Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Familiar and Unfamiliar Pasts

The name on my original birth certificate wasn't Nadia—it was Fatima. My dad wanted to give his children religious names, Fatima and Aisha. He didn’t have anything picked out for my brother. Instead, I became Nadia because my maternal grandmother heard of the perfect-10 gymnast Nadia Comaneci (I found this out when I became obsessed with gymnastics and taught myself how to cartwheel, backward-tumble, swing on the uneven bars and prance on the balance beam at Hoover Park), my younger sister Nashid despite it being a male name, and my younger brother Fahad because of the Saudi King Fahd and it reminded my father of his times in Saudi Arabia.

In The Namesake, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri brings up good names: the name your family and close friends call you. When I read that, I was excited because I didn't know it actually existed—I just thought it was something my parents did. We called it our home names. My brother doesn't have one and my sister's is Nasha, just a slight modification.

My home name is Sharna (shor-na), Bengali for gold. I was the first born, so I was special. Answering to this name is second-nature to me.


Sixty years ago in 1947, India became its own country. Sixty years and a day earlier in 1947, Pakistan (including Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan) became its own country. Breaking away from Britain and all of its governance, South Asia was able to deal with itself. Oh, what a mess it was.

I knew my parents were born in the 1950s in Bangladesh (1951 and 1956) and that they were alive during the Partition War, but I never knew any real details about it. It's not something you really learn about in Global History. And it's hard finding books about it.

Because of my new interests in that corner of the world (to be fleshed out at a later date), Jon recommended Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. In it, Saleem Sinai is born during the midnight of India's independence and as he grows, so does India. Reminding me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rushdie presents a whirling recount of Sinai’s family history, Sinai’s own history and the story of India through metafiction, history and magical realism through which I learned and relearned about my far past. After all, Sinai says, “Most of what matters in our lives take place in our absence.”

The perspective of the book is intriguing and refreshing because I don't get to see other Muslim Indian/Bengali perspectives. That’s also why Lahiri's works resonated with me. Despite her characters being Hindi, there were similarities. Though, with Lahiri, her characters usually immigrated to the U.S. (and usually to Massachusetts). With Rushdie, I became completely immersed in South Asia that I only knew in the summer during family vacations.

I never understood then-West Pakistan and then-East Pakistan were separated by India. I suppose it made sense in terms of population and their major religion, but the logistics of that wouldn't seem to work.

And it didn't.

After the Partition, Bangladesh strove for compete autonomy but the Pakistani central government stopped any attempts. In 1971, after the violently bloody Bangladesh Liberation War (also known as the Pakistani Civil war), Bangladesh was finally free. The BLW also led to the Indo-Pakistani War.

Religion is a powerful motivator. It was because of religion that the Pakistans came out of India, the Muslims away from the Hindus. This was how the lines were drawn, based on religious populations. But borders weren’t enough and the new Muslim nations of West and East Pakistan weren't enough—you then had the extremely religious Muslims and the more moderate Muslims, all separated by India. From there, you have Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to Rushdie, Bangladesh wouldn't have made it without India's help.

My parents still hold prejudices against Pakistan and radical forms of Islam.

Borders still aren't very clear in Southern Asia. Kashmir is still a highly disputed territory between India and Pakistan. In order to make its border more defined, India is building a fence along its Bangladeshi border.

But then, to balance that, test runs of the Moitree Express (Friendship Express) between Calcutta, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh were successful. The train service was shut down before because of wars and violence between the two Pakistans in the 1960s. Yet progress still hasn't been made because of said-fence.

After Rushdie's book, my friend Hannah lent me Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics. After Rushdie's extraordinary novel, Mishra's is, at first, very slow paced and very subtle. He writes of Europeans collecting in Benares, India in order to experience something other than their veryday privileged European or American lives and the Indian narrator is witnessing and experiencing this all. Superficially, it is about the meeting of the cultures and different worlds. Here you have spoiled, whiny Europeans who think by willingly coming to India they have to be better than their parents, better than the rest of the world, because they willingly subject themselves to third world conditions. This is perfectly shown through Catherine and Anand's home. While the narrator walks over to their home for the first time, he comments on the rundown houses, and when he is inside for the first time, he notices how clustered everything is. And also, this is perfectly exemplified with Miss West, who appears to be worldly but instead is a broken down women who is trailing after a man who uses her at his whim and she lets him. Mishra makes up for this in the middle of the novel by sending Samar off to the Himalayas. From here on, the novel is much more pleasurable, Mishra revels in the isolated beauty of the mountains while divulging in Samar’s inner-self. I do have to hand it to him—Mishra knows how to describe rivers. He writes,

“A deep gorge appeared on our left, the river in it seeming to sneak shyly past all obstructions. The illusion was broken when, after we had been traveling for an hour down into the gorge, the river appeared roughly parallel to the road, and all the bus’s relentless grumbling and rasping and clanking could not muffle the thunderous boom of thick white jets of water pummeling the huge white rocks squatting in its way. Away from the angrily frothing river, the thinner, humbler streams flowed into small quivering pools on whose banks grew delicate irises.”

