In Two Languages

Long before the kid was born, we had decided to raise her bilingually. The word ‘decision’ is not quite right; it was simply an assumption, born from middle-class parents who take for granted the validity of a particular streak of contemporary American liberalism. It runs against the grain of the assimilationist dogma of immigration and citizenship, in which learning (or retaining) languages other than English is either a sort of cultural treason, or a belated educational dalliance that must be carefully segregated from things like identity and real life. It is, of course, quite close to the practice of immigrant culture in American history, in which the first generation tends to speak Italian or Russian or Chinese, the second generation is bilingual, and the third speaks English only. But the hegemonic discourse is that of the fourth generation, which insists that its great-grandparents went straight from Ellis Island to ESL classes and never looked or talked back.

Even in Park Slope, a neighborhood populated mainly by hipster dads with babies strapped to their chests and tattooed moms with designer strollers, our strategy is far from ubiquitous. When we meet ‘mixed’ couples in the playground or park, we find – more often than not – that the immigrant parent has acquiesced to an English-only approach, albeit embarrassedly. Here, as in other American cities, when it comes to families in which both parents are middle-class Indian immigrants, English-only is the norm, not the exception. Partly, this is because it’s convenient: the parents themselves often speak different Indian languages and communicate with each other in English. Partly, it’s an ideological position: urban-middle-class Indians don’t think of English as a foreign language, and it might be suggested, a bit unkindly, that our colonial baggage makes English-only a matter of pride. Certainly there is no dearth in Indian cities of parents who habitually speak English with their children even when they’re all capable of conversing in Hindi or Bengali. They’re reminiscent of nineteenth-century Russians of a certain class, who spoke French amongst themselves. When that set emigrates, raising their ABCD children bilingually is an anti-priority. Indian languages signify what they strove to leave behind even before they had left.

For me, the calculations were different. I emigrated in my early teens, half-formed. Bengali was the sound of something lost that had to be restored. So although I had never been a Bengali-chauvinist, had routinely come close to failing my Bengali exams, and shared my cohort’s prejudices against the products of ‘vernacular schools’ (having never given any thought to the fact that both my parents went to Bengali-medium schools), the preservation of language became a strategy of self-preservation, and literature a necessary sanctuary. Neither the only sanctuary nor a fortress, I should add, but one of several homes that I refused to relinquish, and that, like any meaningful home, I want to bequeath. And for my wife, whose enthusiasm for raising our daughter bilingually has been more stubborn than my own, Bengali was not only a language she had struggled to learn in Bangladesh and India, it was also a basic part of being married to me: not altogether different, I suspect, from the color of my hand or the sound of my voice.

The plan was simple enough: I would talk to our daughter in Bengali, and the wife would use English. Very soon, however, I became skeptical about what we were doing and its chances of success. First, there was the suspicion that the girl was being subjected to an unnecessary, confusing and ill-advised experiment. (She was, at the same time, being sprinkled with Spanish at her daycare center: ‘agua’ and ‘leche’ were among her first words. Simultaneously, there was an infusion of Hindi, for she enthusiastically sings along with me to ‘Tum ho meri dil ki dhadkan’ and demands that we sing 'Chanda hai tu' on a daily basis.) Second, and more powerful, was the intimidating nature of the pedagogy we had chosen. A language is not merely vocabulary, after all, or even a combination of vocabulary and grammar. It is the intersection of crowded lives: an infinitely broad web of experiences, enveloping bird-calls and truck-horns, the fading of daylight and half-remembered music, overheard quarrels, subtle and violent registers of formality, sarcasm, rage and lust, and the dialects, accents and word-choices that indicate class, place, gender and generation. To assume that one person can communicate all that in solitary conversation was insane.

