The Saga of Benglish
February 21st, 2017 at 11:10 pm
The Saga of Benglish

By Maskwaith Ahsan;

In most interactions with Kolkata journalists, writers and artists, I have found them to praise Dhaka as the beholder of Bangla language. Going over my signature in Bangla, even a hotel manager in Kolkata tearfully exclaimed: “You Bangladeshis have truly sustained the honor of this language.” And then a senior journalist in the same city vented his disappointment at the current state of Bangla language in Kolkata, on how rich non-Bengalis have taken over the neo-affluent areas in Kolkata and how they have even colonized Rabi Thakur’s (Rabindranath Tagore) Shanti Niketon by building villas near this renowned centre of excellence in Bangla language and culture.

It was our achievement through the language movement of 1952 that inspired the Bangla speaking regions of India to organize demands for the state recognition of this language. The 21st of February is now marked as the International Mother Language Day; a day that reminds the world the importance of restoring the rights of languages that are endangered by cultural glo-colonization. Due to those efforts, Bangla is now the fourth largest spoken language in the world.

Bengalis are so passionate about their language that it is a common sight at international forums to see two random Bengalis, completely oblivious of their surroundings, starting a conversation in Bangla. Likewise, I have found expatriate Bengali parents desperate to pass on their language and associated culture to their kids who are being raised in an otherwise non-Bangla atmosphere.

Bengalis, whether living in the Middle East, Europe or America, passionately observe Pohela Baishakh, the Bangla New Year and 21st February. Recently, Bangla blogs and online outlets have also taken to strengthening the grandeur of the language. Non-Resident Bengalis make sure to plan their visits home to coincide with Ekushe Book Fair, the biggest event that celebrates Bangla Language.

Bangladesh language movement

The flower-decorated central Shaheed Minar

What this amounts to is that we have all the reasons to be happy about the continuity of our language, especially when compared to our Bengali friends in Kolkata who feel victimized by non-Bangla aggression. But something went wrong in Dhaka as well.

On the first day of the Ekushe Book Fair in February 2008, my colleagues and I were working at a mobile newsroom set up at the fairgrounds. It became painful after a while of tolerating the music being played in neighboring FM radio stalls. Senior sub-editors even refused to work with us, being ‘disgusted’ by the noise and language pollution emanating from those surroundings.

The situation became more uncouth when two radio jockeys appeared on the scene mimicking the starry smiles of Shahrukh Khan and Karina Kapoor. Stationing themselves at a strategic corner nearby, they started their monologue addressed to a gathering young crowd. This grandstanding spoiled the entire artistic ambience of our Little Magazine corner.

We did try to listen to their lecture but miserably failed to understand the language: English superimposed on Bangla and mixed with some sounds unknown to our ears. Every sentence comprised of distorted Bangla words and wrongly used English expressions hyphenated with sounds of unhuman-like laughter.

Feeling the misery and rage of our mobile newsroom colleagues, I had to humbly request the FM radio stall to cut short the starbiz event. To be fair to them, they complied. But it dawned on me that this newly acquired Benglish language has managed to earn popularity.

Here, I would rather not deviate into the definition of pop-culture. Suffice to say, if there is a monkey show near a kindergarten, children will naturally rush to see it. But if that show goes on forever most children will not go back to their classrooms, because by that time the monkey will have become more popular than their teachers. In the same fashion when Bangla movies like Beder Meye Jotsna (The Voluptuous Gypsy Daughter) snatched the box office, viewers refused to go back to Jibon Theke Neya, Jahir Raihan’s trendsetting film.

Shaheed Minar

When cheap adaptations of Moliere’s comedies started hitting the theatre hub at Dhaka’s Baily Road, people became unwilling to return to Bangla theatre works of legends like Selim Al-Deen. Once youngsters started giving their hearts to aimless band music concerts, they forgot our legends like Kalim Sharafi or Farida Parveen.

When obscene dances destroy our traditional folk theatre ‘Jatra’ and when popularity becomes the yardstick of everything, it isn’t far when Benglish as a sub-language and culture will claim its power share.

It started with students studying in English-medium schools talking amongst themselves in this distorted medium. Their parents, knowing little and believing that only the slaughter of Bangla was the way out for their kids to prosper, gladly accepted the birth of Benglish.

For sometime thence Benglish remained confined to the neo-elites of Dhaka, and then as the speakers of this sub-language gradually succeeded in making inroads into other strata of society with their superficial smartness and fashion-based glamour, Benglish became trendy. In today’s world anything ‘modern’ goes. So did Benglish.

It was picked up, more recently, by several FM radio channels which are popularizing it via their jockeys. The irony or comedy (whichever way you take it) is that the majority of these radio jockeys don’t have an English-based education, neither were they raised or born abroad. So competition and lack of common sense compels them to memorize a few American sitcom words, at times even entire expressions, just so they can throw these in between their on-air ramblings in Bangla.

The result: not only are both Bangla and English delivered in distorted accents, their disjointed sentences mostly make no sense.

Perhaps, if our language movement martyrs knew they were shedding their blood in vain, they would have, at least, thought twice about sacrificing their lives. Little did they know that one day Benglish would outsmart Bangla.

In February 2009, while training a batch of journalism students of private universities of Dhaka, I was, again, rudely awakened when they proudly told me that they couldn’t write reports in Bangla as English was their language of learning. OK, fine. But when I went through their English transcripts I was further shocked by their bad and wrong English. I had no choice but to take refuge in Rabindranath Thakur’s wisdom: Alas, in a futile attempt to learn English, you missed to learn Bangla as well.

It can be nothing but a twist of our own making that out of colonial fear we failed to teach English in Bangla-medium schools and out of colonial hangover failed to teach Bangla in English-medium schools.

One doesn’t need to be a linguist or rocket scientist to understand that without having command on mother tongue, no one can truly anchor into some other language. Benglish is nothing but a tragic outcome of this reality.

Bangladeshi writer

Maskwaith Ahsan is an expatriated journalist and writer