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Beyond words

  • Published at 10:28 pm February 23rd, 2018
Beyond words
There are days I wonder if my mind is going. To keep myself sharp I try to play trivia games. I’m on the treadmill in my (probably influenza infested) gym watching a trivia game show Jeopardy. The final question comes on: Name a Three Word Title that describes “that ineffable quality” possessed by those hurtling into space in metal machines. The question stumps me. An ineffable quality hmm, hurtling, metal. A slow grin spreads across my face. 'The Right Stuff' I yell out, startling the exorbitantly sweaty gentleman next to me. Two out of the three contestants don’t get the correct answer. Yup, I tell myself. I still got it. The right stuff. It was the words 'ineffable', 'hurtling' and 'metal' that did it. That’s me as a writer and woman, I decide. It's a good day. Low on the self-loathing metre. All writers have a self-loathing metre. I love the word ineffable. I love the way it feels and rolls around. I also love the definition: it means ironically, too great for words. This may seem odd but I sit around and think about words, the etymology, the way they parse out in my mouth and brain and on the page. I think more about English words because that is the language in which I tell my stories. However, being Bengali I also think about Bangla words. The very first Bangla word I spent any length of time thinking about was my name, Sharbari. I have a complicated relationship with my name and the Bangla language in general. In an effort to find my place in my non Bangla speaking world, I have resented it, ignored it and now embrace it. As a kid, I hated my name. I changed it to Sharon because no one could pronounce Sharbari. My mother was confused when she showed up to a parent teacher conference in fourth grade and was asked if she was Sharon's mother.   People (read Americans) butchered and continue to butcher my name. Shabari, safari, sharabi (which when I explain means drunkard, elicits many a foreign titter). I am attempting to adult now, and as a result love that my name is utterly Bengali. I am grateful to my parents, both of whom love their language and respective dialects, Sylheti and Chatgaya, for instilling in me a deep appreciation for Bangla. The unrelenting refrain of ‘Bangla bolo!’ is embedded in my psyche. Out of my close circle of American raised second generation Bengalis, I am the only one who speaks it with a mild accent and a decent vocabulary. My regret and one I blame my parents for, because one must blame their parents for things, is that I never learned to read and write it. So, I write only in English. I am now aware that a bountiful, ancient and delicious cache of words is closed off to me. I know I must remedy this. I feel a certain twinge of shame as well; especially when I visit Dhaka and am surrounded by the language. It gives me joy but reminds me of how I am limited. I speak it with enthusiasm with my best friend and family, all of whom speak fluent English yet I cannot mine it for my fiction. What am I missing? A great deal, I imagine. It befuddles me that the elite of Bangladesh place such a premium on English medium schools, and writers working in English. English should be taught, and encouraged, alongside Bangla at the forefront but it should be instrumental in leveling society. It shows short sightedness and a lack of imagination to be precious and superior about it. It also ensures the chasm between the classes remains intractable by using language to deny access and opportunity. Every time I visit Dhaka I see this more and more, especially at high profile cultural events meant to put Bangladesh on the international map. It is disappointing to me as a person and a writer when English speaking artists and thinkers are repeatedly placed above those working primarily in Bangla. I am abashed that I cannot read and write it, and know that it is my loss. I know that even if I learn to read it and write it I will never attain the depth and proficiency to write an entire story in Bangla. But the challenge is tempting. What would that mean for me as a storyteller, how would it change my brain or nature? I understand now why the author Jhumpa Lahiri decided to write a book entirely in Italian. I understand the beauty and satisfaction of finding a story with foreign words. Yet Bangla is not wholly foreign to me. I dream in it sometimes. I am lucky to be able to speak it and will have to settle for that for the time being.