21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 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 by Sudeshna Shome Ghosh. Sudeshna is an editor who has worked in the publishing industry for twenty years. Her special area of interest is children’s publishing. When she is not being an editor, she is a reader and part-time librarian.)
Mothers, I think, are natural hoarders. Take mine, for instance. She has kept aside saris, pieces of jewellery, household articles for her two daughters since we were little children. This silver box that belonged to a great grandmother, and that sari that was once her mother’s, now appear in my almirah when I am rummaging around for something or the other. But among all these things, there is one object that I usually pause and look at a few times before putting it away carefully. It’s a medal that she won while in college. She won it at an all-India essay writing contest organized by Sulekha, the ink makers, where she was placed second nationally. Somehow, even among the little gold earrings and chains that the medal is kept with, the round silver disc shines brightly.
My mother hasn’t written a lot since. She is more an artist and our family home is adorned with various pieces of jaw-droppingly beautiful embroidery that she has created. And her table is always groaning with the best food, she being the kind of cook who can make you want to eat a whole meal with a simple chochchori . Yet, when she has written, now and then, always in Bengali, I have loved reading her clear yet beautiful style of writing. Her vocabulary and command over the language and her descriptions of places and people make her a delightful writer.
Some years back, she went on a trip to the upper Himalayas with a group of friends. They travelled to Nainital, Mayavati and many other places there. After she came back, I saw her take up the pen, put aside the house and its cares for a few days and put down her experiences. She ended up writing about twenty-five pages filled with descriptions of her journey, her co-travelers, the winding roads they travelled on, and the astounding natural beauty that she saw. She has always been an avid reader of all kinds of travel writing. My default gift for her is usually a travelogue, as I have seen her read many and often. When I read her own account of her travel, I found a woman I didn’t know as well as I thought. Here was someone who thirsted for adventure, who wanted to walk into the unknown and encounter new people and places. Here was a woman who remained unfazed by landslides and car breakdowns, who could put up with nights of discomfort in wayside travel lodges and out of the way ashrams, all because each of these was a part of the journey as a whole. But mostly, what happened to me after reading the entire narrative was what I feel any good travelogue should do—it made me want to go there and see these forests and temples and rivers and flowers for myself.
Here is the opening paragraph, translated by me: The wandering mind is always ready to travel the many hued paths. The hidden aesthete in me is forever looking to savour the beauty of the outdoors and hear the orchestra of the open road. Even in the stillness of everyday life and duties, I cannot stop hearing these sounds call out to me. If only the everyday world could give way to the forests, mountains, unending plains and seas that beckon me. In my heart, the ebb and flow of these feelings is as strong as all the waters the skies can hold…
After she wrote this, I pestered her to write more. But she was too busy with matters of health and age and usually waved me away. A few times she said she was putting down incidents from her life, about us. If anyone can tell a good tale, it is her, so I hoped she would actually do it. And then, a week back, she called me to say she has written something new and personal.
In just a few days, she and my father will complete fifty years of being married. The family is planning to gather in Kolkata to celebrate this, and the Whatsapp group comprising my parents and my sister has been buzzing with ideas for outings, meals and what we will do at home. Someone will sing, and someone will recite poetry. ‘I have written a little something about your father,’ Ma said to me on the phone. ‘I’d like to read it out when everyone is there. But both the sons-in- law will not understand the Bengali, so will you do an English version also?’
I was reading my emails as we talked and I stopped scrolling the screen up and down when she said this. ‘I can do it,’ I said. ‘But I hope your Bengali is not too tough.’
It wasn’t, she said, and sent the pages to me in a few hours. I read a few lines on the screen and slapped my head wondering how I would get across the pure emotions on the page truthfully. When I called her back, she said, ‘You can do it, do whatever with it, I will be okay. I just want the boys (her sons-in- law) and the grandchildren to understand.’
Reassured, I sat down to translate the two pages yesterday. It turned out to be not so difficult at all. Perhaps having been born of the author gives you some unusual rights and insights as a translator. The words came quickly and the sentences formed fast. I could picture my mother sitting in her balcony that is filled with plants and flowers, the crows cawing incessantly in the large trees on the road, the traffic of Jodhpur Park a constant background, as she wrote this small, sweet, heartfelt ode to the man she has been with and the life she has had for fifty years. I can already see her reading out the Bengali words to everyone.
Will the English version measure up? As an editor, I would nitpick and fuss over it. I would say let’s move this para here and let’s end it more neatly. But of course I won’t, because this is mother, and she speaks the mother language of love. I am guessing the sons-in- law will do just fine in discerning the meaning!