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How dare you think in English?

  • Published at 06:00 pm November 7th, 2018
Closer to literature SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Why Dhaka Lit Fest is a necessity

Dhaka Lit Fest has begun. Enthusiast and non-enthusiast alike are listening to the panelists, buying books, taking pictures, and learning to be closer to literature. 

DLF is a necessity, it has created an ecosystem where our words, both English and Bangla, thrive and coexist. However, every year, whenever we dare show our enthusiasm, strong anti-parties declare us as “elites,” scurrying after the language of our ex-colonizers. It isn’t morally appropriate for us to write in English, according to some.

In one of my history courses, Dr S debunked a popular myth -- the one strictly stating that the Language Movement happened in 1952. Bangla and English-medium students alike listened with awe when he spoke of the gradual struggle that could be traced back to 1948, how Jinnah had refused to meet the student representatives with “Hindu-sounding” names.

He laments that the language we learn determines a master for us.

“When the processions went to Puran Dhaka, the students would always be driven out, no exceptions,” he said. The Dhakaites living there have always been in and around the Dhaka Nawab territory, so their language became a carnivalesque mixture of Urdu and Bangla.

Urdu was the language of their lords, the ones at the pristine Ahsan Manzil or the Lalbagh Fort. Obviously, their loyalties lay with an Urdu-speaking government. The chief minister of East Bengal (it became East Pakistan much later on) was also Urdu-speaking. Bangla was unimportant to Khwaja Najimuddin, because of what was spoken in his prosperous, chandelier-lit household.

Indeed, the “superior” language creates a master-slave relationship. Pakistanis are desperately trying to prove themselves closer to the Arabs than they actually are, just because Urdu looks a little like Arabic on pen and paper. Bangladeshis are obsessed with Hindi, and would fly to Kolkata to do their wedding-shopping. A Sabyasachi-designed lehenga is a prized possession, because it is from an Indian designer.

I am guilty of the same offense. After learning Mandarin for over eight months, I was given the golden opportunity of visiting the Middle Country.

The thrill of doing the “real thing,” speaking to the “real Chinese,” receiving compliments on my pronunciation has, to this day, stayed with me.

Hence, when I returned from China, and when news of oppression on the Uyghurs made waves on the internet, I found myself second-guessing those sources. “Oh, the Chinese are so nice,” said the voice in my head, in Mandarin. “Are they even capable of doing that? They are so inclusive, so accommodating, so hospitable.”

Immediately after independence, our new overlords (the ones who looked more like us, and spoke our mishti language) decided to undo some of that damage. A 200-year-old legacy, the language of world literature, science, medicine, and technology was promptly replaced with Bangla.

With immediate effect, historically English-medium institutions shifted to Bangla, leaving students and teachers in a frenzy. The plan backfired because it was simply too much work -- a lack of resources, a lack of quality translations, a lack of translators, and most importantly, a lack of funding from the young government of a freshly-liberated country. 

Our all-Bangla plan backfired miserably in the past, and it continues to backfire to this day. In Dr S’s history class, we realized that we are the oppressed bunch. By receiving our education from an international body, we have failed to catch up with our history, and it has crippled us.

We have no idea who Masterda Shurjo Sen is, none whatsoever about who wrote Aronnok, or even the more recent Parthib or Shatkahon. We have no idea who Ahmed Sofa is, or why he is important. Akhteruzzaman Ilias has a Khwabnama too, and no that is not a religious interpretation of dreams. 

Hence those of us who want to get some valuable context are trying, really. We admire you Dr S, sir, we really do. We admire everyone from our previous two generations.

But what if we tell you that we would also like to think in English? 

What if we tell you that we are not great fans of you ostracizing us, relegating us to the back benches, telling us things like: “Oh, English is just a functional language, you are only supposed to study it.

Not think in it, not write in it.” Why are there no major literary prizes from Bangladesh, while there are more Man Bookers from India? When was the last time we won something in science, technology, economics, or literature?

Those who do achieve a bit of something are, let’s just say, not interested in being one of us. Zia Haider Rahman raises his eyebrow and complains: “Oh, so I’m Bangladeshi now?” Margarita Mamun is shamelessly ours, or so we think, but she probably doesn’t. Rushnara Ali is an MP of London, not Dhaka, not Sylhet, not Faridpur.

At my university, there was a routine remembrance program on the occasion of February 21. A celebrated author stood at the podium, gunning those down who dared to think in English. “Ajkal naki manush Ingreji te chinta kore, eta abar kemon kotha?” replaces the rat-tat-tat of the bullets, swiftly leaving the hot barrel of his gun.

Thinking in another language is a thought crime, and we are all thought criminals. All over the world, smaller powers are rising, Bangladesh is winning the British gentleman’s game, owning it.

Arundhati Roy is owning the English language by adding in mehfil, onomatopoeia like cham-cham and chan-chan, even entire sentences in Hindi or Urdu.

If we want to think in English, then let us. Let us take your struggle further, let us tell them how they have wronged us, in their language. Let us achieve things for the country, for the globe.

Let us tell them what shade of green the sheola on a slippery pukur ghaat is. 

Let us go, free us from the charges of thought crime. 

Once, while at a book reading of God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy had received a rather hostile question from the audience: “Has any writer ever written a masterpiece in a language other than his mother tongue?” The answer had made the man angrier. 

“Nabokov,” she said. 

Qazi Mustabeen Noor works at Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.