How I Learnt (some) Bengali

August 18, 2008

I had no choice but to learn Bengali. I grew up in a suburb of Jamshedpur- Sonari West- where nearly 85% of our neighbors on our street were Bengalis. So I grew up listening to the language, from the domestic help to the shopkeepers, street vendors and all the odd-job men. Despite Jamshedpur being in Bihar then (Jharkhand came into being decades later) we, the Hindi/ Bhojpuri speaking family were considered a bit of a curiosity in the area! The neighboring Jetha Moshai, Kaku, Pishi, Boudi and everyone else would speak to us in Bengali assuming that we were all fluent in the language. Thinking back now, I suspect, despite knowing that we were not fluent in the language they would speak to us in their language anyway. The best concession they would make is the addition of some token Hindi to their Bangla. Like: “Ai chheley, tum amaar janno bazaar sey dim kinega?” (will you buy some eggs from the market for me?). “Nishchoi, Jetha Moshai”. (of course, Uncle).


So, did I have a choice but not to learn the basics of Bangla?


Not that I minded learning the language. In fact, I took it rather seriously and decided to learn how to read and write in Bengali as well. I obtained for myself the basic kindergarten equivalent text book and practiced writing the rounded, sensuously shaped characters. I would also occasionally borrow from our neighbours a kiddies magazine called “Shuktara” and would read up the comic strip “Handa Bhonda” is nothing else. Does the magazine (and the strip) still exist?


Sometimes my Hindi upbringing would get the better of me and I would read Bengali the Hindi way! One example which I still remember was the name of a house close to ours. It was called “Usha Tara”, and I would read it as “Ddesha Tara”, the “oo” in Bengali having a close resemblance to the Hindi D! Also the complicated “juktakshars” (conjugated alphabet) spook me even now despite my valiant attempts to master them!


There were opportunities to read Bengali aplenty. Starting from the political graffiti on the walls of the houses (Kangres ke bhot din– vote for Congress), to the shop signages (Joi Ma Tara Stationery Shop), to the wedding reception (bou bhaat) cards which would be received pretty frequently. One quaint line which found an invariable mention in these cards I still remember is “potrer dwaara trutir marjjina koriben”. Sometimes even the annaprashan (mukhey bhaat) cards would find their way to our household. I remember a mukhey bhaat invite from a neighbour which was actually a B&W picture of the poor cereal-starved kid with his face smeared in kajol. And the bold headline, which was actually an invite from the kid, saying, “Ami bhaat khabo”.


Talking about Bengali wedding receptions, these were something I looked forward to. The reason: the gorgeous food. Right from the slice of lemon (lemu) to the loochi, thick and sweetish chholar daal, maachh (fish) and mangsho (mutton). Climaxing with mishti doi and rosogollas. That was the era prior to the perfunctory buffets now so much in vogue. One actually sat down on sheet metal chairs while the food was served on leaf plates (pattals) hot from the kitchen. One would enter pandal and signages saying amish and niramish would welcome you. I would naturally head to the amish (non-vegetarian) section salivating at the thought of the heavenly mutton cooked in mustard oil!


Living where we were it was but natural that we would whole-heartedly participate in the Durga Puja celebrations. The excitement of waking up pre-dawn on the Mahalaya day and listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s sonorous Chandi Path crackling through our Murphy radio set. The joy of buying new clothes, one set for each of the three main days of the Puja (that was also the annual shopping for clothes for us). Going around the Pujo pandals with friends. The gorgeous Khichudi Moha Prosad served for lunch (you had to buy “tokens” in advance for these). The booming dhaak and the evening arati dance competitions. And then came Bijoya (Dashmi) when we would visit our Bengali neighbours, touch the elders’ feet (the elders between themselves would do kola-koli) and have lots of mehidanaa and sondesh. And yes, ghugni too along with some loochi)!


And the jatras! For those uninitiated, Jatra is an open-air theater derived from folk traditions. It does not employ any props and relies solely on melodramatic story lines enacted even more melodramatically. Actors enter the stage through the audience seated all around the stage. The musicians sit around the periphery of the stage albeit at a level below the stage playing loud music, tabla, harmonium etc; the music reaching a crescendo when some heightened action happened on the stage. Jatra, in short, was theatre at its most theatrical. And I would love it. The anticipation would start building up well before the Pujas with cycle rikshwas going around the locality announcing the name, date and the timing of the Jatra which climaxed into the final reminder on the day of the Jatra. “Bhulben na bodhu gon, aaj rat, dash ghatikay…..” etc. etc. The Jatra would be held in an enclosure next to the Puja pandal and we would go there equipped with a sweater or a shawl in case it got chilly late in the night. I have spent many a Puja weeping along with the plight the tragic hero would get into and the woes of the wronged heroine. Sapan Kumar and Sapna Kumari were a popular pair those days!


My knowledge of Bangla (if I may call my frugal repertoire Bangla words “knowledge”) these days surfaces at some very unexpected places. Like the time when I had an animated chat with the owner of an “Indian” restaurant in North Holland. (“Indian” is a descriptor of convenience for restaurants serving South Asian cuisine outside India. These are typically run by Pakistanis and mostly by Bangaldeshis.) After more than a week hearing Dutch, it was such joy to be able to speak with someone in a language so familiar. Besides, of course, the joy of eating roti and sabzi and daal.


I will end this piece with a little story about how my knowledge of Bangla earned me an eternally grateful acquaintance. Many years ago, when I was first began living in Bangalore in the early period of my career, I would visit the panwallah next to where I stayed to get my day’s quota of cigarettes. One morning, I saw from afar a gentleman in an animated discussion with my friend, the panwallah. Obviously the customer was not able to get his point across much to the chagrin of the pan-wallah who had many other customers to attend to. When I reached close I realized that the customer was a Bengali -a tourist from Kolkata. He was gesticulating wildly and nearly shouting, “Mouri hai? Mouri hai? Sheer desperation then, “Mouri, MOURI!” The poor panwallah had no clue what Mouri was. I decided to intervene and clarified that the out-of-towner was asking for some saunf, as simple as that!


I still remember the joy on the customers face on getting his request across! And the hug he nearly gave me for saving the day for him!