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.