“Auntie does she understand Bengali?”
The question was about my four year old German Shepherd and was put to me one evening by my daughter’s friend as she thoughtfully stood outside our garden gate. I supposed the girl was being funny till I looked at her genuinely incredulous face and realized that my mild admonishments to Ginger – my dog – in my mother tongue must have seemed pretty weird to her.
So what does it mean for a dog to grow up in a multi-lingual family? Mostly we speak in English with friends while at times we switch our national language, Hindi. With family members, it is our mother tongue, Bengali, which seems natural and comfortable. Does the plurality of our linguistic identities confuse our dog? Could this be the reason that most of the time Ginger remains regally indifferent to what we tell her to do and more importantly, not to do – like spare my tender marigold saplings as she rushes about chasing a cat in our garden?
Dogs generally learn to associate the sound of the words – or commands, during training – with specific actions. For example, if she learns to come down on her haunches when I say ‘sit’, when one says ‘baitho’ or ‘bosho’ – equivalents in Hindi and Bengali respectively – it will mean nothing to her. Also the tone matters – if I want her to get down from my bed, the same two-three words voiced in stern staccato sounds is more likely to elicit a prompter response than when spoken leisurely and indulgently.
However, animal behavioural experts and researchers are learning new things about our canine companions every day – indeed there are reports that dogs can process language much like humans do. According to an August 2016 study whose results were published in the well-regarded journal Science, a group of Hungarian scientists led by Dr. Attila Andics of Eotvos Lorand University, in a first-ever experiment of its kind, found that dogs could not just recognize what humans say and how they say it but could also combine the two to come up with a correct interpretation of the very meaning of the words – exactly what we humans do when conversing amongst ourselves.
All this I told my daughter’s friend while she waited for my daughter to join her with the badminton racquets. I am not sure how far she followed my explanations but as the two girls walked away chatting excitedly, Ginger gave three short barks which almost sounded like “Hey, you leaving me behind?” Both girls turned back, looked at Ginger and said laughing, “We’ll be back soon”.
From my corner in garden, I smiled at the scene before me and thought, “I guess it’s ok – as long as we all understand each other…”
As I looked for the candles, one of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies came to my mind. In this short story titled, “A Temporary Matter”, an estranged couple makes a series of confessions over four nights of power outage which eventually impacts their marriage in important ways.
Will this evening bring about such significant changes around me too? Unlikely, I thought as the cheery voices of my neighbours rolled in from their balcony, singling ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again, My My how can I resist you”.
In these times of social media compulsions, masks and faces have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. Perhaps, this darkness brought about by a two-hour power cut might be one of those rare occasions when, with no gadgets to fall back upon, human souls would be compelled to dig into their innermost resources. Thus while some belted out songs from a carefree past, one settled down with a book in the light of the candle. While I rustled up comfort food in the flickering kitchen lamp, another persistent soul, I realized with a rueful smile, sought out the powerbank to connect the smartphone.
What would people have done long ago, I wondered as I sat down beside my dog – petting her occasionally, unfamiliar as she was with this kind of darkness. In the past, when people’s lives were governed by the rhythms of nature? They would have got up with the sun, worked in fields or shops or travelled, and then winded up things with nightfall. Life would have been simpler ; indeed the significance of the Bengali ritual of lighting the evening lamp struck me now – in the gathering darkness, the first lamp to be lit in the home would be at the sacred altar accompanied by prayers for the family’s safety and well-being as well as the blowing of the holy conch. In fact according to my mother, the sound of the conch would serve to scare of any wandering snakes trying to get too close to village homes…
A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!
The twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, saw a flurry of media articles on the way J K Rowling has changed kids’ reading choices forever. A lot was discussed on how stories of the boy wizard making his way precariously through the forces of good and evil has caught the imagination of both young readers and their parents. And statistics have been quoted to prove how the habit of reading was alive and kicking among children.
And yet, why are these trends so rarely reflected in our own families? Why do I find it difficult to engage my teen with books? A major reason, I am told, is the vast range of recreational options available to kids these days. Smartphones, tabs, laptops, Playstations, the telly – a virtual Disneyland of electronic entertainment which streams endlessly into our homes… Why then take the trouble of choosing a book and make the effort to read and use your brain to figure it out too?
Experts on the subject have no dearth of suggestions on how to get kids and teens hooked to the world of books. Make them relevant, some say; why take them to Malory Towers and Hoggwarts, when the wide open fields or the fantastic mythology one’s own country can be the setting for stories? Again others believe one has to make an extra effort to get these kids’ attention – sign up for story reading workshops, take them to celebrity book launches or get movie stars to act out the stories in films and TV series so that they can go back to the written word.
Or maybe, just find the time to sit and read together. Though the initiative comes from me, and I have to call upon my limited dramatic skills to make the narration as lively as possible, after a few days of doing this, she picks up the book on her own and looks for the page where we left off. I guess, this works best with my teen – let me know what works with yours…
As I settle down with my family in this shady corner of the Nilgiri Hills – having moved house yet another time – I wonder what is it that transforms a physical shelter into a ‘home’.
- when you start cooking meals at a place for yourself and your family
- when your dog finds its corner and curls up comfortably
- when you hang up paintings and family photos on its walls
- when you plant flowers and sow seeds on the adjoining patch of earth
So many ways to fashion, mould and remake a dwelling into one’s own.
Ah…another difficult word! Do I actually ‘own’ all this – the brick, wood, earth – with which I put together a home. It is a predicament familiar to those living in rented places, staff quarters, company bungalows and so on.
What then makes up my home, why then should I care, how then can I put down roots..!!
As I ponder over these questions, I find a vague comfort in a section of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:
“…Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.
It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.
…For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky,
Whose door is the morning mist,
and whose windows are the songs and the silences of the night”.