“The black man has two dimensions,” writes the Algerian philosopher Frantz Fanon. “One with his fellows, the other with the white man.”
To be a migrant is to forever exist in this duality between Us and Them, a schism of the soul reflected in the migrant’s speech. In speech we hear the migrant fly from his known world, adopt a new tongue and, at times, get caught in the act of travel.
It is Sunday morning, still early in our relationship. Georgie and I meet for brunch in my Central London room when a friend calls. His voice carries the smell of the Arabian Sea, of vada pao and cutting chai. I hear him pause mid-conversation, take a drag on his cigarette. I know the brand. When we hang up, Georgie tells me, “Gosh, you sound so Indian.”
“I am Indian,” I retort.
“Yes. But, with me, you sound different.”
Caught out in the act of travel.
It has been many years since. We have a son now, seven years old. Each night I read him to sleep and each night I hear my voice speak in a foreign tongue. I want to speak like he does, the easy, near-classless tongue of London’s state schools.
I hear my own alien voice, this forced pronunciation, and yet I am unable to stop. At first, I think the performance is for my son’s sake. I want him to be comfortable. His father, his Baba, is no different from the daddies of his school. But that is me being evasive. London is a migrant city. My son does not fear the trauma of difference, not yet. His world is bigger than mine, more accommodating.
The performance, then, is for the self. I am listening to a voice, not quite my own, assuring me that the distance between my childhood and my son’s is vast. It will not be bridged. At night, when we are most vulnerable, I seek comfort in diction.
I am an adaptive migrant. I have changed to my circumstances. My tongue incorporates the smells of cleaner rivers, new street names.
But there are migrants, like my father, who could not adapt.
2021. This year is significant. It is the 50th year of Bangladesh’s birth. Circa 1946, my father, then six years old, holding his younger brother’s hand in one, and that of his mother in the other, left his native home in Dhaka. The previous night, the house next door had been torched.
He grew up in a refugee colony in South Kolkata and spent a significant part of his working life in Guwahati. Yet, he was most comfortable when he spoke Bangal, a dialect native to his homeland, and only unwillingly would he venture out of its confines. His profession required some travelling, but the only place he ever wanted to visit was Dhaka. At age 50, Baba finally acquired a passport and headed towards homeland.
Three days later, he was back sheepishly. He had been unable to summon the courage to cross the line. As children, we made fun of him.
Today, I wonder what made him turn back. In his speech, throughout his life, he had refused to acknowledge the trauma of Partition, of becoming a refugee. Returning to Dhaka would have meant acknowledging that truth.
Refugees know of lives half lived, a part forever lost, beyond a border they do not dare cross.
Unlike my father, I cross borders easily. I make this half of my life face the other, past and present, black and white.
“Yes, I must take great pain with my speech, because I shall be more or less judged by it,” said the philosopher Frantz Fanon.
The circumstances of the judgement, however, can be materially different. Fanon is writing of facing his native brothers in Antilles, Algeria, in the middle of the last century. The politics of affluent India today is confident, aggressive.
I am judged, I think, not by the adoption of an accent but in my ability to return unscathed in tongue. It shows fealty. I want to display no sign of movement. “You haven’t changed at all,” someone says at the Press Club in Delhi. “Of course,” I smile back. Old haunts, familiar tales, known accents. The rum still tastes like fertiliser.
Perhaps we are not so different then, Baba and I. My father’s act of defiance was a refusal to adapt to new tongues, to convince himself he never really left. I slip back into familiar accents to tell others the same.
But my son catches me out in the act of reading. “What did you say, Baba? Worm? Or warm.”
Smiling at him, I try again, the tongue of my forefathers refusing the correct enunciation.