Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bangla & I

I find it ironic that I am sitting here writing what “Bangla” means to me in English. But what is Bangla to me? Is it a language? Is it a means of communication? Is it an identity?

At some levels I represent a certain group of young citizens of Bangladesh who are caught in a self-conscious gap. Having spent my school days in a Dhaka based English medium school in the 1980s I was isolated from our mother tongue. Then spending my college days in foreign lands, I got comfortable with even thinking in English. I became what is termed as a “TCK – Third Culture Kid”, looked on as a stranger by both my native tongue and in the language I am most comfortable in.

Now, “my-school-did-not-teach-me-I-am-a-TCK” excuse does not absolve me of my sin of not making the effort to get comfortable with the language. Many of my generation did. My wife for one is nagging me to take her to the Ekushay Boi Mela. I get very ashamed when I cannot place a literary reference from the rich Bangla masterpieces. Given my love for reading I feel I have cheated myself out of an engagement that I would have cherished. One caveat though – I used to be a voracious reader of the Bangla satirical comic Unmad.

I have been back in Dhaka for the last 13 years. Over that time my interaction with Bangla has evolved. Though I still do my thinking and writing in English, my chorcha is getting more intense. I spend a lot of effort in going through a wonderful blog site called With the promise of being the sound of a new revolution it is a site that has various stimulating and engaging conversations happening on diverse topics. Bangla language bloggers from across the world use this as a new medium to exchange ideas. Ironic part of the process is that this site was actually founded by a Norwegian gentleman.

Does that not beg us to ask the question, does our language actually belong to anyone? Or even what the dynamics of a language should be? English for one is a living-breathing animal that morphs depending on which part of the world you are from. Hinglish spoken in India is different from the Spanglish made popular by the Hispanic immigrants in the US. Chicken English of Jamica is not even close to any two Singaporeans speaking. Why, even the Queen’s “territories” of Australia or Scotland or Canada have vastly different interpretations of Her Language. Now before you go splitting dialects with me let me argue it is not the same as the difference between Sylheti and Noakhali. All you need to do is ask a Cockney speaker for directions.

While it is true that there is a difference between cholti and shuddho Bangla, we have been guarding the development of the language quite parochially. In recent times a very visible experiment with the language was through a controversial advertising campaign for a cell-phone campaign aimed at the youth. Oh what hue and cry it created from the purists. Our cultural leaders missed out on the fact that the youth of any generation develop their own lingo. This classifies them and bonds them at a certain level. And as much as you try you cannot muffle this kothin bhaab. The language is not the sole domain of a library or of Bangla Academy. Isn’t the name itself a glaring inconsistency of purpose? No one owns the language. Rather it is owned by all. It is as much the kingdom of a Bhasha Shoinik as it is of an English-medium educated brat.

If Bangla does not belong to me then do I belong to Bangla? And here is where I get clarity. Bangla to me is not a language. It is an essence of my being. Of course it is a language. An important language at that. I still remember my grandmother pleading with me before I went abroad for my study, if I was to marry a bideshi I should ensure she spoke Bangla. Otherwise she could not speak her monerkotha.

But in my mind it is so much more.

In one level it is an identity. Stand at a street corner in Rome and talk loudly in Bangla and you will make so many new friends. Bangladeshi immigrants there will open up their homes and hearts just because you are a deshi bhai.

In another level it is culture. Habib in recent times started a revolution of sorts. It is now so okay to enjoy Bangla music without feeling guilty of- depending on which side of the scale you stand- listening to dance music or to folk song.

And in even other it is an emotion. Unless I say “Dosto” to my friends, or “array aita josh toh” I don’t think the essence of what I am feeling is communicated properly.

Bangla to me is different things. It is a language. It is a means of communication. It is an identity. And most importantly it is a state of mind. Just because I use English more fluently does not mean I am not proud of my language or I am an alien to my culture. My great grandfather Dr. Mohammed Shahidullah was a renowned linguist who reportedly knew more than 26 languages plus tens of dialects. He was one of the proponents of the language (hence Bangla) being the rational of dividing the British Raj instead of religious ones. But when he came out of a stroke, for the first few days he only spoke in French. Does it mean that he was not a patriot? Or he was not a Bangali?

In the case of all of Bangladesh as a collective, I argue, the relationship should be the similar. Yes it is our nation’s language but we should not look at it only as a cultural treasure. We should nurture it and let it flourish. Our language is strong enough to stand the rigors of experimentation. So what if a song or poetry or an advertisement or two people in a conversation mix English, Spanish, Chinese or any other tongue with Bangla. Does it make it weak? No I say. What we are allowing is for it to stand on its own two feet, without needing to mollycoddle it with fervour of a first time mother. Often in our zeal to protect our culture and identity we forget that we live in an interconnected world. If we cannot communicate with this world we will not be looked as an equal participant.

As an IT practitioner I salivate with the prospect of harnessing the power of our 140+ million minds. But the reality is that because of xenophobic educational policy decision of the mid 80s, today we are notoriously short of people who can string an English sentence together. Because of this we can never be a serious world player in the ever-growing voice based BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry. Similarly our young boys and girls often meet a roadblock in their corporate career paths. If only we had a robust educational policy with a strong language component, we could be exporter of managerial and technical resource around the world. Just like our neighbour.

Bangla is a beautiful language. It is an identity. It is a culture. It is in all her glory, an art form. What it should not be is a shackle. In our need to be puritans we should not sacrifice our prosperity. While we should continue to promote our language, we should not be closed to prospects others bring. Let us not be scared. While we are mere mortals our language will live forever.


tanvir said...

"We should nurture it and let it flourish. Our language is strong enough to stand the rigors of experimentation. So what if a song or poetry or an advertisement or two people in a conversation mix English, Spanish, Chinese or any other tongue with Bangla"

I was thinking writing something like this. Bangla is so rich in nature that it can take almost anyother language with it, be it sylheti, noakhali, or englsih, french, no matter how we blend it with bangla, its still bangla, and this is the strength which will make it grow further. Heard something like that in a TV program. Sanskrit and Latin are almost dead now, as those languages only gave and never took anything from other languages.

Those people who think too much about the contamination of language, actually doesn't have anything to worry about, as Bangla will evolve and mix up with other languages to grow even further.

Thank you Farhan Bhai for sharing your thoughts. I see less Bangla vs. English controversy this year :-)

Anonymous said...

Sylheti is a language in it's own right. We want nothing to do with non-Sylhetis thank you very much.