The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues

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9780375422386: The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues
About the Author:

Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of six books of nonfiction. Her reviews and essays appear in periodicals and newspapers around the country. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Way Back

By Bharati Mukherjee


There is a reason why the language we inherit at birth is called our mother tongue. It is our mother, forgiving, embracing, naming the world and all its emotions. Though I have lived for the last forty years in cities where English or French is the language of the majority, it’s Bangla that exercises motherly restraint over my provisional, immigrant identity. Mother-Bangla is fixed; I haven’t learned a new word nor had new thought or feeling in Bangla for nearly half a century. I don’t need to. According to group-norms, as a native-born speaker, I have automatic membership in the world’s most articulate, most imaginative and most intelligent club. With its brazen appeals to love and vanity, enforced with coercive guilt, the language sabotages irony towards the community’s billowing self-esteem. Like a child whose mother might tipple or stray, I look for excuses, cannot condemn. To my inner Bengali I remain constant, as it does for me.

How exclusive can a club of nearly a quarter-billion members be? Bangla is the language of Bangladesh, the eighth most populous nation in the world, and of the Indian state of West Bengal, the second-largest linguistic group in India. Millions more, documented or not, have settled abroad. Impressive numbers aside, every Bengali, to her at least, is a majority of one. We harbor the faith, implanted by myth and history, of our exalted place in the hierarchy of breeding and culture.

To international relief agency workers, Bangla is the mother tongue of esurient poverty, but to the heirs of shonar bangla, golden Bengal of harvest-ready paddyfields and fish-filled rivers, it is the mother tongue of poetry, passion and abundance. It is also the language of nostalgia and of tentative hope: nostalgia for the Hindu-Muslim harmony that existed in undivided Bengal before its vindictive partition by the fleeing British; and hope for the shared mother tongue, devotion to the possible tomorrow that will transcend the religious furies exploited by today’s politicians. I think a shared language is stronger than divisive religions. (Based on my travels in Bangladesh, I think Hindu and Muslim Bengalis could cross the abyss between them. It’s the national politics of India and corrupt fiefdoms in Bangladesh that get in the way.)

Up to age eight, I lived exclusively in Bangla. My father was the sole support of forty to fifty relatives, who lived with us crowded together in the ground-floor apartment of a two-storied house in a homogenously Hindu, Bangla-speaking, middle-class neighborhood of Kolkata (until recently mispronounced and misspelled as Calcutta by colonialists). All the adults in our large household had been born in villages or towns in the Dhaka (then “Dacca”) district of East Bengal (now Bangladesh); all their children, my sisters and cousins, in the thriving capital, Kolkata, in West Bengal. Among themselves, the adults spoke the dialect of Dhaka, the children the Bangla of Kolkata. I had no idea as a child that linguists considered the Dhaka dialect “deviant,” and Kolkata the standard. In our home the Dhaka dialect, bangal, was the language of authenticity. You are what dialect your forefathers spoke even if you yourself have lost fluency in it be- cause of successive migrations. We were east Bengalis or bangal first, then Bengali. We distanced ourselves from west Bengalis or ghoti who surrounded us and considered us interlopers. We conducted ourselves as bangal, exiled permanently from our ancestral homeland.

To be born a displaced bangal was to inherit loss of, and longing for, one’s true home. Identity had to do with mother tongue, but home was the piece of land that our forefathers had owned, the soil that they had slept and walked on. To be cast out of your janma bhumi or ancestral birth-soil is to be forever doomed. Unlike dialects, which can be transported by migrants, the loss of janma bhumi is permanent. The diasporic Bengali may own real estate in the country of her adoption, but that real estate can only be her residence, as provisional as her immigrant identity, her home. I think now that this intimate braiding of inherited language, place and identity is why Bengalis never took to the British system of primogeniture. Generation by generation, the extent of ancestral land owned by an individual male was whittled down to specks and strips. It didn’t matter that the shrunken land was unprofitable for cultivation and support of large families. Second, third, fourth . . . eighth, ninth. Sons didn’t emigrate; they just stayed and got poorer. Evaluation was symbolic, not economic.

