| Arts & Culture
Language How to Say I Love You in Bangla
At the kitchen table, Jason reminded me, “It’s our wedding. I think you can say whatever you want, in any language.”
Two days before our pandemic wedding, my partner and I sat at our tiny kitchen table to write our vows. We were both nervous, and both stuck.
“Are you going to say ‘I love you’ in English, or in Bangla?” Jason asked. He knew that while the English I love you slipped past our lips with ease, the tortured phrase ami tomake bhalobashi always caught in my throat like fish bones.
Our conversation reminded me of the first time I’d heard the phrase outside my family. I was a sophomore in college and had just come out to a handful of friends. They soon reveled in dragging me to queer-friendly events and shoving assorted men in my direction. They often introduced me loudly, saying, “He just came out! You two should talk!”
And so, an Art House party became the first of many unlikely places where a stranger professed their love in my native language. A crisp fall had arrived in Boston, and our small group had crowded into a musty Victorian. My friend Meredith pulled a moppy-haired waif by the elbow toward me. He leaned close to bump his Solo cup against mine.
“Nice to meet you,” he said with a grin. “Ami tomake bhalobashi!”
My arm jerked back and my jaw went slack. I wasn’t used to hearing Bangla outside the home, and my short-circuiting brain responded in kind, with a type of surprised joy: “Tumi Bangla bolte paro?”
He shook his head. “Not really. My first roommate was Bangladeshi, so I picked up that line. It’s a good one to know in any language, right?”
He wasn’t the last one to say it. I learned over the next few years that if someone knew a single phrase in Bangla, it would be this one. Whenever friends, colleagues, and lovers uttered it, bright-eyed and eager for connection, I would smile politely, pulling away.
My own experiences had left me unable to reciprocate. I can’t recall a single instance of I love you or ami tomake bhalobashi spoken aloud in our small Bangladeshi community in Rhode Island. At home, my parents displayed their love through labor. They filled birthday parties with cakes and candles, graduations with flowers and biryani, all without a single mention of love along the way. Traditional family weddings often featured a ritual in which the sari-covered bride would be asked several times if she wished to marry the groom. She would bite her lip, gaze at the ground, and demure until the priest asked for a third time. When she finally nodded, relatives would cheer and clap at the union, and the festivities would proceed without a single ami tomake bhalobashi uttered aloud.
I’d learned to excuse the absence of the phrase in daily life, and even at weddings, using the context of our diaspora. The Bangladeshi immigrants I knew valued hard work and quiet humility with good reason: These virtues allowed them to survive the heartache of leaving their homeland and settling in the West. Most of us are various shades of brown and ochre and therefore visibly different from the white majority around us. Keeping our heads down kept us from standing out any further, reducing the omnipresent threat of violence faced by immigrant communities. Making a loud declaration of love would have felt like a crass Western affectation at best, or like a dangerous foray into aggrandizement and visibility at worst. When I imagined myself speaking my wedding vows aloud, especially to another man (queer love being even more absent than ami tomake bhalobashi in our community), I also imagined a thousand Bangladeshi people hissing at us accusingly: “Beshorom! How shameless!”
At the kitchen table, Jason reminded me, “But it’s our wedding. I think you can say whatever you want, in any language.”
He was right, of course. This wasn’t just any Bangladeshi wedding. It was also a queer, Californian, we-lived-through-a-pandemic-and-can’t-believe-we’re-here, giddy extravaganza for everyone that mattered to us. It was a celebration of survivors. Old models of cultural humility simply wouldn’t do.
We needed Bangladeshi swagger.
An inspirational image of boldness came quickly to mind. A cousin had recently sent me a photograph of Bangladeshi-Irish singer Joy Crookes as she posed, statuesque, on the cover of Hot Press magazine. She gazes straight outward at her audience, perched on a stool, with a silver shawl on her head over chandelier earrings. Bangles drip down both arms in an homage to traditional attire. She also wears a bejeweled bra and thoroughly modern gray slacks, baring her midriff with a brashness that would make my Bengali grandmother blush and spit at the ground.
