What it means to be Bangali in our globalized world
As Pohela Boishakh approaches each year, we find Bangalis and businesses in Bangladesh overwhelmed figuring out what to buy and how to celebrate. That craze is particularly seen among the people living in Dhaka, as Pohela Boishakh is becoming more of a capital-centred festival, providing Dhaka residents an opportunity to do something different in their mundane lives.
However, the excitement that we see among Bangalis about having panta bhat with ilish maach, and wearing shada sari with laal paar on Pohela Boishakh is barely found all over the year. These days, the image of celebration and abundance in villages described by writers in Bangali literature can be hardly found in villages either.
Unfortunately, our love for Bangali culture does not seem to be deep either. How many Bangalis from today’s generation have read Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Tarasankar, or even the Bangali nobel laureate and the writer of Bangladesh’s national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore?
Even if you try to discuss the work of more contemporary writers who wrote in Bangla, such as Akhtaruzzaman Ilias, Rudro Muhammad Shahidullah, Shankar, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Nirmalendu Goon -- how many Bangalis will be able to relate? Interestingly, you will find that the same group of people who have not read Bangla literature usually have not read much literature from other languages either.
In today’s world, how many modern-day Bangalis spend a rainy morning or a full moon evening listening to old songs from Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Kishore Kumar, Bhupen Hazarika, or Manna Dey? How many would even be able to sing a Bangla song or recite a Bangla poem? Just a handful, regrettably.
It is heartbreaking as a Bangali to find other Bangalis saying that they do not enjoy or listen to Rabindra Sangeet as the lyrics are too difficult for them to understand. It reflects their limited Bangla vocabulary. Interestingly, you will see they are the same people whose language skills for other languages are not great either.
However, even in the recent past, parents in almost every single household in Bangladesh took necessary measures to train their children in co-curricular activities. This custom is decaying day by day, partially because of the rise of Islamization that has taken place in recent times.
Perhaps an important question to ask here is what does it mean to be a Bangali, then? Does Bangalihood lie in the dress we wear, the language we speak or write in, the songs we sing or listen to, the food we eat, or the books we read? There is no straightforward answer to that.
Being a Bangali can mean different things to different people. But one thing that we all need to understand is we need to internalize our Bangalism (Bangalitto). The love for all different components of Bangalihood needs to be carried in our hearts.
In a globalized world, a Bangali might be living in any context and to be able to thrive in that context, we need to be adaptive. If we learn to adopt different cultures and love some components of those cultures, that does not mean that we became less Bangali.
We can speak and write in any language, eat food from any cuisine, and still be a Bangali.
The cultural values and norms that we practise today were not always like this. What we consider “being a Bangali” today will certainly change over time. Culture is never static; rather it is ever flowing. The exchange of culture is exchange of knowledge. Initiatives that have started locally often were strengthened through the collaboration and co-existence with outside cultures.
However, in recent days, a strong sense of rejection and criticism have developed among Bangladeshi Bangalis towards other cultures -- fuelled by complex dynamics and reasons, including the emergence of nationalist sentiment.
In this globalized and multicultural world, Bangalis now are scattered all around the globe, and it is important for us to learn about different cultures and embrace diversity if we want to grow and enrich ourselves as Bangalis. The more we acquire knowledge about different cultures, the stronger the sense of our cultural self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, and cross-cultural understanding become.
Additionally, with exposure to different cultures, we will eventually understand how beautiful each culture is in their own ways. It stimulates our minds, broadens our horizons, makes us empathetic and respectful about our differences, and keeps us from projecting our cultural values onto others.
In this modern globalized world, we cannot devalue the importance of learning the languages that are widely used in different international platforms, but that should not prevent us from learning Bangla very well. I do not only mean the ability to speak colloquial/customary Bangla, but also to take the effort to read Bangla literature, listen to Bangla songs, learn Bangla music and dance.
We need to embrace the idea that it is possible to act universal while maintaining our individuality as Bangalis.
Faria Rashid is a freelance writer, a poet, and a human rights activist advocating for women’s rights, gender equity, and refugee rights.