I am Uzbek, Russian and a little bit Ukrainian. Therefore English is far from being my first language. I love how each of the writers in this book made me relate in many of the situations that they went through as the non-English speakers. Being a foreigner may have lots of difficulties. And of them is learning about a different culture, customs and of course trying to speak, read and write in other language.
The book "The Genius of Language" is both intellectual and pleasurable to read. Wend Lesser, the author of this work, brought together such a brilliant collection or writers that let us as their readers, to enter some of the private and intimate aspects of their lives. It is like a global tour of not just the language people are speaking but also the deepest thoughts and anxieties of their being. Each of the essay is well written although a little challenging for a non-native speakers with an insufficient experience of reading in a different language.
One of the other greatest things about this book is that it's brimming with respect for language and it's culture. To be cast out of your janma bhumi or ancestral birth-soil is to be forever doomed. Unlike dialects, which can be transported by migrants, the loss of janma bhumi is permanent. The diasporic Bengali may own real estate in the country of her adoption, but that real estate can only be her residence, as provisional as her immigrant identity, her home. I think now that this intimate braiding of inherited language, place and identity is why Bengalis never took to the British system of primogeniture.
Generation by generation, the extent of ancestral land owned by an individual male was whittled down to specks and strips. Second, third, fourth. Evaluation was symbolic, not economic. Even as a child I picked up on our linguistic nuancing of house basha, bari , room ghar , land jomi , soil bhumi and homeland desh.
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Lock it in and forget about it, like immigrants or Depression-era survivors who distrust banks. The in- herited culture insists that accidents of impulse and geography have made homelessness my permanent condition; the adopted culture tries to persuade me that home is where I choose to invest love and loyalty. My father had been sent to Kolkata to stay with a childless aunt and uncle-in-law so that he could get a sound English-language undergraduate education at St.
By then a scholarship student, he stayed for graduate degrees in applied chemistry. For a while, the houseguests commuted from Kolkata to their homes in provincial towns of eastern Bengal, where they still jointly owned an ancestral strip. The Hindu-Muslim riots of , the fiercest in communal memory, drove the last of the Mukherjee clan out of their hometown, where Muslims constituted an overwhelming majority.
The refugees brought with them tales of arson, rape and looting. From their tears and nightmare-hour screams, I learned the special resonance that bhoi, the Bangla word for fear, carries. There is no English equivalence for the scale of terror that bhoi implies. In words such as bhoi, the individual experience of fear is shot through with the memory of unspeakable communal suffering. The partitioning of Bengal in transformed my vast, extended family from commuters shuttling between residence of convenience and homeland to political refugees stranded in a city where they could never belong.
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Kolkata was their begrudged place of asylum. That exilic melancholy was passed on to me in infancy. We refugees were different from, and superior to, ghoti Bengalis. Which end of the soft-boiled egg do you crack, and should we go to war over it? We rejected matchmaking between ghoti families and ours. Whenever the East Bengal soccer team played Mohun Bagan, the West Bengal team, we conducted ourselves not as well-brought-up young women but as rowdy soccer fans.
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The ghoti, in turn, stereotyped us as provincial bumpkins. We directed our Us- versus-Them pugnacity to people who spoke dialects other than the Dhaka one within the bangal community. Unhappy wives threatened death by fasting in bangal; virtuous virgins gossipped about neighborhood sluts in it; headstrong young uncles swore at each other in it. Whenever my father had to assume the unwelcome role of patriarch and punish unseemly behavior by a relative, he first, in bangal, consulted his widowed mother, an autocratic upholder of conservative traditions. Day in and day out, these widows tormented my mother for having borne three daughters and no sons.
Literacy turned women rebellious, unsubmissive, and unmarriageable. There were harangues and beatings.
Only very recently, while researching the battle between the Hinducentric traditionalists and the Europhilic re- formists the Brahmo-Samaj for a novel, I came across a doggerel that has relocated those childhood scenes of pain inflicted and pain accepted in the context of nationalist struggles. The doggerel is in a colloquial bangla long out of usage. On the surface, its moral is familiar and unambiguous: educated women threaten tradi- tion.