As much as Crooke’s physical bravado took me by surprise, so did her lyrics, in which I discovered a directness that mirrored her pose on the magazine cover. In her song “Skin,” she sings huskily of longing, saying, “I’ve built my life around you / Don’t you know that the skin you’re given / Was made to be lived in? / You’ve got a life / You’ve got a life worth living.” Here was a Bangladeshi musician saying unabashedly that we must use our bodies to love, that doing so is imperative to achieve “a life worth living.” Her lyrics defied the lessons I’d internalized about the shamefulness of discussing love and bodies—and certainly sex—aloud. The fact that she was a Bangladeshi woman speaking with such frankness further disrupted the gender norms I’d witnessed in my community. She was no blushing bride, gazing at the ground. She was a young woman keening over the radio waves to an audience of millions.
And people were listening . This fact surprised me more than any other aspect of the Crookes phenomenon. Her latest album, Skin , burned up the UK charts to hit number five at its peak. Though her singles featured English lyrics, she gave interviews about how her dual Bangladeshi and Irish heritage influences her work. In March 2021, she even took a break from her usual repertoire to perform a traditional Bangla song on the BBC . She sang “Ei Raat Amar Tomar” (“This Night of Mine and Yours”) to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladeshi independence. Reporters asked eagerly what Bangladeshi history meant to her personally and how it impacted her music. “The war [for independence] made us a matriarchy because a lot of the men in our family passed away,” Crookes responded. “And I feel incredibly grateful to be alive, to be able to use my voice and music to tell that story.” Her public persona seemed steeped in her immigrant identity, and her recounting of Bangladesh’s history of war and perseverance drew in an audience that surprised me with its size and curiosity.
This, I realized, was a type of listening I’d missed my entire dating life. For most who uttered it to me, ami tomake bhalobashi was a one-dimensional phrase without the weight of history, indexed for easy deployment in a collection next to te amo or je t’aime . Lust, or even admiration, from men rarely came with any genuine curiosity about my Bangladeshi American background. Few ever asked about my family’s immigrant journey, the tastes of my childhood, the triumphs and losses of my coming out, why the opening strains of some Bollywood songs made me weep or tap my feet, or the faded photo of my grandmother on my desk.
In those moments, I felt like a perpetual prop in someone else’s hero’s journey: desirable in the short-term, without the need for the messy introspection required for longer-term investment. And I had always settled for such superficial appreciation. Like flowers crushed in the folds of a textbook, I’d pressed my identity into simple, digestible forms. I had approached love with an immigrant’s deep-seated sense of scarcity: the belief that affection was an exquisite rarity, an ambrosia that I should savor in sips without demanding too much in return.
For most who uttered it to me, ami tomake bhalobashi was a one-dimensional phrase without the weight of history, indexed for easy deployment in a collection next to te amo or je t’aime.
In contrast, here was Crookes, another Bangladeshi, demanding much more from those who claimed to love her. Demanding that adoring fans who consumed her lyrics, her soulful performances, her fashion sense, and the motions of her body onstage, also fully appreciate the complex roots she’d highlighted in her BBC performance. I had never felt entitled to be seen so completely, or brave enough to display such vulnerability by claiming my Bangladeshi history. Some of Crookes’s success, I knew, could be attributed to the honing of a public image by a savvy recording studio. But the appeal of this persona lay in what it demonstrated for her fans, including the Bangladeshis among them: that in our daily lives we could lay claim to a type of love based not on scarcity but on abundance.
My wedding vows suddenly seemed an opportunity. A chance to infuse my public I love you with a new bravado and vulnerability. This would require me to overcome a lifetime of conditioning to the contrary. To push past, as the writer Melissa Febos described in her book Body Work , “the exhaustion of narrative threads that were previously sewn into me by sources of varying nefariousness or innocuity. It is on the other side of that threshold . . . where I might make something that did not already exist.” I would have to describe the new terrain of my relationship with Jason, which justified the risk. To explain why I was gambling on bringing my full self to a marriage, despite the long-held belief that doing so would cause the well of love to run dry.
