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The Misfit Bangali

  • February 22, 2016
  • Maya
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21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day 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 Rituparna Ghosh. Rituparna is a professional storyteller and Founder of Your Story Bag, a storytelling, training and consulting company. A writer, editor and storyteller practicing all three forms of storytelling – written, visual and oral, Rituparna is a compulsive storyteller. Always sniffing for a good story to tell, Rituparna feels that her past life as a journalist and television producer taught her the power of good stories. Rituparna believes that there is a storyteller in each one of us. Children and adults need stories and telling skills all their life, to make sense of the world and give shape to their ideas!)

*This post was first published on the Your Story Bag blog.

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“Hello?” I whispered.

“Rituparna, Santanil bolchi. Tumi ki aajge Bookaro eshecho?” 
 (Rituparna, Santanil here. Have you come to Bookaroo today?)

“Haan, aami eshechi cheleke niye. Aamra ekta session achchi,” I whisper 

 (Yes, I am here with my son. We are in a session now) 

“Aami na ekta problem e pore gechi. Pranab aasheni aar amaar session 5 minut e

achche. Tumi ki amaar shaathe golpo ta bolbe?” Santanil Da was on the verge of panic.

You see, Santanil Da is a storyteller and theatre practitioner from Kolkata. With

Bookaroo going regional, the festival’s focus was Bengali literature and so

they had quite a few sessions in Bangla, my mother tongue. The day before I

had seen a stupendous bi-lingual story session with Santanil Da and Pranab Da as they

performed a story in tandem, matching each step in the story with the same pitch and

scale as singers singing duets do. Today his partner in telling, his voice in English, hadn’t

arrived and he was asking me to step in!

It had been a beautiful Sunday morning for us. I was watching my son attempt his first

Nataraj pose, right there in the moment, trying to concentrate and balance. He darted

his eyes towards me as I pulled out my camera when he tripped and started giggling! We

were at the second day of Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, the day I went purely

as a parent. I have a very selfish approach with anything to do with storytelling. If there are

two days to be had, then the first is for me while the second is for my story-addict of a

son (so that we can hop around sessions that he would enjoy). So there we were soaking in

the November misty-sun and enjoying a storytelling and yoga session, when suddenly

my phone beeped.

“Kintu Santanil Da…ki golpo bolcho? Aami to jaanina…kono preparation nayi…aar

amaar Bangla oto bhalo na!” By now Santanil Da had done the perfect job of

transferring his panic to me!

I am a Bengali, born into a household of literature lovers, raised on a

bouquet of Bengali children’s stories. I speak Bangla effortlessly, in which my

fluency and vocabulary is limited to the colloquial use of the language in our everyday

life. But I cannot read or write the language, therefore all the glorious works

of the stalwarts of Bengali literature is as alien to me as let’s say Tamil,

Oriya or Gujarati literature. So when Santanil Da asked me to translate a story live

before an audience, I felt my throat dry up.

How well should you know a language to know it really well? Is it enough to

speak it? Or do you need to master literacy skills in a language and be able

to read and write it? Why do I consider my working knowledge in Bangla any less

than my proficiency in English or adeptness in Hindi? On a scale of language

know-how, I have always considered Bangla to be the struggling third. I can

understand the language and speak it really well, but then if I was to live and work in a

Bengali dominated environment I would be an outcast.  My English and Hindi don’t

have the Bengali twang (something that really surprises my Delhi acquaintances) just

like my Bengali diction is not colored by my English and Hindi accents. Despite that I

consider myself a misfit Bangali in the traditional Bengali mindset. This was

one of the reasons why I didn’t go to Kolkata for college (even though it was close to

home). This is one of the reasons why I didn’t pick up work in the city. In my mind I

am not Bangali enough…not because I don’t eat mishti, but because I am

not literate in my mother tongue.

In my previous life, when I was a television producer my editor asked me to travel with

him to Kolkata as he was moderating one of the city’s most prestigious debates. Why

me, I asked? ‘You can handle the pesky Bengalis’, he said to me. So there I was

negotiating, ordering, directing, guest controlling – all in Bangla. My knowledge of the

mother-tongue became my secret weapon when I chose to remain quiet as the

organizers harangued about our set, using egoistic terms of how we were challenging

their ‘prestige’ and ‘image’. Imagine their look when I replied to them in chaste Bangla!

When I chose the vocation of an oral storyteller, my mother lamented,

“Won’t you tell Bangla stories? There is a sea of Bengali literature out there.

We have so many works at home and pity, you can’t read anything!” My

mother was distraught. And she had all the reasons to be after all my parents are

responsible for me falling in love with stories. As a child I demanded duto golpo duto

gaan (two stories, two songs) every night. Two each from each of my parents, and so

after 4 stories and 4 songs when they’d creep out of the room I would only pretend to

sleep. My grandmother and parents chose stories from Thakumaa’r

Jhuli, Pagla Dashu, Sukumar Ray, Upendrakishore’s Tuntuni’r Boi, and

legends and fables. With age the stories melted in my memory, some of them faded

away. So when I walked down the storytelling path, I wanted to tell stories from my

childhood. I wanted to share the same stories that made me fall in love with storytelling.

I wanted to recreate the same fuzzy warmth that these stories gave me. But then I

couldn’t read. I desperately gathered translated works but my father said,

“You cannot translate the eccentricity of Pagla Dashu in English!” But gone

are the days of classic old-world Bangla that my parents grew up with. Even I don’t

understand them and if I ever have to make the stories my own I have to learn how to

tell them in a language that I understand well. But it is the sceptics (like my father) that

I fear!

For readers of regional literature, everyone will agree that there are

intricacies, linguistic contraptions, colloquial nuances, colourful

descriptions that are sometimes difficult to translate. These are always enjoyed

in the native language. So when Santanil Da asked me to translate the story and tell in

tandem I panicked. What if I didn’t understand the description? What if I didn’t

understand the words? What if I didn’t understand the exchange between characters?

What if I failed to translate the story in its truest sense? The impact would be lost! For

the first time in my life, the fear of storytelling set in.

“Don’t worry, we will go slow Rituparna,” Santnail Da assured me. And true to his word,

he broke up the story in small nuggets. The story was new to me, and like the audience

listening to a story for the first time, I was part of the same experience. I translated

the story in English because that’s what the listeners asked for and as I

listened to the story with all my senses, I put in all my energies in telling the

story in the same pitch, not translating word by word, but re-telling keeping

the magic of the story intact. Somewhere in the middle of the story I told myself,

‘Don’t be scared…you are doing fine!’ and from thereon I began enjoying it. This was my

first experience of tandem storytelling, telling a story that I had not read or

choreographed. This was a story that I expressed just as I experienced it a minute

before.

I use the word Golpo in my storytelling. A song that I sing before my session goes,
Mere paas aao, mere doston ek Golpo suno, 
 Kahani suno, Qissa suno, ek Story suno. 
Mere paas aao, mere doston ek Waarta suno, 
 Goshta suno, Kathav suno, Gaapo suno

Golpo – Kahani –Qissa – Waarta – Goshta – Kathav – Gaapo are all regional words for

the English word ‘Story’. A story, as I discovered after this session, is perhaps driven by

the sheer power of our own mother-tongues and our first touch points for stories in our

lives.

I discovered that I was scared of my mother-tongue, and just like some other fears in my

life I overcame it with this telling. This story has given me the courage to resurrect the

stories from my childhood, rediscover them and share them with my audience. The

stories are mine, the mother-tongue is mine.

I am not a misfit Bangali after all!
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