Sylhet 1-0 Rest of the World
or not to be Sylheti: that is the question: Whether 'tis
a state of mind? Or a linguistic divide? Perhaps a joie
de vivre combined with insouciance? A certain type of wit
and style? Possibly a natural flair, an inborn debonair?
An inimitable kind of cool? Maybe a quality endowed by ley
lines and the alignment of magnetic fields bound by the
walls of the Surma Valley? A blessing of the Almighty?
those not in the know, being too unworldly, ignorant or
just plain dumb, the Sylhet region/division lies in the
north-east of Bangladesh between 23°-59' & 25°-13'
north latitude and 90°-54' & 92°-29'-50"
east longitude, and presently covers 4,785sq mi. From 1874
(except for 1905-1911) a district (area 5,440 sq mi) of
the newly created British India province of Assam, it opted
to join East Pakistan after the 1947 plebiscite minus a
few territories. Sylhet region consists of the districts
of Sylhet, Habiganj, Moulvibazar and Sunamganj. Noted for
the mazaars of saints, mystic musicians, hills, and producing
natural gas, limestone, tea, shhatkorra, pineapples, oranges,
finance ministers and of course, NRBs (Non-Resident Bangladeshis)
by the export of people especially to Lon-don.
people are also famed for their tradition of marrying within
Sylhet. Politico-socio-economists would say this was to
either secure land within the greater family (endo-something
blah) or to secure alliances with neighbours (exo-something
blah). But I know for a fact it is a result of the bride
and groom's parents taking the advice about keeping their
in-law's at an arm's length far too literally. Especially
in the marital context, non-sylhetis are routinely referred
to in conversation as 'bhengoli'; a term purely descriptive
without being derogatory or any condescension imputed or
joining school, temporary playground bonds were made on
the basis of 'desh'. Verbal rallies made of serve, return,
volley, lob, smash, sometimes ace, indeed sometimes hit
out of the court, for a six or a conversion: wit and repartee
too sublime too virulent, escaping not only out of court
but out of game and out of metaphor altogether. Being president-for-life,
dictator, founder-member, and only member of the Sylheti
Independent Liberation Loyalist Youth (SILLY), I dug out
chestnuts old as humanity and transmogrified them to suit
this kind of warfare. It was indiscriminate brushfire, combatants
and bystanders alike falling to the ground with eyes streaming
and bodies convulsing with laughter. Classics include startled
Chittagongians being informed that birds flew over Chittagong
with one wing under their backside because there was nothing
worth defecating on. Likewise Noahkhalians were surprised
to discover unmentioned in the O'Level Geography syllabus,
that the Noahkhali landmass only came about from all the
accumulated detritus, refuse and waste discarded by travelling
Sylhetis on their way to the sea.
people with incurably itchy feet, Sylhetis have had a lemming-like
fixation on the sea. From times immemorial this thirst for
salt led them to become sailors. Anecdotal evidence says
up and down the coastal belt of Indochina, the local word
for pirate is 'Saletti' derived from the origins of my buccaneering
bad-ass ancestral brethren.
large, their exploits and achievements remain unsung, unregarded,
unrecorded and unremembered. Posterity aided by agenda driven
historians sweep under and muddy tracks that would lead
to the truth. Today revisionists world over are claiming
the discoveries of the Americas before Cristobel Colon i.e.
Christopher Columbus, in the name of the Vikings, the Chinese,
the Arabs, the Greeks and even a boatload of 6th century
Irish monks. However banned children's rhymes from dating
from around turn of the 16th century reveal:
1492, Columbus Sailed the Open Blue,
And Found what the Sylhetis already Knew
1493, Columbus Sailed Back across the Sea,
Wishing to God he were Born a Sylheti"
spin-doctoring in accord with the Hypocritic Oath, removed
the final line from each verse and gave rise to a form of
censorship known as the 'one-liner'. Many old words and
phrases with time transmute into something almost diametrically
opposite to what they originally meant. For example, once
upon a time the word 'awful' meant something that would
fill you with awe. This transposal of meaning is known as
catachresis. Likewise 'counterfeit', originally meant a
legitimate copy. Our point in case, the one-liner, has today
become a vehicle of wit and amusement, far from its original
dark and sinister beginnings.
in 1493, the joke was on us. The need for the absolute suppression
of this knowledge was further impetus for the ongoing Spanish
Inquisition. Propaganda of the day heralded the discoveries
of the Americas as a mark of divine favour, God's own blessing,
upon the newly united Spain. Consequently the only clues
of the great Sylheti discovery that remain today are in
the names of the Native American tribes. For example: the
Mohicans derive their name as the offspring of Mahi Khan;
similarly Shaheen Miah's descendants became the Cheyenne.
