roars, “Confound you all! My whiskers have been stolen!”

Translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri, “The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray,” Calcutta, Oxford University Press, 1987.

What we knew as “the big red book with the green cat” was “Samagra Shishu Sahitya” (Collected Children’s Writing), which gathered together rhymes, plays and stories written and illustrated by the early twentieth century writer, Sukumar Ray. The collection includes his book of nonsense verse, “Abol Tabol,” which literally means “nonsense,” and which appeared in print just days after the author died of a fever called kala-azar (visceral leishmaniasis). He was 35. Outside eastern India, he is known (if at all) as the father of India’s best-known film-maker Satyajit Ray, but in Bengal he is a part of the region’s collective consciousness.

“All my singing ends in sleep.” The last poem in the book, seeming to prefigure death, farewells and parting, has a melancholic tinge despite its sparkle. “Abol Tabol” was published on Sept. 19, 1923 and on the 64th anniversary of its publication, my father died. He was 57. At that time, it was small consolation to me that he had planted Ray’s book and its language, Bengali, in my head before his voice was stilled, but now I see how much it mattered. All that nonsense was a seed which, flowering out, shaped me in ways impossible for me to pinpoint. It spills out as new words that take me by surprise when they appear in my head. My father was a geologist who dealt in rocks, minerals, fossils, the forces that shaped the earth as we know it. But he had himself been shaped by the music of words, and it would not have surprised him to see the seismic effects on me of those days reading idly on a double bed.

I am writing this in a small town on France’s Atlantic coast, where, far away from the language of nonsense and childhood, I go every so often to a café called Sous les Palmiers, la Plage (Under the palms, the beach) and translate passages from Leela Majumdar’s memoirs, “Aar Konokhane”(Elsewhere), which came out in 1967. Majumdar was one of Bengal’s greatest writers, especially for children, but I am reading her now because she brings my home in the mountains closer to me through her ways of seeing. The passages I am trying to translate have to do with her childhood in the eastern Himalaya, where she lived in the years of the First World War. It could not be further away in space or time from where I am in France, but I am immersed enough in her world for the wind sighing through her cedar forests to sound like the waves washing up in the estuary before me.

“All that nonsense was a seed which, flowering out, shaped me in ways impossible for me to pinpoint.”

The Palmiers is a hospitable café, popular with the locals despite its almost impossible set of rules: they serve only drinks from Friday to Monday and on the other four days, when they do serve lunch, they cook a single vegetarian dish. Everyone eats the same thing. Yet you have to book in advance if you want to be sure of a table at lunchtime — it is as if, in this consumerist heaven, dazzling, illimitable choices have become too bewildering to negotiate and there is a yearning for the simplicity of a time when you were told to sit down, a plate of good, nourishing food was put before you, and you finished it.

They usually give me a small table facing the ocean that just about fits my books and notes. Contrary to the idea that the solitary diner, by definition a small spender, is a waste of space and should be crammed into the darkest little corner, here they know that if you are eating alone, you need a view. Once I am installed at my table looking onto the beach, I can sit for as long as I want to, even as other people gather.

Soon, true to Sukumar Ray’s sense that children inhabit a different plane of consciousness, a blonde girl of about five appears with her family and, as they settle themselves at a table outside, she presses her face to the glass pane between us and focuses on me a gray-eyed stare of an intensity so unblinking, so unsmiling, it makes me flounder, lose my place in my book. Since I have no language of words that I can share with the child, I resort to making paper planes and boats with my leaf-green serviette. It is too soft for the job and my rockets won’t fly nor will my boats sail, yet though she observes with the same implacable gaze, the whisper of a smile begins to flicker at the edges of her mouth.

Eventually, she turns back to her family and leaves me alone to work, cushioned by the hum of voices around me in which I can understand French words and phrases now, a few more words joining the others in my store every day. Repeating these overheard words and intonations to myself in silent whispers, I’ve discovered you have to use your mouth and breath differently for French. To say “une” correctly, for example, you have to pout a little. “To practice the French u, round your lips —pucker up, buttercup — and say ee,” Duolingo tells me.

