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     Volume 4 Issue 42 | April 16, 2005 |

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Sylhet 1-0 Rest of the World

Shammi Mohabbat

To be, 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?

For 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.

The 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 implied.

Upon 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.

A landlocked 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.

By and 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:

"In 1492, Columbus Sailed the Open Blue,
And Found what the Sylhetis already Knew

In 1493, Columbus Sailed Back across the Sea,
Wishing to God he were Born a Sylheti"

Medieval 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.

However 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.

Did 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.

Three 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.

Around 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.

When 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.

Contrary 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.

In the 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.

Indians 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."

Digressing 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.

The 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!

Of course 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.

Have 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'.

Even 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'.

The 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.

Akin 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!


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