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    Volume 9 Issue 11| March 12, 2010|

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A Roman Column

A Bengali Monument in Rome

Neeman Sobhan

After a day of almost continual downpour, the morning of the 21st of February dawns resplendent with sunshine, as if Roman rain were something we had maliciously imagined, a false accusation. Only the slippery grass under our feet is evidence of a wet yesterday. And we are in a grassy spot, a glistening rain-washed park in the heart of an old, aristocratic neighbourhood of Rome, Parioli.

The Park, the Parco Yitzhak Rabin, is nestled within an area that makes Bengalis in Rome feel proud--- a square or a clearing like a piazza, called Largo Bangladesh. But what will put this in the map this morning, not just for the resident Bengalis but anyone who has an interest in history and the importance of the mother tongue in the cultural and political context of any people, is the construction of a permanent monument to the martyrs of the Bengali language movement of 1952.

The Commune di Roma (Rome's municipal headquarters), the Bangladesh embassy here informs us, has only recently given the permission and the location for the construction of the monument. So, this morning a ceremony is taking place in the park, in front of a temporary altar to the mother language and its martyrs in the shape of a replica of the monument.

The various communities of Bengalis, from every walk of life, are naturally expected to attend, but many important people or 'dignitaries' have also been invited by the embassy to witness and participate in this event. After all, Ekushey February is no longer just a chapter in Bengali history but under the auspices of the UN is also an international day.

Walking to the gathering with one of my Italian students of Bengali from the University of Rome where I teach, we take a shortcut towards the park across a typical Roman Bar on the Largo. Scent of coffee and fresh baked cornetto drifts to us seductively but we walk on, our eyes focused on the slightly slippery slope till we hit the pebbly path of the park. Finally, I look up, and the sight before me comes as a jolt bringing a lump to my throat. For there, on the verdant expanse before us, surrounded by Italian oaks and Roman pines and Mediterranean laurel shrubs, an utterly Bengali structure: the triptych symbol of the Matribhasha, our very own Shaheed Minar in the heart of Rome.

The embassy has collected quite a crowd of international audience, representatives from various international institutions like UNESCO, FAO, and varius universities; and ambassadors or their representatives from countries like Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Morocco, Myanmar, Romania, Serbia, Vietnam etc.

The sight of non-Bengali people standing in respect for the one-minute silence or laying flowers and wreaths at the Minar is a moving sight, as are the strains of Bengali songs emanating from the tent of local Bengali artists and channeled through the loudspeakers. The morning joggers at the fringe of the park stop short on their way and listen. The cloudless Roman sky is a canopy under which familiar words and melodies resound creating a temporary home for all nostalgic Roman Bengalis.

However, the monotony of the refrain from the anthem of Ekushey February 'Aamar bhaiyer roktey rangano' continuing for far too long, and the speeches that ensue, inevitably lengthy and predictable in their scope, begin to make everyone restless. Slowly the audience starts to disperse. By the time the few dances to patriotic songs can be performed the international elements of the audience are reduced to a handful. However the Bengali crowds continue to enjoy the music and singing.

It occurs to many of us that since 21st February is no longer just a Bengali anniversary but International Mother Language day, we have a responsibility to honour other languages, and so the programme even when it starts quite rightly with an invocation, prayer, and meditation on the martyrs of the Bengali language, should include other linguistic speakers and their cultures in our programme. We must not forget the international aspect of Mother language day, the rights of other languages and speakers within Bangladesh and the world. And since when we talk of mothers, we must remember that one has birth mothers and adoptive mothers, so that includes the right to learn other adoptive world languages like English without being labeled unpatriotic. After all we Bengalis are not in the same situation as in the 1950's where our language was threatened. The goal in a modern society, secure in itself, should be a Multilingual society where no speaker feels his mother language or chosen language to be threatened. Inclusiveness, not exclusiveness should be the theme of an International Mother Language day.

My students at the University of Rome speak Bangla without forgetting their own language or Italian heritage. Today, particularly, I am thrilled to walk back from the park chatting to my student in Bengali. She has returned from Bangladesh and tells me that she was at the Shaheed Minar in Dhaka, even attended the Boyee mela. She also lived in some Baul villages in India and has learnt to sing their songs. Presently she is working on a Bengali-Italian/Italian-Bengali dictionary to help migrant Bengali workers and their children to learn Italian and for Italian students to learn Bengali. Carola continues to be Italian, but with a deep knowledge of another language and culture. For me she is a symbol of what respect for other mother languages can achieve: a deepening of our involvement in humanity.


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