Will Kevin learn to speak in Assamese? Will he be able to learn Assamese culture this Rongali Bihu? To know read this story by Rhituparna Chakraborty
Nobojit Barua was worried. He with his family moved back to Assam. Let’s find out why.
A few years earlier…
Nobojit was overwhelmed by profusion of changes in his life. He went abroad for higher studies and after completion joined a good IT job in Amsterdam. In between he came back to Assam to get married and went back with his wife to Amsterdam as he had his job there. The handsome salary and perks gave him the privilege to send money to his parents in Assam. In a short while the couple went the family way and Abhigyan was born.
Nobojit had to travel often leaving the responsibility of Abhigyan’s upbringing to Anuradha. Nobojit was a good son, a caring father and a loving husband. He spent time with Abhigyan whenever he could, however, Nobojit always felt guilty of not being able to give enough time. Not just that, as Abhigyan started school, their frequent visits to Assam changed to occasional.
Living in Amsterdam, was challenging for the couple when it came to Abhigyan. Abhigyan started speaking very late. Nobojit and Anuradha spoke Axomiya at home which allowed Abhigyan to understand Axomiya well. He soon picked up a few Axomiya words.
But, truble started when Anuradha took him outside to the park to play, the kids there would speak Dutch which confused Abhigyan. Hence, he began communicating with gestures. Abhigyan’s pediatrician recommended speech therapy for Abhigyan and suggested one language at a time. Once he mastered one language, he would eventually learn other languages too. Otherwise, there would be a lot of confusion.
So, Abhigyan became fluent in Dutch. He did understand Axomiya but he would communicate in Dutch. Anuradha and Nobojit understood Dutch well. However, they were not at all happy with the cultural mismatch. Nobojit and Anuradha did not want Abhigyan to be lost in a foreign culture. They wanted him to know all about Axomiya traditions, culture and of course the beautiful Axomiya language.
One fine day Nobojit took the decision of relocating to Assam. Anuradha was immensely happy with the decision. Nobojit did not want to interrupt Abhigyan’s education and hence after Nobojit’s 10th exams, the Baruas relocated to Assam. They had always planned on returning to their hometown, but this decision was primarily because of Abhigyan. ‘Abhigyan’ they had kept this beautiful name. But in Amsterdam no one could articulate the name correctly. Abhigyan himself could not pronounce his name flawlessly. Gradually ‘Abhigyan’ became ‘Kevin’.
During the vacations when the Baruas visited Assam, Aghigyan would reply his name to be Kevin whenever asked by someone and he would speak in English with everyone. When he spoke in English, he had a Dutch accent. Many of Nobojit’s relatives and Anuradha’s relatives would tell Nobojit and Anuradha, “Is Ram, ee dekhun Axomiya kobo ekebare najane. Xikaba aakou. Nijor naam tu dekhun Kevin buli koi. Abhigyan naam tu koboye najane.…Nai, nai, taak Axomiya xikaba. Nijor maatri bhaaxa najanile keneke hobo.” (“Oh dear, he does not know Axomiya at all! He calls himself Kevin! He can’t even pronounce Abhigyan. No, no, teach him Axomiya. It’s not nice to “not know” one’s own mother tongue. Teach him Axomiya”).
Anuradha and Nobojit would be hurt and embarrassed. It’s not that Anuradha and Nobojit did not try teaching Axomiya to Abhigyan, but he was comfortable only with Dutch and English. Hence Anuradha and Nobojit decided to move back to their home town and teach their son ‘culture’. He should not remain an uncultured boy.
They decided that in coming Rongali Bihu, Abhigyan should be able to speak some sentences in Axomiya and he should be able to sing few lines of Bihu songs and other Axomiya songs. He should be cultured. And he should call himself ‘Abhigyan’ and NOT ‘KEVIN’. NO! Nobojit was determined, so was Anuradha.
They couldn’t let their son go haywire. In the forthcoming Bihu, they would gift their son the gift of mother tongue, the gift of culture, the gift of tradition. Abhigyan, their son, should prove himself to be a true blue Axomiya. He should prove that he was a part of this rich heritage and culture.
So, Nobojit told all about it to his parents, Shri. Sudarshan Barua and Smt. Nirmali Barua. Sudarshan Barua was a retired professor of History and Nirmali Barua was a retired schoolteacher. They listened to all that Nobojit and Anuradha had to say about Abhigyan and their wish of transforming ‘Kevin’ to ‘Abhigyan’.
