Presently, I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s autobiography Istanbul: Memories of a City in English translation by Maureen Freely. So I thought how much pleasure had Freely derived by reading it in the original Turkish language! Freely is not a Turkish but her translation of many of Pamuk’s books has increased the readership of the Nobel Laureate across the English-speaking country. For Freely, Turkish is one step removed, and for me Turkish is two-step removed.
Freely’s pleasure thus should have been stronger than mine. Suddenly history spoke up to me in parallelism. If that is a case of promotion, then Yeats’ writing the Introduction for Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning book, Gitanjali: Song Offerings, did promote Tagore’s case in the same way.
In this month of February, when language discussions are in the forefront I realise that the above analogy occurred to me not without a reason. We fought for our Mother Tongue Bangla to ensure our right to use it. But it is a misnomer to speak like that. Actually we were fighting for the independence of Bangladesh under cover of the struggle for the language rights even in those early days. As history has progressed for neatly eight decades since the Language Movement first erupted in 1948, we can connect the more vital political agenda with the linguistic agenda by explaining away that whatever appeared to be a passionate aggression for the rights of the mother language was merely the handle to start the movement for the independence of Bangladesh. A reassessing of history might tell us that it is not because of the killing of the language martyrs in 1952 that Bangladesh came into being, but because of the inevitability of Bangladesh that the 21st February 1952 massacre had to happen. When this perspective is clear that the language rights movements came into being to assist in disguise the greater issues—economical and political independence of Bangladesh, we then realise the other part of the truth that though Bangladesh was meant for the Bengalis, and the language had to be Bangla, but in actuality Bangladesh became like any other country of the world – a multi-racial country with Bangla almost unanimously spoken even though it was not the language of the tribal groups. So just after the liberation when our enthusiasm for the unified image of the country and for the uniqueness of the language was too great, an exasperated Bangabandhu had to make it clear in a public speech that Bangladesh was for Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike, and though even Bangla itself had the sovereignty, but that was to a limit. In his own case, Bangabandhu, as great as he was, did not care for the limit but delivered his speech at the United Nations in Bangla. That trend started by him is continued by his daughter, the PM Sheikh Hasina. She also delivers her speech in Bangla at the UN General Assembly.
In the backdrop of this glorious achievement, however, we realise that the basic tenet of the Language Movement – to establish Bangla at every level – has not only been not materialised, but with the world turning on a fast digital pace and the world cultures and languages converging into one another at even a faster rate, the possibility of establishing Bangla at every level of education, politics and business seems remoter and remoter.
And in this essay I want to discuss certain historical and intellectual background to understand why Bangla has failed to assume an all-pervasive accessibility into our national life, and what actually the way to solve this problem is. When Bangabandhu pronounced that Bangladesh was also for non-Bengalis, he actually echoed one basic principle of cultural anthropology. Society, according to modern anthropologist Ronaldo Resalto, is a porous entity—it is a mixed phenomenon, multi-cultural. John Dixon, another modern anthropologist, has compared the human society with a railway station lounge, where the facts of coming and going are more important than staying. Homi K. Bhabha, a professor of cultural studies at Harvard, defined that culture as such is shaped at the margin rather than at the centre.
The multiplicity of cultures defining a nation’s identity can as well be discussed in relation to Bangladesh’s political past.
When the 1948 and 1952 language movements were raging, initially the reaction was against Urdu, because of Jinnah’s vociferous declaration in Dhaka that ‘Urdu and only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan.’ As a fact Urdu was very little spoken in the then East Pakistan, but it was the language of the powerful Pakistani politician elites and of the civil and military bureaucrats, and was also threatening the sovereignty of Bangla. But as irony would have it, just after the independence of Bangladesh, along with the Urdu signboards were gone the English signboards too, and by a government proclamation English was withdrawn from the degree curriculum, also producing a dubious result. For students coming from the countryside the absence of English made their way to jobs more difficult than urban family graduates who never left English in spite of the decision. So the withdrawal of English from the graduate level hard hit the larger section of students so far as the career building was concerned.
