Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator resident in California. His book Killing the Water: Stories, published in 2010 by Penguin Books India, includes stories of migrants and dislocated people, in Bengal, Boston, Detroit, Providence, and imagined territories. His second book, a translation of Bangladeshi writer Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice, was published in 2012 by HarperCollins India. His fiction, nonfiction, and translations have been published in such magazines and anthologies as Oakland Noir, Brooklyn Magazine, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Wasafiri, Scroll India, the Daily Star, and Dhaka Tribune.
CROSSING BORDERS, MAPPING TONGUES
Ten years ago, Dhaka effectively became my home when I moved there to work on a novel and other writing. I resided in a flat in Nakhalpara adjacent to the Tejgaon industrial area. One afternoon, I walked over to my neighbourhood laundry and handed them some soiled clothes. The man who usually wrote down my order wasn’t there. Another employee took my clothes and totalling up the charge — 84 takas — he asked me to write the receipt myself. I started but then the pen froze in my hand. Noticing my hesitation, he finally said, “Ingreji tei lekhen”—go ahead, write it in English. And so, I did.
As I walked off in embarrassment, I realised the source of my momentary confusion: 4 in Bangla (৪) looks like 8 in English, 84 confused me. This little incident highlighted that while I was living in Dhaka, two languages were constantly swirling around in my head and occasionally, signals crossed. The truth was, most times I welcomed the crossing of signals. It could be asserted that I had come to Dhaka to let those signals cross.
I was generally proud of my code-switching abilities. During this time, my everyday language—while shopping or travelling on bus or rickshaw—was Bangla. When I visited family, we spoke mostly in Bangla. With friends, I sometimes turned to English when my Bangla failed me, especially while discussing complex topics. On a computer, whether writing fiction or essays or sending off emails, I used English alone.
During this time, I was also making a deliberate effort to reclaim more Bangla in my life. In my reading life, I had mostly immersed myself in Bangla. Within months of my arrival, I also took up translating Bangla fiction into English, a task that required reading Bangla prose, word by word, sentence by sentence, reaching for a dictionary only when I stumbled. With time I stumbled less.
There was, however, no getting away from one truth: While I was able to code-switch, my writing language, my language of complexity, had become English a long time ago. This wasn’t simply because I had lived most of my adult life abroad. That story began five decades earlier, within a few years of being born in East Bengal — in fact, just a few years after the British had departed.
Born into a Bengali family, the first language I learned naturally was Bangla. When I was a child, before I started school, I spoke, argued, and played in Bangla. The first cuss words I spoke were in Bangla: it was probably either kuttar baccha or shuorer baccha. During those times, I expressed my desires, anger, and rage, all in Bangla.
In our household and with extended family, or in the neighbourhood, we communicated in a mix of East Bengali dialects of Bangla. The language has multiple dialects, each standing at varied distances — in accent, pronunciation, word usage, and verb construction — from “shuddho Bangla”, the language of “proper speech,” journalism, and books (though the written language had at least two acceptable forms).
In the past, most families were often from a single region of Bengal and children grew up speaking the local dialect. However with growing urbanisation, there were marriages between people of different dialects. My mother’s family originated in urban Narayanganj, a port city just south of Dhaka, and rural Bikrampur, 30 kilometres farther south. My father came from rural Chandpur half a day’s launch ride away, but he had spent his adult life in Calcutta and Dhaka. To complicate things further, my mother’s first husband had been from rural Barisal in what is now Pirojpur district at the very bottom of the delta, not far from the Bay of Bengal. My mother’s parents and some of her siblings lived just up the street from us. My father’s relatives were scattered, and we saw them infrequently. My mother’s first husband had died young, so his family’s influence on our spoken language was limited. The dialect we communicated in was learned from my mother and her parents, a predominantly Narayanganj-Bikrampur speech, but from the visits by other relatives and the languages that were spoken by the cook or servants, we became familiar with some other dialects as well, such as those from old Dhaka and Noakhali.
In standard urban Bangla, “I will go” is spoken as “Ami jabo.” In our home Bangla, it was “Ami jamu.” If we had learned my father’s dialect, it could have been “Ai zaiyum.” If Barisal’s dialect could have been ours, we’d have said, “Mui zamu.”
The “standard Bangla” we were exposed to came from songs we heard on the radio or an occasional borrowed gramophone, or stories read out loud from the children’s horror classic Thakur Ma’r Jhuli and other books, including stories and poems from Rabindranath Tagore.