The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue
Ranhr describes a husbandless woman, who might be a widow an unfortunate fate in a society that advocates sati , or an unmarried woman a worse fate in a society that expects a woman to worship God through worshipping her husband , or a prosti- tute. These ambiguities evoke malicious connections between a woman allowed to learn the three Rs and a loitering whore, who preys on the very society that has cast her out. In our linguistic community, the poet or kavi is not only an artist and entertainer, as she or he might be in the West; the poet is the visionary revealer of ultimate cosmic mysteries.
I inherited a mother tongue charged with contradictions and nuances. The capacity of diction to imply opposite meanings has fed me even as I write fiction in English. Bangla is not unique in that regard. According to him, many words and most poems in that language can be read in at least two ironic, sometimes comic and often-pornographic ways. My formal training in ladylike behavior was undertaken by my paternal grandmother the same full-throated widow who harangued my mother for wanting to educate us sisters.
She herself had been taught to read as a child by her older sister, a childless woman whose husband—picked out by my paternal great-grandfather for his potential to earn a good living as a doctor in Kolkata—turned out to have pro- gressive ideas.
Every night, though we children would have preferred to listen to ghost stories told with dramatic sound effect by a retired servant who had stayed on with us, this grandmother recited episodes from the bangla-version of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Of the two epics, the Ramayana was my favorite. What young girl could not thrill to the sheer romance? The handsome and virtuous prince, Ram, legal heir to the throne of his polyga- mous father, is banished to the forest.
His aged father is in thrall to a young wife with ambitions to get her own issue appointed as crown prince. The subsequent adventures of the banished Ram include wife kidnapping and Homeric-scale war for wife-rescuing, martial victory and the final installation of Ram the rightful king. How pale in comparison are Helen and Paris, Greece and Troy. I thrilled to the narrative clutter, the strong plot and the balancing of violence and tenderness. And under all the convolutions and endless adumbration, it is true to the psychological tensions within the extended family.
I was already in training to be a novelist. Well, blame the Ramayana. For all our proud insistence on exclusivity, Bengalis particularly those from Kolkata have absorbed words from peoples we have come into contact with through trade, wars, migration and marriage, without feeling it a violation of our core identity.
Persian was the pre-British court language and still in circulation during the British Raj ; therefore, from Persian we have golap, the word for rose, and ostad, the term for a master musician. Even the famous Anglo-Indian, Victorian word durbar, the elaborate imperial tent and ceremonial display of power, and the refreshing drink, sharbat, come from Persian.
From a long exposure to Portuguese traders came words like toali for towel, janla for window, almira for almirah or large wooden cabinet. Indianized English words, such as tebil for table, pulish for police, kabard for cupboard, and my favorite tikoji for tea-cozy, trail a certain colonial shame.
In our home, we operated in two distinct forms of Bangla. We spoke chalit or colloquial Bangla, which was peppered with Indi- anized foreign words that over centuries had lost their foreign- ness, but when we wrote letters or school essays, we switched to sudha or pure Bangla, which was weighted with Sanskritized words and literary formality. The choice of colloquial or literary depended on the when, why and with whom we needed to communicate.
As a child I accepted the uncrossable immensity of the gulf between the oral and the written. I was eight when I was initiated into bilingualism. At home I spoke the Bangla I had in our Kolkata house. The shock came from suddenly seeing myself as a minority, a brown girl in a white school. Within the first weeks of my immersion in English I realized that the Bangla alphabet was far larger. And when it comes to consonants, we owned sounds that no English schoolgirl, or teacher, could copy. The nasalizations could not be copied. Consonants were arranged in rows according to where inside the mouth the tongue positioned itself.
In contrast, English had too thrifty an alphabet. It tolerated imprecise noises uttered by the lazy-tongued. English had no use for the nuanced nailing of extended-family relationships. I missed the onomatopoeic phrases in Bangla that mimicked the blowing of wind, the drizzle of rain and gurgle of water- falls.
I missed, too, the echo words sometimes as ingenious and coded as Cockney rhyming slang , the repetitions—such as garam garam, hot hot and its infinite expansion: good good, rich rich, fat fat —that emphasize caution, respect or possible ridicule. In English, such repetition comes across as simple-mindedness, proto-Peter Sellers.