Santiniketan in my childhood used to attract a lot of foreign scholars, artists and students, which was a boon to a young stamp-collector like me. Every day, the sorting at the small post office was completed by mid-morning and many of the residents used to come and collect their mail themselves. I, along with a couple of other children, used to wait there for the foreigners to collect their mail. As soon as one was spotted, we used to scream “Stamp! Stamp!”; they obliged us by tearing off the stamps on their envelopes. Soon I had a thick album of foreign stamps. I used to linger wistfully over every stamp and imagined things about those distant foreign lands. (I remember Swiss stamps said only ‘Helvetia’ on them, which I could never find in the only world map I had at home).
The other times I used to go to the post office was to mail my grandmother’s frequent letters, which she had dictated to me the previous day. She was a marvellous cook, spent long hours in the kitchen despite her osteoarthritic stoop, and then after everybody had been fed, she’d sit down in the kitchen with her own food and call me to take the dictation of her letters. She was not illiterate, but she liked my ways of phrasing in an organised way the outpouring of her emotions and frustrations in those letters to her near ones. My skill at concise expressions of intense personal feelings, honed in my grandmother’s kitchen, was later tested once in a crowded Kolkata post office. There an illiterate migrant worker from a Bihar village approached me for filling the money-order form that he required for remitting a meagre amount of money to his family back at the village. When it came to filling the measly little space at the end of the form where you are allowed to send a brief message, this worn-out man sat on the floor on his haunches and told me what to write there in sporadic bursts of raw emotion (an incoherent mixture of his affection, anxiousness, and longing) for his daughter and wife in the village whom he had not seen for many months; and my skill was sorely tested, and I think I failed, particularly because the language had to be Hindi, in which I was deficient.
I was my grandmother’s favourite, who got to have the first taste whenever she cooked something special. She tried to inspire me to follow in the hallowed footsteps of one of her uncles, Dr P K Roy, who in 1902 became the first Indian to be the principal of Kolkata’s premier Presidency College. She also told me that this uncle, even while being revered, was ostracised by her Hindu orthodox family as he had converted to the Brahmo religious faith, a reformist sect that arose in 19th century Bengal (its principles were first codified by Tagore’s father). Roy’s wife, Sarala, was famous as a pioneer in women’s education in Bengal. Every night sitting by a dim hurricane lamp (those days in Santiniketan the electricity went off at 8 pm) and with jackals howling in bushes nearby, it was my grandmother’s unfailing duty to tell me bedtime stories, which included stories about her family, but more often magical fairy tales of a distant time, tales that she herself learned from her mother while growing up in a village near Dhaka (in what is today’s Bangladesh).
I always talked to her (as to my parents) in the Dhaka dialect of Bengali, even though, born in Kolkata, I was more familiar with the Kolkata dialect. As with the French, language is an essential, even sacred, part of the Bengali identity (linguistic nationalism was later at the root of the birth of Bangladesh); and just as in France until late in the 19th century the majority of people spoke not the standardised Parisian version of French, but a diverse array of patois, in riverine Bengal the different districts speak quite different dialects. My father was adept at mimicking the dialects of at least 10 different districts of (undivided) Bengal.
I frequently write (and give lectures) in Bengali, and it is a motto with me to try to avoid using English words even when the subject is complex and technical. This grew out of a habit acquired during my college days — whenever I wrote letters to my friends, it was a clear understanding among us that we’d meticulously avoid English words. This is not always easy (and now-a-days almost an obsolete practice even among many Bengalis), and I have to often coin new words for which English words are more common. In this task I have been immensely helped by my early love of Sanskrit, which I studied both in high school and college, and which provides a rich repository of ingredients to draw upon. (Once in the pre-email days Amartya-da complained that in being compelled to reply to my letters in Bengali, he had to keep track of his rusty Bengali spellings).
All through my youth, until I went abroad, I was not fluent in English in common conversation, though I had read many English books and, starting from high school, recited poems and participated in debates in English (not to speak of the pathetic attempts to mimic radio commentaries of cricket games, from the top of a guava tree by the Santiniketan playing-field, when my side was batting). Even after going abroad, in conversations, initially my English was halting and kind of “bookish” — this reminds me of a story a Bengali friend told me, that when in US he first had an affair with a woman, at an intimate moment she said, “Why are you talking to me in seminar-speak?” I was also conscious that in my English conversation, I was regularly translating from Bengali thoughts; over time I just became a faster and more efficient translator. Even today in talking, some of my occasional slips are tell-tale signs of the translation effort (for example, in Bengali the pronoun is gender-neutral, so in my translated conversation the occasional his-her confusion turns up — the recent currency of gender-neutral “their” is a help).
Finally, rather late in the day, I succeeded in persuading my father to send me to a nearby school, which happened to be one of the best schools of Kolkata, public-funded and with a long history (in 2017, the school celebrated its 200th anniversary). The day I went for the entrance examination for the school, one of the street kids I used to play with decided to take the same exam. His father took leave from his day-job and accompanied us. Just before the exam started, he instructed his son to sit close to me and copy every line that I wrote; as an explanation he told him something that to this day haunts me, “Don’t try to write anything on your own, you know your head is full of cow dung.” Throughout history this is how working-class parents have often psychologically disabled their children. Needless to say the boy did not pass, either because of inefficient copying or inner resentment.
The author is Professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley. The article was first published in the blog 3 Quarks Daily
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