Friday, February 08, 2013

Being Multilingual

This is an essay that I wrote for the Prof. Barbra Naidu Personal Essay Contest conducted by the English Department of St. Josephs College, Bangalore as part of its literature festival Meta 2013. It won the first prize in the Open category. I have rectified some typos, redundant words and grammar mistakes that I discovered after I submitted it.

I met Ali, a Pakistani vendor of pornographic DVDs on a beach in Mykonos. He was a profound man, even though he was a radical and functionally illiterate. After unsuccessfully trying to make me buy “Sexy Time in the Parthenon – IV” for only five euros, he decided to wax eloquent about life and philosophy (not before berating me for eating a pork souvlaki). He claimed that he had traveled on foot from Pakistan to Turkey via Afghanistan and Iran before landing up in Greece. His next destination was Italy, where he would “…smuggle himself across the border to Canada.” I did not have the heart to correct him. “I am a perpetual traveler,” he said, quoting some Sufi mystic I had never heard of. “I will keep discovering new lands, and be buried wherever I drop dead.” At that moment I was grateful that I did not have to face sweltering heat or icy blizzards to fulfill my wanderlust. Apart from his native Punjabi and Urdu, I was impressed that Ali could at least speak a smattering of Greek and English.

Throughout my life, I have grappled with new languages. Born to Bengali parents in mofussil Howrah district of West Bengal, I started speaking well past my third birthday. That was Bengali. I was admitted to an English-medium, supposedly ICSE school; Playway Nursery (fondly referred to by alumni as “St. Playway”), though I had never heard a single teacher there ever utter a word of English. Howrah was like that; the Principal of St. Thomas School in Dasnagar had proudly declared to my parents that all his teachers were “Cathelete” nuns.

When I was five, my father was transferred to Bombay. I would later learn that he was also suffering from an advanced stage of leukemia. He would live only three years more. Bombay was a total culture shock. We lived in tony Pali Hill, where everyone else had stashes of black money, drove around in Mercs and spoke English and pidgin rich-Sindhi Hindi. The kindly Father at St. Stanislaus asked me several questions, none of which made any sense to me. Finally, smiling exasperatedly, he said, “sing a song.” My father translated. I jumped off his lap, flashed a broad smile and broke into “EK DO TEEN…” while humping the air inside the clergyman’s somber trophy-filled office. I was accepted at another school that interviewed only my mother.

I do not remember when it happened, but one sunny day I woke up, went to the playground and found myself confidently speaking English. Soon I could read Enid Blyton as well. I was not that lucky with Hindi. I could barely understand the language, let alone speak it. To make matters worse, I had to learn Marathi at school too, though nobody in my vicinity spoke it. Then my father died. Our world came apart. We moved to Bangalore. School principals discreetly started suggesting that they needed funds for benches and stationery, money which my distraught mother could ill afford. After some strings were pulled, I was temporarily admitted to a school I hated. Nobody spoke English, and even I spoke better Hindi than the Hindi teacher. Classes were informally taught in an alien language – Kannada. I did not stay there for even a year.

People at my new school spoke English in class, but preferred Kannada in the alleys. It was a struggle picking up this new “idli-dosa” tongue (as expat Bengalis loved to call it – some had stayed in Bangalore for over four decades without learning a single word). Teachers made concessions, but even then I had to memorize entire passages from the Kannada textbooks just to get by. Most of the time, I had no idea what they meant. It was about three years later that I realized that I could actually speak Kannada. I chose to hide it, getting away with murder in Kannada class, by making seemingly innocent but outrageous utterances to the teacher, and getting more marks than I really deserved. Thanks to a workshop for spoken Sanskrit, I had gained some fluency there as well. Our Sanskrit teacher swore at us (in Kannada) when we asked him how people cussed each other in the language of the Vedas. Some of us then made a spirited effort to amend the apparent absence of abuse in the argot of Adi Sankara.