While no English was spoken at home, English did indeed have a presence — in print. We subscribed to two daily newspapers: The Statesman from Calcutta and the Pakistan Observer from Dhaka. While there were a few Bangla books at home, most of the books and magazines in my father’s collection were in English. He regularly bought Reader’s Digest condensed books.
Although I can’t remember, I probably learned both alphabets at the same time, the Bangla from the primer Adorsholipi and the English from some ABC book. It was school that eventually shifted the balance.
At five, I was sent to an English-medium school run by missionaries from the Congregation of Holy Cross based in South Bend, Indiana. I was the eighth of my mother’s nine children, and the last five would go to English-medium schools. Was it a product of a colonised mindset? No doubt. But in most cases, it also reflected a mother’s desire for the best opportunities for her children, in a society just emerging from the shadow of the British Raj. In school, I did learn literary Bangla, but the main language I studied in, wrote in, and read in, became English. The Bangla we had in high school was a sort of “easy Bengali,” almost Bangla-as-a-second language. We read both prose and poetry in primers, studied basic grammar, wrote sentences and essays, but the demands were not very high. It was only in one class; the rest were taught in English.
Becoming vocal in English had not been easy for me. I lacked the necessary confidence. In kindergarten, I spent many days outside the classroom as a punishment because I refused to speak in English. I was promoted to Class One, “on condition,” the condition being that I would have to learn how to speak in English by the time school resumed. My mother hired Mrs. Ellis, an Anglo-Indian lady from old Dhaka, and she was the one who taught me English. Perhaps the magic was simply in having a personal conversation partner.
Once English became the language of schooling, it brought along a whole aural and print environment. The radio I would listen to mostly became the BBC, Voice of America, or Radio Ceylon broadcasting in English (especially their famous Binaca Hit Parade). We craved out-of-school reading material (“out books”) in English, and comics dominated, mostly from the U.S. The school library had a lot of discards from the Akron Public Library. I devoured the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Tom Corbett, moving on to non-adventure books once I joined the libraries at the British Council and the U.S. Information Service. Novels were shared among friends and one of my brothers brought many of them into the house.
Besides schoolwork, I began to crave writing as a hobby. Some people start off with stories or poems. In my case, journalism was what I found inspirational. From Class 5, I made repeated efforts to bring out a school newspaper. The first one, The Gliding Star, was a wall newspaper, typed in multiple copies with carbon paper; I cannot recall why I chose that name. The later one, The Sentinel, was mimeographed. They were both in English.
My father also subscribed to Time, Life, besides Reader’s Digest, all delivered to our door by the hawker on his bicycle, and we were face to face with news and visuals from around the world, but especially from the US. Images from the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the movements against it, the youth rebellion, all became part of my consciousness.
We watched movies occasionally, and while we might have seen some Bangla ones produced in India, that supply ended with the India-Pakistan war of 1965. When I was able to go out on my own, my friends and I preferred British and American movies.
With the arrival of television in Dhaka and into our drawing room soon after, there was an even more significant cultural shift. We became ardent fans of American and British shows: doctor shows like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey; police shows like the Naked City; cartoons like Mr. Magoo; spy shows like Dangerman, Mission Impossible, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and dramas like The Fugitive.
In later years, after moving to the US, my familiarity with American culture from comic books, movies, television, and news magazines meant that I could easily navigate American conversations on popular culture and history.
There was a final piece to this puzzle. In my childhood and teens, my eldest sister spent some years in the US, returning with children born there, and another brother also went there for graduate studies. During their return visits, more contemporary US influences entered the house. This is how I became a fan of Motown and 60s folk music from the US.
What was the result of all this? I grew up in a hybrid world, of colloquial Bangla spoken at home and with friends, a certain familiarity with literary Bangla, and the language of complexity and immersion becoming English — the heritage of our former colonial masters, and the language of the American century. It also meant that though I was geographically a resident of East Bengal, culturally I had become enormously influenced by and immersed into an Anglo-American world. I had become a half-foreigner in my own land.
My native land did not allow me to forget where I lived. It found a way to force a different claim on me, and its instrument was politics.
During my teenage years, East Bengal was rocked by political upheaval. Politics had always been on the periphery. As a province of Pakistan, we’d been under military rule since I was five. I had seen some protests on the main road outside our home. I didn’t understand much of it when I was young, but in later years that oppositional stream would grow into a full-scale upheaval against military rule and for self-determination for East Bengal.