Our wedding day dawned bright and windy in the hills of Northern California. I stepped into the sunshine in a traditional cream-colored sherwani. When the brassy entrance music swelled, I fought my nerves by picturing myself on a glossy magazine cover, straight-backed and gazing unabashedly out at an audience. I silently recited another favorite Crookes lyric:
Feet, don’t fail me now.
Jason met me at the altar in a burgundy suit and we stood teary-eyed in front of the crowd. I pulled a handwritten page from my pocket with sweating fingers. I recall less of my words than the series of memories that flashed through my mind as I spoke my vows aloud.
I read a quote by Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet and Nobel laureate who Jason and I had discussed early in our relationship. And in my vows, I recalled the surprise I felt when Jason carefully placed an anthology of Tagore’s poems and plays on our bookshelf as a gift.
I spoke about the early and stilted conversations he and I shared about what I’d lost when I immigrated: the rice fields and rainy skies, the tang of homemade curries on the tongue, the buzz and wit of Bangla spoken around dinner tables, the lilting calls to prayer that echoed through the Dhaka streets at dawn. But I also remembered how sharing these losses grew easier in the warmth of Jason’s consistent interest, his investment in getting to know all of me, my history included. How I returned home one evening to find yet another book from Jason—a Bengali cookbook, with dog-eared recipes that he recalled from my stories. How a year after we started dating, he’d donned a purple kurta to dance alongside me at an unexpectedly joyous family wedding.
I described the strange silence that had haunted every place I traveled after I left Bangladesh—a hollow-drum absence that often left me restless, a dissociated stranger in a strange land. But also recalled how that silence filled slowly with a new sound during my travels with Jason out into the world. A bright and insistent hum in a major key that grew louder over our eight years together. How even now, when it rings clearly, it doesn’t feel strange at all.
“Jason,” I said, “when I’m with you, I hear music.”
At this, I heard a small gasp from a table of Bangladeshi relatives and a few sniffs into handkerchiefs from others. For a moment, after a lifetime of avoiding saying ami tomake bhalobashi , I feared that I had pole-vaulted to truly taboo levels of vulnerability. But, determined to be brave, I squared my shoulders and stuck to the script.
Because, of course, this was our way of saying I love you to each other. By giving tender voice to the things we had each left behind on our journey to being out, queer people who could find one another. By acknowledging the fears of showing each other—and now our gathered loved ones—our remaining wounds. By taking the risk of being seen as damaged, or complicated, or alien, or unlovable. By recognizing that, as Febos also says, “The risk of honest self-appraisal requires bravery. To place our flawed selves in the context of this magnificent, broken world is the opposite of narcissism, which is building a self-image that pleases you.” By trusting that instead of the well of love running dry, the stories of our flawed selves might be met with empathy, with a warm and abundant curiosity, in a way that could reframe our hurtful histories.
This was our way of saying I love you to each other. By giving tender voice to the things we had each left behind on our journey to being out, queer people who could find one another.
We said I love you by looking back at our old selves together and bringing them along for this new journey. Crookes herself captured this process of exulting in new heights while coming to peace with the past, saying on her song “19th Floor,” “We were lost so long / look how far we’ve come / Down by the river / I remember where I belong.” No matter where we traveled, I knew we would never censor our complicated pasts for each other or our loved ones again.
Looking back on our wedding day, I realize now that my vows were in many ways imperfect. My voice shook before the crowd, and I couldn’t overcome the awkwardness of ami tomake bhalobashi to speak the phrase aloud after all. And yet, when we stepped off the altar wreathed in marigolds, I felt fully Bangladeshi, fully an American immigrant, fully a brave and vulnerable and beshorom queer in the California sunshine. I felt less afraid, and fully alive in the skin I’d been given.
And in that way, the vows were perfect.
Photograph courtesy of the author