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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“What do You Need that Language for?”

25 February, 2003 - 00:00

It is always a pleasure to be addressed in your mother tongue. And it is even more pleasing when done by a person who is not supposed to know it, one coming from a distant land with totally different traditions, language, religion... This is evidence of respect. Mridula Gosh contributes her articles to the Den' in Ukrainian. We asked her to share her experience of studying the language. When she brought her feature we had a very interesting conversation that will appear in the next issue of The Day .

Mridula Gosh comes from India. She received her first post-secondary education in Calcutta and the second one in Kyiv. She an historian, political analyst, economist, and an expert on international relations. She has stayed in Ukraine since 1984. After graduating from the Institute of International Relations, she worked for the UN Representation to Ukraine (humanities sector), is into journalism as the chief editor of the magazine Eastern Economist , member of the board of the Renaissance Foundation. She is currently with the Eastern European Institute of Development (having contributed a great deal in its foundation), specializing in acts of violence against women. The institute also deals with health care and analysis.

Back in 1985, the Kyiv University foreign students’ dorm was frequented by a respectable professor. Whether instructed to do so or acting of his own good will, he took care of the students’ health and living conditions. During one of his visits the professor noticed a Ukrainian-English dictionary on my desk. Suddenly he was agitated. “What do you need that language for? As an international law student and future diplomat, you should study other languages you’ll need in your career...” I was surprised but did not show it, because we all knew we shouldn’t trust anyone. Yet listening to a professor advising against studying the language of his people was weird. What did he mean? Was he probing my attitude to “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism?” Frankly, I did not tell him what I actually thought, but that incident only spurred my desire to learn more about the language of a country whose people did not use it.

Referring to the material, consumption sphere, aren’t we interested to taste other people’s dishes, wear a kimono, sarong, or poncho? Referring to the cultural sphere, don’t we want to hear music originating from different countries? Even as a little girl I felt inferior hearing other people talk in a language I couldn’t understand. My home country is multilingual. People speak totally different languages. Honestly, even now I can’t explain how I cannot live in a country without knowing that country’s language. Perhaps the reason is the way I was raised in that multilingual environment. We learned to write in Bengali, our mother tongue, and also in English and Devanagari [an alphabetical script with some syllabic features derived from Brahmi, used for the writing of Hindi and many other languages of India, including Sanskrit. Also called Nagari] at the same time, along with arithmetic. We recited tales and poems and played games using different languages.

Therefore, learning different languages has been to me like meeting people becoming your good life-long friends. When you know several languages you are never lonely. So learning Ukrainian was another interesting acquaintance. I saw written Ukrainian for the first time in 1983, when the world- famous film director Satyajit Ray, living and working in Calcutta, showed me a book of drawings and cartoons by Oleksandr Dovzhenko and asked me to translate passages from it. I was taking a course in Russian and had a good command of the language, so I told him the book was not written in Russian but some other language, probably Ukrainian, because Dovzhenko was Ukrainian. Using my Russian and intuition, I translated an entry in the book, reading “Stalin did not like my story ‘Ukraine on Fire’... It pains my heart to realize that ‘Ukraine on Fire’ is the truth. Concealed and locked truth about my people and their suffering. Meaning that no one wants it... In the future they will regard our heroic epoch as one of decay in many respects.” It was then I first thought that it would be interesting to learn that language, God willing.

Regrettably, I practically had no such opportunity while studying in Kyiv, in 1984-89. It was taboo even to ask what the Union of Brest was all about. My Soviet fellow students all spoke Russian and poked fun at me, seeing how I tried to study Ukrainian. I remember their guffaw when I said that horilchani vyroby [Ukr. for wines and spirits] probably meant hot foods... The only source I could use was the radio and its RATAU programs. It came alive at six in the morning with the beautiful tune of Zhyvy, Ukraino! [Live, Ukraine!] I listened to the music and the melodious Ukrainian language and gradually began to understand it. My friends from Bulgaria spoke their language and I made another interesting discovery: there are a lot of similarities between Slavic and Indian languages and the roots of many words can be found in Sanskrit: tato [daddy] is actually the same; ochi and okshi [eyes], nis and nasah [nose], to mention but a few.

Meeting Viktor Batiuk, diplomat and poet, was a real godsend. He was the only one who knew Bengali and translated Rabindranath Tagore into Ukrainian. I remember how beautiful his Ukrainian sounded. Holding a book of his translations in 1997, I was painfully aware that he was no longer among the living and that the Ukrainian people would have to wait long for new translations (so far no Ukrainians can translate from Bengali). I enjoy every memory of my visits to the Soviet Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in 1987-88. Now and then I would help Viktor with Tagore translations. Remarkably, the man had never been to India, yet he did a unique job. And it was a bad mistake on the part of authorities which was, however, quickly rectified. His first visit came in 1998-89, as a member of an official delegation. Friends in Calcutta told me later about the ovation he caused, starting his address in Bengali, in the land of Tagore, and how the people listened to the other ranking members of the delegation, in a polite but aloof manner.

As a postgraduate, I spent most of the time collecting literature outside Ukraine, now I could read Ukrainian poetry and even translated some into Bengali. I started on Lesia Ukrayinka’s Song of the Forest , Ivan Franko’s poetry, and Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar . Then I worked on noted modern Ukrainian authors, such as Oleksandr Oles, Tychyna, Sosiura, Rudenko, Kostenko, Oliynyk, Pavlychko, Drach, Kalynets, Rymaruk, Herasymiuk. I was pained to read Vasyl Stus, I could only try to imagine how he had felt. Later, I read and translated some poems by Leonid Kyseliov, representing Kyiv’s Russian-speaking intelligentsia. In 1968, the last year of his life, he wrote excellent poems in Ukrainian. Viktor Havrylovych, representative of independent Ukraine at the United Nations, read some of my translations and constantly encouraged me. I have a notebook with my manuscripts and his remarks which keep with jealous care. I also lovingly remember my friend Olena Chmyr and my beloved teacher Natalia Prysiazhniuk. Their love of Ukrainian made it possible for me to perceive the poetic and melodious essence of this language — and they would never in any way try to impose on me their ideas or persuasions.

And so, first it was the Ukrainian Muse, then, in the process of work, daily prosaic and not so prosaic routine. This routine does not tire me, for it is the way this courageous nation lives and evolves, surmounting obstacles and revising stereotypes.