"A Tale of Two Bengals"
Although the world has a lot
to learn about Bangladesh, within Bangladesh, the sense of
identity is strong. In Kolkata, that distinction is not so
I first heard the account of one Bangladeshi's (Jamal phupa)
experience in Kolkata, I was outraged. "They don't even
speak Bangla there. They're all Hindi-speaking." I wondered,
has this person ever ventured out of the hi-fi shopping area
of Park Street? My trips to see uncles and aunts in Behala
and the villages of Sonarpur have shown me otherwise. Most
of my relatives cannot speak Hindi, though they understand
it from years of watching Hindi films. But Jamal phupa
had a point; Kolkata culture is infused with foreign influences.
of mine told me that Bangladesh suffers from an identity crisis.
"We don't know whether we are Muslim or Bangali, secular
or non-secular; most of our history comes from a time when
we were part of another country. We don't know what we are."
From my experiences over the past year in Bangladesh, I have
found a very different reality. Many people are very aware
of their identity as both Muslim and Bangali, secular and
Kolkata, which has large percentages of distinct cultural
groups from other parts of India, one cannot be both a Marwari
and Chinese, Christian and Hindu, South Indian and North Indian,
unless of mixed parentage. Depending on which market one goes
to, one can be addressed in Hindi, English, Bangla or Chinese.
Bangali culture is affected by a sense of being one of many
that make a whole. Bangla pride takes a backseat to Indian
society is infiltrated with the flashy culture of MTV and
Hollywood inspired Hindi-films. With the burgeoning of mega-shopping
malls, gyms, coffee shops and other hot spots, people within
the city, rich and poor, old-school and urbane, have been
experiencing more exposure to each other. Ostentatious, wealthy
urban youth driving down Elgin Road, their thundering base
pumping out of their car sound systems and strutting their
stuff at the Forum and Salt Lakes's new City Centre, often
overshadow more traditional aspects of the city.
it's just me, but it's a stark contrast to Dhaka, where the
elite and world-travellers of the city commute incognito in
posh cars, their social lives neatly walled off from the public
eye by security gates and tinted SUV windows. The Western
influences are there, but within the city, exposure to one
another is limited.
is part of a country where English is one of the official
languages. Go beyond College Street and you will find your
average bookstore houses more books in English than Bangla.
Whenever I am at a loss for the right word, I fall back on
English, a luxury not available to me in Bangladesh -- upolobdhi,
not realisation, shongkha, not number (or nombor), shongjog,
not connection. "Dhukhitho, ei muhurthe, mobile
shongjog dheya shombhob hochhena." Although,
I have been to Cal several times since my childhood, my Bangla
has not improved as much as it has over my short stay in Bangladesh.
go in both directions. A non-Bangali living beyond the outskirts
of Kolkata will not get by on Hindi only, as they do in Kolkata.
While I was in Kolkata I tutored a Marwari student who came
from a town not far from Shantiniketan. Not to reinforce the
stereotype, but yes, his family ran a business. And fortunately
for me, although he had no interest in pursuing studies in
Bengali, his Bangla was perfect.
are many examples of non-Bangalis embracing Bangali culture.
One of the preeminent exponents of Bangla culture, vocalist
Mohan Singh, based in Shantiniketan, is a shining example.
Originally from Punjab, he studied music at Shantiniketan,
married a Bangali and has made Poshchim Banga his home for
more than 30 years. While Indian culture is layered over Bangali
culture in West Bengal, it would be incorrect to assume it
has taken its place.
between the two Bengals go both ways. A Bangladeshi visiting
Kolkata for the first time had an interesting experience.
After befriending a stranger at a café he was asked,
"Do they all speak Urdu in Bangladesh?" It made
him want to spew venom.
the borders of South Asia, on a Singapore Airlines flight
from Singapore to Dhaka, where 90 percent of the passengers
are usually Bangali, one will find the safety instructions
given in English and Hindi. I have travelled this particular
route and noticed a passenger sitting next to me make a polite
suggestion to one of the stewards to rectify the mistake.
The rest of the world has much to learn about the land of
rivers. But as is clear from the reaction of the Bangladeshi
in Kolkata and the one on the plane, Bangladesh has one unifying
medium of communication and that is Bangla. If the flight
had been from Singapore to Kolkata, the safety instructions
would have been perfectly acceptable.