Sudarshan Barua was a man of few words. He cleared his voice and said, “So how do you plan to accomplish this dream of yours?”
Anuradha pleaded, “Papa, you and maa please guide us. How do we do that?”
Nirmali said, “I know a very good teacher. She used to work in my school. Her name is Anupama Saikia. She is way younger than me. Now she runs her own school. For a month or so, Abhigyan can attend her school. I am sure she will not let you down. I know her. In fact, you and Anuradha can leave this to me. I will take Abhigyan to her classes. Till then let him stay with us. However, I have a condition.”
Anuradha and Nobojit looked at Nirmali with confused eyes. This time Sudarshan Barua spoke. He said, “I know what Nirmali would say.”
Anuradha asked, “What?”
Sudarshan Barua took off his reading glasses, kept the newspaper aside and said, “She would say that she does not want anyone to interfere in any of this for one month. She will manage it alone.”
Nirmali added, “Yes! I do not want any of you to ask me about Abhigyan’s progress for one month. After one month I will let you know the results.”
Nobojit and Anuradha readily agreed. They dropped Abhigyan at Sudarshan and Nirmali’s home. Nobojit and Anuradha were allowed to check on Abhigyan’s wellbeing, but they were not allowed to check on his improvement in learning culture.
Nirmali spoke with Anupama Saikia. Anupama readily agreed to let Abhigyan attend her classes. And Abhigyan’s classes began. Abhigyan went to these classes every day. Nirmali would make Abhigyan’s choice of food for lunch. Abhigyan would stay in that school for 7 hours every day.
At the blink of an eye, a month went by. Nirmali called Anuradha and Nobojit and said, “Anupama has called both of you. She wants to talk to you about Abhigyan.” Anuradha’s heart skipped a beat.
She asked Nirmali,“Is everything okay?”
Nirmali replied with a concerned tone, “I don’t know. She wants to speak with his parents. Be there at the school, tomorrow by 11:15 a.m.”
Next day, Anuradha and Nobojit went to the school. Anupama Saikia was waiting for them. She welcomed Anuradha and Nobojit warmly, made them sit comfortably in her office room.
Nobojit asked, “How is our Abhigyan doing in the classes?”
Anupama said, “Abhigyan? Uh, Kevin, you mean Kevin….”
Anuradha gasped, “Kevin? Did he tell you his name was Kevin?”
Anupama smiled and said, “Yes. He prefers Kevin to Abhigyan. He is unable to pronounce Abhigyan.” Nobojit felt miserable.
He said, “Ma’am, you should have corrected him. He needs to learn a lot. He knows nothing about our culture…”
Anupama smiled and said, “Umm, not sure who needs to learn from whom….” Anuradha and Nobojit looked at Anupama with questions in their eyes.
Anupama said, “Come with me. I need to show you something. Please look from the window quietly. Do not make any noise. Ok?” Anuradha and Nobojit agreed.
Anuradha and Nobojit followed Anupama to another classroom. Anuradha and Nobojit saw Abhigyan with a girl. Abhigyan was telling her something in Dutch and she was following his instructions, albeit very slowly. In between, there would be saliva dripping from the girl’s mouth. Abhigyan would take his handkerchief and clean it. The girl would be entirely focused on what she was doing and then she would be so thrilled, she would babble and clap awkwardly.
Anupama said softly, “You see that girl sitting there. She is 14 years old. She is a special child. She was diagnosed with Autism. She is my daughter. I had to leave my job because I had to take care of her. I then started this school for underprivileged children. I would make my daughter sit in the last bench with a shadow teacher and a teaching assistant. When Kevin came to this class, along with the other kids, I tried teaching him the basics of our language, our culture, but he would turn around and see my daughter. While I tried to engage the entire class, Kevin would try to engage her. The girl who never spoke a single word in all these years, not even ‘Maa’, speaks one word now. And that word is ‘Kevin’.”
Anupama then pointed out to a painting pasted in the classroom wall and said, “You see that painting….those green flowers, pink leaves, black house, red clouds, my daughter made it. First time in all these years, my daughter knew colors. Yes, she did it on her own. Kevin let her select the colors of her choice. Ei Rongali Bihut Kevin e mur suwali jonir jibonot rong aanile.” (“This Rongali Bihu, Kevin brought ‘Rong’ in my daughter’s life”).
