“Bangla is your mother tongue.”
It’s with a kind of guilty sadness, now, that I recall how my father would look at me, almost pleadingly, during our Bangla lessons at home, willing me to be more interested in learning his native language. A teacher by both nature and profession, Abbu would prepare individual worksheets for me and my sisters to encourage us in learning Bangla. He would select poems from the well-known Bangla school text book series ‘Amar Boi’ (literally translated as ‘My Book’) for us to learn. He would encourage us to read from the weekly Bangla newspaper he subscribed to. He wrote rhymes to help us learn the days of the week, the names of the seasons, the different types of flora and fauna of Bangladesh. Teaching us Bangla was even the motivation for my technologically hesitant father to take the plunge and have Sky TV installed in the early 2000s, hoping that the Bangla television channels would encourage my sisters and I to be more engaged in learning the language.
The truth was that, as a child, it simply never felt particularly relevant to learn Bangla. Besides, Abbu was wrong: my mother tongue was decidedly English. Ammu was born and raised in England and she spoke English with her own siblings as a first language and Bangla with her parents. When she married my father, she communicated with him mainly in Bangla, and when they started a family of their own, they communicated with their children primarily in one language each: Bangla with Abbu; English with Ammu. I think this was a subconscious decision rather than any great plan they had. They did not have the luxury of raising children in a society where bilingualism was considered to be any particular asset – there were no waiting lists for French speaking nurseries, or Mandarin lessons for five-year olds in the 1980s and early 1990s. If anything, the general feeling, particularly for South Asian communities, was that by encouraging exclusive fluency in English, parents were guaranteeing their children’s success. Schools actively discouraged children from speaking any language other than English in the playground: I distinctly remember my classmates being disciplined for speaking Punjabi during school hours. Children were conditioned within their academic environments that their ‘home’ language and culture was of no value, only worthy of punishment.
Luckily, and mainly due to Abbu’s perseverance, this was not the sentiment that my sisters and I shared. We enjoyed taking part in all the celebrations of what it meant to be Bengali: we recited poems on Bangladesh Independence Day. We attended musical recitals commemorating the work of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, the two great poets of Bengal. We were active members in the Bangladeshi Community Association of our small town. We learnt to read and write Bangla (with varying levels of competence) but although we all understand Bangla fluently, my spoken fluency is certainly rusty at best. As an adult, I look upon people who grew up in ‘real’ bilingual homes with envy. The ability to move with such fluidity between languages is something I yearn for now.
I have wondered how, as a lover of words, I may have a different way of expressing myself if I had the same natural, instinctive command of Bangla as I do in English. Whether I would have a different persona when writing in a different language: a notion that Bengali-American author Jhumpa Lahiri has spoken about recently. I also wonder how I may better understand my own father if I were more familiar with Bangla and all its literary nuances, rather than the somewhat stilted, perfunctory relationship I have with it. A former professor of Bangla literature, a poet, and a prolific writer, Abbu too expresses himself through language and understands my love of words and of writing. But we have chosen different languages as the mediums for our expression. Still, I am glad that words, whatever they may be in, matter equally to us both.
Tomorrow I fly out to Bangladesh where I will meet my parents who are already there visiting my father’s side of the family. I feel hesitant in some way, nervous that I may not be able to fully convey a sense of who I am, or express the genuine interest I will feel in the relatives I have not seen for almost two decades, due to my lack of fluency - not in my mother tongue, but in my father tongue. I hope that my own, decidedly British, self-censoring nervousness will abate in the warmth of the Sylhet sun, and that I learn to loosen the tongue that I so earnestly want to use.