Excerpt: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri5 min read . Updated: 10 Feb 2016, 01:05 PM IST
In this linguistic autobiography, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes of the clash in her life between English and Bengali, and the escape she found in Italian
I would like to pause for a moment on the three languages I know. At this point a summary of my relationship with each one, and of the links between them, would be helpful.
My very first language was Bengali, handed down to me by my parents. For four years, until I went to school in America, it was my main language, and I felt comfortable in it, even though I was born and grew up in countries where I was surrounded by another language: English. My first encounter with English was harsh and unpleasant: when I was sent to nursery school I was traumatized. It was hard for me to trust the teachers and make friends, because I had to express myself in a language that I didn’t speak, that I barely knew, that seemed to me foreign. I just wanted to go home, to the language in which I was known, and loved.
A few years later, however, Bengali took a step backwards, when I began to read. I was six or seven. From then on my mother tongue was no longer capable, by itself, of rearing me. In a certain sense it died. English arrived, a stepmother.
I became a passionate reader by getting to know my stepmother, deciphering her, satisfying her. And yet my mother tongue remained a demanding phantom, still present. My parents wanted me to speak only Bengali with them and all their friends. If I spoke English at home they scolded me. The part of me that spoke English, that went to school, that read and wrote, was another person.
I couldn’t identify with either. One was always concealed behind the other, but never completely, just as the full moon can hide almost all night behind a mass of clouds and then suddenly emerge, dazzling. Even though I spoke only Bengali with my family, there was always English in the air, on the street, in the pages of books. On the other hand, after speaking English for hours in the classroom, I came home every day to a place where there was no English. I realized that I had to speak both languages extremely well: the one to please my parents, the other to survive in America. I remained suspended, torn between the two. The linguistic coming and going confused me; it seemed a contradiction that I couldn’t resolve.
Those two languages of mine didn’t get along. They were incompatible adversaries, intolerant of each other. I thought they had nothing in common except me, so that I felt like a contradiction in terms myself. For my family English represented a foreign culture that they didn’t want to give in to. Bengali represented the part of me that belonged to my parents, that didn’t belong to America. None of my teachers, none of my friends were ever curious about the fact that I spoke another language. They attached no importance to it, didn’t ask about it. It didn’t interest them, as if that part of me, that capacity, weren’t there. Just as English did for my parents, Bengali represented for the Americans I knew as a child a remote culture, unknown, suspect. Or maybe in reality it represented nothing. Unlike my parents, who knew English well, the Americans were completely oblivious of the language that we spoke at home. Bengali was something they could easily ignore.
The more I read and learned in English, the more, as a girl, I identified with it. I tried to be like my friends, who didn’t speak any other language. Who, in my opinion, had a normal life. I was ashamed to have to speak Bengali in front of my American friends. I hated hearing my mother on the telephone if I happened to be at a friend’s house. I wanted to hide, as far as possible, my relationship with the language. I wanted to deny it.
I was ashamed of speaking Bengali and at the same time I was ashamed of feeling ashamed. It was impossible to speak English without feeling detached from my parents, without an unsettling sense of separation. Speaking English, I found myself in a space where I felt isolated, where I was no longer under their protection.
I saw the consequences of not speaking English perfectly, of speaking with a foreign accent. I saw the wall that my parents faced in America almost every day. It was a persistent insecurity for them. Sometimes I had to explain the meaning of certain terms, as if I were the parent. Sometimes I spoke for them. In shops the salespeople tended to address me, simply because my English didn’t have a foreign accent. As if my father and mother, with their accent, couldn’t understand. I hated the attitude of these salespeople towards my parents. I wanted to defend them. I would have liked to protest: ‘They understand everything you say, while you can’t understand even a word of Bengali or any other language in the world.’ And yet it annoyed me as well when my parents mispronounced an English word. I corrected them, impertinently. I didn’t want them to be vulnerable. I didn’t like my advantage, their disadvantage. I would have liked them to speak English as I did.
I had to joust between those two languages until, at around the age of twenty-five, I discovered Italian. There was no need to learn that language. No family, cultural, social pressure. No necessity.
The arrival of Italian, the third point on my linguistic journey, creates a triangle. It creates a shape rather than a straight line. A triangle is a complex structure, a dynamic figure. The third point changes the dynamic of that quarrelsome old couple. I am the child of those unhappy points, but the third does not come from them. It comes from my desire, my labour. It comes from me.
I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.
Where is this new path leading me? Where does the flight end, and when? After fleeing, what will I do? It’s not really a flight in the strict sense of the word. Although I’m fleeing, I realize that both English and Bengali are beside me. Just as in a triangle, one point leads inevitably to another.
Excerpted from In Other Words (Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, 205 pages, ₹ 399), with permission from Hamish Hamilton.