A people in translation

Fariha Sarawat
Published by Himal on 1 October 2009.

I regularly visit the coastal regions of Bangladesh for work. Whenever I meet a family, the first personal question I am asked is, Apnar bari kothai? (Where is your home?) “Dhaka”, is my standard response. This is usually met by a curious look, because very few people are really from Dhaka, a city of migrants, many of whom have lived there for generations but who have never owned it. For most, it is a city to be at, not a place to be from.

So I have to explain, “I live in Dhaka now, but our family is really from Habiganj, Sylhet.”

Inevitably, I get an enthusiastic, “Oh! So do you visit Sylhet? How is your village?”

“I don’t know. We lost everything to the river.”

This earns me instant empathy. They take me in as one of them – a migrant soul detached from her roots, a survivor of our changing homeland. Then they want to tell me more about themselves because they feel a kind of kinship. But I am not sure how similar our migrant experiences really are. Our home in Habiganj was washed away before I was even born. I was born uprooted. Most of the people I meet at the coast have been uprooted in the recent past. Some are being uprooted in the very present.

Apnar bari kothai?

That’s one of the first questions that Bangladeshis tend to ask each other at the first meeting. You could be in the middle of a business meeting in Dhaka, a courtyard meeting at some remote village on the coast, a posh drawing room in Delhi, London or Washington, or just in cyberspace. But you can bet on this being among the first questions. When they ask this, they don’t mean to ask where you live now. Like most overcrowded, growing-at-a-pace-faster-than-we-can-keep-up-with population, Bangladeshis are shifting – transitioning between our imagined homelands and our migrant realities. So when they ask about ‘home’, they mean the root. We want to know where it all began.

I’ve often wondered why. Why do we care where our roots lie, when we are branched so far from it? Why do we care where it all began when we know that we can never go back to it? Salman Rushdie compares migrant people with translated work. When we marvel at the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, do we appreciate the Persian genius, or his translators into English or Bangla? Similarly, Rushdie asks us migrant people to celebrate our transplanted, chutney-fied self.

People often ask me whether I speak the Sylheti dialect. I don’t. This is not commonly spoken in Dhaka, and I speak the chutney-fied dialect of the city. Maybe I should follow what Rushdie suggests. But any celebration can only be done by those for whom the uprooting was a matter of choice. The children born to families losing lives and livelihoods to floods, cyclones, river erosions and all the other ancillaries of climate change – what choices will they have? These children will not remember what home looked like. When I meet children at the coast, children who have been forced to leave their homes, which has its own socio-cultural milieu, I think that someday they’ll end up like me, where khulna faissha fish-pot gaan will only exist for them in the stories their parents will tell about the good old days.

In December, the mighty and powerful, and their hangers-on, will meet in Copenhagen to discuss the future of the planet. There will be a lot of negotiation, based on complicated modelling, on who will pay whom how much for cutting what amount of emissions over how long. Sombre-sounding communiqués will be issued. Pundits will parse every single word of the ultimate document.

Will anyone think about the children who will not know how to answer, Apnar bari kothai?


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