The sounds and intonations in Bengali are very different, every bit as musical, with a predominance of the “sh” sound, and with subtle variations in the “oh” and “ah” that never fail to confuse non-native speakers trying to pronounce the words.  Sliding between two languages as I sit in the café, I come upon a passage where Leela Majumdar is writing of her childhood of reading in Bengali at home and in English at school:

Our favorite reading material was my uncle’s magazine, Sandesh, and at the start of each month we would look out for the peon, waiting for him to bring us the new issue. We would read every single story, poem, essay, riddle and advertisement, read them so many times we would memorize them. To this day, I still remember clearly the pictures advertising Jabakusum oil and Buxar syrup.

We were not taught Bengali at school. I read countless English books, and from my friends I borrowed the fairy tales of Hans Andersen and the Grimms, “Alice in Wonderland,” “Water Babies” — I read them so thoroughly the covers fell apart. Bengali was what we read at home: writings by my uncles, by Jogindranath Sarkar and by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar — these books made such a deep impression on me, I am still affected by them.

In my early years, like Leela Majumdar, I read Sandesh and the Puja Annuals, which were voluminous magazines published once a year, one version for children and another for grown-ups, packed with new fiction, essays, drawings. I spoke Bengali at home, dreamed in it, scribbled rhymes and stories in it as a child. But soon my father’s job took us to other places, and the further I travelled from home, the further the language went from me, pushed away by the new ones I had to learn. Hindi, Sanskrit, Telugu, and the charming Dakhini Urdu dialect of Hyderabad crowded Bengali out. Chandamama, a children’s magazine in Hindi, slid into our shelves next to Tintin and the Hardy Boys, as well as Hindi thrillers with blood, fangs and daggers on the cover pages.

“Bengali is the language I might mumble in when I am half-awake. It is my language of dreams and childhood and some foods and tastes and feelings.”

My father read both poetry and fiction in Bengali and was addicted to a series of novels centered around an oddball called “Ghawna-da.” Just last year, in an old cupboard in my mother’s house in Kolkata, I came across a yellowing copy of “Jana Aranya,” Shankar’s desolate tale of an unemployed young man in the tough 1970s. The flyleaf contained a Bengali scribble in my father’s hand, inscribing it to my mother. I sat quiet for a few moments thinking about a side of my parents I had never known — my father a young man whose bookshelves were filled with Bengali, trying to seduce his young wife from Rajasthan into the world of his language.

My mother had a degree in English Literature, she spoke Hindi as fluently as Bengali and she loved Georgette Heyer, Nevil Shute, Alistair MacLean, Mary Stewart. She took a membership to the British Council libraries and borrowed stacks of books to read; she cut out recipes from issues of Woman & Home magazine that came from her sister in England months after they had been published. But her letters were written in Bengali, to her several sisters and her mother in Jaipur, whom she saw only once in three or four years.

Bengali was for her, as for us, the language of home and of intimacy. Yet somewhere along those years, with a sigh drowned out by babel, the language left me. My father’s job jolted us from one town to another. We packed, unpacked, packed again, and, after some years, we stopped noticing that our books in Bengali seemed to have been forgotten along the way.

On some mornings by the Atlantic, the sun is a presence felt rather than seen. Over the sea, a pale glow emanates from the clouds of early morning and the water gleams like a sheet of dull aluminum foil. As the cloud thickens, the water turns slate gray and a line of soft ash heaped on the opposite bank of the Loire is all that remains of the dense green trees from the afternoon before. By afternoon, the sun is high and bright, and to escape the cleaning lady appointed by this writing residency to keep an eye on the premises, I pack a sandwich, an apple, water and, with my book, go down to the beach.

I am reading Julien Gracq’s “The Shape of a City,” a meditative, poetic remembrance of nearby Nantes, where he grew up, and I am beginning to recognize the names of places, becoming familiar with a geography — that of Brittany — which I hardly knew a month ago. The book is translated from French into English, and it’s pleasant to read it on the sand with the soft chatter of its original language coming at me from sundry directions. I can tell some words and phrases apart now, even if the chatter comes at the almost unbelievable speed with which the French manage to enunciate the complicated, sliding, settling, joining and parting syllables of their language.

