At Home, Adrift by Rashi Rohatgi

In lockdown, my son sings in the bath. “U is for ulta-pulta,” he says, quoting his current favorite book. He warns his wooden flamingo, “Here comes a topsy-turvy wave!” 

The research suggests that trying to pass on a language sans context to a third generation is hopeless, but I cannot stop. His first blocks were adorned with the forty-four letters of the Hindi alphabet; his bookshelf is full of the Indian comics my parents would bring back from family trips to India (or at least Edison, NJ). Usually he’ll pick one in English, but not so rarely, he’ll ask me to tell him the story of Hanuman or Ulupi in sentences I am sure he doesn’t understand. Perhaps this is partly because of the smug glee that I refrain from wiping off his face as he says, “Papa doesn’t understand this story. Only you and I speak Hindi.”

In our remote Norwegian town, you can hear dozens of languages, but you’d be lucky to hear the language I made one college boyfriend learn before we became exclusive. You’d probably be eavesdropping on me reciting a poem to myself, or have caught a snippet of a Bollywood tune coming out of my headphones. When we first arrived, I barely noticed, so immersed was I in my translation of a Hindi novel from Mauritius, a translation I’d wanted to do for fifteen years, a translation I’d been actively working on for almost ten. My son couldn’t speak then, and it was easy to narrate my work to him in Hindi during the day, English when my partner came home from work. 

But then he could talk, and he was starting daycare, and like the lovely woke people that they are, his daycare teachers asked him to tell the class something about his homeland: America. He told them that people in America were vegetarian, and how could I have been more thrilled? But my partner and I noticed that his accent was atrocious and quickly came up with a rule to make sure he’d still be able to communicate with all his grandparents: no Norwegian at home, only English. And Hindi, I added. But just with you, my son pointed out. 

Hindi, like so many aspects of my heritage, was always a background murmur in my life. It was the language of the movies we played on loop at parties, of two brown faces falling in love in the rain. It was the language my grandmother pretended she was illiterate outside of when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door. It was half the grocery list. And it was this last bit that got me into trouble when I took a Hindi language placement exam at college: sure, I knew it, the oral examiner admitted, but I was using verbs about chopping carrots to discuss the news article about terrorist carnage. All I knew, he concluded, was “kitchen Hindi.” 

There were no Hindi classes offered at my level, and therefore no Hindi literature at the college library, but the Intro to Hindi professor offered me a book I’d never imagined would exist: an anthology of poetry written in Hindi by Americans, hyphenated and otherwise. I was swept out to sea: there was literature in Hindi, I gushed to my exasperated parents. Determined to read more of it, I convinced the U.S. government that someone ought to know it properly, and they chipped in two years at a grad school housing rows and rows of Hindi books. I fell in love with two people that year: a untranslated writer from Mauritius, or rather his humane, bell-clear Hindi poetry and prose – and a partner who’d never even heard that song where Rakim tried to sample Lata Mangeshkar singing  Bappi Lahiri’s “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” without paying either of them. 

Over the next several years, my partner made it clear that he was open to learning as much about desi culture as I was willing to share: he taught himself to cook daal and bhindi, took a Bollywood dance class so he wouldn’t feel self-conscious at our wedding, took my parents on a tour of the British Parliament building by himself during which time all they did was compare it to a better Parliament building they’d seen elsewhere… but, he explained, he couldn’t do foreign languages. Drowning as I was in synonyms for toufaan, I thought nothing of it. Then, post Trump’s election, we settled in Norway with our newly-enlarged family. Before our child could speak, I found that, in fact, my husband could do foreign languages, very well. And then, all of a sudden, his not speaking Hindi was not okay. 

