Mother tongue | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Mother tongue

Mother tongue

Shory-o, shory-a, hrows-e, dhirgo-e...Uhm...Shory-o, shory-a, hrows-e, dhirgo-e, shory-o...shit!” Four vowels in and already I was forgetting everything I memorized only a few minutes ago. This was not how I originally planned to spend my last week home before returning to the University of Michigan. Had it been that hard learning Bengali when I was five?
I moved to America when I was six. My brothers, ten and eight years older than me respectively, came to the US as teenagers. Because of my half-completed education in Bangladesh and my lack of practice, I quickly forgot how to read and write Bengali. My brothers had no such problem and they took every opportunity to remind me of this all the time.
It was the summer before seventh grade. We had been fighting our way through swarms of street vendors and shoppers for at least fifteen minutes in an attempt to locate a store I had visited earlier with my mom. The smell of sweat and irritation was palpable.
“So, is this the store?” my aunt's hair and the pitch of her voice had been growing exponentially in the humid midday Bangladeshi heat.
I discretely focused my attention on the misspelled sign at the corner of the street, “Chines Resterant,” before replying, “I know it's here, I just don't remember the name of the store.”
My brother had evidently had enough and with the kind of sneer that only siblings can perfect for each other, bit out, “That's because you can't read the name, dumb-ass. Let's just go into one of these stores and hope it has the shirt mom wants.” He charged ahead. With eyes locked on the brown and teal stripes decorating the back of my brother's t-shirt, I followed. I decided that day that not only was teal not his color but finding shops in the middle of Bangladesh's capital and busiest metropolitan wasn't supposed to be a part of my summer vacation anyways.
I have been hearing variations of what my brother said to me that muggy day on the clogged streets of Dhaka for 13 years now. For the most part, my response is either silence or laughter. However, the fact that I can't read Bengali is not a topic on which I have nothing to say or a topic which I find very funny. It's a subject which I have done my best to ignore. I have clung to the fact that I am fluent in speaking Bengali. Rarely, have I hesitated to point out that my Bengali is better than most other Bangladeshi-American kids. While identifying their flaws, I do my best to not listen to the voice in my mind murmuring that I'm being unfair. Murmurings that point out that these kids weren't born in Bangladesh, hadn't been taught how to read and write in Bengali and certainly weren't the kinds of kids who huffily corrected their Spanish teachers in second grade when she mistook them for being Indian. Their ties to the country were weak and their sense of patriotism even weaker.
The Bengali alphabet consists of 35 consonants, four consonant signs, 11 vowels and ten vowel signs. In the face of this, mastering the 26 letters of the English language doesn't seem to be as great as an accomplishment as it once did. On the first day I attempted to re-teach myself to read and write in Bengali, I had 23 tabs open in my laptop. I failed to take into consideration what a massive undertaking this was going to be. I was swimming in a sea of websites, YouTube tutorials and Android apps. I sat on my wrinkled periwinkle sheets, wishing I knew where the laminated alphabet books from my kindergarten class in Bangladesh were. I remembered squashing soggy cereal in concentration while my mom tested me on all the letters of the alphabet in preparation for the day's Bengali quiz in kindergarten. My dad would be at work and my brothers already in school. The only two in the house, we would sit huddled together in the chairs closest to the kitchen and bend over the laminated books to gauge my chances of passing the quiz.
Abandoning my unmade bed, I found my mom in the living room. To hide my then-secret “project,” I began with unrelated questions. Finally, I asked, “I was just thinking today, what happened to my old Bengali alphabet books you brought here?” My mom eyed me over the tops of her glasses. She insisted that I hid the books when she tried to resume my Bengali lessons after our first year in America. I simply have no memory of this event but I am suddenly reminded of a few – tears and frustration-filled – lessons at the dining table. Unlike, the quiet mornings in Dhaka, when I proudly recited the alphabet during breakfast, these interactions were mostly punctuated with pleas to be allowed to go outside and play with my new friends.