In the background, at low tide, the sound of waves is a hardly audible murmur, and beyond the murmur is the endless, soporific cooing of doves. The sun comes and goes frustratingly. When it shelters behind a cloud, the air turns chilly, and when the sun reappears, it is too bright to read. Minuscule spiders walk onto my sun-blinded page, not more than moving dots. Diamonds sparkle on the water. A girl comes and eats her lunch from a plastic box, toasts herself for exactly 20 minutes, then leaves — probably for a workplace in the dull, postwar city behind the beach, which seems no more than a prosaic epilogue to the seafront. (“Monotonous, gray trenches of stone lined by listless trees where the distances seem endless,” Gracq writes of a similar-sounding street in Nantes.)

On the way back I pause yet again to look at the enigmatic room in the arcade at the bottom of my apartment block. It looks like a booth from which puppets might spring: a box-like room with long glass panes all around it and orange walls over the glass adorned by a sign in flowery script that says “La Sixieme Heure Du Jour: Cuisine de Sandwiches.” The Sixth Hour of the Day: Sandwich Kitchen. The name is as impenetrable to me as the always-drawn dingy curtains behind the glass.

“One language for love; another for war. One language for home, another for the world.”

Nobody ever comes out from there with a sandwich, yet at times its doors are open, and there must be people inside, evidence of which is a vending machine next to it, whose plug goes into the wall of the booth. This vending machine dispenses fresh artisanal baguettes sheathed in an envelope of elegant flimsiness, provided you slip a euro and a half into the slot and press where it says plainly, “Ici Baguette.” At times I notice one of the tough, tattooed seamen from the shipyard opposite cursing in Russian as they pick out tiny 50-cent coins with their meaty fingers to slip into the slot. They walk away tearing hunks of the baguette, stuffing them into their mouths. One evening, sitting outside the sushi place at the nearby market, I overhear three such seamen talking to each other in heavily accented English. Their irritable conversation is about some bossman who had recently unleashed “all that French” on them and gestured offensively “in that French way.” They insist to each other that they simply cannot communicate with him.

Too often, in this language soup, I long for a guide. Someone who will decode not only the words but their meanings. To learn about the Sixth Hour of the Day, I might go to the chef at Le Skipper, a brasserie and bar on the other side of the arcade. He had told me one day that the English he was taught at school in France was no use when he went to work in England — he could not understand the accents of his Irish sous chef, and he couldn’t understand anyone’s slang. Though he thought he spoke English, people made fun of his French accent.

As he spoke, this professorial Frenchman in his chef’s white apron gestured and moved his head and hands in ways that struck me as undeniably English. Languages are not just spoken or written but also physically performed, and every language comes with particular gestures and facial movements. The chef had been looking and gesturing in the “French way” seconds before. Perhaps unconsciously, as he spoke to me, he had slipped back into being the person he had been for the 12 years he had lived in Lincolnshire.

Wandering accents, the chameleon effect of language, are sometimes explained as evidence of a person’s adaptability or empathy. In general, people take on new accents and the accompanying gestures unconsciously. I’ve often been startled by the transformation in the accents of friends I know well when I overhear them talking to people of other nationalities, and perhaps they are similarly struck by such transient changes in me. In Leela Majumdar’s day, however, when India was colonized by the British, speaking the Queen’s English was evidence of power and status; among Indians, it was probably a way to position yourself with the rulers rather than the ruled.

Of the time I am writing, the British sahibs held absolute sway; but the Bengali Sahibs were in a class of their own. The independence movement had already begun. A great deal of blood had flowed; however, not the faintest echo reached our secluded little nook. Fashionable people scorned Indian goods. Their children learnt no Bengali and instead absorbed a kind of pidgin Hindi from their ayahs and bearers and spoke in English with their parents. It could even be said that speaking in mangled Bengali was in those days proof of belonging within an aristocracy.

But we had no escape. There was a flaw in our very origins: it is true our home was in Mymensingh and my father worked in an important government job; but at home he wandered around in slippers and singlet, his dhoti wrapped around him like a lungi, and after lunch he chewed on a paan. My mother, despite being a graduate from Bethune College, would not speak in English to anyone other than the memsahibs.

Bengali was not taught in our school. Not a syllable was taught about the history of India, though we had some geography. We had to read the “Akhhamanjari” at home, but it is difficult to shake off the influence of your environment entirely, and Didi and I often spoke to each other in English.