From Bangladesh’s point of view this connectivity with English has to be looked into through a two-fold perspective. The first one is what I mentioned earlier in respect of Tagore. He translated the lyrics of Gitanjali: Song Offerings and some additional poems into English in order to get an international audience. For him English was an imperial language—a language through which to assert identity and gain empowerment. If we want to stigmatise Tagore for having done so, it would be a fruitless effort because many decades after him, Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist decidedly wrote in English, and not in his mother tongue, Igbo, because he thought that Nigeria should be exposed to the world through an international/imperial language. He set a condition though that the language would be English but the Nigerian material should be the subject. A slightly different analogy is also pertinent here. Manik Bandopadhay published his novel Putul Nacher Itikatha in 1937 and Camus, the French novelist, published his novel, The Plague, in 1947. Both the novels treat the theme of existentialism and are recognised classics in their respective literatures; but Camus because of the imperial language, French, went on to win the Nobel Prize and Manik remained unknown outside Bengal. Tagore had appropriated the given advantage by translating his own poems into English. But at the same time if the logic is extended further we find in Tagore’s decision an implicit acknowledgment of the defeat of Bangla by English, and that trend is still continuing whether we admit it or not. Recently a public university authority decided to issue bi-lingual certificates in Bangla and English, but a greater section of the recipient graduates pressurised the authority to consider keeping them only in English. So whatever motive played in Tagore’s mind while translating his poems in English, the students’ desire is not too far from it.
The above argument explains why it is difficult to establish Bangla at every sector.
Secondly, another historical perspective may ensue from Emperor Akbar the Great. He ruled India from 1556 to 1605, and at the same time England was ruled by a great monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603. Akbar is known to have discouraged the building of a naval force because he was so strong on the land. On the other hand when a group of London merchants met the Queen on the last day of the year 1600 for permission to trade in the Indian Ocean, she at once granted it. The British East India Company was formed thereby and Akbar’s last royal progeny, Emperor Bhadur Shah lost his throne and the Mughal Empire to this company in 1857. Just one hundred years before that Bengal’s last independent suzerain Nawab Serajuddowla (but a non-Bengali speaker) lost his country in the famous Battle of Plessey to the Company’s leader, Robert Clive.
Your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and by that dictum when the British rule started the Hindus became their friends and the Muslims lost their education and career. While the Hindus embraced English, the Muslims resented it, and they clung on to Persian and Arabic. From the advent of Islam in the subcontinent the East Bengal was dominated by the Muslims where English could hardly make headway. In this community mostly children were sent to Madrasahs for religious education in Arabic, added with some Persian and some Urdu. So when East Bengal became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh the Madrasah oriented greater Muslim population formed a kind of questionable attitude towards Bangla which is not apparent though but very live underneath. This greater majority of the Muslim community look at Bangla from a communal paradigm and many of them only half-heartedly acknowledge it as theirs because they prefer to think the religious language superior to the mother tongue. When such deep-rooted inhibition and resentment may exist amongst us, it will remain a far cry to see Bangla assume an all embracing usage.
If Tagore’s act of translation by extension confirms our undying fascination for English and concurrently the history of East Bengal is nuanced by a historically supportable communal thought-process, we can arrive at the conclusion that Bangla in Bangladesh is, without our realising it, under a two-pronged pressure. If the recent craze for Hindi is taken into account, a third prong maybe in the offing.
But the above analysis cannot disappoint us because cross-language interaction means cross-fertilisation. To exemplify this trend as being the sanest one so far as the status of a country’s language is concerned, I began this essay by mentioning Freely’s translation of Pamuk, and I think this to be the solution to the language question. Let Bangla literature be translated into other languages and other literatures be translated into Bangla.
In a vibrantly multicultural world, absolutism is an archaic idea.
The writer is a professor of English at Premier University