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OP-ED: Where would we be without language?

  • Published at 12:07 am February 21st, 2021
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Money makes a difference in the power of a language ABAK HUSSAIN

On February 21, we shed blood for Bangla, but we what really fought for, was our freedom

Language.

Over the course of history, humankind has invented great many tools. From the simple tools that changed the way humans would organize forever, to the recent move towards the way that has changed the way we connect forever, over the years, as a species, we have certainly invented some fine things to put towards our disposal. But if you ask me, the most important tool we have ever invented, is language.

Think about it. Where would we be without it? From the moment we wake up, to the moment we are put to rest, the primary thing us humans engage in, is communication. And when it comes to communication, we can seldom make do without language. 

Sure, there are other ways to communicate. Hand signs come to mind. Then there is the usage of emojis. But even they use a version of language, it’s just that it is non-verbal and succinct, respectively. Whatever we do in our lives, whatever complex game we partake in every day, we have to use language as one of the tools of the trade. Whatever we do, we can’t do without interaction. And whenever one is talking about interaction, everything invariably comes back to language. 

And of course, what better day to talk about language than the 21st, our beloved International Mother Language Day? You probably tuned out from reading by this point. “Another one of those pieces bouncing on the glory of the past,” you would say. 

Well, I already know how this is going to play out. Instead of trying to refute that argument, I agree with you. I agree that pieces regarding this particular date have become a bit stale. I agree that this date has become just another day when we dwell on the past, instead of looking at the future. So, I’m offering something different. Instead of a quick analysis, I’m going to attempt something different here. Because there already are loads of history lessons, and our martyrs already have a solidified place when it comes to the pages of history.

They have a solidified stance in history because of the work they have done. Now, I think it’s time someone took their work forward. 

The narratives of this day

When this day comes close, there are many narratives that come into play when it comes to general discourse. The mainstream discourse celebrates the day itself. It celebrates the achievements of the day as a whole, while there are also those who lament the going astray of the younger generation, as they are moving away from the traditional cultural pathos and the language of the Bengali people. 

Outside the mainstream, you have people apathetic to the cause, or blame the cultural establishment for growing the culture -- and the language as a whole -- gradually along with the next generation. While there are other narratives that can be found here and there (for some reason, there are a growing number people who are finding sympathy with Pakistan in these troubling times. I’m not surprised, and this is something I have written about before as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if this narrative has infected other parts of our culture as well), these are the two arguments that I want to focus on here -- the argument that the young generation is not embracing the language, and the argument that this is the failure of the establishment. 

While both of these arguments are fine and have their merit, I think that they have flaws as well, as the conclusions they have arrived at are far too pre-determined, inflexible, and shallow. As such, a lot of people using these arguments fail to notice much of the larger things that surround these issues. I should know, because I used to be someone who used the second argument. 

We fought for freedom

First, let’s flesh out what my position used to be on the whole issue. I have always believed language to be a tool (I still do, to a certain extent), and I have always been comfortable using English more than Bangla. Like a lot of my compatriots, I got hooked to English due to pop culture and the media, as many of the things we used to enjoy were made by the English-speaking world. 

It didn’t help that the English grammar was so easily designed, while things like “shomash” still make me want to claw out my hair (some would even say that is how I became bald in the first place). It felt like in this rat race that we call life, English played all the right cards, and Bangla just stumbled on its way to the finish. As such, I personally felt if in the long run, Bangla had lost to English, we wouldn’t be losing much.
There was another reason why I felt this way. To me, February 21 had always been part of something grander, a puzzle we came close to finishing 49 years ago, but lost track of along the way. On the surface, it looked like we shed all that blood for our language. I mean, that was literally the point of the whole movement, so one can’t be blamed for thinking that way. But to me, what we really fought for, what anyone really fights for in the course of their lives, was freedom.

In that specific moment in history, it was a fight for our freedom to use the language we want, to be the kind of human beings that we want to be. But in the context of eternity, what we really were fighting for, what anyone really fights for, is freedom. 

As such, I didn’t care about the cost of freedom back then. It didn’t matter that there was going to be a colossal loss of history and culture. I soon found out that the language we use turns us into the people we are in our lives. But even then, I held on to this belief that if we could be free to be the kind of people we want to be, to do the things we would really want to do, then that loss wouldn’t matter. 

You can always reconstruct history and culture, and when it comes to memories (as culture and heritage is embedded in our memories), nothing can ever be truly lost. We had a strong history. We had memories that would never fail us. So what if we embraced a different language? 

Of course, back then, I didn’t realize how wrong I truly was. Perhaps I don’t understand even now. 

Culture, memory, money

First, let’s look at the basic assumption regarding culture and memory here. As a wannabe writer and an artist, I had always held on to the assumption that no good thing is ever truly lost. That no matter how hopeless it feels, anything good can always be preserved. I was naive and hopeful, and desperately wanted to believe that we live in a fair and just world. Of course, when I began to question this belief, that was only the tip of the iceberg. 

When it comes to the preservation and propagation of art, there is a definite hegemony at play. Sure, you can make some of the most radical work that has been presented to the world. It can be a total game-changer. But sadly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be remembered, or even be preserved for that matter. What matters is that your work sells, and in order for it to sell, it has to be in line with what’s popular. 

While some people would argue that the system for decreeing something popular is fool-proof, that since the mass is voting here, there can be no harm done. But that is only one piece of the puzzle, and at that, it is a false one. 

