Do you feel that a language is a portal into the broader possibility of understanding oneself, and one’s environment better? If it is, then isn’t the mother tongue the first stepping stone, the first rung of the ladder that one must climb to gain access to a larger world?
“If somebody asked me about my favorite movies, I know that the first names that will tumble out of my lips will all be in languages other than my mother tongue. But in quieter moments of self-reflection, I will think Satyajit Ray…”
I have grown up in a Bengali household, speaking and breathing in Bengali. No longer being in school, I will not be able to watch 21st February being annually observed as International Mother Tongue Day. Today I will not participate, or watch from the audience, as people take to the mic, to think and to speak in Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Chinese, Kannada, and Assamese, among other languages.
So today, ironically, I sit with a laptop screen open before me, as I spill out a few words in English- a borrowed tongue.
I do feel the guilt of knowing that my everyday life is largely transacted in an alien tongue, even though I am a Bengali, living in Calcutta While conversations with close friends and family take place in Bengali, an increasingly large number of English words and phrases interject my daily conversation. I would rather describe a dream I had to a friend in English, only throwing in Bengali phrases when it is impossible to find a close enough equivalent in English.
I feel- I experience life in Bengali, but somehow think about it, or share it, in English. Some days, neither Neruda nor Hozier can equate the emotions tearing within myself- and that is when I invariably turn to Tagore. Only Mohinder Ghoraguli can make me feel “…ami praaye ekhono khuji shey desh/Jani ne oboshesh (I have finally found my country/ I know at last)”, even though Delilah promises me of the thousand miles that can be beaten by trains and planes and cars.
Ocean Vuong writes of the Vietnamese tongue- “Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all—but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule (…) Ma to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese but entirely in war.”
Reading this sentence, I remember a heaviness tugging at me. My Mother Tongue still talks of love in ways no other language ever will.
Bengali is the tongue that encapsulates poetry and politics, violence and freedom, history, and what remains undocumented- all within itself.
Perhaps the language that you think in shapes you in more ways than one It isn’t just the world of heritage that you gain, but your very thought process, the topics that you think about- will be shaped differently by different languages. If I think of “Revolution”, the images that come to mind will be different than if I were to think of “Biplob“.
On some days, I will read Hindi and Urdu poetry and marvel at the musicality of words like ‘afreen’ (expression of wonder at something beautiful), ‘mehfil’ (gathering) and ‘nawaazish’ (generosity), and then later go back to softly murmuring the Bengali words ‘chondralokito’ (moonlit), ‘priyotoma’ (beloved) or ‘meghmallar (rainy/overcast)’- knowing that while other languages may sound sweet, it is this- it is my mother tongue that truly rings in my heart.
If somebody asked me about my favorite movies, books, or music- I know that the first names that will tumble out of my lips will all be in languages other than my mother tongue. But in quieter moments of self-reflection, I will think Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shorodindu, S Shokti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay. Neera, Labonyo, and Bonolota Sen will be the shadowy figures I see in the recesses of my mind- not Vivian from Pretty Woman or Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind.
In an attempt to be “posh”, if you decide to let go of your mother tongue- whatever that tongue may be, then you are a sad sad fool.
Do I recognize the need for a global language? Yes, I do, a hundred times over. But at the cost of suffocating cultural diversity, personal identities, and outlets of creative expression? Never.
It isn’t only a strong emotion stemming from patriotism or love for the culture I was born into. Rather, what I hope to truly recognize is the fact that my mother tongue is more than the iceberg of my identity.
I cannot be a traitor or a mere visitor to my mother tongue and hope to be a person of significant worth. And I hope to understand this deeply enough in my bones- before I become another face in the crowd of borrowed cultures and languages.