While saying that Anupama’s eyes welled up. Her voice choked. Anuradha and Nobojit could not stop their tears. Anupama then said, “I have something more to show you. Lunch break will be in 15 minutes. Let’s wait in my room till lunch break.”
After 15 minutes Anupama took Anuradha and Nobojit to the field outside. All the kids were having lunch. Anupama said, “At that corner Kevin is sitting with a little boy. We will stand a little away so that they do not know that we are watching. Okay?”So, they went and stood a little away and watched.
They saw Kevin exchanging his lunch box with the little boy. Kevin had got pasta for lunch. The little boy relished the pasta while speaking in Axomiya while Kevin added to the conversation in English and Dutch and ate the little boy’s lunch which was plain rice with little mustard oil, salt, and mashed potatoes.
Anupama said, “This boy is our school’s cleaners’ son. He is 8 years old. His parents work in this school and at some households as cleaners. The boy studies here with the other children and one day he saw the food in Kevin’s lunch box. He wanted to taste some. Kevin realized the boy sometimes missed breakfast. So, Kevin would bring an extra apple also as a snack for this child.”
Nobojit’s eyes went moist, Anuradha gulped her tears. Anupama then said, “Come with me.” Anuradha and Nobojit followed Anupama to another class. There were two boys, must be around 10 years old. Anupama went near the boys and said, “Raju aru Rubul, eiya Kevin dada’r maa aru deuta.” (“Raju and Rubul, meet Kevin’s Mom and Dad.”)
The little boys beamed and said, “Khura Khuri, Nomoskar. Bhaal nay apunalukor?” (“Uncle Aunty, Namaskar! How are you?”)
Anuradha and Nobojit greeted the children warmly and said, “Kevin Dada’r logot tumaluke porha neki?” (“Do you study with Kevin?”)
The boys said, “Kevin Dada ye bor eta porha xuna kori nathake. Kintu aamar logot khele, aru xeidina jay imaan jure boroxun disile, Kevin dadai aamak tekhetor notun dhuniya saati tu di dile.Kevin Dada jay imaan bhaal.”(“Kevin does not like to study much but he does play with us. The other day when it was raining heavily, he gave us his umbrella and said that we could keep it. Kevin is so nice.”)
Anuradha and Nobojit were speechless. Anupama told Anuradha and Nobojit, “What is our Axomiya Culture about, what is any Culture about? It’s about spreading love, being kind, helping others. Kevin may not know how to speak Axomiya, but he knows the language of humanity. He knows the culture of kindness and love. Rongali Bihu is about celebrating colors and love. Kevin celebrates Rongali Bihu every single day. We talk about showering gifts in Rongali Bihu. Kevin gives gifts every day. Whether it is the gift of encouragement, whether it is the gift of support or whether it is the gift of love, he knows how to give and he gives. Not being fluent in his mother tongue, not knowing how to sing a song in his mother tongue, not being able to talk to people in his mother tongue does not make him uncultured. He is the most cultured person I have ever met. Because love and kindness is his culture. You are lucky to have been blessed with a son like him. Let people know him by ‘Kevin’. That does not change the fact that he is an epitome of humanity and love. Now enjoy Rongali Bihu and do not get pressurized by anyone to change Kevin. He is a beautiful soul.”
Nobojit and Anuradha were quiet. From school they went to Nobojit’s parents’ home. Nirmali smiled and asked, “So, did Abhigyan learn anything?”
Nobojit hugged his mom tight, cried and said, “Kevin…..”
Nirmali smiled and said, “This is all I and your dad wanted to make you and Anuradha understand. Hope you know now.”
Anuradha wiped her tears and said, “Yes Maa….”
Sudarshan Barua said, “Every culture is about spreading love and being human. That’s all we want in our children. As for our mother tongue, everyone eventually learns it when they hear and talk often. But we should not judge anyone based on that. Happy Bihu!”
The Baruas had a beautiful Bihu celebration. They distributed Pithas, Larus, Gamusas, clothes, books and stationery for all the kids in school. Indeed a very Happy Bihu…………!!!
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Rhituparna is a content developer and soft skills trainer. An ardent fan of diaspora writers like JhumpaLahiri, she has written around 199 stories so far, some of which have been published in The Sentinel. She writes a blog https://rheetuparnachakkravorty.medium.com/