With my erratic academic record, I was lucky to land a seat in the pristine beachside campus of the Karnataka Regional Engineering College at Surathkal. Alas, the hostels were anything but pristine. That is where I learnt Bengali. “Wait,” you say? “Wasn’t that your first language and mother tongue?” Yes sir. I see you have been paying attention. However, I spoke Bengali only with people much older than me, or my sister. I did not even know that slangs existed in its pristine parlance. That was until I met Maharaj, my roommate who blasted Anu Malik on loop, and like me, rarely soaked his clothes in a bucket inside our room for less than three days. We also made sure never to bathe on the same day. Maharaj quickly became my mentor in rectifying in one day, the debilitating effects that eighteen years of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Kazi Nazrul Islam had inflicted on my brain. And I learnt Hindi yet again.

The undergraduate days presented another linguistic tussle for me. Fulfilling my dream of being a thoroughbred Brahmin IT professional (who enjoyed the occasional beef roll whenever he passed Johnson Market) meant that I had to learn programming too. So I decided to learn the C programming language, a herculean task for someone who barely knew how to use a computer for anything else other than shooting bullets onto black and white pixelated UFOs. I could barely locate the characters on the QWERTY keyboard. And I was majoring in Chemical Engineering, whose syllabus was such that my programming skills would be useless until three years later, when a few companies chose to interview students from “core” engineering branches. The gamble paid off – I landed a job with a Fortune 500 company that made commercial applications that helped other companies manage their data. This meant that I had to grapple with a whole new set of exotic languages – SQL, PL/SQL and Java. Then I complicated my life further – by leaving a cushy job and enrolling in a master’s program, again in Chemical Engineering. This time I had to pick up MATLAB, TCL and LaTeX as well. My second job added Visual Basic and VB++ to my resume. I have forgotten most of these. But I can type pretty fast now.

SRK was my French teacher in college. I had joined his course hoping that it would attract the girls – but alas, I had paid up for the class only to realize that there would be none. I was soon to realize why. There was something pathetically repulsive about SRK – he was a foulmouthed pervert in his early fifties who thought he was a standup comic. He would offer to loan us his porn collection (provided we returned each DVD within a week), talk about his daughter’s friend’s curvy posterior (she was a final-year student at the same college) and brag about how he had banged his maidservant a few months ago (he had to increase her monthly pay by a hundred rupees after that). His proudest boast was that he had made up a dirty joke that was “…appreciated even in IIT Bombay!” To make matters worse, he barely knew French and spoke it with a strong North Karnataka accent. Thus, when I found myself in graduate school in France eight years later, it was an unwelcome shock to me that I understood nothing. In fact, I think I would have been better off without SRK’s pedagogy than with. 

I was struggling with a new language once again. After successful conquests of Bengali, English, Kannada, Hindi and even a smattering of Tamil and Sanskrit, my brain seemed to be saturated once again. Few people outside the school spoke English in France. The pronunciations were bizarre – the R’s sounded like sputum-laden coughs and syllables were arbitrarily silent. Commas served as decimal points and every noun had an arbitrary gender. The few Indian-looking people around were actually Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who spoke no English and whose Tamil was absolutely alien to what I was familiar with back in Bangalore. I was truly in a strange land. I resorted to my old modus operandi once again. I made friends who taught me slangs and swearwords. I watched English movies with French subtitles. I joined a French course but dropped out as I did not want to know useless things like “The weather is fine today, Madame Garnier. Are you having a good day?” Finally I got it. I needed to join courses where the instructors knew no English! I signed up for Salsa and Taekwondo lessons (I still suck at both). Harry and Jean-Noel knew absolutely no English. Now I can comprehend strange phrases like “hold her hips and turn her!” and “kick his face while maintaining your center of gravity!” Other than once mistakenly picking up “langue de boeuf” (almost-raw cow’s tongue – yes, it tastes just like your own) in the school cafeteria, I must say I have managed to survive quite well in France. And the little knowledge of French that I have, affords me all kinds of street cred on the boulevards of New York, Lisbon, Tallinn and Bangalore.

I realized that I was not too different from Ali. True, I had acquired several degrees on paper and never had to face a blizzard or sandstorm unprotected. I never had to resort to paying bribes to border patrol officers to look the other way. Unlike him, I did want to go back home someday, something that he can probably never afford to do. But we shared the same wanderlust. We shared the same travel sores as we traipsed ceaselessly across continents. And in the process, without realizing it, we had both become multilingual.