O amar Bangla bhasha

Zeenat Khan

"Fear not, comes the message from
the direction of the rising sun,
Those that will give life to the last throb
will diminish not, never."

- Rabindranath Tagore

On a recent sunny, windless, frozen afternoon I was walking along the trails in a suburban American town. Above me the sunlight was pouring through the naked branches of the trees without leaves. I was thinking about one particular passage that I read that morning in The Shelter OfThe World, a fiction piece by Salman Rushdie published in the New Yorker magazine on February 25, 2008. In the story, a great Jesuit linguist comes to Mughal Emperor Akbar's court and challenges Akbar the Great to discover his native tongue. He was speaking in Portugese. While the monarch of the world was trying to solve the puzzle, his first minister Birbal, one of his navaratna, goes behind the priest, and kicks him hard on his backside. The priest cries out in Italian. "You observe Jahanpanah," said Birbal, "that when it comes to unleashing a few insults, a man will always choose his mother tongue."

Our mother tongue Bangla came under vehement attacks after the partition of India in 1947. Pakistan's leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited East Bengal only once in 1948 and pronounced, during a lecture in Dacca University's Curzon Hall, that "Urdu and Urdu alone will be the state language of Pakistan." Students sitting at the back of the room cried out “No, No, No.” In Pakistan's east wing (then known as East Bengal), Bangla was the only spoken language, whereas Urdu was spoken by 12-15% of the entire population. People in the East had no understanding of this alien tongue and would not tolerate such an impossible proposition. From 1950-52, the educated middle class of East Bengal underwent what is referred to as the language movement. The Bangla language survived through the bloodshed of our own Dhaka University and Medical College students in 1952, when the Muslim League establishment's Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin (a supposed Bangalee himself) declared what Mr. Jinnah had originally proposed, that Urdu only would be the state language of Pakistan.

It was the Bangla month of Falgun. The students leaders of Dhaka University, on behalf of their teachers, took the lead in opposing the ridiculous notion by demanding that Bangla should be our official language. They, united, stood against the tyranny of the Muslim League government. Chaired by Maulana Bhashani, an All-Party Central Language Action Committee was formed. An overwhelming number of students converged upon the university campus. In a meeting at amtala, the student leaders called the central Pakistan's decision to establish Urdu as the only official state language an overt assault upon Bengali culture and heritage.

On February 21, 1952, the student leaders decided to organize a peaceful rally. The valiant students broke the curfew imposed by the government, violating Section 144. Then the government ordered its security forces to open fire on the unarmed students as they were trying to march to the Assembly building to make their demands heard, all the while chanting Rashtrobhasha Bangla Chai. Dhaka city's earth was made crimson by the blood of twelve students, and amongst them were Salam, Jabbar, Barkat, Riafique, Motiur, and an unidentified rickshaw puller. They gave their lives to preserve Bangla language in its rightful place.

The students lost lives for the future generation to sing with delight:
Moder gorob, moder aasha
A'mori Bangala bhasha.

One's language is one's identity. Revoking the right to talk in one's language in an official capacity can be seen as a challenge to one's very existence, similar to instructing a person that she cannot breathe through her nose. What choice is left, at that point, but to fight back? Ever since independence from the British Raj in 1947, East Pakistan had historically bent to the whims of West Pakistan; their division had been designed to encourage this. We Bengalis did not take the assault on our language lying down. We fought tooth and nail until 1971. With the birth of our nation, a separate Bangladesh, our new found freedom ensured us Bangalees that we were full citizens, and that we were free of any official threat of the government, whether arbitrary demands over official language, or over the rights of persons.

Recently I stumbled upon an old two taka note that caught my attention. Shaheed Minar is imprinted on that note. The deaths of our students were commemorated by the stark Shaheed Minar, or Monument of Martyrs; each pillar represents the life of a shaheed student. Ekushey February is observed every year with thousands of barefoot people marching, carrying wreaths and garlands of marigolds and krishnachura. They lay the wreaths on the marble stone minars built 14 feet high above the ground, and climb up the wide stairs singing "Amar bhaiiyer rakte rangano Ekushey February. Ami ki bhulite pari."

On this Ekushey, I am pondering why, after so much struggle and bloodshed, the Bangla language is becoming a secondary language in the big cities of Bangladesh. In a lot of the secondary and higher secondary schools, English is the only medium of instruction. Our young generation often speaks in English. Television and other cultural programs have become a peculiar hybrid of English and Bangla. There are so many English words that are slipped in, that one will infer that our young generation is ashamed to speak in its mother tongue.

Very recently I was talking to a friend on the phone who had moved back to Bangladesh after staying in the West for decades. Suddenly I realized that both of us were mostly speaking in English and when I pointed that out to my friend, she informed me that even after living in Dhaka for seven years, she finds it is easier to speak in English than in Bangla. This was a friend who read Robi Thakur's Shesher Kobita, whose life was greatly influenced by the Last Poem. Like Jibananda Das scholar Clinton B. Seely, she could parse the post-modern characteristics of complicated and controversial Das poems. Now all that is gone. I can picture my friend sitting in rowdy Mango Café in Dhanmondi, discussing Dhaka's traffic jams in English.

I take equal responsibility here for not truly keeping up with the Bangla language. After living in the West for over three decades, English, for me, has become a way of daily life. In the mailbox, when two books arrive on the same day, one being Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness and the other Buddhadev Guha's Charumoti, I tend go for Alice Munro first. This is a sad reality.

I acknowledge, however, that I am in my full element when I write in Bangla and read Bangla, though the only time I write in Bangla is when I write to my ninety-six year old mother in Dhaka. Recently I read a short story titled Allen Shahiber Chokh by Syed Manzoorul Islam in an old Eid issue of Jugantaar which took me back to my roots, riding an old bicycle on an open country road. Acclaimed poet Fazal Shahabuddin speaks to me like no poet has, particularly his poem Graveyard. In solitary moments a tape of Abbasuddin Ahmed plays in the background; Allah megh dey pani dey chaya dey re tui…The words wrap around me like a familiar chenille blanket on a blustery winter night.

Learning from the lessons of that dreadful February day in 1952, we as Bangalees came to assert our national identity. Our students gave their lives to make sure that the future generations do take pride in our language and keep the national sentiment alive as Bengalis. We must identify through our Bangla language, the main source of our pride and, arguably, the very root of our collective spirit.

Zeenat Khan writes fiction and lives in the United States.

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