Between two languages: Examining my identity as a Bangladeshi | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 16, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:03 PM, March 16, 2019

Between two languages: Examining my identity as a Bangladeshi

My father is the son of a former Muslim League president of East Pakistan. My mother is the daughter of a former president of the East Pakistan Mohila Awami League. The political atmosphere at home has always been quite tense, especially with my grandparents discussing their political views on different occasions. My parents have never forced me to adopt their ideologies. Instead, they have let me decide what political ideology to choose and believe in. What they never realised was that their children adopted a non-political position because of the nature of the two families. Unlike most people I have met, I was exposed to Bangla and Urdu side by side in my childhood.

My father's family speaks Urdu. Not in its pure form, but a hybrid one. Dhakaiya Urdu has a lot of Bangla words and intonations, making it easily distinguishable from standard Urdu. It is much simpler and easier to learn. My mother is non-Dhakaiya, which means that she was an outsider to her husband's family; she is one even to this day. She was born in Narayanganj. One of my earliest memories with language is of my paternal grandmother desperately trying to make me call my mother “ammi”, in Urdu, but I stubbornly kept calling her “ammu”, because that's what my mother too called me in turn.

Since everyone in my house spoke Urdu, my mother decided she would teach my big brother and me to speak Bangla. Out of respect for her, my father began to speak to us in Bangla as well, to the annoyance of other family members. The interesting part is that my mother never taught us the dialect of Narayanganj that she had grown up with. She taught us to speak in standard Bangla, claiming that it sounded much better than the Narayanganj dialect. The irony was lost on me then, but now I realise that I speak Urdu but not in its standard form, only a regional dialect. I also speak Bangla but not a regional dialect, only its standard form.

In my early years, I remember being bullied for speaking standard Bangla by my own family and relatives. Once a year, during Eid, there was a huge family gathering. The variously related extended family would flock together. The women sat in a room deep inside the big house, far from where the men were talking. There would be children who would play, shout and run about. Those distant cousins of mine made fun of me because I spoke Bangla and they spoke Urdu. Even if I could demonstrate that I knew Urdu, they kept mocking me. They called me “Bangal” and would only stop if one of our mothers noticed. I remember feeling alone and bitter. I used to be angry at my parents for making me speak Bangla with them. I believed that speaking Bangla was nasty.

As I got older, I spent more time sitting with my mother. I realised that many of the women from my father's side of the family were making fun of her, in Urdu, right in front of her. The jokes were usually lost on her and she kept smiling and nodding. This time, my anger was not directed towards my mother for speaking Bangla. I told the women, in Urdu, that I had heard enough of their gossip to know the kind of things they got away with. If they kept making fun of my mother, I would blow the whistle to their husbands and fathers. They stopped. I was fourteen, but I felt older and more powerful than a teenager should. That was the first time speaking Urdu gave me so much satisfaction.

When I was nine, my parents moved out of my father's family home. My maternal grandmother had had an accident that left her handicapped. My mother moved in with her parents to take care of them. With this shift, my ties to Urdu suffered greatly. Now I was in a house where nobody spoke Urdu, only standard Bangla. I only spoke Urdu once or twice a month in family get-togethers. Gradually, I entered the real world where Urdu is as disliked as it is opposed. Now, I was made to believe that speaking Urdu was nasty.

The first time I was mocked for speaking Urdu was at school. My classmates found out that my grandfather had ties with the Muslim League and that I spoke Urdu. They called me “Rajakarer Naatni” and “Pakistani Dalal”. It was all I could do to not scream and cry. I was eleven. Because my class teacher intervened, no one openly mocked me anymore. But kids would maliciously whisper those words to me whenever they thought they could get away with it. The feeling of alienation was back. It terrified and enraged me at the same time. It only stopped after I switched schools. At my new school, I did not breathe a word about my Urdu-speaking roots. It was not until my second year at university that I managed to discard the “shame” of being an Urdu-speaking person in Bangladesh. I am not a Pakistani or a Rajakar. I just speak one more language than the average Bangladeshi.

My initial feeling of superiority that came with speaking Urdu was misplaced and illusive. The bubble that Urdu-speaking Dhakaiya people like to live in gives them little understanding of the broader world. The segregation I faced for speaking Bangla was only possible in that bubble. As I identified more with my status as a Bangladeshi, I began to realise that most people have one culture to identify with, one language—Bangla and one or more dialects of the same language. I, on the other hand, am a hybrid of two distinct cultures and languages, neither of which is exclusive to the national identity of a Bangladeshi. I do not have a regional dialect of Bangla to belong to, nor do I have the identity of a true Urdu speaker. This gives a unique status in this society, because we are not as cosmopolitan as other multicultural cities of the world are.

My family is full of ironies. My uncles have all married non-Dhakaiya women and none of my first cousins know Urdu. Their mothers refuse to let them learn it because it goes against their identity as Urdu-opposing Bangladeshis. Therefore, my uncles and grandmother, who refused to let my brother and me learn Bangla, speak it with their own children. I am the last surviving member of the Huda family to speak Urdu.

Sarah Elma Huda is studying for an MA in English at ULAB.

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