A few months into my stay in Sierra Leone, my friend Sahana Bajpaie -- artist and faculty member at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London -- tells me on Facebook that she would like to introduce me to one Dr. Hanne-Ruth Thompson, a linguist from the SOAS and a leading Bengali language expert. Sahana informs me that Dr. Thompson is currently based in Freetown with her economist husband Keith, who works for DFID, the UK Aid agency. I am pleasantly surprised to learn that the Bengali expert is not an Indian or a Bangladeshi, but a German!
Before long, I get a phone call and the lady at the other end says, “Amar naam Hanna. Sahana amake apnar kotha boleche. Ami apnar shongge daekha korte chai” (My name is Hanna and Sahana has told me about you. I would like to meet you).
I am delighted to hear Bengali spoken so perfectly. Hanna then invites me to an adda (an informal and spontaneous chat or discussion among like-minded people, without any set agenda) for a few Bengalis based in Freetown.
It is a pleasant Saturday afternoon in Freetown and I find my way to Hanna and Keith's place off Spur Road along the middle reaches of hills. I have already drawn a mental picture of Hanna -- a serious academic -- formal, prim and very “German”, but the reality is quite different. Draped in a simple, rust-orange cotton saree, Hanna gives me a beatific smile and reaches out to welcome me. Despite their eminence, Hanna and Keith come across as down-to-earth, genuine, warm and accessible people with whom I feel an immediate connection.
I am led to the sprawling terrace of their house with a panoramic view of the North Atlantic Ocean. It has rained earlier and the air is cool and fresh. The sky is partly overcast and streaks of sunlight pierce through gaps in the clouds and bounce off the water. More people arrive and settle down on the rattan sofas on the terrace. We chat over tea (the South Asian variety -- strong, thick and sweet, made by one of the guests) and homemade semolina cake and cheese biscuits. Hanna, I discover, bakes excellent cakes and biscuits.
Hanna, Keith and their children moved to Bangladesh in 1991 and Hanna fell instantly in love with the Bangla language. It changed her life thereafter. She had very little formal tuition in Bangla but was completely immersed in the language, living in Dhaka and spending a lot of time in “her” village in Natore during her three and a half year stay in Bangladesh. Years later, after completing her PhD on Bangla grammar, Hanna wrote, “For someone as spellbound by a language as I am by Bangla, it is advisable to couch that state of affairs in terms of a well-defined academic interest, in order to be taken seriously. Being in love with a language would, to many Europeans, appear eccentric. In my experience, Bengalis understand how someone can feel passionately about Bangla because they know that language can affect us on a level which goes deeper than mere intellectual interest.”
A friend of Hanna's first suggested that she write a Bangla dictionary because of the unique way she had learnt the language. Her first book, “Essential Everyday Bengali”, a short grammar and dictionary of colloquial Bangla, was published in 1999 by the Bangla Academy in Dhaka. It was an instant success and “a big boost to my confidence”, Hanna says.
Hanna's subsequent doctoral thesis was entitled: “Towards a definitive grammar of Bengali: a practical study and critique of research on selected grammatical structures”. Driven by her deep curiosity about Bangla grammar and frustrated at the lack of adequate linguistic analysis, she decided to write a new grammar herself, clearly a daring and ambitious venture to begin with, but a highly successful one in the end. Her PhD thesis was in effect a preparation for writing this grammar, based on contemporary, synchronic analysis. This means that instead of following the development of a language through its history, the language structures are analysed from the present point in time. This type of linguistic enquiry deals with the living language and tries to understand its processes and structures.
Hanna sees the pioneering aspect of her research in her simple method of observation and description. Over a number of years she has been collecting example sentences from contemporary writings (of any kind) and used those examples as the basis for her analysis. She acknowledges her debt to her PhD supervisor, Dr William Radice, for encouraging her to develop her own methodology and for his faith in her work.
Her “Bengali: A Comprehensive Grammar” was published by Routledge in 2010 and has quickly become a standard text for students of the language outside as well as within Bengal.
Hanna is also a passionate and experienced teacher. She taught Bangla at SOAS for ten years, she has done language teacher training in Bangladesh, developed courses for recruiting more qualified Bangla teachers in the UK and was the Chair of Examiners for Bengali school examination bodies at both GCSE and A-Level in the UK for many years. Now that she lives in Sierra Leone, does she miss her teaching? Yes, she does, but one of the first surprises in Freetown was the almost instant appearance of a ready-made beginner Bengali student, keen to start his lessons!
After the dictionary and phrasebook of Krio (the lingua franca of Sierra Leone) that she is completing at the moment, Hanna intends to do more literary translations from Bangla into German -- she has previously translated one of Buddhadeva Bose's novels. She is working on a new course book for beginner students and also on a monograph on Bangla verbs. One of her upcoming projects is an online Bangla course for students who do not have access to classes. Hanna is also concerned by the way grammar is taught to school-children in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. “Children come away from this experience thinking that Bangla grammar is extremely complicated and scary. It is not, and I would love to show them how much joy there can be in discovering more about their own language.”
In addition to her scholarly pursuits, Hanna also enjoys classical music; she loves reading, poetry, travelling and exploring and, above all, she is fascinated by people and what makes them the way they are.
Little wonder that adda -- something that is so quintessentially Bengali -- should be initiated of all places in Freetown in West Africa and hosted not by a Bengali but by a German scholar of the Bengali language and her British husband! This, among other things, truly makes Dr. Hanne-Ruth Thompson an honorary Bengali.
Shumon Sengupta is the country director of an international aid and development organisation in Sierra Leone. He is an avid traveller, aesthete, blogger and can be reached at his blog: world-citizen-trail.net.