I got the call: the editors were happy with the final edits on the translation. I’d held that book so close to my heart, and now it was out in the English-speaking world. It was a world I no longer lived in, and when my partner suggested we celebrate, I grew furious. Didn’t he see I was disconsolate? All that comforted me was lying on the floor of our minimalist, Scandi-chic apartment, nursing the toddler while murmuring Hindi poetry into his ears. When, at the end of the month, it was time for me to leave my son for the longest we’d been apart since his birth – I’d be gone a week for a writers’ conference – I was so relieved to get away from my treacherously bilingual partner that I didn’t think of how it might be to leave the child. I felt unmoored while I was away, which seemed right; when I returned, though, I felt myself drifting further and further from who I’d been, from the relationships that had kept me anchored through a transatlantic move. My son was no longer a baby I could speak at, a vessel I could fill: he was a child with a mind and a tongue of his own, and as he told me all about the week I’d missed, I could see him translating as he spoke to me, reaching for the English phrase for something so very obvious to him in Norwegian. It was pointless, I decided. I switched my focus towards teaching him to ride a bike. I’d run in front of him, thinking jaldi, jaldi, but saying, “Faster, faster!” 

“When are you going to take them to India?” asked my best friend. It was winter, pre-pandemic, when everything seemed possible. 

Except that. The last time few times I’d been to India, my trip had centered around funerals. Since I’d arrived in Norway, I’d missed even those, unable to physically get from location A to location B before the body was turned to ashes, the ashes returned to the Ganges. My visa had run out; the country’s new government was one I couldn’t abide. “Later,” I said, and I meant it. 

Then: lockdown, further funerals. I started using Hindi again. “What are you saying?” my son would ask, but I wouldn’t answer. Now I used Hindi to shut him out of conversations with relatives, mournful ones. All the death vocabulary I’d learned to ace future exams about carnage instead of kitchens was deployed in a virtual outpouring of grief that stretched from east to west. 

The problem was: it was too late. Indian comics – often based on Hindu mythology – are grim. Endings from a few stories we’d enjoyed before I’d decided not to bother included: a monkey setting an island on fire and watching it burn, a doofus watching from a treetop as a lion ate his friends, a mother falsely accusing her adopted mongoose-son of murder and then murdering him, instead. My son already knew the word for dead. 

“Can flamingos swim?” he asks, his hand poised to plunge the pink painted block into the watery depths.

“I don’t think so,” I answer. “They do hang out in water, though. Want me to look it up on my phone?” 

“Yes,” he says, waiting. I turn to my phone, enter the search terms. It turns out I am wrong. I am about to tell him so when he speaks again. “If they can’t swim, why do they hang out in water?”

Here’s the truth: my parents’ language is not a bridge I can use to keep uncertainty at bay. I can give my son as happy a childhood as I had – Christmas and Diwali, Holi and the Norwegian Day parade on the 17th of May – but he will always know English, his secondary language, as one both for the kitchen and for house rules regarding quarantine. And he may never know enough Hindi to make me feel less isolated. For a moment I’m stumped, and then he answers his own question. 

“Jeevan uska pani hai,” he says. It is a line from a poem I’d recite to him in the bath long before he could speak – “its life is water” – long before I worried about his reaction to its last line, where everybody in the poem dies. I look at my son. He gives the flamingo a kiss, hoping for the best, and, with a splash, lets it fall. 


The story behind the story:

 As a quiet child, my spoken Hindi was never great, and I often worried that my Indianness itself would seep from me from lack of use. Discovering Hindi literature quelled my anxieties; even if I never spoke another word in any language, reading made me feel like a part of something. In a pandemic with a child too young to teach to read, the limitations of my bookish Hindi, my bookish nature, made all of my other limitations shine brighter. How could I make my child know that he wasn’t alone when I felt that, for who knew how long, we were? 

Rashi Rohatgi is the author of Sita in Exile (Miami University Press, 2023) and Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow (Galaxy Galloper Press, 2020), the English translator of Blood-Red Sweat (Lal Pasina), and the Fiction Editor at Waxwing Literary Journal. She lives on the beach in Norway, on twitter as @rashirohatgi, and at

“At Home, Adrift” was first published in Angime.

Header Photo by Eelco Böhtlingk on Unsplash.

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