Even as a child I picked up on our linguistic nuancing of house (basha, bari ), room (ghar), land (jomi), soil (bhumi) and homeland (desh). My cousins and I were alert to the moral of the countless children’s stories about villagers willing to starve rather than sell off inherited strips of bhumi. The most menacing refrain from a popular poem we learned by rote was a rich, greedy landowner’s threatening a desperately poor farmer, “Do you get it, Upen / I’m going to buy up your land.” Even now in comfortable San Francisco, with every mortgage and property tax payment, I can be thrown into panic by that simple refrain. (Refinance? Never! Lock it in and forget about it, like immigrants or Depression-era survivors who distrust banks.) The in- herited culture insists that accidents of impulse and geography have made homelessness my permanent condition; the adopted culture tries to persuade me that home is where I choose to invest love and loyalty.

Better colleges, better job opportunities, natural disasters like floods and famines, and periodic flarings of Hindu-Muslim antago- nism had induced my parents’ immediate families to migrate to Kolkata in the 1920s and 1930s, though they still owned land in their hometowns. My father had been sent to Kolkata to stay with a childless aunt and uncle-in-law so that he could get a sound English-language undergraduate education at St. Xavier’s College, run by Jesuits from Belgium. By then a scholarship student, he stayed for graduate degrees in applied chemistry. After that, as the most educated though not the eldest of nine sons, he dutifully looked for a job in Kolkata, the most prosperous of Bengal’s cities. Dependents and family friends also in need of free food and lodging started arriving from the east as soon as they’d heard that he was job-hunting. For a while, the houseguests commuted from Kolkata to their homes in provincial towns of eastern Bengal, where they still jointly owned an ancestral strip.

The Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946, the fiercest in communal memory, drove the last of the Mukherjee clan out of their hometown, where Muslims constituted an overwhelming majority. The refugees brought with them tales of arson, rape and looting. From their tears and nightmare-hour screams, I learned the special resonance that bhoi, the Bangla word for fear, carries. There is no English equivalence for the scale of terror that bhoi implies. In words such as bhoi, the individual experience of fear is shot through with the memory of unspeakable communal suffering. The partitioning of Bengal in 1947 transformed my vast, extended family from commuters shuttling between residence of convenience and homeland to political refugees stranded in a city where they could never belong. Kolkata was their begrudged place of asylum.

That exilic melancholy was passed on to me in infancy. We refugees were different from, and superior to, ghoti Bengalis. Which end of the soft-boiled egg do you crack, and should we go to war over it? We rejected matchmaking between ghoti families and ours. We made fun of the ghoti inability to pronounce the “l” sound in lebu (lemon) and loochi (deep-fried bread). Whenever the East Bengal soccer team played Mohun Bagan, the West Bengal team, we conducted ourselves not as well-brought-up young women but as rowdy soccer fans. The ghoti, in turn, stereotyped us as provincial bumpkins. We directed our Us- versus-Them pugnacity to people who spoke dialects other than the Dhaka one within the bangal community. Long before I had heard of Freud, I had enacted “the narcissism of small differences.”

In our house, bangal was the language of passion and of discipline. Unhappy wives threatened death by fasting in bangal; virtuous virgins gossipped about neighborhood sluts in it; headstrong young uncles swore at each other in it. Whenever my father had to assume the unwelcome role of patriarch and punish unseemly behavior by a relative, he first, in bangal, consulted his widowed mother, an autocratic upholder of conservative traditions. I remember bangal, however, mainly for the ancient doggerels that my paternal grandmother’s coterie of tobacco-chewing, osteoporosis-bent widows recited for their deft delivery of sexist cruelty. Day in and day out, these widows tormented my mother for having borne three daughters and no sons. I may be walking on Haight Street, but I still hear them repeat their malicious couplets: Puter mutey kori / Meyer galai dori (There’s money to be made off a son’s piss / There’s rope to hang a daughter with).

My mother tongue transmitted unambiguously the society’s values and taboos. Literacy turned women rebellious, unsubmissive, and unmarriageable. My mother, who had been married off the moment she had finished high school, was abused regularly by her in-laws, first for daring to express the hope that she might enroll in a women’s college, and later for wanting to send her three daughters to the best elementary school for girls, which happened not to be in our neighborhood. There were harangues and beatings. I didn’t realize at the time that I was not just a child-spectator of a scene of authorized sado-masochism, but that I was witness to the last chapters of a long, cultural mega-upheaval. Only very recently, while researching the battle bet...

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