Bangali?


I can not speak for all immigrants but this immigrant whips her head around if she even hears a whisper of the most lyrical language in the world, Bengali, being spoken around her. You all know I work at a library in the suburbs of America. I get to meet a lot of people from all over the world at my work place. Talking to them, connecting with them as a fellow immigrant, learning their stories are some of the highlights of my job. But my heart sings when I hear a couple talking to each other in Bangla, or better still, a child calling out to her mother, “Ma, ekhane esho, dekho.” (Ma, come here! Look!). This is exactly what happened at the children’s section the other day. I was minding my own business, (wo)manning the children’s desk when I heard a sweet voice calling her mother to look at a certain book. I looked up at the little girl and turned to see the mom. Do you think I wasted a single minute getting up and approaching the little girl to ask, “Tumi Bangali?” (Are you Bangali?)? I did not. Now we all know the question ‘tumi Bangali?’ is redundant. If the child is speaking in Bangla to her mother, she is Bangali but that is how I always open a conversation. The young girl was slightly startled to see a middle aged librarian so enthusiastically asking her about her ethnicity. She nodded yes, gave me a little hesitant smile. In the meantime, her ma had come closer. The little girl whispered to her mother, “O Bangla bole.” (She speaks Bangla). The rest is history. The mother and I talked and talked and talked. We talked about which part of Kolkata we were from, where we went to school, which year we came to this country, how old our kids were, the best store to get hilsa fish…..We concluded with the promise that she will look for me when she brought her kids next to the library.

The next day I was shelving at the children’s area when ding……I heard sweet, soul satisfying Bangla being spoken near me. It was a Bengali couple. It was their first visit to the library. My head peered over the shelves, perhaps scaring them a tiny bit – “Apnara Bangali?” (Of course they are! They are speaking in Bangla, aren’t they? But that is my conversation opener as I wrote before. Don’t judge me!) After a second’s hesitation, their faces lit up at finding a fellow Kolkatan in their first visit to their library. We spoke a lot in Bangla. They were relocating so they had a lot of questions. I gave them information about the library, the classes their little son could attend, what a wonderful resource the public library is and how we didn’t have this growing up, which Bengali association they belonged to if any, did they find a good Indian grocery store, how long I have been in the country and at the library, the other Bengali couple that we both knew in the community. For anyone else, it would have been an exhausting long conversation. For us immigrants, it was a connection with our shared roots.

I don’t always assume that all Bangla speakers are from West Bengal though. I have come across many folks who hail from Bangladesh. So my follow up question to “Apnara Bangali?” is “Kolkata r?” The conversation with Bangladeshis go a little differently but the enthusiasm is the same. My mother’s family immigrated to India from Bangladesh, so I have a connection there. Ma and baba both visited Bangladesh and loved the country as well as the people. So I tell them that. And I talk about the library.

The connection here, more than the land, is the language. I don’t get an opportunity to speak Bangla at home because 2 out of 3 of my family members don’t speak the language. These chance meetings with fellow Bangalis become extra special. They bring a smile to my face.

Funny in Farsi and me


First, a few lines about this funny and beautiful memoir by Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi: A memoir of growing up Iranian in America.

Firoozeh’s father Kazem, an engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company, got assigned to consult for an American firm for about two years and moved to Whittier, California with his wife Nazireh, 7-year-old daughter Firoozeh and 14-year-old son Farsheed in 1972. Farid, their oldest son was already in US completing his high school education. Firoozeh Dumas begins her memoir, by documenting her experience at Leffingwell Elementary school where she sat in the classroom with her non-English-speaking mother as her elementary school teacher tried to make them feel welcome by talking about Iran and inviting her mother to point out Iran on a world map in front of the class. Firoozeh’s mother had no idea. With brilliant humor and wit, Dumas writes her experiences in this memoir of growing up as an Iranian immigrant in America, pre and post Iranian revolution. At the beginning of her memoir, Dumas is touched by the kindness that Americans show towards her immigrant family. She feels people are truly interested in knowing their culture and making them feel welcome. She is also perplexed in equal measure at the ignorance of folks about cultural life in Iran, asking her if she went to school in a camel and if so, where they kept their camel. And how many Persian cats she had. She went to school in her father’s Cadillac, but she resorted to answering the camel question by saying they kept the camel in their garage.  She also writes about her experiences as an Iranian in America after the American hostage crisis in Iran and how American perspective about her family changes overnight. However, she does not harp on the cruelty she faced as an Iranian immigrant. Instead she focuses on her crazy yet fun extended family, their love and support for each other, their ambition to see their children succeed and their unmistakable love for their adopted country. In this memoir Dumas introduces us to her sweet and endearing dad, who fully immerses himself into the new culture that America offers which involves fast food, seeking to be rich via Bowling for Dollars, and every opportunity to save money, her elegant mother who never really learned English, her several aunts and uncles whose eccentricities and kindness make the readers smile.  Just when her family thought they finally got over the culture shock of being in America, Dumas falls in love with a French man and subjects her family to yet another novelty that they must experience and learn. At the end though, love wins.

