My Loss in Translation

Cover of My Loss in Translation

When I think of summer, I fall into gold. I think of parrot-song and swirling dust, of lying beneath the filigreed shadow of mango leaves, yellow pulp staining our fingertips and lips and coloring the edges of the cotton on our skin. I think of sleeping beneath the open sky at night, catching fireflies in our mosquito nets to the musical trill of crickets and monsoon frogs. I think of laughing, my brother and I, chasing monsoon rains and sword fighting with sticky-sweet sugarcane until we landed, our bodies falling, huddled together in the dip of a charpai, our laughter eating the silence of rustling leaves, resting upon the bed of woven twine, golden.

The first time I used the word charpai in fiction, a professor told me to use “cot” instead because I “used it too many times” on a single page. I had wondered how just three could be too many times, but perhaps it was the way the word leaned to the right, the way the consonants lacked familiarity that made them stand out. An editor told me to use the word “charpoy” instead, a word that has been recognized in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word that has been approved of and sanctioned by people who have probably never used it themselves. 

My grandmother spent days weaving twine. She would sit by the wooden frame, the length of rope kissing her hand, leaving blisters from its frayed edges in her soft paper-bag skin as the rope went 

over, under, O O

over, under, V  V

        U  N  D  E  E  R  over, over, over, over    O  O                                                 

  U  N  D  E   R  R  over, under, over, under   V   V

                                                                                E   E  over, under, over, under, over, under

                                                                                R   R  over, over, under, under, over, under.


She would emerge after days, my grandmother, grooves nestled in her fingertips, hair kissing the sides of her face, twinkling with sweat. She would emerge and place her palm on the woven twine across the wooden frame, testing its strength before letting us descend. And we would scramble over the edges, jumping on the twine bed before collapsing into its golden embrace, our skin caressed by each strand that had been rolled between the pads of her index finger and thumb. With each addition to our family, there would be a new charpai, each one woven with the same care, the same time and love and feel of skin wrapped around and within the golden strands. 

When I have used the word “cot” it has never carried the same connotations, the same memory of sweat and love embedded within weaves around a wooden frame. It does not carry with it the memory of my grandfather’s last days or my brother’s first ones, spent on twine beds in my grandmother’s home. When I think of the word “cot”, I imagine a white rectangle, and a Google search returns the same image of something bland: a patchwork of grays and whites and browns, something that I would imagine reeks of the scent that lurks in carpet stores: artificial, lacking warmth. People say that if a word has a direct translation then it should be translated, but there is more nuance to language than that. Some translations carry the weight of the word from one tongue to the other while others fumble and twist and leave the heart of it behind. 

My mother reminds me of the first time she set foot in my father’s house, newly wedded and wrapped in a crimson sari, alone amid a pack of strangers within strange walls. She reminds me of the fear that curled its grip around her toes, around the edges of her arms, and the back of her throat, and how it all vanished when my grandmother wrapped her in her arms, their limbs weaving like the twine that my grandmother had spent days before rolling beneath her fingers, making a bed for my mother, a charpai of her own. 

There is more to this translation than simply a syllabic exchange. There is more loss than the average observer might identify. Charpoy derives from Bengali, and of course, the language of West Bengal was the first to grace the pages of Merriam-Webster, being home to the soil where the East India Company first took root before the state was ever even named. But my grandmother is not from West Bengal nor does she speak Bengali. She speaks an unnamed dialect of Hindi or Hindustani that is closer to Awadhi. It dances and waltzes and often evades my ears, her tenor rising and falling in unpredictable tones and unfamiliar diction. She speaks a language—a dialect—limited to a single city, to the clusters of villages and farmlands and fields and the endless green and gold and yellow patchwork of mustard and bajra and sugarcane that surrounds it. Charpoy is not charpai. However similar it may seem to the ignorant eye, it does not have the same intimacy to me and mine, being a word from a language I can’t read or speak or understand, and I refuse to use it in my own work. Like me, my grandmother is not Bengali. She did not grow up with the liberal views of the people from West Bengal, their access to education, their appreciation for art and yet, she created it—her own art—within the golden weaves of twine that greet me whenever I step through her doors. 

Oftentimes, in vegetable markets in Delhi, my mother would hear a voice above the chatter of vendors yelling prices, customers haggling, and the distant buzz of roadside traffic. She would gravitate to the syllables that never stood out to my ears, pulling me along, carrots or papaya or bottle gourds peeking out of the hand-stitched edges of her khadi bag. Within seconds we would hear a vendor speak again and my mother would know where he was from, from her home, my grandmother’s home, from Budaun, a tiny city that is inconsequential to people in the sprawling metropolis of the capital. I always wondered how she could tell with such ease, as if her ears were honed to the sound of Awadhi and other dialects close to it, but she always knew. She would ask where he was from and in that question would lie their shared understanding. We would return from the market with extra chillies and ginger and gooseberries, she would return from the market with a smile on her face. 

It is only recently that I’ve realized that I’ve been forgetting words. If they are words that have made it to cities, then I can usually find them on the internet, seeking out the curves and edges of my own mother tongue in the confines of cyberspace. But there are words that I will never find, words that only my grandmother speaks, words that belong to her village and don’t drift beyond the ten kilometers to the nearest city. I have looked up words like halla and pidiya and panethi while writing fiction, and I know that no one else will know what they mean; they do not return answers from a Google search, and sometimes, they return the wrong ones. Only I and everyone in my family before me knows what they mean, but I will never go live in the village, and neither will my parents, which doesn’t bode well for the unnamed dialect we will leave behind. I wonder where these words will go when my grandmother is gone, and I hope they go everywhere; I know they will be lost soon, she is old and weary within her bones, but I hope that doesn’t stop them from being remembered.

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