Leela Majumdar, “Aar Konokhane”

One language for love; another for war. One language for home, another for the world. A brief exchange of dialogue toward the end of Satyajit Ray’s film “Charulata,” illustrates this division. It is the 19th century, in Bengal. Two central characters, a wealthy intellectual and his wife, are talking to each other about a new journal he proposes to start. She loves fiction, has written a short memoir that has been published elsewhere, and suggests the new journal be divided into two parts, in two languages: “Politics in English and everything else in Bengali.” English is the language for factual, impersonal, academic subjects; for fiction and poetry, for intimacy, art and feeling, it is Bengali.

“In the medley of languages that rattled around in my head through my peripatetic childhood, English was the only constant.”

When you are born into Bengali, a language subtle, sophisticated and musical, with a rich literature, it is natural to write in Bengali, to make films in Bengali, as Satyajit Ray did, though he was equally at home in the worlds of Fellini and Beethoven. Leela Majumdar wrote in Bengali even though her childhood scribbles, much of her reading, and her education, were in English. She was among the earliest students of English Literature at Calcutta University at a time when male and female students were kept apart with a purdah; she even taught it. Like her, many Bengali intellectuals and writers are so fluently bilingual that they write literary prose in both languages.

I am not so fortunate, though I feel that absence keenly. The loss seems especially sharp when I am writing particular passages of dialogue, with phrases and proverbs that are as untranslatable as Sukumar’s nonsense verse. Watching films in Indian languages, I long for the saltiness of the spoken words in my own writing. I plan, every now and then, a book that I will write in several languages — parts of the dialogue in Hindustani, Telugu or Bengali, some in the effortless slip-and-slide many Indians use, blending two or three languages in one sentence to express themselves. Writers in English from Salman Rushdie to Shobhaa Dé — and many others before and since — have experimented with an array of approaches that make imaginative use of the linguistic fluidity Indians live in. In Pankaj Mishra’s 2022 novel “Run and Hide,” Hindi-speaking characters speak in Hindi (printed in English script) and an English translation follows within the same inverted commas.

Perhaps all novels written by Indians in English are partially in translation to begin with. I know mine are, and I’ve accepted that, in the medley of languages that rattled around in my head through my peripatetic childhood, English was the only constant. Its literature was what I had first absorbed and loved. Most of us cannot choose the language we write in. The choice for me was between writing in English and not writing at all.

There is a certain standoffishness among Bengalis about their language, and a German-Swiss writer I had coffee with the other day observed something similar about the French. When we went into the café by the beach in Saint-Nazaire and he ordered in French, the waiter looked at him with a touch of insolence and asked, “Parlez-vous français?” This enraged Michael, though he kept his calm. Later, he said, “My French is perfectly grammatical, and I have the vocabulary. But because my accent is German, they will refuse to accept that I am speaking French at all.” His French-Swiss wife wrote in French; he wrote in German. They translated each other. For them, the two languages were as closely intertwined as they themselves were.

For me, too, Bengali is the language I might mumble in when I am half-awake. It is my language of dreams and childhood and some foods and tastes and feelings. I often find myself telling my husband, “I only know the Bengali word for this.” I translate as best I can, with words, gestures, examples, and he has come to understand the meanings beyond word translations. For those untranslatable terms, he too uses the Bengali word. Naeka. Michke shaitan. Pelladi.

Existing in two or three different languages is one thing; writing in those languages is another entirely. If I were foolhardy enough to write in my mother tongue, a Bengali scholar might ask me, “Is this Bengali?” This is an image that strikes terror in my heart; it is the stuff of 3 a.m. awakenings where you stare into the darkness in panic. In my nightmares, the true-blue Bengali scholar appears as a language-Dracula, pursuing me with eyes gleaming and fangs sharpened to drain the blood from pretenders.

“All at once your brain has taken on a new shape and you are exhilarated to find you can understand things — a whole new world has opened up.”

I have a feeling Leela Majumdar would have disapproved of my cowardice. Her memoirs make me think that, though she distanced herself from most things British, she did imbibe from her early education at a convent run by Catholic nuns an impatience with incompetence, which I see as very British. “Pull up your socks,” Leela might have told me if she were my aunt. “Read nothing but Bengali literature for ten years. And then, get on with it.”