The Comanche because they were relatively few in number
and relatively less than fecund were scorned as "kom
aassi" meaning '(we) are few' and they took this up
in pride; ditto the tribe ridiculed as "soosa"'
became known the Sioux. These last two are the forerunners
of the modern movement of 'reclaiming' names, the wearing
with pride the names previously used in scorn and abuse
eg Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud.
any of you sign the petition claiming a part-share of the
football World Cup for Bangladesh? Not because as football
is the beautiful game and as we are the beautiful people
it only stands to reason that it is our birth-right. Rather
it was based on the suspicion that many of the Brazilian
World Cup winners including Ronaldo, Cafu and especially
Romario all look besh deshi. Again credit to Sylheti
seamen getting around.
to four hundred years ago, it would not have been unusual
to find our intrepid mariners in Paris, even then a major
centre of international trade and commerce. Apart from the
palaces, parks and grand chateaus, Paris was distinctly
unglamorous and mostly muddy, brown and grey. Beloved sons
of the soil that they were, they always carried with them
their betel leaf (phaan), betel nuts, lime, tobacco
and other paraphernalia. Happily strolling and munching
on their paan through Gaye Paris, they'd expectorate every
once in a while. Parisians would be highly impressed by
these botches of colour brightening their otherwise drab
city and would ask "Vaat is zis? So calarfool, so viveed,
so vibrant…" to which our sailors would reply
"Phaannor Kaash" (meaning the spittle of paan)
which passed into Gallic vocabulary as panache meaning flamboyance,
flair, élan. Incidentally the first utterance of
this phrase occurred outside the windmill eventually known
as the Moulin Rouge.
this same time, there were their compatriots in Rome. When
the first one found himself in a spot of bother it was in
the presence of many locals. True to his roots, he appealed
to, the traditional source of trouble-shooting, his maternal
uncle ie his mother's brother, his 'mama' and addressed
him as 'miya', the respectful title for mister. Thus the
wail 'mamma mia' was introduced to the Italian culture.
Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, sighs of relief went up all
over the CIA headquarters in Langley. Relieved not because
Neil Armstrong and co had landed safely. Relieved not because
that they'd achieved checkmate in terms of their space race
against the Soviet Union. Relieved that he wasn't greeted
by a Sylheti. They are one of the few people in the world
who know that the Loch Ness monster of Scotland is an elaborate
hoax perpetuated by a colony of Sylheti illegal immigrants
who have been domicile there since the 18th century. They
initially started settling during the Jacobite upheavals
of 1715 & 1745 ferrying armies and supplies from France.
The monster legend was created to scare off people to maintain
their secret. Did you seriously think the kilt was native
to Scotland? Naahee! It was derived from the immigrants'
lungis. Also true of the tartan design too.
to Highland romanticism, it is a relatively recent innovation
copied from the lungi patterns, as can be seen in the kilts
similarly to 'grameen check'. Clans bought their particular
combination of colours and patterns from this 'Clan Deshi
Tin' (tin from their innumerable tins of spices, aachas,
shutki, and of course paan, shupaari etc). From
these people we are indebted the word 'clandestine' meaning
secretive or hidden. To maintain their secrecy they'd behead
any unfortunate trespassing stranger reasoning "h?
tho ar GOFF marto pharto nai" (he will no longer speak).
Afterwards concealing these heads in holes in the ground
became a monotony breaking sport which they called 'goff'
for short and gave rise to the game of golf. The interesting
twist in the tale is that a group of Scottish missionaries
inspired by this community ended up in Dhaka settling in
a part of town that ended up being called Scotland or rather
Ish-cotlan in the local dialect and is today known as Eskaton.
1950's, economically booming post-war Britain needed workers
for its mills, factories and assemblies and opened its doors
to unskilled migrant workers from the Commonwealth, kicking
off the initial influx of Sylhetis. Later being joined by
professionals, students, traders and entrepreneurs. Over
the decades many ended up settling in the East End, in the
footsteps of the Huguenots, Jews, Irish and other immigrant
waves who'd landed in Britain over the ages. From exclusive
beginnings in the 1950's, the 1960's saw the rise of Don
Curryone and start of the proliferation of the upmarket
exotic Indian Restaurant owned and run by Sylhetis. The
nation that defeated Napoleon had finally met their Vindaloo.
from Bombay to Calcutta, Kashmir to Chennai, Delhi, Lucknow,
Lucklater, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hydrabad, Mangalore and
Goa, would scratch their heads and palettes in wonderment
at the taste and origin of this Indian food. "Not this
India bhai, maybe American Indian?" Or else they may
shake their heads with a mixture of admiration and disgust.
