The mother tongue
S. I. Zaman laments on how, for all our posturing on February 21, we have let Bangla slide towards decline
Languages either evolve into something greater or become extinct
--a sort of Darwinian "survival of the fittest." Nonetheless, development of language in all its facets is probably the greatest and the most sublime of all of man's creative attributes. It is the ultimate form of communication and interaction.
Bangla now ranks as the world's fifth most widely spoken language. Only Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic have topped it. It even beats Hindi and French. And it has the added honour of being the only language for which people shed tears and blood so that they could speak and write freely in that language, without fear of suppression, without inhibition, without fear of condemnation, derision or scorn.
Thanks to Unesco, February 21 is now recognized as the International Mother Language Day, a fitting tribute to the sacrifice of those four students on a crisp February day of 1952 in Dhaka.
It has been well over half a century since February 21, 1952. Considering the gradual decadence of Bangla, the question whether or not Bangla has been given its due honour here at home, or indeed, whether or not the language was really worth the fight is really moot.
Needless to say, of all the languages in the Indian subcontinent Bangla is the most enterprising of them all, in terms of its vast literary output -- not something that can be said of its sister, "Hindi." The period beginning in the early nineteenth century and ending in perhaps late 60s of the last century could safely be called the heyday of Bangla and its literature.
Bangla literature was at its zenith in the 30s of the last century, when Tagore's literary works were buzz words among contemporary scholars, poets, politicians, statesmen, writers and thinkers; Nazrul was giving Bangla poems and songs a new dimension, the Kollol Goshti (analogous to the Bloomsbury group in London) was churning out writings, essays and pieces in Bangla, as had never been seen hitherto.
Even some notable figures from outside Bengal flocked to universities in the greater Bengal to study the language and its literature. Can we honestly feel that we still attract the same adulation for our mother tongue, Bangla, from outside ?
The tragedy for Bangla, and indeed for Ekushey, is that, in its own native land, it has been relegated to a position below a foreign language called "English." Indeed, Bangla is officially the state language of Bangladesh. And we do see Bangla script on the ad signs, traffic signs, car signs, etc., and its presence is ubiquitous. And indeed, we all communicate in Bangla, or do we?
In fact, we have managed to banish from our lives the "true Bangla." What we speak is a bizarre hodgepodge of Bangla and English. And indeed, this colloquial degradation of the language of our middle class is a result of a subconscious effort to speak in English rather than in our mother tongue.
The lower class, or more appropriately the working class, speak in their regional rural dialects (not exactly Bangla, per se), which are only intelligible to those proficient in those dialects; and to the vast majority of the "educated" middle class, being at the receiving end of comments like "your English is bad and that's understandable, because English is not your mother tongue" may seem outright slanderous and can cause momentary discord.
But this same group of people would nonchalantly and gleefully declare that their Bangla is a bit sketchy due to years of neglect! Sketchy? It's your mother tongue, for God's sake! People often come up to me to say how strange it is that I should speak such good Bangla despite my having spent a big chunk of my life outside Bangladesh.
In fact, these sorts of hackneyed comments do epitomize the poverty of culture in the Bengali middle and upper class. Consider this scene from a classic Bengali film of the 40s called Udayer Pathe by Bimal Roy: Anup is an educated unemployed Bangali in the classic sense, but he writes novels and poems depicting the have-nots and their miseries -- a sort of mouthpiece of the downtrodden.
He is in a dire need of a job to support his sister and mother. In this scene, we see him entering an employer's big office for his job interview. The employer (as was typical in those days, as it is now) doesn't budge an inch, carries on with his business at hand undeterred and fails to even acknowledge Anup's presence in the room. Anup is always careful not to use any English while talking in Bangla and vice versa.
Of course the employer eventually notices him and asks some questions. Anup gets the job, and asks his employer: "Ami key neog potro petay paree, naaky apnar kothaee churanto bole mene nebo? (Can I get my appointment letter, or can I take your word as final?)"
The employer couldn't help but wonder and asks: "Apni to besh mojar lok moshay, apni kokhono Engreji shabdo bebohar koren na, bujhee? (You're an interesting chap, you don't ever use any English words, I see.)"
Anup retorts in a measured tone: "Ami Bangla ebong Engreji dootay valo jaani key na, tai dootoke meshanor proeojon mone kori na (I speak both Bangla and English well, that's why I see no reason to mix them together.)"
Perhaps we are equally poor in both English and Bangla. Our schools and universities are churning out hundreds and thousands of graduates but, sadly, a considerable number of them cannot even write a short paragraph in perfect Bangla, or indeed in perfect English, on a given topic.
Indeed, the importance of English in this age of globalization cannot be overstated enough. But, are the schools doing enough so that our children leave schools with equal strength in both Bangla and English, and without a disdainful and condescending attitude towards their own mother tongue?
Ekushay has become merely a day of commemoration and nothing more -- young and old flock to Shahid Minar, religiously chanting "Amar bhaier rokte" and placing wreaths, like some ancient ritual -- the spontaneity and the sensitivity are barely present, but the resolve to maintain Bangla as an on-going struggle is missing!
Of course, the poets' and writers' seminars, the kids' art competitions, the same old tacky stereotypical programs on television, are all so ubiquitous on that day -- merely giving lip-service to the day! And then after a few days Ekushay, or the reason why those boys sacrificed their lives in 1952, becomes a distant memory. Bangla is no more about speaking; it is more a "show-case piece" for poets, writers, intellectuals and politicians for their own personal goal.
Cheap Hindi soaps are abundantly present in our living room boxes. Hindi soap opera storylines and tidbits are in-thing in any small chit-chat these days. The prime time in Dhaka, and indeed elsewhere in Bangladesh, is taken up by these foreign serials. Of course, technically, artistically or esthetically, the Hindi soaps are no better than the homegrown products, only that the foreign ones are more colourful and gaudy.
Nevertheless, a vast majority of the Bangladeshi viewers spend hours glued to the box, seemingly mesmerized by these cheap soaps which are devoid of any cultural or intellectual values, and far removed from any semblance of Bangla culture.
In our daily conversations, we unwittingly pollute the purity of Bangla by constantly interjecting some foreign word (English in this case) instead of an existing Bangla word, because the particular Bangla word is either too tacky (for our taste) or too grotesque for our tongue!
Somehow, however bizarre it may seem, we feel a sense of pride when uttering English words, sadly (most often) without the proper accent. Hundreds and thousands of essays, poems, songs and novels about Ekushay have been written in Bangla -- with nothing but pretentious glorification, passion and emotionalism fill these writings.
Indeed, we are consumed by our own all-encompassing emotion. The passion that fought for our language in 1952 was indeed benign. But do we honour our language with the same passion today, even after 36 years of our independence?
The trouble is, our cultural and social identities are much too embroiled in our perpetual desire to "celebrate" these, rather than "becoming them;" there is a constant hullabaloo and pretentious glorification of things "Bangla" but there is hardly a spontaneous feeling or attitude befitting Bangla and its culture. It's as though we are unwittingly pushing Bangla to its senescence.
Dr. S. I. Zaman is a Visiting Academic at Dalhousie University, Canada.