When I reveal my secret to my mom and my “project” ceases to be merely a project, I will discover, among other things that my mom learned how to read and write in Bengali from her mother. My grandmother was a formidable woman who disciplined her six daughters and three sons with; legend has it, only the twitch of her eyebrows. Never a fan of sitting still, (this was a child who cried if she wasn't allowed to play hopscotch at least once a day) my mom endured her lessons with her younger sister. I imagine her sitting at my grandma's long dinner table, twitching in the hard, inky black wooden seats, dutifully reciting her letters.
By the afternoon of the first day, I disregarded the 22 other tabs and used the Wikipedia page on the Bengali alphabet to begin a sloppy memorization of the vowels. On the second day, I promised myself that I would sit down and learn something in Bengali. Another promise of a short break, dinner and then a movie later I realized I had learned something Bengali. It was the same vowels from the first day: shory-o, shory-a, hrows-e, dhirgo-e. I spent the subsequent days packing and before I knew it, my classes at Michigan had started.
I thought re-learning how to read and write Bengali would be much easier than it was before because this time I believed my learning was no longer tangled with my relationship with my origins, biological or otherwise. My sudden interest after 13 years of never giving Bengali a second glance was sparked by a wedding I attended in mid-August. My cousin had married his Indian fiance in Washington.
At one of the many parties that follow South Asian weddings, I found myself engaged in an awkward conversation with the new bride. I had only meant to grab the last piece of German chocolate cake, but before I could return to my seat, my mom introduced me to the bride. They were discussing her childhood. Despite growing up outside of India, she and her siblings could read, write and speak in Urdu fluently because their mother had imposed strict measures. No English was allowed inside the house. The weight of my mom's stare pressed against me and I offered the bride an uneasy smile. She announced that she had begun learning Bengali during the summer. I blinked. She intended to not only speak it fluently but to also read and write as well. She shyly showed off her limited skills. As one of the perceived experts, I gave her “pointers” on how to fix her pronunciations and described to her what Bangladesh was like.

A 28-year-old woman pursuing a doctorate was willing to take the time to learn an entirely new language for the sake of pure interest and maybe impressing a few in-laws. Why couldn't I do it so that I didn't get lost in the middle of Bangladesh? I had more practical reasons than her to learn how to read and write in Bengali. Stewing in indignation, I decided my new venture into Bengali would be strictly in the name of practicality and functionality.
After receiving my syllabi from professors during my first week of classes, I meticulously copied the dates of exams into my planner. I scrawled “learn Bengali” at the bottom of the weekly to-do list. Perhaps treating Bengali like it was my sixth class this semester would help. It would hopefully motivate me and provide more structure to my learning.
I found a syllabus online from Cornell's beginner Bengali class. According to the syllabus, I would need to learn the six pure vowels and the first eight consonants for the first week. After an hour's worth of online searching, I gathered a group of websites which seemed as though they would be the most useful in helping me achieve my goal. I found myself surprised by the variety of sources. One website was created by a man who simply devoted his time to providing free tutorials on teaching Bengali. A few were tourism sites for Bangladesh that seemed to offer a more Sparknotes version of the language but were still informative in their descriptions. Despite their differences, every website was brimming with a love of the language. One website proclaimed, “The rich heritage and culture of Bengal remains in her lullabies, literature, folk culture...Expressing in ones mother tongue is the expression of heart.” (BangaliNet)
Feeling as though I was finally on the path to achieving my goal, I restarted my memorization with renewed enthusiasm. I successfully completed my homework for the second day of my virtual class at Cornell. By the end of the month however, I could have sworn that there were at least four letters which looked like a backwards cursive “E” and at least six letters that looked like an overweight “5.” The minute detail differentiating these letters was the length and the curve of their swoops. I knew that to some extent a written language uses a distinct set of shapes that is re-purposed into different letters but everything was blurring together very quickly. Looking ahead in the syllabus was also panic-inducing. I was supposed to begin studying the conjoined letters soon but I didn't think that was possible when my grasp on the actual alphabet was quickly slipping. Exams and essay deadlines from my real classes were also looming overhead. I groaned at my laptop screen and wondered if this would be easier if I had listened to my cousin about the swoops.

