Hi friends! As you see, today we have Suleikha Snyder visiting with us! I want to just take a minute and personally thank Suleikha for “coming back” – she was supposed to also have been a guest last year … but if you’ve been around for a bit you know last year just … didn’t work. And I didn’t really manage with the communication, so I really appreciate her not holding that against me (and the blog). Thanks, Suleikha! So let’s see what she has to say, shall we? 🙂
Throw This Bengali Tigress a Bone…
By Suleikha Snyder
“Wow. She speaks Bengali so well,” the woman, not much older than me, confides to my mother as if I’m not sitting just a few seats away. “I’ve been speaking it all my life,” I interject, dryly, as I have done so often over the years — even to my own father, who always marveled when I dropped a Sylheti word into a phone conversation or groused about an unwelcome meddler being “kebab mein haddi,” a bone in the kebab. (That’s not even Bengali…but I digress.)
“You speak English so well!” is what many first- and second-generation immigrants hear on a daily basis, and when you speak two mother tongues, when you have a foot in two different canoes, you get it from both sides.
I grew up in the American Midwest, where—in the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s— assimilation was the name of the game. There weren’t huge pockets of South Asians to band together and build temples or mosques and open restaurants and groceries. You had to drive to the opposite end of your state—or even other states—to hang out with friends from “back home.” (As a result, I spent a lot of time in Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia as a child.) And if you spoke a different language at home, you strived to leave it there once you set foot outside. Very few of the Bengali-American kids of my generation have Indian or Bangladeshi accents. Many of them understand their parents’ tongue but don’t speak beyond a few words. Most of them now regret that.
Still, as our communities grew, so did the cultural pride. I remember the folk festivals and mela celebrations held at city convention centers, going up to a puja in Cleveland, and the birth of a tiny $7000-budget Tri-State Durga Puja that’s now a five-figure nonprofit. I remember being dressed up in saris and handmade ghagras and performing classic Bengali dance dramas and folk dances. I learned to play the harmonium (badly), learned to sing (badly) and even took South Indian classical dance lessons and really sucked at that. That is all stuff I was doing before I hit my teens. And, along the way, the Bengali language took root. I went through mutinous periods of not speaking it—mostly in a desperate attempt to be more like my white schoolmates—but by the time I hit my teens, I had a fever for languages. I was taking Spanish in high school, why wouldn’t Bengali hold its own appeal? Especially when I learned to wield it sharply and wryly against my older cousins back in Kolkata!
And then I honed it. Listening. Practicing. Picking up colloquialisms like a verbal Swiffer. Moving to New York has helped me keep fluent because even if I don’t speak it all the time, I certainly hear it everywhere. As much as everyone jokes about Bangladeshi cabbies, the profusion means I can choose to have a conversation in Bengali whenever I hail a taxi. How cool is that? How comforting is that?
“Wow. She speaks Bengali so well.” I do. Because it’s a beautiful language. Because the swear words are handy, too. And because I am as Indian as I am American. Sometimes it surprises me as much as it surprises everybody else.
Bio: Editor, writer, American desi and lifelong geek, Suleikha Snyder published her first romantic short in 2011, going on to multiple releases in recent years — including three Bollywood romances from Samhain Publishing, Spice and Smoke, Spice and Secrets and Bollywood and the Beast, and a short in Cleis Press’ Suite Encounters anthology. These days, she’s hard at work on more South Asian-themed romance and erotic romance.
Suleikha lives in New York City, finding inspiration in Bollywood films, daytime and primetime soaps and anything that involves chocolate or bacon. Follow her on Twitter @suleikhasnyder.
Did you have a similar experience growing up? Friends that did? How about languages? Do you speak a second, third, or more? Any affinity for them? Inquiring minds wish to know. 😀