Our history, our culture

Tulip Chowdhury

February 21 comes calling out to our hearts to pay respect and homage to the language martyrs of our motherland. Every year when I hear the heart rendering song “ Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano Ekushe Feberuary ….” I feel myself lost to a day in Belgrade, then the capital of Yusgoslavia in 1970. I was at that time living there with my family. I was then reading in Inernational School of Belgrade. In my school there was a student called Anisa who came from the erst-while West Pakistan. She was in Grade VIII while I was in Grade V. However we attended the same English tutoring class. One day our teacher asked, “What is your national language?”

“ Its called Urdu” replied Anisa.
I felt hurt and a pain seemed to suffocate me. I raised my hand and said, “We have two languages, the other one is Bangla.”
“Nonsense” said Anisa. And then to the teacher she said, “She is too young and doesn't know the correct answer.”

I was the younger one and therefore I gave in. But even on this day, after so many years, I still recall the pain and anguish I had suffered on that day when I witnessed the disgrace of my mother tongue in that foreign land. I wish that on that day I had the courage and the boldness of the language martyrs to protest, to have put my mother tongue in its rightful place even though it was an incident in a classroom. At that age I might not have been aware that it was the tip of an iceberg. In a much bigger picture the Eastern Wing of the then Pakistan was oppressed and we were not given our right place regarding our mother tongue. It was a picture of economical, social and cultural deprivations for which millions of people have sacrificed their lives.

The memories of my school life's incident comes to me at a time when I see that out there are a section of our young generation getting lost in the present changing society. Their life style is that of an alien culture, mostly western. Various juvenile delinquencies starting from alcohol to drugs pave ways into their lives. And today as I sit to pay my respect to the language martyrs I feel sad to mention that this young generation has very vague ideas about their own history and culture. They speak in English or Hindi and often feel proud that they avoid speaking in their mother tongue Bangla. They consider themselves the smart ones who are linked to the western culture. Our youths are the torch-bearers of our society. If they are confused and lost, who will guide the nation towards a better future?

Every year February 21 is the day to visit the memorial built to commemorate the language martyrs. We go barefoot and lay the floral wreaths to honour them. But does our responsibility end here? Is it not our sacred duty to raise awareness among children on the importance of their mother tongue? Our society is passing through a crossroad. The children are very much influenced by foreign cultures and in the process pick up foreign languages too. It is a common sight to see a large section of students reading in English medium schools speaking in English at home and outside. There are some who speak in Hindi too. We certainly encourage children to learn a second language, especially one as important as English. However the scenario becomes a sad one when we see that these children are often neglecting Bangla, their mother tongue. For some speaking Bangla with an English accent is a style of its own. They are not at all well acquainted with the culture and the language of Bangladesh. They have very hazy ideas about the history of their motherland and a far lesser idea of the history of their mother tongue. I wonder how can a tree grow and bear its fruits well if the roots are not on solid ground? Indeed how can our children grow into vigilant citizens without a thorough knowledge of their own history and culture? School curriculum can introduce more extensive lessons on the history and culture of our motherland. And at home too parents have a role to play in holding out more knowledge to the younger generation on their own identity. We should encourage our children to follow their other peers who are alert about their nationality and language. These are the wise youths who are equally proficient in English and Bangla, and follow their own culture.

The importance of educating our children on the history and culture of Bangladesh should never be overlooked. The children are the future of our nation. They need to be made aware that following a proposal made by Bangladesh, UNESCO created International Mother Language Day in 1999. Furthermore, the date chosen was February 21 in commemoration of the movement in which valiant people laid down their live on this date in 1952 defending the recognition of Bangla as a state language of the former Pakistan. When the Language Martyrs Day is recognized by the wide world how can our youths sleep on it? The youths need to be taught that their own culture can flourish where people enjoy the right to use their mother language fully and freely in all the various situations of their lives. Democracy cannot thrive without freedom of expression. That freedom of expression is needed to reach the people right from the down trodden to the educated masses. How can we reach out to people at grass-root level without Bangla as the medium of communicating with them? How can we reach out to the illiterate and extend to them the light of knowledge if they are not reached out in their own language. Indeed how many of our people know Hindi or English? The youths hold the torch to show the way to the future. We need our youths to educate themselves in their own mother tongue so that Bangla as a language becomes richer and the depth of its richness can spread across the world. It is the solemn need of the moment to educate our children with equal emphasis on Bangla and foreign languages like English.

Coming to our aesthetic senses it is often said that poets and writers find some of their best pieces of work in their own language. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in his native language Russian. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserable in his mother tongue French. The first Chinese to win Nobel Prize in Literature Gao Xingiian wrote his award winning Soul Mountain in Chinese. Rabindranath Tagore covered each and every aspect of life with his literary work and it was Bangla that brought him all the glory. Kazi Nazrul Islam , the rebel poet conquered the hearts and minds of people writing in Bangla. Literature is woven round the lives of people like a spider's web. Literature therefore is at its epic when it speaks the language of the people. Michael Madhushodhon Dutta tried to reach the glory of his literary work in English language but at a certain stage of his life he realized that his failure to reach the ultimate glory may have been his adoption of English as the medium and not his mother tongue. His inner-self was not content and thus he wrote in his poem “Kopothakko Nod”

“Bahu deshe dekhiyachi
bahu nod-dole
kintu e sneher trishna
mite kar jole?…”

Where else Rabindranath Tagore, his literature flourishing in Bangla wrote his patriotic song,
“ Bangalir pon, Bangalir asha,Bangalir kaj, Bangalir bhasa
shattya houk, shattya houk, shattya houk he bhogoban …”

Motherland, mother tongue and the mother herself are essential to epitomize a person's life. The importance of these in the over all development of an individual is immense. Without the proper identity of these in life a person is like a wingless bird. The mother tongue is like the wind under the wings. It is the medium through which self- expression takes place in its highest form. There are people who can express themselves well in foreign languages too. However history seems to show that it is the mother tongue that bears the beacon.

The memory of that day at my school and how I failed to defend my mother tongue still casts its shadow over my life. There is a saying that everything has a reason. I recall that incident and ever since have always been alert that children learned to value their mother tongue at the early stage of their life. Although I became a teacher teaching English Language but my first thought for the small children was “ Are they learning their mother tongue Bangla properly?” At home after my first child was born my maternal uncle, late Waheedul Haque visited me. He advised me to keep books all around the house so that my children will take up reading easily. Then he added that I should make sure that there were plenty of Bangla books so that the children learned their mother tongue well. I took his advice and thanks to him all my three children read a lot and they are very well versed in Bangla. The three of them are now students of University of Arkansas in USA. I proudly listen to their stories that they organize programs to celebrate national events. My younger son who came to Dhaka recently collected materials to organize a program for the February 21 this year. My son dreams of the day when he will complete his studies and come back to contribute something to the development of his motherland. Together, he and I sat and sang together,
“ a mori Bangla bhasha
moder gorob, moder asha…”

We felt proud to be singing this song in our motherland. I know this song will be carried seven seas away to be spread among people who will learn about our language martyrs who have laid down lives to defend their mother tongue. And at home I hope that as vigilant citizens we make sure that our children grow into patriotic citizens with a thorough knowledge of their own history, culture and language.

Tulip Chowdhury writes fiction and is a teacher.

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