Last night I lay in bed trying to think of English for the Bengali word ‘abohela’. I tossed and turned to formulate a sentence. I could say the sentence in various ways to convey the meaning but the exact word was escaping me. Every time I tried to think of the English word, abohela took its place. When I can not remember something, I panic thinking this is the beginning of the end. I think of dementia, Alzheimer’s. I think of every horrible outcome that will take away my faculties and while I will breathe, my life would be meaningless. As I panicked, the word eluded me more. I had to get up and use Google translate. The English for abohela is neglect. I could not think of that word.
Just a few days ago, I could not think of the Bengali word for absence. I had to go to Google translate again. It is ‘anuposthiti’.
Interestingly enough, forgetting the English word did not bother me half as much as forgetting the Bengali word. Am I losing my beloved Bengali because I don’t use it enough? I sometimes worry I will forget to read Bengali – the language I love the most. The language in which I can truly communicate what exactly is in my heart or in my mind. But I get to use it sparingly in my life. I sometimes speak Bengali with Sahana or when I call my aunt in Kolkata. For 2 years now, I have not spoken it regularly since the two people I consistently spoke Bengali with, are dead.
My brain stops translating words when I am exhausted, late at night or I am sick or in pain. During child birth, I told Sean to stay by my side at all times. I said, “I know my brain will not decipher any of the English words the doc and nurses will say, so you need to be next to me to translate.” I told someone to translate from English to English to me. Sean does not speak my language. So he reiterated what the nurses or doctor just said but coming from a familiar voice, the language penetrated my brain through the pain. It did.
My brain is always confused also about the he/she pronoun. Bengali is a language where pronouns are gender neutral. My biggest difficulty, when my brain is tired, is assigning correct pronoun to the gender that folks identify with. Non-binary pronouns are easier for me and I make fewer mistakes with those than he/she pronouns. Moreover, there is only one Bengali word for hand and arm. I constantly forget to differentiate between those two body parts. My English pronunciation is different from Americans and I am sure, I often write and speak wrong English. That doesn’t bother me too much. I would, however, be very ashamed if my Bengali leaves me.
I have shelves full of Bengali books in my basement – a collection that my mother curated for me over the years. It is time to pull out some of my favorites to reassure myself that Bengali is not leaking out from my brain. Can someone really lose one’s mother tongue?