Monday, August 27, 2012

Bengali - a Groovy Kind of Love.

The other day I was talking to fellow blogger Ovshake (although I'm using the term "blogger" loosely in an effort to explain what I do here) and we were both trying to figure out what it is that is in the Bengali language that is so magnetic. Magnetic isn't even the right word to use here. In fact, I think we will be hard-pressed to explain in any number of words the "taan" (the pull) that the language has on its people. Abhishek da asked, "Well, what is it?" and I have been thinking about that ever since. 

You can say that I have two primary languages. I was born in Canada, which meant I was exposed to the English language right away, my mother-tongue is still Bangla and my Dad was frightfully strict about never hearing me speak in anything other than Bangla at home. I lived in Toronto until age 6, when we went back to Kolkata, where I attended school until I was 19. Possibly due to my upbringing I speak English and Bengali as if they are both my native tongues (both accents are unaffected mostly - ie when I converse in English it is with a Canadian accent while my Bengali accent remains untouched by my Canadian-ness). I grew up reading, writing and speaking both languages. The purpose of going into this detail about my life is to establish the fact that my exposure to both languages has been of equal depth - if not more in favour of the English language because I have unfortunately and shamefully not been able to read a lot of Bengali since I came back to North America.

However, I seldom shed a tear when I read English fiction. English rarely ever makes it hard to swallow (unless in rare occurrences when the book is set in India or is about Indian sensibilities). On the other hand when I read anything in Bengali, I can paint a clear picture in my head, I can smell the food, hear the sounds - I can feel Bengal. For a minute I think perhaps it is because I can remember things from my childhood and I have an emotional connection to those things - but then I stop and I realise that some pictures are painted in my head, which have nothing to do with my childhood. It's like reading Tagore's Chhelebela (Childhood) - there's no way I can know what it was like to live in Jorashanko but somehow I can see all of it it. His words paint a picture for me. Same can be said for Ha Ja Ba Ra La - it isn't real, but Sukumar Ray's words make the whole thing turn into a parallel universe. (Ha Ja Ba Ra La is a lot better and deeper than Alice in Wonderland by the way). Rabindrasangeet, Nazrulgeeti, Dijendrageeti, old Bengali Songs have a way of tugging at my heartstrings that I have never experienced with an English song (except for maybe Lennon's Imagine, the Black Eyed Peas' Where is the Love, MJ's We are the World - but then I attribute that to my overall angst about the human race and all its issues). Some Hindi songs do the same thing - but then I don't really pay attention to Hindi lyrics (Hindi is truly a 3rd Language for me) I generally just soak in the tunes and the music. 

What is in a bengali piece of writing that can leave me sobbing (yes, I mean sobbing, not just crying) with tears of joy? When I recently read the Protidin e-zine on Debabrata Biswas - that was painful. And again, it was the words - oh the words - that drew me in and made me mourn the loss of the golden days of bengali music - which if I may add, I had not really experienced. How is it that I can listen to "Dole Dodul Dole Jhulona" and imagine Manabendra and Shyamal singing it and reminisce those "good ol' days" (again which I wasn't around for) when both of them refused to sing the song in solo performances out of respect to the other singer (my father tells me). Why is it that all of a sudden I have begun longing for a copy of Rajkahini (Abanindranath Tagore) and Chhelebela (Rabindranath Tagore)? I still try to remember the name of the book of short stories that we had to read for our ICSE exams just so that I can acquire a copy of it and read the story, "Mahesh" to experience that gut-wrenching ending.  I can spend hours just reading poetry and songs by Kazi Naztrul Islam, and feel a sort of pain and angst about how he was not understood during his life-time, eclipsed by Tagore and neglected forever after. So much so that I went off and did some research about him and am tormented by the fact that I have not been able to disseminate what I have learnt. 

The funny thing is that I have met a few non-bengalis, non-Indians really who feel the same kind of tug from the Bengali language. I have met Willian Radice who has dedicated his life to taking Tagore to a worldwide audience translating so many of Tagore's works. It is simply unfathomable to me that he learnt Bengali as a second language and wrote his PhD thesis on Michael Madhusudan Dutta (someone I have a really hard time understanding without a lot of help). I have been very close to two of my professors Dr. Joseph O'Connell and Dr. Kathy O'Connell who have dedicated their lives to the Bengali cause. They have worked tirelessly to bring Bengali to the University of Toronto and managed to bring a bust of Tagore to the campus. Until his recent passing Joe Kaku had worked on translating Tagore's works. Both him and his wife, Kathy Mashi have been regular fixtures in the Toronto Bengali community - always looking for new ways to broaden the Bengali audience. 

Here's the thing - I can't even claim to be a real Bengali fanatic. I haven't read most Bengali books. I haven't finished Bankimchandra, Saratchandra, Rabindranath or Nazrul. I can't recognise quotes from random stories, poems or movies and there's no way I could win a bout of Gaaner Lorai (Although I think here I could hold my own). But, I do know that Bengali touches me in a way that no other language possibly can, and I really have no clue why. Its inexplicable. Sort of like being in love, not knowing why  - just that it simply is a groovy kind of love. 


  1. I don't know whether any mother tongue evokes the same kind of emotional fluctuations everywhere in the world.

    I suppose everyone loves his own language the way I do.

    I suppose if everyone lives outside they miss their motherland. But do they miss their language as much? They can always communicate with other people in person or using various modes of communication.

    But it isn't possibly the same. I mean, can you really replicate the emotions evoked by a Sharadindu novel triggered by the aroma of a Kolkata February? You know the aroma - right? The time when spring does it level best to ward off the last bits of winter, but winter keeps fighting back in the small hours of dawn?

    Bangla is about the February laziness of my city. It's about the brightening up of the suburbs in the first burst of Kalboishakhi. It's about the cosy, inviting smell of the "lep"s baked in the late autumn Sun on your terrace.

    Bangla is here. Bangla draws you closer to your city, your state with every word you hear or utter or listen or read. It's about your childhood; it's about the late afternoon sunshine that bathes the Krishnachura you see everyday; it's about finding yourself.


    Yes, I know this was an incoherent, illogical comment.

    1. its as incoherent, vague and illogical as my blogpost. But, then isn't love always those things? :)

  2. Love for one's language is largely a learned event. I think it is refreshingly fantastic that despite you being born in Canada, your father was strict about having you learn the language of your own heritage, and most interestingly, you acquiesced. There is much to love in the Bangla language, and to your credit, you have imbibed that appreciation.

    But consider, had your father not been so strict, and had you been more intransigent and not so accommodating, you would not have picked up anything at all. This is not a mere surmise; one needs to take just one look at the second generation, children of Bengali diaspora - not only in foreign countries, but also elsewhere in the country. At both places, there is a surfeit of young children, born of Bengali parents, who consider their lack of knowledge of their mother-tongue something to be proud of; hell, there are parents who are in a hurry to make their children forget about Bangla as quickly as possible.

    You, dear Rini, is an honorable exception, a testament to your father's love for his heritage perhaps (and combination of good genes from your parents). Enjoy this as a privilege.