Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
A Sister’s Pride
I had a rough time learning academic Bengali in elementary and high school. Perhaps my interests were elsewhere. Like dreaming about becoming an astronaut or traveling across the world as a Peace Corps volunteer. My school subscribed to the “Span” magazine and I fought my friends to be the first to read it cover to cover. Then in July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon and really fired up my imagination. To compound all of my good intent to at least get a passing mark in Bengali, my school required students to speak, read, write English all the time, even in our dreams. My school was a boarding school. I came home only when school was out.
My performance in Bengali deteriorated all year and my frustration increased. By the end of the school year, I feared being held back in my grade. I squirreled away time from math and science, history and geography, and made an extraordinary effort to learn my Bengali spelling.
If the reader is familiar with Bengali they will appreciate when I say I don’t remember any rules that clearly showed me when to choose between a “স, শ, ষ” all somewhat acceptable forms of “s”. How was I chose between a “র, ড়” the soft and hard sounds of “r? During the long written examination I noticed the proctor hovering over my shoulders, shaking his head in dismay. “Susim is not going to have a pleasant winter recess,” I could hear him say. I would go home for winter recess and unlike every kid my age, write Bengali spelling words over and over again. The rest of my friends were playing cricket, visiting the chimpanzees in the zoo, queuing up for a glimpse of Louis Armstrong’s moon rock.
I compensated my shakey Bengali spelling by memorising and reciting Bengali poetry and prose. After all I did win the English elocution contest since 4th grade! I would make a compact with my eighth grade Bengali teacher who really wanted our class to win that year’s Bengali elocution. I gave up my rightful place at the podium for English elocution and made a dramatic impact on the audience and judges reciting several small selections from Sukumar Roy’s “Abal Tabol.” It worked like a charm. I moved on to ninth grade where I could start a new school year studying the sciences, physics, chemistry and biology. The moon seemed within my grasp.
All throughout my childhood and youth Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate, held a revered place in my life, especially his Rabindra Sangeet. Now that I am retired I have a lot of time to listen, study, understand and appreciate Rabindra Sangeet. And write about it. No more Bengali exams. But I wish to spell correctly. So I turn to my female cousin who lives in Japan. First cousins grow up like brothers and sisters in India.
My sister in Japan, Arati, a homemaker, had been a teacher for a long time. We use technology to text messages in Bengali. My Bengali is getting better in leaps and bounds. She is also a beautiful singer of Rabindra Sangeet. We both have the exact same favorite Rabindra Sangeet. She always sings it masterfully and evokes the right emotions and sentiments. The song is “গোধুলিগগনে মেঘে ঠেকেছিল তারা”, “godhuligogone meghe dhekechhilo tara.” No rules of spelling for her. Like a great teacher she plods at it every day, sending text messages back and forth several times a day, till I have it right. Recently she taught me how to write the “Bhagavad Gita Pranam Mantra” in Bengali; a prayer you recite after reading from the Bhagavad Gita. First I sent a picture of it written in Sanskrit. Then she sent it back to me written in Bengali.
Japan and the US are at two ends of the world. I like to take Rabindranath with me on my morning walks. Arati, who I address as“Fuldi”, and I video chat and sing and recite the same verses. We observe my garden bloom everyday; I by morning, she by night. Arati says she can smell the roses too. I believe she does it all from “A Sister’s Pride!”