We persisted nevertheless, and it has worked better than I had dared to expect. Even the ‘lag’ that bilingual infants are supposed to experience in their verbal development has been miraculously bypassed, and we have a girl who is not yet two but precocious in two languages, and adept at knowing when to switch from one to the other. ‘Want go downstairs,’ she informs me. Not paying attention, I don’t quite catch it, so she explains: ‘Nichey jabi.’ Like any urban-Indian child, she effortlessly mixes the vernacular and the global: ‘Mama read-to-you korbe’ (‘Mama’s waiting to read to me’), she tells me diplomatically when she’s tired of our lessons. And there was something shocking in the realization that she now knows nearly all of the first volume of Hashi-Khushi, Jogindranath Sarkar’s illustrated alphabet primer that has been a rite of passage for Bengali children since 1897. She loves the whimsical poems and drawings of Hashi-Rashi (1899), and will probably take easily to Sukumar Ray, whose father Upendrakishore's writing for children was first published by Sarkar's press. Suggestive continuities lurk everywhere in these extremely compact histories of being South Asian.

And there lies the rub. Sarkar’s primers are a foundation of modern Bengali, but they reflect a historical moment that is only ambiguously ‘alive’ in the present time. The illustrations are of little boys and girls in dhotis and saris, although some of the girls have already made the switch to dresses. The mothers wear ghomtas, or the end of the sari draped over the head in a half-veil. The locations are unmistakably East Bengali, rustic and riverine: lost, in more ways than one, to the lived world of Indian Bengalis. ‘Li-kar jeno digbaji khay,’ Mira recites (‘li-kar turns a somersault,’ although it comes out suspiciously like ‘li-kar jeno tiktiki khay’ – ‘li-kar eats geckos’), but the li-kar is a dead letter: it no longer exists in the Bengali alphabet. I cannot think of a single word that uses it; it was already dead when Jogindranath wrote Hashi-Khushi, and twentieth-century primers soon dropped it from the alphabet. It lingers in Hashi-Khushi like a stranded ghost. And as for ‘tiktiki khay,’ the only gecko that Mira has seen is a photograph above the stairs of our Brooklyn apartment. That particular tiktiki used to live behind another photograph on the wall of my father’s living room in Santiniketan. Both occupants of the room are long dead and gone, but the original photograph, which shows my father standing stiffly in front of the library at MIT, now hangs in my mother's living room in California, sans lizard.

The Bengali that my daughter is learning, and about which I am gloating, is therefore removed from her in more than one way. Teaching it necessarily involves omissions, because some fossils and lost pieces – the li-kars and geckos – are beyond explanation. The ubiquitous drawings of river-boats have no automatic association with bhatiyali music for her. Even the paper boats (which must become river-boats in the imagination) are foreign beyond translation, and one man in New York City cannot convey the melancholy of bhatiyali to a toddler. It is quite reasonable, under the circumstances, to wonder what all this is for: what kind of acculturation can it possibly achieve? I am reminded of an ABCD freshman who came to my office one day, and upon realizing that I speak Bengali, happily began an extended conversation, throughout which she addressed me in the familiar ‘tumi’ form (equivalent to Du in German or tu in French). She was unfamiliar with the ‘apni’ form (Sie or vous) that would have been appropriate; her parents always used ‘tumi’ with her, after all. So for all I know, I could merely be teaching the CD in ABCD.

The pessimism is probably unfounded, or rather, not founded in the right place. Each generation of modern Bengalis that absorbed the alphabet-culture of Jogindranath Sarkar and other second-wave producers of Bengali children's literature (if we consider Vidyasagar the first wave) has absorbed, essentially, a world of dislocation. Colonial Indian children’s literature was always a narrative of novelty, not timelessness: making sense of it, rearranging it, salvaging something from it, but also accepting it. The illustrations of dhoti-clad boys on paper boats rowed by ravens were not, after all, intended exclusively for children in villages on the banks of the Padma. The bhatiyali that I heard in my childhood came entirely from the record player, and although there were people around who remembered and translated the original context, that context too was probably more imagined than real, shaped by migration, forgetfulness, and filled-in gaps between what you know and what you are supposed to know on account of your identity.

What the kid does with her Bengali will ultimately be her business, not mine. It will be different from what I did with my languages. She will probably go through a period when speaking an obscure foreign language is an embarrassment, and will need to rediscover the language on her own. What she discovers then will not be what I am trying to teach her now. But that’s just fine, because what matters is not accuracy in the reproduction of culture but creative nostalgia for imagined pasts: the ability and desire to improvise what we call ‘heritage,’ and which is valuable not because it is real but because it is substantial, and because it, like a photographed lizard on a wall, contains a shadow of something real.

October 6, 2013