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     Volume 8 Issue 58 | February 20, 2009 |

  Cover Story
  Special Feature
  Ekushey Grantha   Mela
  Photo Feature
  Writing the Wrong
  Straight Talk
  Star Diary
  Book Review
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Shaheed Barkat's mother. Photo credit: Anwar Hossain

Writing the Wrong

The Heart of Us

Sharbari Ahmed

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes

I wanted very badly to write something inspirational and wise about what language means, instead I am exploiting Holmes, and feebly grasping at a rather amorphous idea of what the language of my birth means to me personally. But I agree with Mr. Holmes and I feel his words powerfully exemplify how most Bangalis feel about their beloved mother tongue.

When I speak to non-Bangladeshis about this country, I usually have a specific agenda. It is usually about educating them, selling it to them. I am not proud of this, mind you. I did it, for the most part, unconsciously. Now that I have become aware of it, I am embarrassed. There is no reason to sell anything to anyone. Bangladesh is what it is. I think it stemmed from not really knowing on which shore my feet were planted, the usual tiresome cultural confusion crap that every American Deshi filmmaker of a certain generation insists on making a film about. But as I was mulling this column over, I was thinking about how I describe Bangladesh to others and one thing I always mention and is rapidly being lost in some quarters is where the heart of our identity lies. I always say this: “Our sense of Bengaliness doesn't come from religion, it comes from our language. Islam does not define us, the very act of speaking Bangla does.” I am personally very proud of this. I would never want to be from a land that grounded its identity in some mandate from heaven (that hasn't even been properly looked over by good attorneys). Hear that, Saudi Arabia, Israel? What a joke!

It is humbling to me that people died to protect this language of ours, and with that sent a clear, unique, message to the world, that has been, as of late, obscured by rhetoric (ironic, huh?) violence, greed, corruption, and an inordinate worship of all things Western. And not even the good stuff the West has to offer, but all the junk Hollywood manufactures in order to con us into thinking we can live like rock stars.

Photo credit: Anwar Hossain

Given that, what is even more ironic is that when the white man first landed on top of India, Calcutta was made the base of their operations and they rapidly embraced Bangali culture, and were even in awe of it. Naturally this was because they had very low expectations of the dark skinned savages they were trying to exploit and the level of sophistication as well as the ease with which many Bangalis conversed about complex ideas, pleasantly surprised the colonialists. They were even impressed with the inherent Bangali need to agitate and challenge authority something they of course bemoaned later when the Quit India movement was born in none other than Bengal.

In the various historical accounts I have read of the first impressions Bangla made on Europeans, most, if not all, have said how sonorous the language is and a bit too difficult to grasp entirely. I mean, how is someone to accurately translate the concept of adda or alladi. That, of course, goes for almost every language. I will always mourn the fact that I am too indolent to ever learn Russian and will therefore never intimately know War and Peace. Indolent, great word, because as someone said, “it makes my laziness sound fancy.” Ahh language!

There have been many instances where I have attempted to converse with someone in Bangla and have only gotten English back. Especially here, in Dhaka. Now I realise it is because I am speaking to someone who comes from a certain milieu (i.e. a “richie” or someone who fancies themselves one ), or it could be that my accent is so offensive that the other person is behooved to ignore my attempts, but I don't think so. I used to resent my parents heartily because I felt they were imposing Bangla on me, now I am eternally grateful to them. I love lapsing into Bangla at the drop of a topi. It is a luxury, you know, being able to trip between two languages with ease. Like a vacation or Thai deep tissue massage (I am hunched over my laptop). I am trying hard to get my kid to speak it as well but this will be even more of an uphill battle than the one Amma and Abba had as my kid is half American. But I am determined to teach him.

It is a coincidence that I was born Bangali and I try not to get caught up in nationalistic fervor, also considering that I view myself as solidly Amercan as well, but I love the fact that I come from a people who are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect their language. That they draw their life blood from it, and for whom conversing without agenda and real purpose accept the desire to connect with another human being (my attempt at translating the word adda) is a national pastime.


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