Agastya’s envy had then blurted out, he wished he had been Anglo-Indian, that he had Keith or Alan for a name, that he spoke English with their accent. – English August, Upamanyu Chatterjee.
In my first year of college, on a wintry evening I fell in love with Agastya August Sen, a snob and a dopey stuck among the primitives of Madna. August, who “spoke, thought and respired” in English. August who had to survive, no matter what. August, a lover of jazz and who read Marcus Aurelius. And ever since that day, ever since I was 17, I kept looking for him in crowded buses, in metro stations, in Nandan, in Rabindra Sadan, at Rotaract meets, at the university campus – in a Kolkata bustling with people but none like August.
No, I was not obsessed, I walked into it with my eyes open. I knew he was a storybook character. But he was the closest I had come to a suitable boy who believed in being unapologetic about his love for the Queen’s language and being uncompromising for what he loved. That was where my love story started and ended. With my ‘perfectionist’ core , I too wanted to sound like a native of the tongue I acquired, just like August. And my Bong crux yearned the glory of a well spoken, well read, well bred and all the other kinds of “well” ness (of Bangla) that a well brought up Bengali should be. Besides that, I too, in many ways, had started to feel trapped, living life among a well fed, ‘fair of skin’, pedigreed tribe – who flourished by weighing and selling gold and silver by the gms. This was my Madna, in the heart of a city caught in yore, among a confluence of baniyas, mostly from the western part of the country, converged along the central artery of the city over the last century, lost in a milieu who refused to perfect the art of their mother tongue, leave alone the Queen’s tongue.
You see my parents’ foresight had put us, my sister and me, through the rigours of “English medium convent education”. And I suppose it must have been there where the arranged marriage happened, between the love for the languages and me. The prolonged presence of the two languages, English and Bengali, made them a crucial part of my life. Hours of Wren and Martin, verse after verse penned by Shelley, Keats, Byron, pages of Shakespeare, Shaw, Maugham; and then attending Ms Gomes’ classes on the nuances of Bangla byakaran, bisheshwa, bisheshan, kriya, sarbanaam, sandhi, samas, krit pratyay, taddhit pratyay, reading and appreciating Bonophool, Moumachhi, Satyendranath, Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra – phew! So by the end of it all, the lack of linguistic perfection in a person left something incomplete for me. And at times it even denied me the simpler pleasures of teenage and youth.
At 15 , I received my first love letter, from a ‘eligible in all respect’ boy from the English medium missionary school down the road from mine. But even with stars in my eyes I halted my reverie midway – three grammatical errors and five spelling mistakes! I know, I will sound like my fifth grade English teacher here, but can’t help it! Mrs. Mandel would always say, “the search of perfection begins with detecting imperfection” and I may have had taken it too seriously. Ahem, you think so too?
All through college and university Agastya had the last laugh. A crush coupled with a few skipped heartbeats would inevitably be followed by a not so pleasant dawning of realisation that I was very much rooted in Madna. Love would quickly be replaced by the axiom that my search for linguistic perfection was actually a wild goose chase as none would pass my “litmus” test in speaking, writing or even thinking in proper, grammatically correct forms of the languages they inherited or acquired.
The news syndication, was where my lofty pride of “walking, talking and breathing” English met the first reality check. I realized even I made grammatical errors, misspelt words and to quote my erstwhile editor, I was at times “a disaster”. In other words, lofty me was humbled. My Editor-in-chief ran every piece of edit through her washer and dryer before it could be put to bed. Reducing beautifully crafted articles into shreds, at times with a pair of shears, was her forte and my nemesis. But the company of the enlightened veteran also ratified my belief that I was not paranoid, that my Madna was real and Agastya was right.
Finally, a serendipitous meeting and a couple of paeans of love later, I married a Brit by birth Bee who also happened to be a pedigreed Bangali, but by accident. He had been the only beacon of hope after my unrealistic love story with Agastya. The Bee was flesh and blood, had a commendable command over English and the same unapologetic fervour for the tongue (excuse me, his mother tongue, being born there and all that) so I lost no time in saying ‘yes’ to him. His Bengali was nothing to write home about, and here I made an exception, lest I thought I’d die a cantankerous spinster and also because I was sure it would correct itself under my supervision.
To be continued …..