Musings on my Colonial Hangover

I have always been severely judged in the way that I talk.
"What is that, a colonial hangover?" I've been asked.

When I moved from a city in northern India to the eastern part of the country, my first reaction was "Wow! I can't have spoken secrets now. Everyone here speaks Bengali!" - which blew my mind. I suddenly found myself relatable to the kids in the neighborhood. They spoke the same language, confided secrets in similar tongues in to their mother's ears and listened to similar reprimands from their fathers, just like the 10 year-old me. I made friends - who quickly became my closest friends - perhaps because I connected with them more personally, our mother tongue being the common factor here.

Soon I developed a childhood crush on this girl who, among other common friends back then, was the only one who spoke Bengali and we used to go out skating in the evenings, hide together for hide'n seek and row together on imaginary lifeboats on Sunday afternoons.

But then, I went to an authoritarian boarding school which housed most of the students from Bengal, specifically from rural Bengal who even dreamed in their local language. In the very first class, I was asked by our aged class teacher where we were from. Having just moved into a wholly new city and having just turned 10 years old, I could only recollect my address from the nearest subway station which was at a walking distance from my neighborhood.

"Tollygunge" I said.
The teacher squinted, indicating that he didn't hear me.
"Tollygunge.." I repeated.
He skewed his head a little to his left side, trying to hear better.
"TOLLYGUNGE" I exclaimed loudly, enunciating the words carefully, "..or that's what the metro station reads."
"I am not hard of hearing, boy. You're just not saying it right" the teacher remarked sternly.
I kept quiet. I was really shy back then, and the prospects of living without my parents in the room next to me was hitting hard only then.
"A true Bengali would call it Taal-ee-gonj" he corrected me.
"Taal-ee-gonj" I repeated after him, feeling like I've failed my mother and my mother tongue.
"Are you a probashi?" Probashi is a word for a Bengali-speaking person who lives outside Bengal. If you are one, you must've been subjected to the sermon of how your Bengali sucks ass.
"Yes sir." I replied.
"Evidently. What's your opted second language?" he inquired.
"Hindi, sir." I replied.
"Very good. A Bengali's son chooses to study Hindi. Disgraceful." said he, not very impressed.
As a 10 year-old, I was unfamiliar to sarcasm, so I sat down.


Having learnt English in a Catholic school and being an avid (erstwhile) bookworm for classics, I was pretty good at it. It definitely helped me when I moved to other parts of India - especially, the south - where English is clearly the lingua franca (the language in which the cab drivers and rickshaw-wallahs con you). My mother always used me as a translator whenever she'd be speaking to one of my friends. She felt comfortable in Bengali and Hindi, and although I know for a fact that her English is absolutely flawless, she just didn't want to put it to test.

One day, when I had a couple of friends come over to my place during the Diwali vacation, I found my mom and my friend Samuel have a beautiful conversation while I was away. Discussing how to make certain regional cuisines in their respective languages, they somehow completely understood each other and relished the conversation. I tried not to sneak up on them as I knew perfectly well that Ma would immediately seek my help the moment she lays her eyes on me. Later I went up to her and remarked how she could totally connect with people if she weren't so conscious about it. Because communication does not depend on language, rather it's the other way around.

But people have repeatedly begged to differ.

Once, I had come home for winter vacation and went to see a Bollywood movie with my girlfriend. Halfway through the movie, I went out to get some popcorn and soda to fill us up (because what's a Bollywood movie without smugly splurging on overpriced perks at the cinema?). I went up to the door which had swung shut just a few seconds before I reached it. My hands being full, I immediately asked the nearest person for help.

"Would you please open the door for me, my friend?" I asked, with a smile.
He stared at me, with a blank expression.
"Would you please hold the door open?" I asked again.
He continued staring, till it became weird.
I asked a couple times more, as he stared back. And that's when I got angry.
"Door? Open? Me? Enter?" Por favor?" S'il vous plaƮt?" Please?" I asked, obnoxiously.
The man swung the door open and remarked that I should speak the local language (Bengali) if I'm to live in Kolkata. Or else, I should find myself a place in England (because that made so much sense). And then he shut the door right back after him.
I stood alone for a while, caught completely off-guard, and a little embarrassed for no fault of my own. A lot of people continued staring at me.

Much later, my girlfriend came out looking for me and came looking for the reason behind the holdup. When she heard of my public shaming, she insisted that we dump the soda and leave the cinema.

Right before I left India last December, before my first flight from Kolkata to Delhi, I was reminded of how I supposedly fall in the category of people with a bad bout of colonial hangover by a fellow passenger. I was standing in the queue to get my baggage through security check, when I received an international phone call from my American roommate. After living in America for a significant period of time and especially teaching American undergrads, I have audibly developed a sort of halfway accent in my speech. In front of me, there stood three young women (probably of my age) - two of them being Bengali and one of them was (quite visibly) European. They clearly overheard my phone conversation, as was evident from their facial expression.

Without much of a cloak-and-dagger, one of the Indian girls remarked how my accent only reflects an underlying colonial hangover in the country, explaining this among other 'things to know about India' to the foreigner among them. And then she slowly turned towards my general direction (albeit not facing me directly) and commented on how 'the accent is fake' quite self-righteously. I smiled, and dug my face back into 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' that I have been reading forever, but never intended to finish.

I wanted to write about this last bit in a whole big collection of things that happened last December, when I went home. But I got busy as soon as I came back and thus, forgot all about it. For no reason I remembered this incident earlier today, and so I decided to pen down a few words regarding my apparently falling short of being able to stand up straight as a Bengali. Perhaps I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. Or maybe I just simply don't like my latest haircut, and I'm projecting my disappointment in a typically me kind of behavior.

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