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A father’s readings in the mother tongue

india Updated: Apr 03, 2010 22:42 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

I think it’s the American poet and essayist, Mary Karr, who said something like this about how ghastly childhood is, but being the thieving magpie that I am, I have borrowed and appropriated the line for myself.

I can’t imagine that it’s much fun being an eight-year-old. You are always obliged to do as you are told. People are always going on about how much more they know than you. And you are broke all the time.

I feel sorry for our eight-year-old. So when the long summer holidays come around, we try and let her be.

During her forthcoming holidays, she will not — because she doesn’t want to — attend any camp/workshop/class that will improve her skills at pottery/sudoku/ calisthenics. She won’t go in for anything that will improve her mind or her fitness or her sense of competitiveness.

She will remain idle, and revel in doing so.

And faced with queries from other parents about what our child will do during the holidays, we shall — with a weary sigh and a wry, self-flagellating grin — admit to our indulgent parenting.

But something promises to be a little different this summer. Every year for three years, we had gently suggested to our daughter that she learn to read and write Bengali. Every year, our daughter refused.

Her Bengali is as fluent as it should be. She speaks it at home nearly all the time, although there are instances when she coins neologisms by literally translating the odd word from Hindi or English as she goes along.

When she was small, we’d read to her in Bengali: Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore; Sukumar and Satyajit Ray, Leela Majumdar and old comic strips. That dwindled, and then gradually stopped as she discovered the pleasure of reading herself.

This week, as she lay unwell in bed with a raging temperature and a racking cough, I read to her again. I returned to old Bengali children’s classics.

After she got better, she asked me to carry on reading them to her. “Why should I listen to those stories only when I am ill?” she asked. “I want to learn to read and write Bengali,” she said.

A friend of mine, whose wife is French, and who insisted on speaking to his daughters only in Bengali at home, had told me about how he had tried to persuade them to learn to read and write the language. They stubbornly refused to. Then, one day, his elder daughter, then 13, wanted to learn.

She thought it would be smart to be well versed in a language few of her friends could read or write.

Given that she has to learn English, French and Hindi at school, it is only fair that our girl is able to read the literature of her mother tongue.

Will this summer be the start of that great adventure?

I doubt it.