Of foreign words in foreign lands
By Pritha Lal
I love words. Words that become interesting, exotic and sound wonderful when you pronounce them just right. Isn’t it amazing how a word that is rooted in a language different from your daily parlance can traverse the world to find meaning in your life, when you have found the right context for it, and it has found the right relevance for you? Three such words sum up the essence of my twenty-one years of living away from my home country, India. In some ways, these words also define me and mathematically add up to half of my lifespan. Before I delve into those experiences, let me introduce my protagonists of this story.
Hiraeth is a Welsh word with no direct English translation. Its essence lies in the earnest longing and nostalgia associated with one’s home, and the wistfulness one feels on being away from what is so dearly familiar. Fernweh is a German word that is almost an exact opposite of Hiraeth, and also cannot be directly translated into English. It suggests the need for distance and the wish to encounter new worlds and experiences that are very different from one’s own by travelling far and wide. Finally, the Sanskrit phrase, “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” from the Upanishads, literally translated means, ‘the world is your family.’
I am an Indian by birth. Kolkata remains my everlasting city of joy and its monsoons remain my most poignant context of hiraeth. However, in my 43 years of existence on God’s green earth, the total number of years I spent in this city, including holidays and sporadic trips, don’t even span a decade. But if I have to go back to a place of memory that brings me the greatest joy, it would have to my summer vacations in Kolkata with my grandparents in their beautiful home with its coconut trees, blue skies, the sights and sounds of the very first rain showers, and everything that came with it. That is my hiraeth. That will always be my hiraeth, because the memories I long to go back to, don’t exist anymore. They are eidetic glimpses of a time that will never return but remains indelibly etched in my soul.
New Hooghly Bridge in Kolkata – Vidyasagar Setu
My father’s work transfers enabled us to travel to different parts of India and then spend a good amount of time in Kuwait. The seven years that I spent in that country brought me my first experience of being a part of what is now known as the Indian diaspora. This was in the 1980s—a decade I call my own because of the music I proudly never grew out of! It was also the decade in which I experienced growing up in a culture very different from what I had ever known. Through this decade, our family traveled to some wonderful places in Western Europe and Greece, and all those picture books I had read as a child, came to life. It was the decade when fernweh became a part of who I am, and also one when I began to understand how this world is indeed your family. Two incidents vividly come to my mind.
The first memory is that of a beautiful Egyptian woman named Aazza. As our neighbor in Kuwait, she was kind enough to take me under her wings and get me up to speed on my Arabic. Being in grade 6, I was required to have elementary knowledge of Arabic. This lovely woman took it upon herself to teach me the language—not just what the books said, but a little bit more. I recall fondly how she would enunciate each letter and word and point out the subtle differences of how the letter “geem” was pronounced “jeem” in Kuwait but with a “ga” sound in Egypt. She would often play soft Arabic music on the radio as we sat in her living room, and I went through my handwriting lessons with her. My 11-year-old heart and mind knew then that there are good people in this world, and very often they look and sound totally different from you, to the point that you may not even understand them. It is a lesson that I hold very dear to me; one that has served me well all these years.
Another memory that brings all of my foreign words together dates back to the 1990 Gulf War. I was in my first year of college in Kolkata, and my mother and brother were visiting me in the summer. As war broke out on a fateful August night in the Gulf, my father was unable to leave Kuwait for several months. It was not the best time in our lives, but it did teach us the value, meaning, and essence of relationships.
People were trying to figure out the safest ways to leave Kuwait as different countries operationalized their evacuation plans. A Bangladeshi janitor, who worked in my father’s office and did odd jobs at our home, visited him one evening. He offered all of his savings to my dad and asked him to leave for India at his earliest. He was earnest in his plea to my dad as he himself wouldn’t be able to make it back to Bangladesh for a long time anyway. Stifling his tears, my father most respectfully refused the offer and sent the janitor on his way with some financial help and pertinent embassy-related information. To this day, all of us, especially my father, get emotional thinking of the selfless magnanimity of the janitor’s heart and wonder if the young man ever returned to Dhaka.
Vasudaiva Kutumbakam indeed, isn’t it?
The United States of America has been my home since 1998. I came here as a young bride and over time and experiences, have come to realize this was meant to be. Frankly, while living in India, I was never overly fascinated by the US of A. I am still not in awe of the glamor of this country. But I am truly, madly, and deeply in love with all that it and its people have offered me in the last sixteen years, which in some ways has come to define the person I am today.
Utah has been home all this time, again not a place I had on my fernweh-list of things to do. But the longer I have stayed in this beautiful state, the longer I have wanted to stay. People make the ultimate difference. My experiences as a grad school student in a Church-based University here and explaining the pros of the ‘Morning After’ pill to a class full of slightly aghast students was as fun and interesting as it was to have the kindest colleagues come and check on me after 9/11 and make sure no one had said anything inappropriate because of the color of my skin and the heightened emotions of those days.
I honestly think work can be a wonderful reason to get all your fernweh items checked off. The best part of every experience I have had is that I cannot recall one that I wouldn’t want to relive. From a sous chef customizing my omelet every morning with just the right amount of cilantro and chilies at a really good hotel in Singapore to being upgraded to an executive suite at the Intercontinental upon visiting Seoul after a year just because the concierge remembered me from my last visit to the kindly Father David telling us about his missionary sister in India while giving us a personal tour of the historic Salisbury Cathedral in the UK to countless TSA officers wishing me a safe trip in Hindi or Urdu and making sure they pronounced my name just right—the stories are endless. My faith in human goodness has been restored with every new experience and has made me crave for more. I have come to the irrevocable conclusion that there is no difference between an Iranian cabbie in New York City and the young kid who helps me bag my groceries at the local store every evening. They are both a part of a continuum – Vasudaiva Kutumbakam.
It is unrealistic to think nothing unpleasant will ever happen. It will, but that is another reason to look forward to yet another adventure, yet another experience. It will be a renewed source of learning those three words and perhaps discovering a few new ones. After all, if you carry your hiraeth within you, then the roads less traveled will forever offer the best vistas, and you will always find your way home.
Air Show Rehearsals from my hotel window in Singapore
Photo: Pritha Lal
Pritha Lal has worked in the field of Human Resources and Organizational Development for well over a decade. She has been based in the US but has worked with several countries in the Far East on leadership, change management, strategy and other team development initiatives. She decided to give it all up for a real job in motherhood and become a stay-at-home mom as a 40th birthday gift to herself. Since then, Pritha has unlearned and re-learned a lot of her corporate lessons through the eyes of her toddler and self-published her first book – Blissful Discontent, available as an Amazon Kindle eBook. She currently resides in Utah but has wanderlust as her middle name. She blogs and writes poetry, because life is too precious to not Carpe Diem.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
Pritha, what a beautiful concept, explained with so much ease! I love the air of nostalgia that the entire article offers, enhanced by the ideas of hiraeth, fernweh and vasudaiva kutumbakam. The world is, indeed, your oyster and may you continue to write such meaningful pieces that shine “like a good deed in a naughty world”. God bless!
Good reading……..Pritha. The Sanskrit concept “Vasudhaiva kudumbakam” ia for all mankind….
This was lovely.