Of Language and Love: An Indian Story

Bangla, in West Bengal

In 2017, I relocated back to my home city, Kolkata (capital of the Indian state of West Bengal) after a decade of living and working in the Netherlands. Both the city and I have changed irrevocably in the intervening time – hence, I find myself in something like a new relationship with an old lover! While I have taken most of what this new ‘relationship status’ entails in my stride, some aspects are difficult to accept. A reduced respect for diversity (both in the city and the state) is one of them.

In a recent rally, our Chief Minister, the feisty Mamata Banerjee, declared that those who wish to live in Bengal will have to learn Bangla. It’s the most redundant statement I have heard in a long time: because migrants from other states of India (like migrants in any host culture) have always taken the trouble to learn Bangla (imperfect though it may be) – for survival, if not for anything else.                           

Shekhar's parents & elder brother, 1965.
I know this for a fact because I married a man from a migrant community myself. His father had come to Kolkata (then Calcutta) from Jamalpur (in Bihar) way back in 1951 to study. But he never went back. For nearly seven decades, West Bengal has been home for him -- his college education, his career in a public-sector bank, his marriage (to a Bihari woman born and brought up in a railway workshop town in Bengal), the birth and education of his two sons, all happened in Kolkata. And in all this time, he told me, he had faced discrimination only once: he wanted to buy a property in a South Kolkata locality sometime in the 1980s, but was refused on account of his not being a Bengali. In his early college days, he was a shy teenager, and spoke broken Bangla. But by the time he started working, he became fluent in it. His elder son, Sanjay, can’t recall a time when he didn’t know Bangla or didn’t speak it. His younger son, Shekhar, however, distinctly remembers that though he had been exposed to Bangla from his childhood, he began to speak it more frequently from his college days.

Benglish, Hinglish

Shekhar & me, Versailles, 2007.
I remember the precise day and time I met Shekhar in 1995, and the fact that we fell in love soon after. But in which language did we love? I’m not sure. In which language have we fought? Expressed joy? Disillusionment? Difficult to answer. In that there has never been any one language in which we did those things. Like most Indians, we are multi-lingual. We speak three languages – Bangla, Hindi and English. (Just as Shekhar became more conversant in Bangla since his college years, I became fluent in Hindi only after our marriage in 1999 – before that, though I knew it, I didn’t have much scope to speak in it). In his case, there is actually also a fourth – Angika, a dialect with no written script, which he speaks only with his family. Between the two of us, however, we have mostly conversed in ‘Benglish’ and ‘Hinglish’ – strange hybrid versions of the languages we know, which is a familiar enough phenomenon in India and with Indians.

The Language of Love

Air Mail from Shekhar, 1996.
I just said I’m not sure in which language we have loved. That’s because there are two strong contenders for it: English and Hindi. Our pre-marital years were spent in long separations – continents apart – in which we wrote incessantly to each other. In English. I wrote entire writing-pad full of letters, in crispy pink and white paper; he replied in a lovely blue. But much as we shared our daily lives through the written word, the love and (especially) longing for each other was always conveyed through song. Hindi songs. I sent him customized collections of my favorites in 90-minute cassettes, through his friends (and sometimes, boss!); he gifted me rare editions of ‘classics’ when he came home for holiday in India.

A Tagore bust: my late mother's most prized possession.
I belong to a community who are fiercely proud of their literature; they are especially given to eulogizing ‘Rabindra-sangeet’ (songs written and composed by our greatest poet, the first Asian Nobel laureate, Rabindranat Tagore). It is said – and rightfully so – that there isn’t a human emotion or mood for which there isn’t a Tagore song. Of course, love (both for God and beloved, which often coalesce in many songs) features prominently in that repertoire, which I’d learnt for many years. Not just that. I was brought up in a very literary environment by a mother who taught Bengali literature and was herself a (closet) writer. And when I grew up, I chose to study English Literature. But the combined might of Bengali and English literature – all that celebrated poetry and song – was of no avail to me when it came to my love. Because Shekhar was equally ignorant of both and displayed little interest in either.

We had, however, one thing in common – a deep love of Hindi film songs, right from the 1950s upto the 80s (and beyond), when legendary singers and composers (many of them Bengalis), not to speak of lyricists (several of them Urdu poets, who wrote in Hindi-Urdu), ruled the industry. Just their names would fill up a blog-post, and their songs several books. Many have indeed been the subjects of detailed study.

Among the singers, there’s however one name that stands out when it comes to our romance: Kishore Kumar. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that we emotionally bonded over Kishore, an untrained musical genius, whose repertoire, too, covered an astonishing range of the varied moods of love. His songs have been an integral part of our lives. 

I don’t think our Chief Minister can imagine that a Bengali can choose to love through Hindi film songs; she will surely be surprised if she’s told that entire relationships can be forged and maintained in her state that have very little (or nothing) to do with Bangla.


Lovely post Ritu, and a message about love in many languages in especially necessary in these divisive times. Welcome to AE and I look forward to more posts from you!
Dee said…
Super article Ritu, keep writing.
Ann Turnbull said…
I loved this post - a fascinating glimpse of another culture, and so romantic!
What a very interesting post, thanks!
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you - what a delightful post about the power of language!
Patricia said…
Your own experiences and reflections expressed so beautifully. And such a sublime and elegant discourse on the values of diversity of language to any nation.
Umberto Tosi said…
I love this lingusitic memoir - negotiating the world in tongues!
Bill Kirton said…
What everyone else said. Lovely. Thank you.
paromita.m. said…
Loved going through your life post, past and present, so beautifully interwined.
Rituparna Roy said…
Thank you, all - Dipika Mukherjee, Dee Ann Turnbull, Cecilia Peartree, Sandra Horn, Patricia, Umberto Tosi, Bill Kirton & Paromita.m. - for your feedback! I am deeply grateful that you read & responded to my Inaugural post at AE; & touched by the fact that it resonated with you.

Please accept my SINCERE APOLOGIES for this inordinate delay in responding to your comments. I had faced a technical problem while trying to respond back in July... & after that, somehow didn't come back to this post again...

I eagerly wait to read responses to anything I write & usually get back very promptly - just out of sheer delight that someone has read my piece! This delay at AE is an exception. I am sorry... & I hope to be able to converse with you through our posts from now on.

I would have liked to respond individually to your comments... but couldn't figure out how. Hence, this general address.

And before I sign off today, a very special THANKS to Dipika Mukherjee for making AE happen for me. Dipika di - you are a writer I admire, a friend I cherish & a sister I look up to. Thank you for all the love & encouragement for over a decade now!


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