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I remembered my third and until now, last, interaction with the Bengali alphabet more clearly. In school and at home, the hierarchy was very clear. My teacher and my mom were both uncontested figures of authority, my gangly eleven-year-old cousin, however, was not. My cousin is the closest thing I have to a sister which means we are both extremely close and extremely competitive. A year and a half is all that separates us but I am the youngest of all my cousins and have always been treated as the baby. Our peaceful relationship hinges on a delicate balance of power, one which was easily toppled when we were younger. My mom was oblivious to this. She had the seemingly good idea to have my cousin tutor me in Bengali when I was ten. I desperately searched for excuses but couldn't find any. I was spending my summer vacation in Bangladesh and like the do-gooder that I was, I had already finished my summer homework.
“Your swoop isn't big enough and that line's crooked. I'll take points off if you don't practice your letters as many times as I tell you to!” she, proclaimed. I twisted the tablecloth into my hands until I could feel the imprint of the four-petal daisies on my fingertips. The imperious and patronizing instructions continued to escalate as did my feelings of anger and humiliation. This would be my one and only Bengali lesson with my cousin.
By the beginning of the next month, in a bout of frustration I confessed to my mom that I was struggling to teach myself Bengali. I expected surprised silence or blatant confusion at the sudden change in subject. She hardly paused, “I'm so happy! You should learn your language.” She didn't stop talking for the next few minutes. It was as though she had been waiting for me to say this but her response was not a rehearsed monologue. She was effusive and whenever she lost her train of thought, she returned to, “You should learn your language!” It was celebratory instead of the accusatory tone I imagined it would be. Before the conversation could progress further, I reminded her that I was struggling. I told her how I just couldn't seem to retain any of the information. Her answer was immediate. She told me an old Bengali idiom, which roughly translated to “If you can't succeed at first, keep trying until you do.”
“You have so much to look forward to; soon you'll be able to read all of original the Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nuzrul Islam books. You'll be able to really enjoy those book fairs they have in Bangladesh during holidays like February 21 or Victory Day,”
 I couldn't help but smile and tell her she always knew to lure me with books. We shared a laugh. After a pause, she became serious again, “You know, February 21 and Victory Day is the reason why we can speak Bengali at all.”
On February 21 in 1952, university students and other activists were massacred for protesting their right to speak and write in Bengali in a region that was then a part of Pakistan.  This was the beginning of the language movement that would eventually lead to Bengali being granted equal status. Bangladesh would eventually petition to have this day commemorated as International Mother Language Day and in 1999, UNESCO would accept. Even more importantly, it would sow the first seeds of discontentment that would lead to a revolution approximately 20 years later. The Bangladeshi Liberation War was a war that was ignited by men and women dying for their right to speak and write their language.
The war occurred 41 years ago but for me it always felt as though it was hundreds of years earlier. I knew basic information about the war. Until I talked to my mom about Bengali and asked her about the war, I had never heard about their experiences in war or grasped the significance of language in Bangladesh. I was told when I was younger that my uncle was a strategist in the war. I assumed it meant he was one of those men who moved the pins on the map around from the safety of their offices. I had also, wrongly assumed that my mom and her family were out of the country during the war. She had informed me that she was safe during the war but I had failed to realize just how little security had actually meant safety during that time. My parents and even my extended family talked so rarely about the war that I had essentially disassociated them from all the violence and fear. Perhaps they didn't talk about it because I had never asked them. My mom was willing to tell me about the war when I asked her. She went as far as to call one of my aunts in Bangladesh so that she could answer the questions my mom didn't know the answers to. I learned more about my family and my motherland than I ever could have on my own, no matter how many times I stared at my Cornell syllabus and memorized my vowels.
My uncle was 25 when he became the commander of the Chittagong division for the liberation movement. He never had an office. He fought in the front-lines until Victory Day when he was the first to announce on the radio in Chittagong that the war was finally over. My mom was 12 when her brother-in-law would use her house as a meeting place for his rebel soldiers and when her sister would mail her husband's secret letters. My dad was 14 when he heard that his brother was a prisoner of war and when soldiers ransacked his home looking for my grandfather's hunting rifle. At 19, I am safely ensconced in my dorm room and whining to my parent's about the number of Bengali letters that look like fat fives.
