Yesterday was a sunny, windless, frozen afternoon as I was walking along the trails in my suburban American town. Above me the sunlight was pouring through the naked branches of the trees without leaves. I was engrossed in thinking about one particular passage that I read that morning in The Shelter of the World, a fiction piece by Salman Rushdie published in the New Yorker magazine a few years back. In the story, a great Jesuit linguist comes to Mughal Emperor Akbar's court and challenges Akbar the Great to discover his native tongue. He was speaking in Portuguese. While the monarch of the world was trying to solve the puzzle, his first minister Birbal, one of his navaratna, goes behind the priest, and kicks him hard on his backside. The priest cries out in Italian. "You observe Jahanpanah," said Birbal, "that when it comes to unleash a few insults, a man will always choose his mother tongue."
Our mother tongue Bangla bhasha came under vehement attacks during the Partition of the sub-continent in 1947. Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited East Bengal only once, in 1948 and pronounced, during a lecture in Dacca University's Curzon Hall, that "Urdu and Urdu only will be the State language of Pakistan." Students sitting at the back of the room cried out "No, No, No." In Pakistan's east wing (then known as East Bengal), Bangla was the spoken language, whereas Urdu was spoken by 12-15 per cent of the entire population. ["Out of six crores and ninety lakhs (69 million) of people inhabiting this State, 4 crores and 40 lakhs (44 million) of people speak the Bengali language" - as mentioned by Dhirendranath Datta in his speech of February 25, 1948 to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in Karachi, presided over by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which was the first formal articulation of the demand for Bengali to be made one of the state languages of Pakistan.] People in the East had no understanding of this alien tongue and would not tolerate such an impossible proposition.
From 1950-52, the educated middle class of East Bengal underwent what is referred to as the "language movement". The Bangla language survived through the bloodshed of our own Dhaka University and Medical College students in 1952, when the Muslim League establishment's Prime Minister Khawja Nazimuddin (a supposed Bangali himself) declared what Mr. Jinnah originally proposed, that Urdu will be the only State language of Pakistan.
It was the Bangla month of Falgun. The student leaders of Dhaka University took the lead in opposing the ridiculous notion by demanding that Bangla should be our official language. They, united, stood against the tyranny of the Muslim League government. Chaired by Maulana Bhashani, the All-Party Central Language Action Committee was formed. An overwhelming numbers of students converged on the university campus. In a meeting at Amtala, the student leaders called the central Pakistan's decision to establish Urdu as the only official State language an overt assault on Bengali culture and heritage.
On February 21 in 1952, the student leaders decided to organise a peaceful rally. The valiant students broke Section 144. Chief Minister Nurul Amin (another Bangali) ordered the police to open fire on unarmed students as they were trying to enter the Assembly building to make their demands heard, all the while chanting 'Rashtrobhasha Bangla Chai'. Dhaka city's earth was drenched by the blood of Salam, Zabbar, Barkat, Riafique, Motiur, Shafiq, Wahidullah, Shafiur, ten-year-old Awal and an unidentified rickshaw-puller. They gave their lives to preserve Bangla language in its rightful place and make sure that the future generations do take pride in our language and keep the nationalist sentiment alive as Bengalees. The students lost lives for the future generation to sing with delight: 'Moder gorob, moder aasha/A'mori Bangla bhasha.'
Ekushey February is observed as Shaheed Dibosh while the UNESCO has declared 21 February as the International Mother Language Day.
Bangla language has become a symbol of our national identity. Communication through Bangla has facilitated our group identity and Bangladesh, a nation, as a whole. It is no wonder why so many poets and writers choose to write in their mother tongue. They produce their best work in their own language. Our motherland and our Bangla language are essential to epitomise our lives - no matter where in the world we may live. It is the only language which gives us proper identity. Without that we often feel like a wingless bird as Michael Madhusudan Dutta must have felt while composing his sonnets in English as he was greatly influenced by Lord Byron. In a monolingual country like Bangladesh, we must recognise our uniqueness through our Bangla language, the main source of our pride and, arguably, the very root of our collective spirit.
One's language is one's identity and revoking the right to talk in one's language in an official capacity can be seen as a challenge to one's very existence, similar to instructing a person that she cannot breathe through her nose. What choice is left, at that point, but to fight back? We, the Bengalees, did not take the assault on our language lying down. We fought tooth and nail until 1971. With the birth of our nation-state, the People's Republic of Bangladesh, our new-found freedom ensured us that we are full citizens of an independent country.
Recently, I stumbled upon an old two-taka note that I have been saving since 1993. The Central Shaheed Minar is imprinted on that note. Ekushey February is observed every year with thousands of barefoot people marching, carrying wreaths and garlands of marigolds and krishnachura. They lay the wreaths on the marble stone minars built 14 feet high above the ground, and climb up the wide stairs singing "Amar bhaiiyer rakte rangano Ekushey February/Ami ki bhulite pari."
On the eve of this Ekushey February, I am pondering why, after so many struggles and bloodshed, the Bangla language is becoming a secondary language in some big city schools in Bangladesh. In a lot of the secondary and higher secondary schools, English is the only medium of instruction. Our young generation often speaks in English. Television and other cultural programmes have become a peculiar hybrid of English and Bangla. I was stupefied after watching on YouTube a few episodes of a Bangladeshi TV talk show titled Zero Cal Tea with Tootli. There are so many English words that are slipped in during conversation that it came across as a novueau hybrid show of mix-and-match world culture. I came away with a clear impression that both the host and the guests are embarrassed to speak in their mother tongue.
The other day I was talking to an old Holy Cross School friend on the phone. She had moved back to Bangladesh after staying in the west for decades. Suddenly, I realised that she was mostly speaking in English and when I pointed that out to my friend, she informed me that even after living in Dhaka for seven years, she finds it easier to speak in English than Bangla. This was a friend who read Robi Thakur's Shesher Kobita, whose life was greatly influenced by the book. Like Jibananda Das scholar Clinton B. Seely, she could parse the post-modern characteristics of complicated and controversial Das poems. Now all that is gone. I can picture my friend sitting in rowdy Mango Café in Dhanmondi, discussing Dhaka's traffic jams in English.
I take equal responsibility here for not truly keeping up with Bangla language. The sad reality is: After living here for ages, English, for me, has become a way of daily life. In the mailbox, when two books arrive on the same day, one being Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness and the other Buddhadev Guha's Charumoti, I tend go for Alice Munro first. With my only child, I end up talking mostly in English because she is much more comfortable in speaking in English than Bangla as the latter remains a dominant force in her life. Furthermore, such practices are not shocking or confusing anymore as more and more parents do not feel compelled to pass down their native language to their children who are growing outside of Bangladesh.
I acknowledge, however, that I am in my full element when I write in Bangla and read Bangla. Since my mother's passing in 2011, the only time I write in Bangla is when I write to my Boudi in Dhaka. Last month, while visiting relatives in northern Virginia, I read a short story titled Allen Shahiber Chokh by Syed Manzurul Islam in a very old Eid issue of the Jugantaar. It took me back to my roots, like riding an old bicycle on an open country road.
Acclaimed poet Shamsur Rahman speaks to me like no poet has - particularly his poem Shadinota Tumi (Freedom, You). In solitary moments a song of Sabina Yasmin plays in the stereo sound system: O amar ei Bangla bhasha/Ei amar dukh bholano buk jurano/Lokkho moner lokhho aasha…ei bhashatei shopno dekhi….ei bhashatei maake daaki/Janai praner bhalobasha….The words wrap around me like a familiar chenille blanket on a blustery winter night.
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