The Misfit Bangali
*This post was first published on the Your Story Bag blog.
achche. Tumi ki amaar shaathe golpo ta bolbe?” Santanil Da was on the verge of panic.
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!
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.
amaar Bangla oto bhalo na!” By now Santanil Da had done the perfect job of
transferring his panic to me!
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.
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.
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!
“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
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.
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
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
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.