For a significant period of my youth, I used to live in the United States. While I was there, I, a Bengali from West Bengal, was exposed for the first time to real people from East Bengal, as opposed to their caricature that I was exposed to when I was growing up.
The eastern part of Bengal, whose political form is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, is where a greater proportion of my people live. A significant minority lives in West Bengal.
While I interacted with them, I became close very fast, for to be accepted and welcomed, I did not have to participate in Diwali (quite an alien thing to Bengalis in West Bengal), Holi (another of such alien thing), Hindi antaksharis, or be conversant with the latest Bollywood films in a distant language, or contort myself in other ways into something I was not. I felt strangely liberated.
Yes, “liberated” is the word, and I use that very consciously. For liberty is not necessarily the freedom to do something else, to fashionably stand out in stereotypical, predictable forms of rebelliousness. More often than not, it is the freedom to be you.
I was, thus, in the US, free to be Bengali in a certain sense, that is getting increasingly harder in West Bengal, with the advance of the dark clouds of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan.
When my friends and I from East Bengal were in social gatherings where whites or other kinds of browns were present, we could comment on things to each other without others knowing what we were saying.
We shared a language, a code if you will -- not a learned code of elitism like English, but a natural code of belonging. We knew, in spite of differences and often deep differences, in some way, we were a people. Siddaraju Boregowda, a Kannadiga, who is a research scientist at the world-famous Scripps Research Institute, observed this phenomenon as well.
He said: “Here at Scripps, a West Bengali and East Bengali post-doc hang out together all the time. It’s a beautiful thing. Because they are one people. They understand each other. Since language comes with linguistic territoriality (geography shaped languages so far), and a shared gene pool, and culture, it is natural for them to hang around.
We shared a language, a code if you will -- not a learned code of elitism like English, but a natural code of belonging. We knew, in spite of differences and often deep differences, in some way, we were a people
No other Indian can give to a West Bengali, what an East Bengali can give. Now, can they hate and fight because they came to worship different gods? They can. Can they overcome their supernatural difference and build a beautiful nation in natural world? They can. These are possibilities.”
I like how he talks about possibilities here, for possibilities expand our world, our canvas of human experience and attainment. However, you can’t talk about certain possibilities and not be branded in a way that marks you out as some kind of a demon or an enemy of the state. The fear of words is something that is the mark of every paranoid entity in the world. Such entities fear words.
They fear the possibilities in words and yet they prefer to respond by silencing and not by counter-words. One wonders, why? Is it because the paranoid also knows the potency of some words and the impotency of their own myths, when it’s not backed up by law and guns? That is something to think about.
Professor GN Saibaba, a 90% disabled wheel-chair bound political prisoner, is someone whose words constitute a message that the Indian Union state hopes doesn’t influence too many minds. When he was in jail, he wasn’t allowed to write letters in Telugu to his mother or wife.
The state wants to know about you to secure its own interests, but it doesn’t want to know you. Neither does it really know you. So they don’t want you to talk in a way that it doesn’t understand. It doesn’t want you to have the code like the one I shared in white America with a fellow Bengali. That can only be true when the state is not you.
In the acceptable legal theatre called the parliament, MP Nandamuri Harikrishna’s speech wasn’t included in the official proceedings as it was in Telugu. There is something that disturbs the powers-that-be when people, who are comfortable in their own skin, refuse to wear officially sanctioned hides over their skin.
On the other hand, there are some who trade their skin for the hide, as a sign of insider allegiance. Recently, in a huge rally at Karnataka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a 50 minute speech in Hindi.
One audience member said: “He spoke well, but we don’t understand Hindi.” Between Hindi speeches in Karnataka and banned Telugu words in prison and in parliament, something must give.