My brothers sometimes teased my dad for never fighting in the war. One of them had once insisted that had he been my dad's age during the war, he would have fought regardless of what his parents wanted. I cringe now thinking that as people for whom wars are fought in distant, foreign countries, we know nothing about the realities war. We know nothing about having our lives and the lives of our family in jeopardy every day. We know nothing about being a teenager and watching our home get destroyed. It's hard to tell whether or not my dad was ever truly hurt by my brothers' taunts or whether he simply dismissed it as childish naiveté. Personally, I'm glad that his part in the war was so small. I'm glad because it means he was protected from many of the other horrors of war. The selfish, self-preserving part of me also can't help but be relieved because I know that the churning of guilt and shame in my stomach would be much worse if he had fought and I had dismissed the language he had fought for.
I called my mom again two hours after our first conversation. She yelled over the rush of the running faucet that she was washing dishes. In my mind, I could see her washing the dishes with her yellow rubber gloves and her bright red shawl draped haphazardly across her shoulders, which I'd once used on Halloween to go as Red Riding Hood. I quickly apologized for bothering her again. This time surprise colored her voice, “Sorry? What are you sorry for?”
I let out my question in one breath, “Why didn't you continue to try teaching me Bengali in America?”
She paused and then – “Well, you were very good at ignoring me.”
A barely audible puff of air escaped my mom. “I tried so much to teach you. I tried so many times. I thought maybe you just didn't want to learn from me or that I couldn't make you understand it remember when I asked your cousin to teach you?”
I found my voice, “That was a horrible idea.”
This confused her, “What, why? I used to help my little sister with her Bengali. Family is there to help you.”
Like I do for all other exams, I crammed for my Bengali midterm. I spent Sunday night frantically practicing my letters. As an un-enrolled student of the class, I couldn't gain access to the Cornell class site. I chose to take the first few quizzes on another site I found. The quizzes were hidden and I was nervous about whether or not I would even finish in the hour I had allotted myself.
By the time had loaded, I had already finished the bottle of water on my desk. The quizzes were revealed to be simple matching tests. It was impossible for me to get any of them incorrect, as the quiz would not allow you to drag a letter to the incorrect name and sound. I struggled with some but finished the quiz with 45 minutes to spare. Not knowing what else to do, I took out a sheet of paper and began to quiz myself. I tried to see how many letters of the alphabet I could list in order and if underneath the letters I could write their correct names and the sounds they represented. I finished the quiz and realized I hadn't put my name on it. A quiz is never complete without the student's name. As of yet, I had made no attempts to spell anything, let alone my own name. I slowly began to sound out my name. A pure “z” sound does not exist in the Bengali language and my fruitless search through the alphabet list confirmed this. I realized, I was pronouncing the Americanized version of name. I had begun spelling my own name incorrectly. In Bengali, my name ends with more of a “j” sound. I erased my previous attempts and began again. “Tha-ah-nazj.” This is the name my mom spent months (I was even nameless for about a month after I was born) searching for. This was how she first wrote it on my birth certificate.
I had used my fear of failure for years as an excuse for not fully learning my language. The insults and taunts kept me at bay. I was only galvanized into taking action when my feelings of inadequacy overpowered my fear. I have a mother, a father, uncles and aunts who bear scars just so that I can have the freedom to speak, read and write my language, a gift which I have largely discarded until now. I used to snobbishly correct people about my origins, “I'm Bangladeshi, not Indian.” But I wasn't, not really. I could try to be as patriotic as I wanted but it is undeniable that the foundation of Bangladeshi patriotism and culture is the people's love for their language. Language may serve practical functions but I was naïve to think that I could distill language into merely that. My mother language is the language of my motherland and also the language of my own mother. It is the language she uses to teach me about my culture. It is the language she uses support me, to take care of me, to show her love for me. As Bangladeshis, we often forget or take for granted the value of our language and it took me 13 years to finally realize how important my mother tongue truly is.


The writer is a student at the University of Michigan.

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