Sunday, February 21, 2016

Learning About My Mother Land Through Stories

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

(This post was sent in by Sudesna Ghosh. Sudeshna blogs at She is the author of What Would I Tell Her @ 13 and several short stories..)

I was born in the United States in the 80s. My parents made sure that I was bilingual from the moment that I could talk. So, the rule was to speak Bengali with them at home, while English would be used in school. It is a rule that opened my mind to the culture that I was absent from, but wanted to be a part of.

Every two years, my mother and I made the journey across to Kolkata. On my first trip, I was just two years old. I spent a wonderful few months with my relatives, who always spoke to me in Bengali. By the next trip, I was speaking in fluent Bengali and addicted to the local library in our American city. My mother and I had a favourite pastime of bringing home stacks of books and talking about the stories we had read. When my aunts and uncles realised that I spent most of my waking hours reading, they decided to buy me my first Bengali books. The problem was, I had not learnt to read or write in the language. I said as much, but the adults reassured me that they would read me the books. And they did.

They started with Khirer Putul by Abanindranath Tagore, who was the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew. More than the rani (queen), I was quite amused by the monkey and the idea of a doll made of sugar. In fact, I asked my mother if we could keep a monkey. When she said no, we made a sugar doll together, which broke apart too soon to my dismay. But then after a few days, I couldn’t forget intricate details of the story and the beautiful illustrations. I wanted to know more about Indian queens and kings. My mother surprised me with stories about old and more recent royal family members in India. I wanted to visit Indian palaces and meet royalty on my next trip, I’d said.

Another book that I was gifted during my trip was the famous Thakumaar Jhuli. This book by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder was written way back in 1907 but is still read to and by Bengali children even now. I believe that it was translated into other languages as well. A collection of folk tales and fairy tales, this book had me intrigued. My mother re-read it to me for many years. A particularly memorable story was that of Saath Bhai Champa where a young princess finds out that her seven brothers were turned into flowers, and then turns them into princes. I remember asking my mother and father if they had experienced such things in India. They laughed and said no. I didn’t believe them.

The pleasure of being read to didn’t last for long. I needed to devour the Bengali books just as I would immerse myself into my English stories. The issue was resolved during another trip to Kolkata. My mother and aunts appointed a teacher to teach me how to read and write in Bengali. She came every day and I didn’t complain about the early mornings. Learning from the picture books, basic words like dog, cat, notebook etc. was boring me. “Be patient,” scolded my mother. I grumbled but had no choice.

A few months later, when I was sitting on the plane back to the US, I was reading Thakumaar Jhuli myself. Although I got stuck at a few words here and there, it felt liberating. My mother and I were carrying back a suitcase full of Bengali books too.

When my parents and I left America to settle in Kolkata, nothing seemed strange to me. I’d even started reading some of my mother’s books which had difficult vocabulary but taught me about Kolkata’s history and society. I studied at an international school where I excelled in Bengali. I also developed a love for Rabindrasangeet even though my mother and father still had to explain some song lyrics to me.

Today, two decades later, I chose to be a writer. I am also an avid reader. Those days in my childhood set the path for my adulthood – I read books. I write stories and books. Basically, I breathe books. I’m even trying my hand at Bengali and English poetry these days.

Language and culture go together. I’m thankful to my family for encouraging that.

Image Source : uRead (on Flipkart)

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