And he mentions Frooti, the delicious “cool mango drink,” so more points for him.

Amidst the celebrations, with good tidings, Pakistan and India exchanged prisoners, as the BBC reports, 134 Indian prisoners for 72 Pakistani prisoners. And yet, according to the Associated Press, Bangladesh still houses Pakistani refugees who dream of going back to Pakistan.


While reading Rushdie and Mishra, I sounded out all of the foreign words and was surprised to find familiar words: accha (yes, okay), bas (enough), ek dum (always, complete), sabkuch ticktock hai (everything is okay), dekho (look), arré baapre baap (equivalent of oh my god, I think).

But there are differences.

Saleem's Ramazan is the same as my Ramadan and his Dacca, where he was surrounded by Bangladeshi independence as a wise and sullen Pakistani solider is the same as my Dhaka, where my parents grew up, where most of the Chaudhury/Begum families reside (with exceptions in Germany and Singapore/Australia).

At home, we communicate through a blend of Bengali and English. I understand Bengali (with bits of Urdu and Hindi) more than I can speak it. On phone calls back to Bangladesh, I accidentally speak in a hybrid of Spanish and Bengali, my mind tries to substitute English words for any foreign words it can find. When forced to think about it, I can't say a Bengali phrase. But I will say this: I am well-versed in Bengali curses.

Writing Bengali is a different story. While my parents write long letters with the beautiful scripts of Bengali, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and so on, they aren't sure how to romanize their language. Writing emails to my mama (maternal uncle) and cousins are easy enough because we write in English, but some words are difficult to spell out and I, being the person that I am, want to make sure I'm spelling it correctly. My cousin once called us picchis which means little people, but I thought he meant picchas which means dirty or garbage.

I remember making my mom show me how to write "Nadia" in Bengali and I practiced it over and over again, connecting curving lines with a neat horizontal line on top. I can't do this now.

In both novels, the men wore lungis, what my dad changes into at home, this sheet of cloth he somehow folds onto his waist. It reminds me of saris, the mechanics of which I never fully understood either. When I have to dress up for Indian/Bengali events, I either wear salwar kameezes or lehengas adorned with loads of gold jewelry, even though I don’t like gold. I eat parathas and basmati, I drink chai.

Desh means country. Bangladesh means literally “Bangla Country.”

The Bengali national anthem is "Amar Shonar Bangla" ("My Golden Bangladesh").

There is so much about the area that I'm just beginning to learn about and hopefully, I will put this knowledge to good use...


Sumit said...

I'm so excited to read all of the books you mentioned. I've already taken care of "The Namesake". I'm debating whether I want to watch the movie or not. I have a feeling that seeing the visual representation of the characters in the book may ruin the book for me. I loved the book. I don't want the movie to diminish that for me.

arré baapre baap does basically mean "oh my God"

my good name is Sumit, and my home name is Sumu. Sumit means "good friend". my brother's good name is Nimit, and his home name is Nimu. His name means, rougly, "the reason you do anything, the reason to live".

I can speak fluent Gujarati (the language of the state in India where my family hails from), and I even taught myself to write in gujarati on one of my summer trips.

I understand roughly what is being said when I hear people speak in Hindi, and I can speak it very poorly at best with many many mistakes. Most of what I know I have derived from Bollywood movies I watched growing up (which I have recently regressed to for comfort).

I can relate to you because I only know what I've learned on my trips there. I think you've kindled within me a fire to learn more about my heritage. I am embarrassed at the least at how little I know.

My grandfather wears a lungi at all times within the house.

I love pilaf. I've grown up on basmati. No one makes parathas as good as my mom. I don't drink chai though.

Sumit said...

In my enthusiasm I forgot to mention that I've forgotten how to write Gujarati now. lol

PoojaV said...

Hi. I found the link to this blog on the "Art of Living" (Jon) site who said you're an amazing photographer, and scrolling through I saw the words "The Namesake" and "good name" so I had to stop and read the post. I'm Indian so a lot of your thoughts resonated with me. Oh, and I substitute Spanish too when I don't know a word in Hindi (which is quite often).

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