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writer.translator

Category: migration

Crossing Borders, Mapping Tongues – essay at Papercuts

Born in East Bengal not long after the British left, my first words were in our Bangal dialect of Bangla. Starting there, how did I end up where I am today, writing prose in English, and more recently, translating Bangla fiction into English? That story, involving multiple borders and influences and triggers, became a new essay Crossing Borders, Mapping Tongues published at the end of 2018 in the latest issue of Papercuts from Desi Writers Lounge.

Read the article at http://desiwriterslounge.net/articles/papercuts-nomad-mahmud-rahman/


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.

The essay was reprinted at Scroll.In on February 26, 2019 — https://scroll.in/article/914574/of-borders-and-tongues-a-writers-lifelong-journey-of-losing-and-finding-his-mother-language

Looking backwards: 1947 and after

When the white crescent on green flag was hoisted in Dhaka, as the Raj took leave, I was yet to be born. The only family story I have heard of that day is that my Dada — really my Nana, my mother's father — lit a cigarette. He was not a smoker.
    Lighting a cigarette can have different meanings. Some smoke to calm their nerves. Some light up after they make love. I was never a habitual smoker. Now and then I smoked with friends, enjoying their company. One winter I even tried cigarettes to ward off cold.
    For my grandfather, it was an act of celebration.
    There would have been others that day smoking with different feelings. For many, their lives turned upside down, that day was not a happy one.

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Troubled waters

Here in northern California, winter rainstorms have thoroughly soaked us. To the north of San Francisco, rivers flooded their banks and some areas were drenched with as much as nine inches of rain from a single storm.
   I wasn’t affected much. Thanks to last year’s patching, my ceiling sprung no leaks this time. The neighbor upstairs wasn’t as fortunate.
   It is winter, so the rains are no surprise. But even before the rains arrived, water was on my mind.

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How far is Penang from Dhaka?

On my last trip back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, nearly a year ago, I flew in via Singapore.  At that airport, dozens of Bangladeshis came on board.  I sat in an aisle seat, and a young man with a mustache took the window.  After we had finished the evening meal, I asked him where he was coming from.  Malaysia, he said. He had flown in from Penang, where he worked in construction, setting up elevators.
    There are perhaps as many as 200,000 Bangladeshi laborers in Malaysia, just over half that number having legal contracts to work there.  Most are employed in construction.  Through our conversation I learned something of the conditions in which they lived and worked.

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