Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
          Volume 10 |Issue 43 | November 18, 2011 |


 Cover Story
 Current Affairs
 Food for Thought
 Photo Feature
 Human Rights
 Straight Talk
 Star Diary

   SWM Home


In My Place: Betwixt First Language and Mother Tongue

Rebecca Haque

Today, when I see a strong concerted effort by both government and private agencies to empower our people at the grass-root level with knowledge of communicative English, I applaud their initiative to arm every individual with this linguistic tool for economic and social advancement beyond the borders of our own country. However, I confess, my immersion in English language and literature from my earliest school-days had no pecuniary motive – passion for the written word directed my own imaginative and creative instinct. Essentially, in the scientific jargon of today's linguistic theorists, the picture and the idea locked inside the semiotic sign system captivated me. I still remember the euphoria of my seven-year old mind as I discovered the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Walter de la Mare and R L Stevenson and Enid Blyton were my companions as were the classics in their abridged form until the age of ten.

I also confess that, now, my first language is English because over the years my command of this language has surpassed my command over my mother tongue, Bangla. My acquisition of words from the lexicon of Bangla has lagged behind my natural flair for enlarging my English word-figure. But I love my mother tongue too, and everyday I try to replicate verbally the best of its discourse. I now have a quite sophisticated ability to discourse in Bangla and I speak a form of Bangla which exponents of discourse analysis would probably term “polite discourse”.

Undeniably, an ever-present dialectic – sometimes fluid, sometimes tense – exists between a person's first language and the mother tongue. How shall I define the first language? It is, I guess, the language in which one is most comfortable and can express oneself with authority, clarity, and complete ease and facility. Express, moreover, one's desires and beliefs with total veracity. Dexterous handling of vocabulary and tasteful awareness of a word's every nuance is also a mandatory rule of the first language.

In Sujata Bhatt's poem, “Search For My Tongue”, from her acclaimed collection Brunizem, she writes:

I ask you, what would you do if you had two tongues in your mouth,

And lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other, the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together even if you thought that way….
Everytime I think I've forgotten,
I think I've lost the mother tongue,
It blossoms out of my mouth.

Of course, one must read this long poem in its entirety to feel the force of Bhatt's own intense tussle with English and her native Indian regional dialect. The poem blends vernacular words into the texture of the central motif. Especially, the symbolic contrast between a flowering tree and language growth makes us enter the cultural and linguistic boundaries of postcolonial discourse: paradox and dislocation unite to thrust us into open contestation with empire, imperialism, and colonialism. Similarly, in Upamanyu Chatterjee's magnificent first novel, his bildungsroman, English, August: An Indian Story, much of the protagonist's postcolonial angst revolves around his complicated relationship with language, starting with his Darjeeling English-medium schooling to his relaxing interludes with Patherpanchali and Marcus Aurelius.

On my part, I can affirm with honesty and without hubris, that my English is as superb and flawless as your Queen's English. I speak it with sophistication and panache: to wit, in England, the English ask me, “Where did you learn your English?” But, turning away from irony, the important, politically conscious question I ask myself is, where do I choose to stand today? In response, I wish to recite a verse from Nissim Ezekiel's poem Background, Casually, which echoes my thoughts:

I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,
As others choose to give themselves
In some remote and backward place
My backward place is where I am.

Thus, now, in this place of mine, while I choose to converse serenely in Bangla, I rant and rave and rationalise and adumbrate and fraternize and finally, synthesise, in English. I have taught Romantic poetry for a few years to the freshman and sophomore students when I was myself a fresh, young lecturer in the department of English at University of Dhaka, and in class I have moved effortlessly from Grasmere to Xanadu and have held up the lamp for my students so that, in its halo, they too could discover the glorious wonder of the intense, passionate songs sung by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Manfred and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage burned the image of the Byronic homme fatale on my mind and my retina still recreates the image of the melancholy exile on moon-lit distant shores. I have read aloud a great many poems in class to arouse in the young men and women a passion equal to mine for the beauty of harmonious sound, the spoken word, the image, and the idea behind the image. At that time, the Bangla script was as unintelligible to me as cuneiform, but I am proud to declare now that in the last ten years (and especially in the last two years with the pressure of reading official documents and administrative circulars and inter-office memos in Bangla) I have become proficient in reading and translating my native language. But, as is Nature's way, after failing to learn to write Bangla in childhood, the adult hand struggles to find competence in writing Bangla words and sentences. However, my verbal ability is strong and I can even orate in the public arena in Bangla with confidence.

The culture of Bengal is my heritage and my forefathers tilled the alluvial soil of Dhamrai, Savar, six generations ago. All the streets and lanes of Dhaka are known to me and I drank in the riotous colour and gaiety of seasonal festivals every year we came to vacation in my grandfather's house in Armanitola. The great songs and folktales of the Gangetic Delta were gifts given to me by my parents in my childhood, and the themes of the great novelists were explained to me to assuage my curiosity by my mother and father, both of them voracious readers of Bangla novels. I knew the names of SaratChandra and Bankim and Buddhadev, even before I could spell in any language. I remember my mother's clear sweet voice singing Rabindrasangeet and I remember my parents taking me to see little Sharmila Tagore in the film “Kabuliwallah” when I was twelve years old. It was in Lahore and the cinema Hall was near the gardens of Jahangir and Nur Jahan's tomb. We went to see the film after a picnic in the gardens, and later, I came out of the cinematic experience in an ecstatic state. That glorious day: total recall today through my unified sensibility. Art and history, culture and literature: what more can a mere mortal ask for?

Now, I am reading some famous Bangla works in the original. And, on the threshold of my fifty-seventh year upon this good earth, I confess that it has been a blissful journey, with many roads and crossroads and roses and thorns. Not one day has been dull, and I owe all to the words on the page which made me wise before I was meant to be, words which gave me vision and empathy even before I actually physically experienced moments in real time. Many a time, in many parts of the world, I have felt 'déjà vu'. Literature and words are now not only the tools of my trade, they are my delight and refuge. Today, with new life beckoning to me from the future, I vow to steady my right hand and practise assiduously so that, tomorrow, my fingers can hold my grandchild's hand to trace the Bangla alphabet in a foreign land.

The writer is Professor and Chairperson, Department of English, University of Dhaka.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2011