A different side of bilingual

I’d planned on posting something related to a chapter I’m working on finishing but a different experience seems to have taken center-stage today.

I happened to meet a couple visiting from Aligarh, India on my train ride back home to suburban town, NJ from Manhattan earlier this afternoon. To make a long story short, the train stalled on the tracks minutes away from the Newark Airport stop for about 20 or so minutes. Noting that the three of us were the only South Asian looking faces amidst seats occupied by faces belonging to other nations we exchanged looks of annoyance about the delay which then evolved into a full-fledged conversation about my dissertation. (I’m writing about boundaries and the India-Pakistan conflict and, among other things, one of my foci includes immigrants who picked either country at the time of partition/independence.) It was then that I discovered that this couple had migrated to India from Pakistan merely days before August 14, 1947. (August 14, 1947 is the day Pakistan came into being as an independent nation.) As they shared their experiences with me I continued to ask them one question after another. At one point during our tête-à-tête, both husband and wife added that they were enjoying our conversation thoroughly not only because they were reliving experiences that hardly anyone asks them about but more so because we were chatting in Urdu – something they hadn’t done since the two weeks they had been here and were already missing. I guess that might have jinxed it because in asking my next question I stumbled trying to remember the word for “guilt” in Urdu/Hindi. Of course I remembered “guilt” but really wanted to recall the Urdu version since our conversation thus far had been completely in the latter and it seemed to be going so well. At first I blamed myself (mostly in my head) for being a bit rusty; I’m more accustomed to an English-Urdu combination that I speak with my parents and friends so speaking purely in Urdu doesn’t come too easily to me in that I have to make a conscious effort to do so (Speaking purely in English I’ve gotten tons of practice at ever since I moved to the US about 11 years ago). I eased up on myself however when neither of us managed to come up with the “right” word. I figured if the folks from Aligarh (one of the main centers in British India for Urdu learning) couldn’t think of it then I need not beat myself up! Tired of searching, the couple came to the somewhat Whorfian conclusion that the equivalent of guilty doesn’t exist in Urdu because it’s a sentiment we don’t really feel. They explained that while we have words in Urdu for “guilty” used in a legal context we don’t have one for the everyday emotion referring to the bad feeling one might have when not doing something they feel they ought to have done. Now, the couple insisted this is because “we in the East don’t shirk from our responsibilities so we never have to worry about this emotion” but I don’t buy that one. Although I didn’t disagree with them either because we were about to pull into my stop plus we’d exchanged numbers so I could talk to them some more about their experiences migrating from Pakistan to India in 1947.

What this did get me thinking about though was that being bilingual could be startling in a way I’d never thought of before. Not in the obvious “ESL” kind of way where English teachers automatically assume that students think in their native tongues when attempting to write in English but more so along the lines of today’s experience.

I for one do not have the kind of expertise to know whether or not there is some kind of fancy-shmancy, if not commonly spoken, word for “feeling guilty” in the Urdu language but assuming that there isn’t one for the time being – since I don’t know otherwise – I started thinking about how I’d responded to this situation in which I felt at a loss of words in one language but not in another. To continue speaking in Urdu, I’d tried finding an elaborate sentence to substitute for the word to explain the emotion to which I was referring. However since I didn’t have a word for it when I thought I should I found myself a bit frustrated with this communicative gap of sorts. The more I thought about this the more convinced I became that this was a sign that I shouldn’t be moving back to Pakistan any time soon. How did I get there? Not a far cry if I was thinking about how frustrated and out of place I’d felt on certain occasions during my trip to Pakistan this past winter. Hence, not knowing a word was translated by yours truly into a metaphor for my general unfitness to live in the same space I was born and grew up in!

However, now that the drama queen moment has come and gone and I’m no longer blowing this all out of proportion I find myself thinking somewhat differently about being bilingual. In this process, I recognized that I’ve never given any thought to not being able to find the equivalent of an English word in Urdu. After all, I was born and bred in Pakistan which makes me a Pakistani – speaking Urdu is what we supposedly do. (Let’s leave aside the fact that I learnt English as my first language for now). So how could I not know or figure it out? Add to that the fact that the last time I studied Urdu formally was when I was preparing for my ‘A’ Level exams in which one’s proficiency in the language is measured to a large extent by one’s ability to translate Urdu words into English. And so the realization dawned upon me --- no-one I know who speaks both Urdu and English has ever mentioned a situation in which they weren’t able to find the equivalent of an English word in Urdu. It’s like we take for granted that we could never stumble or feel like strangers in what we refer to as our “native language”.

So having pondered over this experience for the better part of today I’m reminded of a passage from a book (Meatless Days by Sara Suleri) that I’d like to share with you by way of ending this post:
“Coming second to me, Urdu opens in my mind a passageway between the sea of possibility and what I cannot say in English: when those waters part, they seem to promise some solidity of surface, but then like speech they glide away to reconfirm the brigandry of utterance. … Speaking two languages may seem a relative affluence, but more often it entails the problems of maintaining a second establishment even though your body can be in only one place at a time. When I return to Urdu, I feel shocked at my own neglect of a space so intimate to me: like relearning the proportions of a once-familiar room, it takes me by surprise…”(177).

Guess I’m not the only one then - whew :-)!


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