The best reason to learn Bengali is its literature. And in a passage shimmering with nostalgia and yearning, Leela Majumdar writes of her cousin Sukumar Ray, whose “Abol Tabol” my father had read out to me. Here is her memory of him reading from his work:

The dark shadows of later events inevitably cloud memories of things that happened long ago. Still, there are some radiant days that remain untarnished in our minds. I remember a big picnic at Paritola, arranged by some wealthy relative. What an elaborate affair it was.

Our life was very simple. We would feel a little surge of joy if meat was cooked in the house, and our bliss was boundless if cakes or patties came from the English bakery. That day we went to Paritola and saw it was transformed. There were big rugs spread below the tall pine trees. In one open area was a patterned tent. Waiters in white uniforms were serving exotic snacks, so many kinds of shingara, kochuri, sweets and a giant cake, robed in chocolate. This was just the morning repast; on the other side, lunch was being cooked in enormous pots.

It did not feel real, it was as if it had come out of a story in Sandesh. After the snacks, Borda [Sukumar Ray] sat below the trees and read out “Shabdakalpadrum” [an encyclopaedic dictionary of Sanskrit, here used nonsensically]. There is no doubt that those who have not read the play are robbing themselves of a great pleasure. The beautiful morning at Paritola, that shivering breeze under those trees, the gentle sound of the mountain stream, the reading by Borda in the midst of all those people in his wonderful voice — none of this has faded or altered.

I read this passage over and over again when translating it. In only a few words, it gathered together the best elements of my childhood: to be outdoors, to be read aloud to, to be at a picnic where someone else was in charge of the food. The only part of this I could reach again was the language that the passage was written in.

“Those who have not read the play are robbing themselves of a great pleasure.” This was the reason why, after many years of living without the language, I taught myself to read in Bengali again. Learning a new language can be a process that feels as slow as the action of water on rocks. Day after day, a little bit of your ignorance is worn away, until all at once your brain has taken on a new shape and you are exhilarated to find you can understand things — a whole new world has opened up. Going back to an old, half-forgotten language is different. Fragments float up, freighted with other bits of the past. The struggle is not so much to conquer as to recover.

In particular, I wanted to recover one book: in school I had read Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s tragic and profound novel of nature and loss, “Pather Panchali (Song of the Road),” in the English translation by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji. I had seen Satyajit Ray’s remarkable film based on the book. That should have been enough, but the more I came to know the book secondhand, the more intensely I wanted to reach it in its original language. On one visit to Kolkata, I bought a copy of the novel. Given that my reading skills were frozen at primary school level, and this was a modern classic written in exquisite, evocative, poetic Bengali, it was an enterprise guaranteed to exasperate, stall, thwart. Along with the novel, I bought a chunky bilingual dictionary.

“It was the power of the novel that kept me going, past the small type, the unfamiliar script, the difficult words, my maddening slowness.”

Dictionary at hand, I embarked. It was the power of the novel that kept me going, past the small type, the unfamiliar script, the difficult words, my maddening slowness. When I finished reading the book, I went back to the first chapter and started it again, this time reading with more ease, noticing nuances that had slipped past me in my struggles with basic comprehension.

Time has passed, I’ve lost sight of the dictionary, and the stack of Bengali books in my house has grown. I will never write in the language, but if my father were still alive, I might have read nonsense poems to him for a change. If I could translate them into French, I might read them to the gray-eyed child at the café, with whom I have evolved an unspoken language of origami birds.

With birds I need no language, nor with dogs. The French dogs I meet on the beach answer to “Allez” rather than “Come,” but when they see me, they put their paws on my shoulder and lick my face all over; we have no difficulty understanding each other. Among themselves, they speak a universal canine language involving frank olfactory attention to private parts: urination to emphasize a point, tail wags, snarls.

As I walk home from the beach with its gamboling dogs and reach my balcony high above it, I can see the light changing to blue and silver over the water. Tiny bats start to swoop through the darkening sky and for as long as the light lasts and the seagulls cry out, a blackbird sings alone from the tree by the kitchen window. If a koel in India heard it, it would probably know what the song meant.