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.

Happy 10th birthday, my library branch.


Ten years ago, on this day, I walked into our palatial library with my husband and 2 young children in tow. As we drove in, we were astonished to see police officers directing traffic. The grand opening of my branch attracted a huge crowd, about 7000 community members – large enough for the county to send police officers to manage flow of people and cars. I remember walking around in awe, looking at the space, the gleaming stacks and columns, the terrace, the collection. Each book seemed new, smelled new. I remember thinking working at a library such as this would be a dream come true.

The dream did come true for me as I was hired as a Part Time Customer Service Specialist only seven months after the grand opening of the building. Within a year, I switched departments and joined the Research and Instructor team but remained part time to take care of the children. After a couple of years, I got a Full Time position in the same department and I work there still.

I have written before and write often how life affirming working at a public library can be. We get to interact with a microcosm of humanity almost on a daily basis and we realize 98% of the people, our customers, are kind. But apart from the sense of purpose that I find at my job, my work place has proved to be my anchor when I realized I was slowly sinking to a deep, dark place after both my parents died. I was told to take as much time as I needed. But after a few days of baba’s death, I felt I was succumbing in the quicksand of grief and I needed something to emerge from those depths of suffocating sorrow. I went back to the library. I wanted to be by myself, but needed to be busy. My colleagues gave me that space but remained close enough for support. I remember shelving cart after cart when I first came back. Shelving carts of materials kept me moving, and gave my mind a sense of numbness that it sorely needed. Between the stacks with only books for company, I found some semblance of peace. Public libraries are assets in the community. It comes to the aid of many as they look for opportunities to move ahead in life. It came to my aid by providing me with a job, a group of caring colleagues who have become family and my public library job saved me when I needed saving.

So happy birthday, my library. May your journey to enrich people’s lives continue, may you continue to promote equity and inclusion, may you continue to be a safe place for all and a cornerstone for the community. I am blessed to be part of that journey for a while.

Will wear the mask in a minute..


Our library has a mask mandate and as a library worker, one of my jobs is to remind customers to either pull up their masks over their noses from their chin or actually wear a mask if they plan to peruse our collection, use our computers or use our study space. I am a non confrontational person and a hard core introvert on top of that. So every time I see someone without mask, I groan inwardly, take a deep breath before I begin my diffident journey to ask that person to mask up. I have come a long way in these 10 years to politely assert myself in such situations but I still dread it.

Anyway, this morning as I was shelving in the poetry section, a lady came up to me and said in a soft whisper, “There is a man sitting out there with no mask on.” I assured her I will talk to him right away. After taking some deep breaths and groaning inwardly, I walked over to the gentleman.

“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to put your mask on since there is a mask mandate in the library.”

“Oh, sure mam, sure! I am just drinking my coffee.” He pointed to his disposable coffee cup and then also showed me his mask.

I thanked him and told him to put his mask on as soon as possible. And walked away. I continued shelving in other sections and then walked back to where he was working to clean up shelves. He looked at me with the corner of his eye and lifted his cup to his mouth. He was still mask less after 15 minutes. And I had a sneaky feeling that his coffee cup was empty. He was simply using that as a prop to continue to remain mask less. I chuckled at his ingenuity. I had to walk up and tell him to mask up now and if he needed to sip he could pull his mask down to sip and put it back on again. He was not as pleasant as he was during our first interaction but he did put his mask back on.

As I made my way back to the kiosk, I noticed a young man who did not have his mask on. I breathed, groaned and talked to him about doing the right thing (Could you please put your mask on, sir?). He did right away. I walked away. The next time I went near him, he had taken it off and put it on the table by his laptop. I just stood there next to him for a few seconds, staring at him. He looked at me, slowly retrieved his mask and put it on his nose.

Near the kiosk, I saw a very elderly woman walking towards me in hesitant shuffle, without mask. “What did I do wrong this morning to deserve this?” I asked the universe as I approached the woman and said my refrain – pull your mask up for crying out loud! (I worded my request differently, of course). She slowly pulled a mask from her pocket and put it on without acknowledging me or my polite request at all.

Then my shift ended and I walked away from the desk. I entered my cubicle and shook my head at humanity.