by Nina Bhattacharya
Afternoons in Kolkata stretch into infinity. Even from inside, the midday light feels thick and endless. Dust motes manage to drift languorously in the air despite the frantically spinning ceiling fan. My younger sister is already fast asleep on the bed, pulled into the warmth of an afternoon nap. Nani, my maternal grandmother, dozes on the other side of the room, one thin arm covering her face. I stare at the fan and try to keep still.
I don’t want to wake her up because I don’t want to talk to her.
I’ve replayed about a thousand imaginary conversations in my head, where I dazzle Nani with my flawless mastery of the only language we have in common: Hindi. But then I always remember the sharp corners of my American accent that render the rounded syllables of Hindi shapeless, and the struggle to thread together the right words of my Bollywood vocabulary into meaning. Silence is easier, less vulnerable.
But Nani notices that I am awake and sits up with great effort. She asks if I’m hungry. Before I can open my mouth to voice protest, she heaves herself off the divan and inches to the kitchen with small steps. Her nightie hangs loosely on her body; her legs look like sticks through the thin, billowing cotton. I hear the spray of the tap before she returns with a bowl of shelled pomegranate.
I cup the small, steel bowl in my hand, uncertain. Droplets of water still cling to the bright fruit. (Will the water make me sick?) Nani watches me. I pick up my spoon and eat.
The lines around her eyes crinkle as she smiles.
The sweetness and tartness and love make my mouth pucker.
My grandmothers were the core of our family, two fiercely independent and fiercely loving women who lived and breathed India’s patchwork history of migration. After my paternal grandmother’s death, there was only Nani. Nani, who crossed into India during Partition. Nani, mother of seven children. Nani, who adored every retelling of the Ramayana.
I remember, as a teenager, asking for Nani’s blessings at the end of our summer visit to Kolkata. “Sutto ghot mile,” she told me in Sindhi, pressing one hand on my shoulder and few crumpled notes – kharchi, or pocket money – into my hands with the other. Sindhi was still her language of choice, and I only understood a few words.
“Get a good… goat?” I translated out loud, sending my mother a puzzled look.
My mother began chuckling, tears welling up in her eyes. “Husband,” she said, between laughs.
She explained the miscommunication to Nani. A huge grin appeared on Nani’s face and my aunts also started giggling. Completely embarrassed, I blushed and ran out of the room.
As Nani grew older, the basic Bengali skills she had picked up after moving to Kolkata had diminished and as a result, she primarily conversed in Sindhi or Hindi. My mother acted as the translator more often than not. Although I felt deeply self-conscious of my own abilities to communicate, I craved an opportunity to speak with Nani at least once without an intermediary. I hated myself for shying away from her, tongue-tied.
There is a good-natured joke in the family that my parents paid college tuition at an American university for me to learn Hindi. The implication is that I could have learned at home, in Michigan, in a town so white that “Blanc” is in its very name.
That is probably true. But balancing on the tricky tightrope between “Indian” and “American” already felt hard enough without throwing language into the mix. I occupied this space of linguistic liminality, neither feeling completely bilingual nor completely monolingual.
For this reason, it was comforting to study Hindi as an anonymous student, divorced from my identity as a daughter and granddaughter. We were all in the Hindi class different reasons – some for work, others for easy grades, and a few who occupied the same liminal space as I did. Together, we watched vaguely inappropriate Bollywood songs from the seventies to track prepositions and the subjunctive verb. We developed skit after skit. We scribbled in Devanagari, hoping our assignments came back relatively unscathed from the red pen.
I smooth out wrinkles from the fabric before holding up each kurta for Nani so she can inspect it. I am in Calcutta again, after a summer internship in Himachal Pradesh. In between visits to all of my relatives, my aunt and I are able to sneak in some shopping time to continue the tradition of restocking my Indian clothes.
Nani brushes her fingers gently against the cotton. I pull out a pale blue sari from its cellophane envelope. She appraises the shimmery, slippery silk with a nod, before inquiring about where we bought the sari.
And I am able to answer. The Hindi comes easily after my summer of field interviews in small villages, during which I had no option but to quell my fears and practice. Nani’s eyes light up with understanding; this is a rare moment of connection. With a delighted laugh, she asks if we have purchased any gifts for my younger sister. And I am able to respond again. While I carefully pull out the second sari, Nani reminisces about her first and only visit to the United States, when my sister was born in 1991, and how she administered the standard baby tel maalish, or oil massage, to my sister. Nani recounts my almost annoyingly boundless energy, how I would wrench my small body out of anyone’s arms and start running.
This conversation, so mundane, is all I ever really wanted. I am glowing. It’s powerful to talk directly to each other.
I pull Nani close for the photo. Later, I can see how comically large I am next to her. But she sits tall, and we are both beaming. The knots in my diasporic tongue have finally untangled.
Nina Bhattacharya is a Hindu feminist organizer and former U.S. Fulbright grantee in Indonesia. She’s currently a Master of Science candidate in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her past experience includes policy fieldwork in rural Himachal Pradesh, India, and program development for the South Asian Awareness Network (SAAN) annual conference. Her writing has been published in The Toast, The Hairpin, and The Aerogram.