By Nishi Pulugurtha
A little less than 50 years ago, a young lady alighted at Howrah station from the Madras Mail. This was her first venture to the East having been born and brought up in the coastal town of Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh. Independent and educated, she had worked for some years now with the undivided Andhra Pradesh Government, initially in Kakinada and later at Hyderabad. While living in Hyderabad she developed a great fascination for Hindi films and film songs and learnt Hindi, clearing the Rashtrabhasha Visharad examinations. It was while working in Hyderabad that she got married and this necessitated the move to Calcutta. It did not take her very long to get used to the city. On weekends, the couple explored the city and its sights and food.
The gentleman she had married traced his roots to the East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh but had lived mostly in Jeypore, Western Orissa and later in Visakhpatnam. Work made him move to Bhubhaneshwar. He was the secretary to the eminent scientist J.B.S. Haldane. On Haldane’s death, he moved to Calcutta and was employed by the famous statistician Prashanta Chandra Mahalonobis at the Indian Statistical Institute. Professor Mahalonobis had asked him to stay close to the Institute as that would make things easy. His home was almost a stone’s throw from the Institute. When he married, he moved a bit further north but this new home too was a comfortable walking distance from the Institute.
Dunlop Bridge in north Calcutta had very few south Indians. Most of the south Indian families in the area lived mostly in the Institute campus and were faculty at the Institute. There were a few who lived in the vicinity.
Having lost her father at the tender age of 16, Amma soon found a job at the Treasury Office in Kakinada. Attending evening college made sure that she completed her postgraduation working full time. The job and her studies left little time for anything else and when she came to Calcutta, she had to learn things from the scratch. She wrote letters to her mom and the replies had recipes, she started reading recipes in magazines and started experimenting, learning things quick and well. She went home, to Kakinada, very often in those days, living in the city amidst an alien language was difficult for her. Appagaru used to say that Amma went back to Kakinada almost every month. When we began school, this changed. We went to Kakinada only during our school holidays.
Fluent in Telugu, English and Hindi, she decided to learn Bengali to make her way through life in Calcutta. She would often tell us that she started speaking with the maid, with the washerman, with the vegetable seller in the market and that was how she picked up bits and pieces of Bengali. She enjoyed watching films and made it a point to watch Bengali ones. At first she could just understand the basic story and most of the dialogues made no sense to her. She persisted and slowly picked up the language. She had an accent though, an accent that made it clear to a listener that she was a south Indian, but she spoke Bengali fluently. We often remarked about her accent, but she would laugh and brush it off. She would speak it fluently just the way she could. Amma loved Bengali songs too, the adhunik variety – Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bonsle, Sandhya Mukhopadhya, Hemanta, Manna Dey and Arati Mukhopadhyay. She listened to them on the radio and would hum and sing along as she worked her way through the kitchen in the mornings.
Appagaru had learnt the language much the same way. He was, of course, fluent in Odia and hence learning Bengali was not difficult for him. However, he used it much less, unlike Amma. Both of them could read the language moderately well. She said she would read billboards and movie posters and tried to identify letters and figures in Bengali. They read much less of Bengali, only as much was needed to make way in the city that was now home to them. If they had a Bengali newspaper at hand, they would surely read the headlines, the bus numbers, movie posters and the like. He was proud of the fact that they were self-taught in Bengali. He had an accent too and often would tell us that it was always clear to any auditor that he was not a native speaker of the language.
Bengali came very easy to us – me and my sister. No one had to teach us the language. We could read and write the language much before it was a subject, third language, in school. Hindi was our second language. Amma said she decided on Hindi as she could help us with it. It would have been difficult had it been Bengali. Telugu was spoken at home but when my sister and I were together, it was always Bengali. A few years into school, when we were fluent in English, we had a strict rule at home. The moment we entered home, it had to be only Telugu. My parents were pretty strict in reinforcing that. That, I guess, is the reason why we sisters spoke and still speak Telugu fluently. We also made it a point to watch Telugu films on our trips down south and in Calcutta too, whenever they were screened. Our cousins have often told us that we have an accent when we speak Telugu, but I guess that is but natural.
These days I speak Telugu much less. Amma does not speak anymore; Alzheimer’s has wrought ravages with her speech. I still speak to her in Telugu. I am sure some bit of my talking does reach out to her somewhere. Appagaru is in another world. The only other people I speak in Telugu are my cousins and aunts over the phone. With my sister, it is mostly Bengali and English, the way it has always been.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).
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