"These Angrez yaar, they took our land, freedom and
national jewels. So clever they are now they are taking
things we didn't even have in the first place. No wonder
the sun never set on their empire, because even God did
not trust the British in the dark."
slightly, in the menus of UK Indian Restaurants is to be
found the dish 'Bombay Duck'. This is dried fish and known
better as "shutki" and has nothing to with Donald
or Daffy or any of their cousins. The story is that the
dried fish used to go to Bombay from Calcutta by train and
no train would accept this highly pungent cargo except the
morning mail train, the 'Dakh' train. Thus from this was
derived the Bombay Duck.
curry barons grew though the 1970's and 80's and imported
more Sylhetis and their families to fuel this phenomenon.
They spread to Europe and America. The major triumph of
the Thatcher-era supply-side economics, privatisations,
financial reform, union busting, and deregulation, was to
ensure at least one Indian restaurant and/or take-away on
every high street in Britain. This was the most visible
face of a national acceptance of a move to a multicultural
ethnically diverse society. Cool Britannia? Let Chicken
Tikka Masala rule the waves!
this success took a heavy toll. But since my readers deserve
only sweetness and light, I shall not dwell on the general
abysmal educational status of contemporary Sylheti youth
in Sylhet, London and elsewhere nor on the ghost villages
with fancy houses empty nor on the detrimental effect of
losing generations of potential civil servants, military
personnel, professionals, executives, entrepreneurs.
you ever wondered about the etymological roots of the word
'tea'? After all tea originates from China where it is called
"Chai". Where else but from 'Sylheti'.
in ancient Greece, men hailing from the area later known
as Sylhet, made their mark. They had ended up in Athens
to escape the merciless teasing their ideas had provoked
in their homeland. One of these was an insomniac who'd spend
all night awake just thinking. In his youth he was given
the moniker 'Shok Rat-re' (night lover), and is of course
known today as Socrates. His fellow countryman, thinker
and disciple was especially derided for his ideas of equality
of free men and populist governance. His neighbours deemed
his ideas as "phaltu" (useless) and he too became
called 'Phaltu'. He is known to us today by the Greek rendition
of his name, which is Plato. In turn his pupil, Aristotle,
mentor to Alexander the Great, inspired in his charge the
desire to see the land from where Shok Ratre and Phaltu
originated. However his troops were tired by the time they
got to the Indus and would march no longer just for a sight-seeing
trip. Furthermore his spies had gotten hold of the secret
formula of 'Ponir' (cheese), which they took back to Greece
and renamed 'Feta'.
Sylheti dialect pronunciation differentiation from Bangla
proper, is characterised by the use of kh for c, ph for
p, s for ch and in certain places, h for sh. Our culinary
skills are often mistaken for male braggadio of prowess.
Supposedly there was a written script but this was discouraged
by the post-52 language movement when the mother language,
Bangla, itself was under threat of forced extinction. The
last printing press using these characters was supposed
to have been destroyed in Sylhet town during the mayhem
and chaos of the War of Liberation. A friend of a friend
(really!), Rod Something did his thesis on the Sylheti language.
His research showed that words from Turkish, Uzbec, Persian,
Armenian, Arabic, English, Greek, Pashto, Urdu, all endowed
by commerce vocabulary that bought, sold, bartered, risked,
ventured, levied, taxed, traded, haggled, demurraged, financed,
leveraged, amortised, bonded, and charged their way into
my lingua de franca. Moulvibazar, Sunamganj, Sylhet , Habiganj
have their own distinct sounds and words and just as the
recipe for tenga (a fish and tomato based light
sour curry) varies from village to village so too does the
speech. Case in point being my parents, whose villages separated
only by a river yet each possessing words that are outlandish
gibberish to the other.
to Asterix and his Indomitable Gauls, was Bengal divided
in two, no three parts? East, West and Sylhet? Are the Sylhetis
a people, a nation, apart? A bore unto ourselves? Nope,
just merely one of the many blends that go into making the
intoxicating potent Bangladeshi spirit. However desh
or bidesh to the question of my origins, my response
remains: British by birth, Bangladeshi by descent and Sylheti
by the Grace of God!
(R) thedailystar.net 2005