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আমার বাংলা

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 4, 2008 3 Comments

The New York Times‘ book blog, the aptly titled “Paper Cuts,” carries a post about a recent UC Press book entitled “One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost,” edited by Peter K. Austin. The description includes this alarming line: “There are more than six thousand languages used around the world today, although linguists now estimate that by the year 2050 as many as half of those will be extinct.” I felt relieved-and then immediately a little guilty-to find Hindi and Bengali listed as two of the most widely-used languages in the post, and so-for now, at least-insulated from linguistic “death.” The post mentions several intriguing tidbits: there’s a Southern Indian language called “Tulu” that “a mere” 2 million Indians speak, which I’d never heard of (and I’ve not heard of, probably, 95% of most languages and dialects in India, so this is not really as surprising as it is interesting). And that the gorgeous country of “Vanuatu, with 100,000 people and 120 languages, has the highest language density of any country in the world.” And “Njerep…[has only] four speakers left, none of them younger than 60.” Most tragically, we’re told that “90 percent of the languages currently spoken will probably disappear by the end of this century.” Apparently, there’s not much we can do, beyond documenting, while we can, the amazing linguistic diversity in the world today…

I just tried to think of how I would feel if Bengali-my Bangla-died….Despite being a native speaker, my fluency/proficiency is limited; I grew up in north India (Bangla is spoken in the East), and though it was always spoken in the home, I had limited interactions in it outside of my immediate and extended family. I never “formally” learnt the language, though as a child, I taught myself how to decipher the script by comparing the letters to Hindi (they are somewhat similar-to see for yourself, go here and then here). Once I decoded it, the first thing I tried was a Bengali children’s book, translated from the Russian-I still vividly remember that experience. One time, my mother had me compete in a children’s Bengali recitation competition during Saraswati Puja, and I literally froze with stage fright, and though I made my way through with some prompting from Ma, that was the end of my “professional” poetry reading career. My experience with Bengali texts stemmed largely from my singing in the language-the only real texts I know by heart are mid-length songs by Rabindra Nath, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and others, and I don’t always even understand all the words. And my most special memories of Bengali literature are the times when my mother would recite Katha-o-Kahini, a collection of short stories by Rabindra Nath Tagore, Indian’s only Nobel Laureate in literature, a Bengali. And she only read them to me when I was running a fever…to this day, I carry video and audio files of my mom reciting my favorite stories from it-entire chunks, entirely from memory…which I listen to in the grip of fever for comfort, for warmth, for the touch of home.

Living as far away from home, and my language, as I do, it is difficult not to feel terribly isolated, alienated from “amar” (my) Bangla. Rushed conversations with my parents back home are increasingly marked by code switching-I find it difficult to make the switch to Bangla from the English I am immersed in, in every other context of my life. The only time when I am truly in the comforting embrace of my mother tongue is when I return for annual visits to India. For one month, then, my tongue takes a different shape…English rarely escapes it, at least in speech…I dust off our old harmonium, pull out the Geetabitan and other song-books, and as I sing, or listen to my mother sing, my heart is full of joy, and my heart weeps, for it is a joy so terribly pure and elevating, it is almost spiritual. Ma and Baba laugh lovingly when they see my reaction-sometimes I am so overwhelmed by Bengali poetry when singing, I dissolve in emotions, unable to continue…poetry that I cannot make sense of, words I don’t fully comprehend, strange characters I cannot pronounce. My mother finds relief in my continuing passion for our language, and my father-banished to the doorway because of the inevitable emotionality of my singing in Bangla-laughs tenderly and tells me gently what I already know: my language is beautiful, its literature inspiring, and my bond with it cemented in indelible script. There’s a bond there with Bangla that goes deeper than words, deeper than anything semantics could unravel. And then, there’s always that happy shock when we go to CR Park, the “Bengali Town” of New Delhi, where I invariably become mute when shopkeepers, rikshaw-wallahs, and fishmongers talk to me in Bangla. I am so unused to that, I shrug and Ma has to step in for me. And then there’s Ma’s poetry, her precious words, her incredible short children’s poems that I have her read to me every time I go back. For one month, my soul speaks in Bangla.

Baba and Ma are convinced that some day, I will “return” to my tongue, “return” to a language I am born to, the language whose bond with me is deeper than its words. I’m itinerant now, have been for a while, but there’s only one home…English, and the others languages….are a temporary dwelling. For some strange reason, I am convinced of it too.

So what of others who feel like me, those others who speak dying languages…their centuries of oral, textual, cultural pasts, learnings, wisdoms, histories, philosophies, the very tastes and sounds of their languages….endangered? I cannot imagine how painful that loss.

Update: This post, cross-posted on the Daily Kos, has generated some excellent comments and discussion there. Click here to see it.

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3 Responses to “আমার বাংলা”

  1. Youki on: 7 December 2008 at 2:36 pm

    beautiful post, Usree, and so important to understanding language in a greater context.

    I am fully expecting lots and lots of video from your trip to India. Maybe even a digital story?

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 7 December 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Thank you, Youki… 🙂

    You’ve set the standard so very high for digital story telling, I am not sure I’ll be able to. If it can be a FIT project, to bring together my blog posts and pictures and videos for a story, sure I’d love that! 🙂 Yes, tons and tons and tons of those! One month of documenting everything!!!!!!!!!!

  3. s on: 8 December 2008 at 10:28 am

    i liked the blog entry, very well written as usual ;). After reading
    it, I asked myself what u mean by “being born to” a language. It
    certainly cannot mean speaking your parent’s tongue as there are a lot
    of couples that have different nationalities. What should it mean for
    their kids then? Ok, this is trivial …. 🙂 So is it perhaps speaking
    the language of the culture you identify with? Hmmm, not necessarily, I
    think. Actually, I am not sure whether one is born to a language at all.
    At least, I cannot say which language that should be. What do you say?

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