Sitting at the edge of an enormous bed
Beds are different in India. The average one found in a middle-class home is huge, and can easily sleep three. As a result, it’s not uncommon for the bedroom and the bed at its centre to be the place where families gather.
So whenever I’ve visited India, that’s just what my family has done. At my Masi’s house, a bunch of us would collect on and around this gigantic wooden bed and sit late into the winter night, chatting while huddled under blankets and shawls, mugs of coffee in hand.
I love the times I’ve spent with my extended family, and have rarely felt as at home or as happy. Yet, sometimes I find myself wondering if, in certain ways, I remained at the edges of those moments. Inevitably, those overnight gab sessions would be bi- or tri-lingual–and I am nothing of the sort.
Trying to keep me in mind, my relations spoke English when they could–and I feel compelled by some unknown force to highlight that this collection of university educated cousins and aunts could do so perfectly. Yet, naturally, my relations also switched to Hindi and Punjabi too, darting back and forth between languages mid-sentence as if it were the most natural thing in the world–which to them of course it was. It was lovely thing to witness and it felt like a kind of futuristic, multilingual utopia.
Still. There’s something odd about being around people you love who are sharing and connecting in a medium you have no real access to. If not alienating exactly, then it’s at least a little sad. I mean, I don’t want to get melodramatic about it; it’s not as if it’s some insurmountable barrier or a horrible source of trauma. But still.
The thing about language is that it’s like a key to a whole world of culture. And really, I wouldn’t do what I do with my life were I not fascinated by the intricacy of language: its sound, its cadence, the innumerable ways it can be inflected or re-purposed to new ends. That fastidious attention to words and their quirks is how I connect with people, through jokes, irony, sarcasm and whatnot. So there’s always something a little melancholy about the fact that, when it comes to aunts or cousins–or, I should add, my own parents too–I can’t play with words in “their” language.
Making this all extra weird is that my family “get me” in English anyway and, for God knows what reason, they love me all the same. But though I know it’s silly, I just wish I could “be me” in both languages, whatever that means. I want to be able to quote Urdu poetry at just the right moment. I wish I could spit out Punjabi jokes and send my family into stitches. I want to know what they know, and be a part of things that make them feel at home.
It’s futile, I know. It’s about more than language; it’s about a cultural context, too. And I cannot exist in the space of fantasy I have built up in my mind and become the perfect bi-lingual interlocutor who understands and masters all. The people I love most in the world can communicate in languages and idioms I cannot. Sometimes this seems terribly sad, at other times it’s not really that big a deal.
To be bi-cultural and an immigrant is to often live in contradiction. On the one hand, you always are attempting to recuperate and return to a mythical past. On the other, you’re always trying to produce a brand-new hybrid future. In not knowing the language that would let me sit more comfortably in both worlds, I feel excluded from both that history and its fusion reinvention in the years to come.
There are, to be sure, innumerable brilliant upsides to all this bi-cultural messiness, and I’m mostly pleased with who I am today. Still. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel that life would be just that much better if, sitting under a blanket, surrounded by the people I love, I too could jump back and forth between languages, moving in and out of worlds–all of which I could call home.