Several of my family members were surprised when they heard me conversing in Bangla with my in-laws in Chittagong. I got asked: "How did you learn how to speak it?" "When did you learn?" "Did Mehwaesh teach you?" Some thought I had been "bangla-fied" by my wife.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What many fail to understand is that I never consciously learnt how to speak the language, nor have I attended any formal language course. Mehwaesh has not embarked on a conscious drive to "bangla-fy" me. Yes, I picked up the language from listening to her Bangla conversations (mostly with her family in Bangladesh and her Bangla friends in London). What struck me about the language, was how much of the language I was able to pick up and understand, with no prior exposure to it.
Bangla like Gujarati is a Sanskrit-based language. That means that a lot of words in the Bangla lexicon sound almost similar to the Gujarati equivalent. Take for example, shomachar ("news") in Bangla which is our samachar. Or take "Shubho Jonmodin" ("Happy birthday") in Bangla which in shuddh (literary) Gujarati would be "Shubh Janmadin". Where there are parallels, there are differences, too. Grammatically, the two languages differ greatly. While we attribute gender to words in Gujarati, in Bangla that concept is non-existent.
I must admit that my Bangla is by all standards broken. I cannot read or write the language. I can construct basic oral sentences (albeit bereft of proper grammar) and probably survive using my conversational and unperfected Bangla skills if I was left stranded in Bangladesh. I get my tenses muddled up at times. But - and crucially for me - I can get the message across.
My Bangla speaking skills came to me almost by a process of osmosis. There never was any conscious decision made to learn it. I didn't really need to. Like her, Mehwaesh's parents and her immediate family are fluent in English. But there is a certain sweetness in the Bangla language, much like Gujarati, that draws me to it. The Sanskrit-based words make it easy for me to pick up words and assimilate them into conversation.
What many fail to realise is that it is my fluency in Gujarati that has helped me learn, understand and appreciate the richness of the Bangla language. In turn, the ability to converse in Bangla has benefitted me greatly. For starters, it has helped me build bridges with my in-laws and their family. Notwithstanding that I could have gotten away with conversing in English with them, there is, I feel, a certain degree of endearment when I speak with them in Bangla. In fact, with Maa (my mother-in-law) our phone conversations are mostly in Bangla, with us resorting to English only when it's something so important that cannot get lost in translation. Yes, there are the few occasions when I have to ask Mehwaesh to translate some phrases, but most of the time, I get it. Beyond forging new ties with my wife's family, the language has helped me better understand my wife's cultural heritage. I now enjoy listening to musical renditions of Tagore poetry. Admittedly, I don't fully understand what is being said in some of the poetry. But, it is like a jigsaw puzzle - I can put together words to capture the flavour of Tagore's works. It's important for me to be able to do that.
I wouldn't have had access to the Bangla language without Mehwaesh - that, I admit. But, there is something within me that helped me assimilate the language with ease. I now know that "x" factor was my fluency in Gujarati. Without Gujarati I would not have had the guts to work out the meanings of words in Bangla. I would have had no link to a Sanskrit-based language, and so there would have been nothing to rely on when attempting to develop my Bangla vocabulary. Crucially, I think I would not have been able to build the bridges that I am building with my in-laws had I not understood Gujarati. Most important of all, I would not have had the courage to embark on a lifelong journey with someone from a different cultural background without my Gujarati. After all, how can you begin to understand someone else's heritage, when you don't have a full grasp of your own? Heritage is inseparable from your mother tongue.
As life unfolds, it is becoming increasingly clear to me how Gujarati has in many ways, direct and indirect, helped me move forward into uncharted territory with confidence and competence. It has helped me forge new relations, retain a robust link with older generations and develop a solid foundation for my marriage with Mehwaesh. For this and much more, I have my Mom to thank. Without her drive to get me fluent in Gujarati, there would not have been much of what I am today. I also have the late Jyotiben Master to thank. More than a mere Gujarati teacher, she was a life teacher. In addition to teaching me the intricacies of the Gujarati language and it's Sanskrit origins, she taught me how to use the language to understand my heritage, and in doing so, gave me the courage to traverse the boundaries of my comfort zone and indulge in someone else's heritage.