Friday, September 17, 2010


Bengali or Bangla is an eastern Indo-Aryan language. It is native to Bengal, and about 230 million users speak it all over the world as no matter where you go, you are bound to find a few Bengalis. Along with other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Bengali evolved circa 1000-1200 AD from the Magadhi Prakrit, a vernacular form of the ancient Sanskrit language. (I got that from it must be right.)
Till here, I am okay. To re quote Amitabh Bacchan, I can talk Bangla, I can walk Bangla, I can dress Bangla, I can also read Bangla but for God’s sake don’t ask me to WRITE Bangla….or explain what I just read. My mother always said it was deliberate and for some reason our generation is proud to say, “I don’t know my mother tongue …”, but that’s not true. Right from our early days we are taught our ABCs. By the time we get to the Bengali alphabet our minds are so congested with apples, elephants and the like that the elegance of the letters elude us. My mom also said that if you are good at one language you can also be good at another……she is a wise lady and I do not to want to sound disrespectful, but I also did German for a while and sucked at that too!
Now, so many years away from school, I’ve been wondering what it was that really made us so averse to the language? We are not from a generation that only spoke English at home, we heard the language all day all around us…..what was it then, that prevented us from loving the language? After all there are many wonderful words that cannot be expressed in any other language…like ‘nyaka’ or even ‘eeeshh’, as made famous by Aishwarya Rai in Devdas, (only she made it sound like she wanted to go pee or something… the translation, the words are lost…… ‘bitch’ or ’shit’ doesn’t quite cover it…….and I would have to say a paragraph to call someone “nyaka” in English!). I had the dubious good fortune of learning Bengali as my first language till Class XII…under the West Bengal Board, that means you know the language like the back of your hand, swirl it in your morning milk and drink it and know all about the history of the language too. And moreover, you have to pass, for it is a primary subject. Now when I was in school there was a lot of tension in the house about this……my father insisted I needed help, mother’s eyes would water when I asked her the meaning of a word for the hundredth time, grammar had me running to my grandfather who would consult a huge dictionary….and well, any morning of any Bengali exam would see me brooding quietly into my breakfast and praying for salvation from a God, any God, I insisted hitherto did not exist!!!
Somehow I passed. I had the distinction of writing Chaitanya in place of Chandidas because I had no clue of the latter, and I wrote ‘jatra’ as a journey instead of a local play but….yes, by some stroke of luck the Board of Examiners ensured I would not make a mess of the language again! I barely passed but the ordeal was over.
In West Bengal, Bengali was compulsory in college, is it any wonder then, that I went away to Pune to study……?
Anyway that took care of that. Or so I thought. I never thought then that years later, I would return to Calcutta and actually marry a Bengali. Thankfully, his Bengali isn’t THAT much better, but we get along. Or rather, we did. Until our daughters were in school.
Now one reason why I put the girls in my old school is that they now have shifted to the ICSC Board and I was very adamant that they would not have to go though the rigors of a Madhyamik Bengali. Yes, that was one of my primary concerns when choosing a school for them…..but lo and behold, here we are again, those same text books that had tortured me, the same tongue twisting words and those pencil breaking spellings…..I hesitantly asked Isha’s Bengali teacher about this, since Bengali was a second language etc etc etc, I hummed and hawed and reached my point. The teacher very brightly smiled at me and said that they were maintaining the standard of the school and instilling the children with a love for the language……Uh oh! I think I saw a strain in her eyes when I quietly asked her if it was working…….
Now my point is this, if you want some one to love a language, talk to them in it, read to them, sing songs, enact plays……..make it interesting for them. Why on earth insist on correct spellings and difficult sounding words that do not mean what they sound like or sound like what you think they mean and more importantly, grammar? When Isha was in Class III, lost in a deluge of Bengali words like "kingkortorbo bimurho" and "pratyutpannamotitto",(next time you meet a Bengali speaking individual, why don't you ask what it means?) I surrendered. One bright day I shuddered at the text book and wrote to the principal asking her to appoint someone to teach Bengali to my girls after school hours. Two years have passed, she is still searching while I have been tearing out my hair in frustration. The other day someone said “hey, your hair’s really thinned out….”, I sweetly smiled and said it’s acid indigestion from the Bengali words I seem to be regurgitating from my schooldays! I have bought English to Bengali, Bengali to English, Bengali to Bengali dictionaries but they don’t seem to be helping much…..the nuances of this sweet language escape me every time.
Is it any wonder then, that when ever I call the girls to do some Bengali, they develop a runny stomach….they hide in the loo and keep flushing the john till I drag them out and make them sit down. Then they cannot find their pens, the text book has vanished and a rat made a hole in the exercise book. I wait till they run out of excuses and we begin. At the end of the hour, I have a glazed look on my face, the dictionaries have been pawed at for the umpteenth time and I have called at least five people for intricacies of the language which my friends in turn ask their mothers to answer!!!The other day I went to a Crossword sale and bought only Bengali story books for the girls, books I thought were easy to read and interesting. I told them they were fun and would help them learn the language…two days later those books could not be found.....I was told that the maid reads them! They ultimately turned up from behind the old newspapers while my daughters continue reading their English “trash”.
Sure, I love the Bengali language, it is sweet sounding and expressive…..please, dear God, help my children love it too.
More importantly, LET THEM PASS!!!!