I had developed an early hatred for military rule and when I could step out on my own, I started to attend protest rallies and demonstrations. The language of political reawakening was Bangla. We shouted slogans and sang protest songs in Bangla. I remember attending a performance of the Tagore play Rokto Korobi. And when I listened to radio now, besides BBC and VOA, I would listen to songs by Tagore broadcast by Akash Bani from Calcutta. The spread of the nationalist spirit also meant some exciting new movies were being made in Dhaka, and I eagerly joined my comrades in watching these films, including the renowned Jibon Theke Neya directed by Zahir Raihan.
This change also meant searching for “out books” in Bangla. Still a teenager, I was drawn to the pulp fiction published by Sheba Publications, especially the Masud Rana series starring a Bengali/Pakistani version of James Bond.
In secondary school I got passing grades in my Bengali class. In Class 10, the School Certificate exams loomed, and we had to write one long essay in Bangla. I wasn’t sure how I’d do. One option was to go with common practice: memorise a few possibilities and pray that one would fit. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to use the Bangla I had just acquired. The language I had reclaimed was mostly a political Bangla. Thankfully when the time came to sit for the exam, one ideal topic showed up in the list: write an essay about a man you admire. I wrote mine on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a man I ardently admired for his leadership of the movement for democracy and self-determination. In an essay about him, I could use all the complex Bangla words I had acquired: shoirachar (dictatorship/tyranny); amlatontro (state bureaucracy); shayottoshashon (autonomy); shongram (struggle); and andolon (movement). I managed to score the equivalent of a B.
Still, my language of complexity remained English. During the graduation ceremony I toyed with the idea of giving the speech in Bangla, but I couldn’t pull that off. I didn’t have the confidence. My defiance only went as far as making sure that there was a thread of oppositional content in the speech. I only remember the first line: “We did not get the education we deserved.”
The popular upheaval became more intense with time. In “college,” (equivalent to 11th and 12th grades), I encountered some peers who didn’t attend English-medium school. My first days in college were filled with protest rallies. I joined right away. On one of these occasions, I finally had the confidence to stand up in the cafeteria and give a short speech in Bangla. I ran for elections to the student union. Instruction in our classes was mostly in English, but daily communication involved a lot more Bangla.
Besides campus activism, I also joined a volunteer organisation, the local branch of Service Civil International which organised work camps and relief and rehabilitation projects after disasters. My comrades there came from diverse backgrounds and our working language was Bangla.
Then came the liberation war. In terms of language, this was a year of full immersion into Bangla. In the first few months, I was in hiding, mostly in a village. The rest I spent in Calcutta as a refugee. I was exposed to a new language around me, Hindi, but other than some reading materials, English newspapers, and a few movies, most of the daily language around me was Bangla, even if some of it was now spoken in Calcutta accents. We listened to Indian radio and the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, the voice of our independence movement. There was little writing I did that year, just some letters sent either to friends or family abroad, most of them in English. But during that time, it was a small part of my life.
If one were to estimate, I would say for about three years, through politics leading to a different sort of immersion, my mother tongue, the majority tongue of my people, had come to enjoy a more prominent place in my self-identity. However, disruptions were close at hand. This time, the instrument would be travel abroad for studies, a journey that eventually became emigration.
I left Bangladesh for the US soon after independence, arriving in distant Oklahoma to start at a university. At first, I lived with my siblings, and my mother for a few months — she had left during the war — and during that time, Bangla remained alive in my life in some daily conversations. I also exchanged letters in Bangla with two or three friends in Dhaka.
In a year and a half, I transferred to live and study on my own near Boston. For all practical purposes, I was now beginning to be immersed entirely in an English speaking, writing, and reading world. After graduation, for a year or two in Boston, I also hung around with some students from Bangladesh. My main connection to Bangla became my letters to my mother. She wrote in Bangla and I replied in Bangla. When she died 10 years later, even that tie was broken.
During the next two decades, my world was almost entirely immersed in English. It became the sole language in which I wrote, the vehicle for all my thoughts, analyses, and emotional expression. From being my working and complexity language, it became almost my sole language of communication. My usage of Bangla reverted to our early colloquial language, used with family or friends, during the rare phone calls or infrequent visits.
After college, I also began to write again in English. My writing eventually turned toward a creative direction as I took up fiction. No matter the kinds of work I did to make a living, I began to see myself as a writer. Living in the US, immersed in a mostly English world around me, it was natural that I was writing in English. That English had become my first language was now a fact of my life. It was a product of my history, my habitus. I did not view this as a problem. There are many writers who began life in a different language but ended up writing in English.
Right around this time, curiously, Bangla crept back in my life. In Detroit, I found myself living in a neighbourhood with Bangladeshi neighbors and from Bangladeshi grocery stores I picked up a copy of Thikana, a newspaper in Bangla from New York. I paid for a subscription. Every time I visited Dhaka, after every four or five years, I returned with some books and magazines in Bangla. The instrument for this return of Bangla in my life was the increasing number of immigrants around me from Bangladesh. The connection being relatively thin, I did not yet see this affecting my writing life.
