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Language, Lost and Found

In France for a long spell earlier this year, everyone around me speaking in a language I didn’t speak or read, I began to think about the many streams of language I've swum in. My mother tongue, Bengali, was the language of home and of intimacy. Yet somewhere along those years, with a sigh drowned out by babel, the language had left me. I tried to find my way back to it through writers like Leela Majumdar and Bibhutibhushan. In "Language, Lost and Found" out now in Noema Magazine, I write of how I found it again, and of language in alien contexts. I'm not sure if this essay is travelogue or memoir or a bunch of stories. But here it is, and I hope you will read it. 

It was a red paperback with a green, winking cat spread across its large front. Just a few taps pulls it up on my screen now, and I wonder if my mental image of the day my father came with it as a gift for my brother and me is the work of memory or imagination.

He walks in as if he has a happy secret and lounges against the headboard of the big double bed, my brother on one side, me on the other. My mother leans over, looking at the page from behind him. And then he begins to read aloud. My father isn’t much of a talker, but reading poetry aloud is a kind of music for him. His record collection includes Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry in the declamatory style of recitation called “Abritti,” popular among Bengalis. But today my father is not performing for an audience; he is reading in the intimate, rhythmic tones he keeps for us, and he has to keep stopping because he is laughing too much for words.

Partly because his laugh has always been incurably infectious and partly because the poems he is reading out are so bizarre and funny, my brother and I crack up, too. There are strange beings in this book, violent oddballs, creatures with two tails, vicious monsters with incongruously sentimental thoughts and poignant problems. There are the offspring of Ramgorur, who are forbidden to laugh, and large round pumpkin-like beasts called Kumropotash, whose every sneeze or whimper leads to dire consequences for humans. One of our favorites is the office clerk who thinks his mustache has been stolen.

He sat up with a vicious start and thrashed his limbs about

And rolled his eyes and cried, “Be quick! I think I’m passing out.”

So some call for an ambulance and some for the police,

And someone warns, “He’ll try to bite, so gently if you please.”

In the midst of this, with thund’ring voice and features grim and swollen,

The Baboo roars, “Confound you all! My whiskers have been stolen!”

Translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri, “The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray,” Calcutta, Oxford University Press, 1987.

What we knew as “the big red book with the green cat” was “Samagra Shishu Sahitya” (Collected Children’s Writing), which gathered together rhymes, plays and stories written and illustrated by the early twentieth century writer, Sukumar Ray. The collection includes his book of nonsense verse, “Abol Tabol,” which literally means “nonsense,” and which appeared in print just days after the author died of a fever called kala-azar (visceral leishmaniasis). He was 35. Outside eastern India, he is known (if at all) as the father of India’s best-known film-maker Satyajit Ray, but in Bengal he is a part of the region’s collective consciousness.

“All my singing ends in sleep.” The last poem in the book, seeming to prefigure death, farewells and parting, has a melancholic tinge despite its sparkle. “Abol Tabol” was published on Sept. 19, 1923 and on the 64th anniversary of its publication, my father died. He was 57. At that time, it was small consolation to me that he had planted Ray’s book and its language, Bengali, in my head before his voice was stilled, but now I see how much it mattered. All that nonsense was a seed which, flowering out, shaped me in ways impossible for me to pinpoint. It spills out as new words that take me by surprise when they appear in my head. My father was a geologist who dealt in rocks, minerals, fossils, the forces that shaped the earth as we know it. But he had himself been shaped by the music of words, and it would not have surprised him to see the seismic effects on me of those days reading idly on a double bed....



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