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.