The more I grappled with writing fiction, the language issue began to nudge my consciousness. What challenges did my bilingual upbringing have on my writing? It seemed that most of the difficulties that I faced were because I lived in the U.S. but still “wrote home.” The stories I began with — which would become half of those in my first book, the collection Killing the Water — were set in Bangladesh. While writing my characters’ dialogues, I would imagine them speaking in Bangla but attempted to reproduce that in English. During that effort I would encounter several challenges with both rhythm and word choices. Similarly, when I wrote a Bengali speaking in English, I had to confront the varied ways in which English is spoken by us.
I was also worried that there was a deeper problem. Writing stories set in Bangladesh, I felt that lack of access to Bangla as a language of diversity and complexity, or even one of daily usage, cut me off from deeper springs of creativity that were part of my homeland’s storytelling traditions. I was envious of those whose writing could draw on deep wells of childhood stories, myths, and fables. The narrowing of experience and learning in one’s formative years is something that may catch up with you in later years and you might find yourself plagued by regrets. In my writing, I could compensate in other ways, but still there was no avoiding the judgement that there was a loss here.
There were other problems as well, not directly related to the language dilemma but brought forward by many years of living abroad. The Bangladesh I wrote about was one that emerged from my memory; it was not the place as it exists today. I anticipated that when I took up the challenge of writing contemporary Bangladesh, a different set of problems would emerge.
I went home to Dhaka for a visit when I learned that my father was sick and might not live much longer. I went there to collect stories from him as best as I could. During my time there, I wrote daily in a journal and had countless conversations with friends and family. When I came back to the US, my head was brimming with ideas for stories. I tried a few but every single one failed.
In one of those drafts, I made my first attempt at constructing a Bengali woman character, one that was not playing a motherly role but was in a romantic entanglement. However, she sounded nothing like the person I had in my head; indeed she sounded nothing like any Bangladeshi woman. She was closer to a Black American woman. This was not surprising. At that time, outside of work, my life was heavily immersed in the African-American community in Providence, Rhode Island. I belonged to a Black book club that was for all intents and purposes my local family and most of what I read and most of the music I listened to were creations of Black America.
Writing creatively in English also meant engaging with English in a new way, at a deeper level. At one of my jobs, my tasks included digitising infant cries for a medical research project. It was not easy to spend hours listening to the infants’ cries. But I found a game to distract myself. With each cry, I looked for a word to describe the cry. And soon I had lists that included: moan, mewl, snivel, whine, whimper, bawl, scream, howl, screech, and yowl. I realised that English also had some words that would only work for crying among those who were not infants: sob, weep, and wail. At the end of the day, I marvelled that English had so many words for cries, each depicting a very specific kind of crying. I wondered about other languages. I recognised that Bangla did not have such a variety with verbs like these. In common parlance, one would use adjectives to modify the word “cry.”
After I had finished the stories that would become my book Killing the Water, I wanted to write a novel. I had a character and premise in mind and the story was set in recent Bangladesh. Ready to take on this challenge, I quit work, put books, music, and clothes in storage, and returned to Dhaka. What was meant to be merely one year turned out to be nearly three years.
Immersing myself, I became a flâneur around my hometown, getting to know it for the first time as an adult. I walked or took bus and rickshaw. I shopped and cooked; made a temporary home. I listened to hundreds of stories. I read two newspapers a day and several weekly magazines, following everything from business to crime. I avoided TV, though in hindsight that too might have been useful.
In English, I drafted a novel, wrote some non-fiction, and published stories and essays in local newspapers. But for the first time in decades, I was now immersed in the Bangla language. I began to read contemporary fiction in Bangla. I asked friends and strangers for recommendations. I poured through magazine discussions about Bangla books and writers. I devoured the book-sized Eid literary supplements brought out by the newspapers. I fell in love with the work of Mahmudul Haque, a writer unfamiliar to me. He had stopped writing in the early 80s, but I hunted down and read every one of his books.
I wanted to translate more Bangla fiction. Excited by some of what I was reading, I wanted to share it with those readers who read English. I was especially drawn to translating Mahmudul Haque. Starting with a couple of his stories, I took on translation of one of his novels Kalo Borof. I searched for him and he offered me friendship. Sadly, he passed away just as I was about to complete the translation. It was published four years later, in 2012, as Black Ice.
