In Bengali – the first language of my parents – I cannot read, distinguish left or right, or describe different kinds of love. I cannot count above 10, recite the alphabet, or say my age, and I cannot say "thank you" or "sorry". My parents have lived in England for nearly four decades, but their English use has always been contextual, shaped by the more quotidian aspects of making a home, running a business, and putting children through school, none of which I can clearly imagine. We have never used more than a single word – disyllabic at most – with each other to describe a feeling. I wonder if they are exactly what they appear to be: incurious, happy not to know anything that might make them unhappy.
Over the years, we have come to a strange compromise: speaking half in Bengali and half in English. The linguistic term is "Benglish". Benglish apparently operates by easily identifiable rules, but it doesn't feel like it when you're speaking and doing the linguistic equivalent of trying to fit star shapes into square holes. Conveniently, Benglish combinations centre mostly on action: To-mah-gessa-explain-korr-muh (exactly: "you explain I'm going to"), or Ah-me-try-korr-muh anyway ("I'm try going to anyway").
For two weeks last summer, I was in a small Brazilian town called Paraty, armed with less than a handful of Brazilian Portuguese phrases. On a solo lunch trip, I walked to a buffet takeaway place in town. I've learned from my migrant parents that food and money are the easiest things to exchange, so I dumped some battered vegetables into a silver carton and waved 10 reals in the air at the man behind the counter. I like fried food and hate small talk, so it didn't really matter. Returning to the silent, dank hotel room, eating there alone because I was tired of gesturing greetings to the staff with a rictus grin, I felt as if I was seeing the world around me through the wrapped straw he had handed me for my soda.
Coming back to England, I decided that I needed to learn another language. As I messed around with Rosetta Stone ("I am a woman" is still my only Spanish phrase), my parents called me and I bumbled my way through the conversation. I didn't mention the Spanish. How could I tell my parents I was more interested in learning a language that is completely foreign to them than I am in improving the one they gave me?
Choosing between languages felt like a zero-sum game. What kind of person did I want to be? It had always been easier to cut our conversations short rather than explain my faddish, culturally specific preoccupations in Bengali. I'm eating gluten-free bread now. I went to a participatory art event – they're always disappointing but I keep going to them. Something major happened on Twitter. My pretentiousness in English sounded like idiocy in our sparse and functional Benglish. When you can never quite feel like yourself, it seems a fun challenge to embrace complexity. In Brazil, people looked closely: I wasn't an Indian Indian. In England, among relatives, I'm not a Bengali Bengali. Among non-Muslim friends, I'm probably not a Muslim Muslim. Speaking a second European language, I would become culturally confusing, rather than appearing culturally confused. Strategic confusion seemed better – and more feasible – than fitting in anywhere.
Bengali, on the other hand, could atrophy. My lack of it might never really be a problem. My parents come from a country that fought bloodily for independence in 1971 on the basis of having its own language, but my father – a teenager living in England at the time – says he doesn't understand why people back in Bangladesh didn't just continue speaking Bengali at home and state-enforced Urdu at work and in public. My mother once suggested I learn to read Bengali, but it seemed like a whim on her part (comprising in its entirety an afternoon going over the bulbous letters of the Bengali alphabet). They now have grandchildren here, and their ties to Bangladesh have unravelled. The desire to travel on both sides has waned. The dailiness of life in England consumes them, and swallows their language.
But each time I spoke to my parents, or sat silent and embarrassed in front of a sympathetic extended family member, I could feel the vestiges of Bengali knocking against me. It felt like something abandoned, immovable. I could back away from it but it would be there waiting for me, regardless of how many other languages I tried to speak.
My relationship with my parents' first language isn't identical to my relationship with my parents, but changes in one are somehow reflected in the other. As a child, Bengali was the language of parental conspiracy. It was what my parents shared when they were, in my opinion, plotting against me. At times, the power relation would reverse. Older, I wrote my own sick notes in English for school. I had long, outrageous conversations on the phone in front of them. Despite that, Benglish felt more like a purpose-built obstruction than a bridge between two forts. They made me relay the stories on the children's programme Newsround because they were easier for me to explain than the six o'clock news. Teenaged, I read and parsed articles in the Daily Telegraph for them.
They never text or use the internet. I can't transmit confidence to them in the same way that they haphazardly transmitted it to me. I asked my mother whether she wishes my Bengali was better.
"No! It's good, very good. I always understand what you're saying."
"But I can never talk about the things I'm interested in. Like a book or film. How can I say what it made me feel, for example?"
"You can say in Bengali, 'The film is very good; this film is very fitting for our culture.'"
I don't know whose culture she meant. I asked her about how she felt about watching my sister and me grow up speaking mostly in English. She said she felt sorry that she couldn't join in.
I spoke to my sister, who talked about how much she struggles with our parents' language. Unlike me, she uses it whenever she has the chance. Sometimes our mother will translate her Bengali to our father because he doesn't understand it. When my sister speaks to him alone, they switch between the two, because he finds it easier to explain himself to her in English. But she insists on speaking Bengali, conscious that her grasp of it will only get worse with time. It's like watching a looped exchange between an effusive local and a tourist, both momentarily feeling like they've understood and been understood before going their separate ways towards incomprehension and back around again. Every family has its own language, even if that language is composed of two distinctly different languages. Sometimes that language is shored up as a defence against the future, destined to fall apart.
But there are things that I can't pin to just one language because they come from both. I hadn't been able to identify the joins until last year. A turning point was when a friend said she likes that I never assume anyone is male or female based on a vague description of their attributes or interests: Without thinking, I will say "they". In Bengali's formal register, men and women are ungendered in discussion. My feminism was being expressed in the vestiges of a language that I had long seen as inimical to it, following a dull, stifling holiday to Sylhet when I was 16 and unable to leave the house unaccompanied, and unable to convey why this was an affront.
Despite that, I'd always secretly felt jealous of confident first-generation kids my age who would ask in disbelief, "Don't you want to learn Bengali?" It's like they had something fun to use it for. They had always come back proud from their summer holidays, as if they had managed the hardiest of gap years. The resentment has faded as I've learnt more about myself. I'm not a natural-born traveller. I have to imagine a relationship with a place before I've been there, a form for the content. I love making itineraries: My conversations with strangers are largely involuntary. Secondly, the utilitarian Bengali I've inherited is uninspiring. No one's ideal of a second language is one you can only use with a handful of people in extremely mundane situations. I moved between wanting to move on without nostalgia and asking myself compulsively: What is the language for?
Shortly before starting my MA, I spent a golden few weeks in the British Library reading whatever I wanted. Curiously enough, my first impulse was to read about Bangladesh and its history. I read personal accounts of the War of Liberation; I populated the map of Bangladesh – that tiny droplet – with activists, women freedom fighters, the displaced. I felt the crush of disappointment after independence, the messiness of the years after. I wanted to hear more.
Having new questions to ask my parents – even though the questions are about a geographically remote past – has made me see other sides to them. My dad is deeply conservative, and my mother's stories crystallise in a single startling image. I ask the questions in English, and they answer in Bengali. We ask each other to explain new words and emotions. Our common ground is abstract, built partly on my imaginings and their recollections. I know I have to write about these lives, and that I'll have to learn to speak the language properly to do so. Now I have a future with it, Bengali is a thing worth holding on to.