While it is true that we are lagging behind the West and the places in the Far East when it comes to culture and art, it doesn’t mean that it is happening because of merit. I mean, we have a cultural event where we celebrate ghosts. The West has one too. Then why is it that we only know the name of Halloween, and something as local as “Bhoot Choturdorshi” is forgotten. The answer is simple. It all comes down to who has the most money, and who is better at spending it. 

For the better part of life, I didn’t know about this event. In fact, I only came to know about it recently, when I was far on my way to becoming an adult. But ever since I was a child, I’ve known what Halloween is. I know about the history, I know about the festivities. I even know what countries in the world celebrate it, and what countries in the world don’t. It took a while for it to be celebrated here as well. And by the time it had, I was glad that it did.
But here’s the thing, when you put Halloween and Bhoot Choturdorshi side by side, there isn’t much difference between them. I would even say I like the latter even more now, since it has a taste of familiarity to it. Then why did one flourish while the other couldn’t? The answer is simple, money.

Through the course of culture, books, and the media, Halloween was pushed as something cool, something different. It was pushed as the only celebration of its kind, while other days like the “Day of the Dead” were pushed to the side. Halloween was shown as the more fun version of the “Day of the Dead,” while the actual Day of the Dead was played up for laughs and giggles, something that is nothing more than a glorified parade. This idea was widely adopted by the Western world, and it was pushed heavily in the countries that they built their riches off. As such, at the end of the day, Halloween stood, while others fell. Not because of merit. But because of marketing.
So yes, while I still agree that it is our right to choose, I think there are some missing pieces here. Are we really choosing what we want, or are we simply taking things off the hands of our oppressors? And if we make a decision that goes in their favour, are we really, truly free?

The establishment has failed

Now, I want to further my argument using the second point I brought up. Many people from my generation think that our establishment failed in placing Bangla within our current generation. I actually agree with this. But again, there is more to it than meets the eye.

While it is true that the cultural establishment has failed us, the truth of the matter is, the game was rigged from the start. We are a poor nation, and any kind of artistic expression takes work. Most importantly, it takes a lot of time and financial security, something we don’t have the luxury of. 

For example, I think most would agree with me when I say that when it comes to the arts, the Greeks basically laid the foundation for what is possible, and their work is still exemplary, even by today’s standard. We have only begun to address things such as faith and individualism, something like fate and free will. But when you delve into the work of someone like Sophocles or Ovid, you would see that they were playing with these exact concepts right from the beginning. 

When it comes to the Greeks, Haruki Murakami is of the opinion that people like the Greeks are some of the few masters when it comes to art. How could they not be, he argued, when they had slaves to tend to their lands? And this is where another facet of culture comes up that is hard to accept, but we have to accept nonetheless. 

The West had built its riches with the wealth they stole from us. Everything they have, they have because of us. I mean, even their claims to fame like clothing brands and technology are built by the exploitation of the East. So, it is only natural that they would have the means to pursue art. It is only natural that they could preserve their culture, and they could evolve. 

And since they control the global eco-system when it comes to the arts, I think it’s safe to say that if you want to win you have to play their game, and you have to play it by their rules. And if you don’t want to, then you need the government’s support. And since local money always favours the old vs the new, I think you can get the picture I’m trying to paint here. 

Eastern cultures hit back

So, what am I trying to say? While, there are merits to the arguments I have presented, they don’t paint the whole picture. I haven’t painted the whole picture as well. I’m working under tight rules myself, and while I would like to say more, there is only so much I can. On top of it, the space limit means that I have to focus on what’s important, and discard what’s not (there is a whole school of thought that posits that English was made easy so it could be spread throughout the world, but that is a topic for another day). 

But what about solutions? Well, there are people who are trying to deal with it too. There are people who are aware of the effects of colonization on our thinking, and they aim to undo that through various means. Eastern cultures are hitting back as well. Just in the film world, artists like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano have completely decimated the conventions of Western story-telling, and are pushing the medium forward. 

But there are costs as well. They can’t stand up to the amount of money and power the West has, for one. As such, they need funding from other Western nations to play the game. More often than not, people who mean well have their biases as well. So, even films like Sonatine were criticized when they came out when it refused to play by the rules. Also, just because we can undo something now, should we want to? 

I mean, I understand the influence of foreign language and cultures on my work, but I’m still continuing to write in English. Isn’t it hypocritical of me to do so? Well, that’s the conundrum we have now, and that’s a conundrum I hope to answer some day. When you get down right to it, there are so many things that are out of control, that free will might not even exist. 

For starters, did any of us choose to be Bengalis? Did any of us choose to live in the East, and not in the West? If we can’t choose that, we might as well choose what kind of people we want to be, right? But what if even that is rigged? In a world, where the ultimate truth is this feeling of powerlessness, what can you do?

What can anyone do?

Well, there are a lot of questions here. And it’s going to take me a while to answer all of these (not to mention hundreds of pages). But I’ll end this piece the way it started. In the end, language is a tool, that much is true. But like all the great tools, it is so much more. We often take a lot of things for granted, and language is one of them. But this shouldn’t be the case. Just like with something as simple as a shovel -- with the right trick, we can get so much out of this simple but ingenious artifact. All we need to do, is think.

Nafis Shahriar is a student of business and a freelance writer.

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