There was another aspect to my translation work. While drafting my novel, I had yearned to work with language on a different plane. Some fiction writers write poetry. I am not a poet. But I had once tried at literary translation and enjoyed it. Here I worked with words and sentences at a close level in two languages. And because in my own novel I was rendering into English, conversations of characters speaking in Bangla, I felt that translating might have a good effect on my book.
Translation and daily immersion gave me a new engagement with Bangla as a language. My vocabulary expanded, and though I had a long way to go, I could recognise lazy language and appreciate good usage. I scorned at clichés, just as I could marvel over discovering words new to me. One that struck me was shunoyona; it impressed me that Bangla had one word for a woman with beautiful eyes. I also grew impatient with writers resorting to lazy language. It was hard to appreciate their writing when their description of women didn’t vary much beyond heavy buttocks or breasts like betel nuts. I must have missed the ones about mango-shaped breasts, or perhaps that usage was only indulged in by some folks writing in English.
Engaging with swathes of people in daily life, reading characters created by Bangladeshi writers writing in Bangla, reading memoir and other pieces in the newspapers, all gave me a better sense of the evolution of the Bangladeshi psyche in the decades after independence, precisely the years I had been absent from Bangladesh. I was especially struck by the men imagined in the fiction of Akhtaruzzaman Elias and Mahmudul Haque, both the active, energetic men as well as the broken, passive, and alienated men.
All this swirled around in my head as I began to rewrite my novel. Unfortunately, after the first draft, I could not revise while living in Dhaka. Mostly, I needed quiet and solitude, hard to find in a noisy, metropolitan city. It would take me two more years to turn my novel into a completed manuscript. Into that effort I poured everything that had come to me through the immersion into Dhaka’s realities. I know that all my grappling with language — but also my engagement with people and fictional characters — everything went into that revision. I believe that the writing reveals something of the richness of that experience. To what extent I succeeded I cannot fully say. Readers will have to judge when the novel is finally published.
Putting it all together, my language journey isn’t just a typical post-colonial story of loss of my mother tongue and adoption or reluctant acceptance of another language — that’s quite common and familiar — but it was also one where there have been chapters of restoration: the first during the nationalist upheaval at home; later abroad, through increased engagement with immigrants from home; and more crucially, after I became a fiction writer — yes, in English — when I took a decision to reclaim Bangla literature, for personal enjoyment, to inform my creative work, as well as in translation.
It’s been ten years since the time I was walking around Dhaka. The world has again changed, and my language story has added another chapter. This time it’s because — through technology as the instrument — I live and write in a much more interconnected world.
No more do I have to simply rely on visits to Dhaka to get a Bangla book. I can find reading material from friends or sometimes electronic copies of Bangla books. Still, it is visits or visitors from Bangladesh that I rely on to acquire physical books. With more eBooks, this too will change.
I do not have to be physically in Dhaka to find discussion about Bangla books. There are online sites as well as social media pages that carry news and reviews of books, though the review and criticism culture in Bangladesh remains weak. I appreciate the connections I made with writers in Bangladesh that now continue over email or social media.
Through phonetic keyboards, including Google, I can write in Bangla script and I do that sometimes in email and social media posts. When I’m translating, I have access to online dictionaries as well and can use web search to find word usage in context. I also live with a Bangladeshi partner who is a writer and translator. Like me, she writes creatively in English, but she can translate in both directions. She often catches my mistakes when it comes to Bangla usage. She brings to me the perspective and stories of women growing up in post-independence Bangladesh. And she remains much more connected with social and literary trends in Bangladesh. Our daily language is a mix, though I must still tune out Bangla when I sit down to write.
In conclusion, it would be quite remiss if I did not touch on the question of audience. Despite my reclaiming Bangla in my life, countering the post-colonial English-dominant journey of mine, I must acknowledge one big loss. I am cut off from a readership that mainly reads and enjoys Bangla. When I’m writing, I don’t think much about audience: I throw out my writing into the world and accept the fact that it will be English-reading audiences who will read my work.
Still, for someone like me who was born and came of age in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, I must live with this disappointment that I remain cut off from most people back home. Because of my language experience and where I have chosen to live, I do not see how I can reclaim my ability to write in Bangla. Of course, things could change because in today’s volatile political world, home for an immigrant can no longer be taken for granted.
The best I can hope for is translation of my own writings into Bangla. So far, there’s only been one piece: a non-fiction essay that has been translated into Bangla and published in a small literary magazine. It’s my fiction that I’m more interested in extending. I am convinced that if I want more of my writing translated, I may have to do it myself. That may be my final nomadic tryst with language.