I come from a colonized people, a nation that wrested the oppressor’s tools to deliver themselves from oppression. English bore the weight of Gandhi and Nehru’s writings. English flared in revolution in 1942 and English swore in the first Prime Minister. English does not belong to Colonial Britain any more than it belongs to the subcontinent. English absorbs, mutates, becomes Hinglish, Singlish, Chinglish, accommodating the syllables of different cultures, the sounds of different winds.
I am five years old, and learning how to read. I lie on my grandmother’s huge bed, brought with her from Bangladesh, and she slowly enunciates, “Seen-dare-ell-a.” Cinderella. My first English words are accented with the river-tinge of my grandmother’s village. I learn to make my way through the melee of black marks on paper, navigating by the ear. As the signs coalesce into meaningful stories, I am filled with a sense of uncontained glee. I can read!
Bangla literature comes from the mouths of my father and grandmother, from the songs my mother sings, and English comes from books. By the time we learn phonetic reading in school, most words make sense to me. Sometimes, they don’t. So I guess. I guess that “serendipity” means a good-luck goddess wearing a pink sari. I cannot read Bangla, so the stories that actually feature such goddesses are heard, not read. Just as I cannot encounter Bangla in the written, verbalizing English has its own set of challenges. I still feel a vague sense of adolescent shame when I mispronounce things, still remember the heat swirling through the air and eating into me the day my aunt gently corrected, “It’s hew, dear, not hug”. Well, it was spelt Hugh, how was I to know?
I grow older, and stay with my books. They whisper to me when the adult voices roar over my head, light the underside of my bed with galaxies when the outside world is dark. In my books, I taste ham sandwiches, smell heather on the moor, and pet dogs named Timmy. But ham spoils in the Indian summer; the trees in my garden bear hibiscus and marigold, and the only dog I know is the mongrel from the street insistently named Rakesh. I call him Timmy in my head.
On alternate nights my father reads me the Romantic Poets and Rabindranath Tagore, as I lie cradled on his arm. Wordsworth’s lakes and the riverlands of Tagore shape the imaginary worlds I play in. My first story, called “The marvellous adventures of Sunsereva the traveller,” details a year in the life of the eponymous heroine, who circumambulates the world, beginning at the Vatican where she meets Santa Claus. She goes to America to see the presidents carved on Mt. Rushmore, and hops over to visit the llamas in the Andes. A royal audience, with Akbar the Great Mughal in medieval Delhi ends her tour. Various family members, when introduced to this improbable travelogue, smile at its absolute disregard for the confines of time and space. But the world in my head, built of words and songs, displays a similar geography. I can take a riverboat from the Thames to Ganga and back again in my games. The children in my books—girls who won’t wear dresses, boys who prefer reading to playing—bear my face and speak my words. What matter that their British accents meld into my own Indo-Bengali consonants when I read? Accents and skin colours do not seem important to me at eight or ten.
I am thirteen years old. Pushpa Didi, my housekeeper, approaches me one day, with a face full of shame and eagerness. She wants me to teach her English. I jump at the chance to play teacher, and with a real student too! And yet, the shame on her beloved face confuses and upsets me. I understand, in the zigzag way of children, that English confers power.
In class, I’m introduced to words that circumscribe the unsettling shame I felt that day with Pushpa Didi, words like “the politics of language”. I choose English again. I study Old English, handle calfskin manuscripts, and dream about the lives of great yellow-haired heroes fighting in icebound landscapes. I find incredibly concrete connections between the literary and artistic productions of the occidental Middle Ages and medieval India. Medieval Catholicism, with its pomp and glitter, its incense and music, is comfortingly close to Hindu pujas full of flowers and fire. When my professor talks about the magical properties of the Byzantine cross within in a circle, I think about Nataraja, dancing chiastically in his ring of fire. My intellectual engagement with Medieval Studies helps me keep the creeping feeling of disingenuousness at bay. But twice-deceiving impostor that I am, I cannot shake the unsettling feeling of collusion. Does studying, singing and speaking the language of the oppressor contribute to oppression? Canons shatter, and the pieces stick to my insides. How can my beloved books, sources of comfort, warmth and stability, be vehicles of violence?
Plane from Mumbai to SFO, 2015
I read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in rapid succession, ensconced in a purple leather seat, 36,000 feet in the air. The combative violence of language against language is audible. This might be the best of times and the very worst, to engage with art that insists on dual identities.
I am porous and permeable on these biannual journeys between Bombay and San Francisco. Between times, between cities, between accents and languages, I float with no identity to hold me. As we descend over the bay, I set my phone to PST. My vowels sharpen, the jarring rhotic consonants push through my lips — I embrace Stanford accents and Stanford jargon. I’d like very much for these material movements and plastic transformations to facilitate the emergence of the “American version” of me. In my books, neat little metaphors tie up the turbulence of lived experience in pretty bows. But I have no metaphors. Changing timezones on my phone, and syllables on my lips cannot counter the messiness of the moment I enter the immigration line, and my feet are weighed down by a million hypocrisies.
We read Ngugi wa Thiong’o in class, and I resist his dictates that only Gikuyu can write the African. African writing, he says, cannot be in any language but African ones. Completely irrationally, I feel personally implicated. Is he saying my writing isn’t Indian because I write in English?
“English is mine,” I want to shout, “mine as much as Bangla or Hindi are.” But I don’t know what jeera is called in English. Ma must always be Ma, what else can I name her? Bangla inscribes itself into my blood, but English lives inside my mouth. Is language filtered through the umbilical cord? Bangla is my history, written in the flesh of the women who fled from Bangladesh, whispered in my ears when I floated in the womb. But so is English. My father read me Coleridge just as his great-aunt once did on a bed carried over from Bangladesh.
When I created myself from the symphonic rhythms of Bangla and English, how can I write in any other? We outline our identities against the great, sweeping panoramas of nationality, race, gender and sexuality. But we also find ourselves in the stroke of the miniaturist’s brush, in our personal, private bodies and languages. I outlined myself against the saffron-green of the Indian flag, but saw my reflection in the stars and stripes. I was born in Bangla and English, and grew in both. For now, I will not reject either. How can I write myself in half a language?