Quite a few of her experiences as an immigrant reflect mine. Like her, I have been asked if I went to school on an elephant (not camel) and if I were an Indian princess. I have experienced what I now label as microaggression and have learnt to respond with humor and hopefully, without malice or anger. There were two aspects in this book, however, that really spoke to me. The first one is food!! Oh, how I want the Iranian food that she writes about! And the second was family. Dumas writes about her close knit extended family who emigrated from Iran and chose to live near each other in USA. They congregated, feasted, celebrated, loved and supported. That is every immigrant’s dream. I must say this made me envious. I remember little Sahana desperately wishing that her family from both sides lived in our neighborhood next to each other. “Wouldn’t it be so fun mama if didiya, dadai, mashimoni, mashun, moni, mamai, shi dadai, shi didiya (her Indian family) lived on one side of the road and Grammy, uncles and aunts (her American family) lived on the other side?”  Many immigrant children as well as children whose parents move to different states feel the absence of their grand parents, aunts and uncles in their lives as they grow. No one present on Grandparent’s day at school, no one to cheer from the sidelines in sports events or school events, graduation ceremonies or festivals. This is a big void. Immigrants form close relationships with other immigrants in a new land and they, over time, become family. But I can say from personal experience, that the faces that loom large when there is a major life event to share are those of the ones we left behind back home.

I was thrilled that Firoozeh Dumas grew up surrounded not only by her mom, dad and brothers but also by her loving aunts, uncles and cousins. I was also jealous. But ignore my base instinct, pay heed to my suggestion instead. If you want to read something heartwarming during these difficult times, pick up Funny in Farsi. I guarantee you will have a smile on your face.

Brobdingnagian vegetables


I distinctly remember my first visit to a supermarket in United States. It was mid nineties. I had just come from Kolkata where the concept of super market was non existent. We had our fish stalls and vegetable stalls in a big market space but groceries came from the neighborhood grocery store – mudi r dokan. You went to the store and called out your list to the grocer.

“Panch kilo chal. (5 kg rice)

Du kilo ata (2 Kg wheat)

Ek kilo chini (1 Kg sugar)

Panchsho muger dal. (500 gms Mug dal)

…..”

He weighed the appropriate amount of rice, dal, wheat, sugar that you needed. He handed you your Mysore sandal soap, your Boroline, salt, battery, ghee and whatever else that you shouted out. He then added everything up on a piece of paper in lightening speed as you admired his mathematical abilities, you paid and left with your groceries. Sometimes you hired a  moote (coolie) to carry your fish, meat, vegetables and your groceries if you wanted to buy things in bulk. The coolie carried your marketing  (as we called it those days and my father calls it this day) to a hand pulled rickshaw, arranged the provisions to your liking and you rode the rickshaw home. It goes without saying that you haggled with both the coolie and the rickshaw puller about the price they charged. It was all part of the ritual.

Coming from that experience to a huge supermarket was indeed a culture shock. I walked behind Sean in open mouthed wonder as I saw piles of different kinds of goods. The choices that consumers had here was incredible for a new comer like me. I still remember stopping in my strides in the produce section. I remember picking up a red onion and marveling at its size. It was triple the size of what we had in India. Potatoes were monstrously big too as well as bananas.

Did I just come to the land of Brobdingnags? I wondered.

Of course, I got used to them gradually but for a very long time supermarkets were a fun venture for me.

It was the same jaw dropping wonder when my parents came to visit us for the first time. They could not get over the size of the vegetables. I remember them taking back a potato and a red onion to show friends and family back home. Every supermarket trip I made, I was accompanied by baba who just took off and wandered the aisles, putting unknown things in my cart to try.

 

Today, while shopping for the week at our local supermarket, I had a big grin on my face. I was in the produce section when I heard Hindi behind me. A young woman, clad in salwar kameez, bespectacled and with two braids down her back, was walking around with her phone held up in front of her. She was Skyping with her parents as she slowly walked down the produce aisle, showing them purple cauliflower and orange cauliflower.

“Haa, papa, purple and orange cauliflower. Aur yeh dekho, red radish.”

I peeked at her screen and saw an elderly couple looking at the produce in a supermarket thousands and thousands of miles away as their daughter shared a glimpse of her world with them.

I realized I had a big grin on my face when a fellow shopper smiled at me to acknowledge my smile.