It’s dusk on Babar Road, and the mosques of Mohammadpur are settling down for their evening azan
. Across the street, the Geneva Camp continues its consistent buzz, about to give way to an evening full of prayers and sermons that penetrate the silence. But in my room, the closed window halts the advance of the pious sound-waves.
The candles are lit, and I sit down to meditate and play a song. On the walls, a Romantic portrait of the goddess Saraswati smiles at a ceramic plate bearing the holy name of Allah. The words come out slowly, accompanied by an ektara and prem jhuri - monsur hallaj fokir se to, bolechilo ami sotyo
(“This Fakir Mansur Hallaj had said, ‘I am the Truth!’”).
These kinds of memories reflect my brain’s initial infatuation and eventually permanent love-affair with the Bangla language. The fling started in college with a few initial visits to India, one as a typical millennial tourist backpacker and another to film a documentary on human-trafficking with students from Kolkata.
Yet the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh always seemed to weigh on my mind – what was happening beyond Benapole?
In 2010, I applied for a Fulbright English teaching assistantship in Dhaka and, much to my surprise, got accepted.
BLI was my first experience with the Bangla language. It was an excellent program, but I was faced with the problem of how best to apply the language. In Dhaka, a significant portion of the population would rather practice English than speak Bangla - a unique issue for a language-learner. To really learn the language, I had to find people who only spoke Bangla or preferred speaking Bangla over English.
This "sink or swim" method proved incredibly effective. I had no choice but to learn, like a child, how to speak about my world and state my needs — all in Bangla. This emphasis on spoken Bangla was supplemented by the written word, since many people would write down sayings or songs in a notebook I carried.
While I didn't always understand it at the time, after taking Bangla at the University of Washington and working on a number of projects, the written and academic forms of Bangla suddenly coalesced with the spoken and I began to appreciate the full scope and power of the language.
Fast-forward several months, and on the night of Kali Puja I stole out from my language program in Baridhara to play harmonium at Ramna Kali Mandir.
Captivated by Sir John Woodroffe’s writings on the Ten Mahavidyas, it wasn’t long before I found myself careening head first into the Bangla world of tantra and the shoshan ghat
In Magh 1417, I found myself teaching English, Social Sciences, and Religion (the Hindu curriculum) at St Joseph’s School as part of my fellowship. Many of the students however were Muslim and a few were Buddhist, and I felt challenged to overcome the religious bias I had towards Bengali Hinduism.
This happened when I met a Baul artist named Bidhan Shah, and soon I was spending the nights at a haunt of local Bengali artists and intelligensia. A mix of Baul Fakirs and Sufi elites, literati and businessmen - there I first met Sadhu Humayon Fakir, Azim Sai and Ferdous Fakirani along with sadhu-artists Abdur Rob Fakir, Tuntun Shah, Nazrul Fakir, Bholai Shah, Ramjan Bhai, and Boduruddin Shah. Bidhan whisked me away everywhere - from Lalon Fakir’s akhra in Kushtia to Narshingdi, to the Dohai Lengta Baba festival near Comilla and to Doulat Sai’s akhra in Meherpur.
I was launched headlong into musical and mystical onushtan
s, and soon began spending more and more time learning songs from the late Humayon Sadhu, who taught me the song about Mansur Hallaj I quoted earlier. These travels challenged my way of thinking at their very foundations. Only Bengali was spoken, and I eventually became fluent, despite always having more to learn.
When I returned to the US, I began to long for a similar sense of community and to keep pursuing my spiritual growth.
I later became captivated by a religio-philosophical tradition called Thelema, where the emphasis is on pursuing one’s true will regardless of the commandments of one’s birth-religion. While they are different traditions, this bhab
or “attitude” is also reflected in Lalon’s songs, like the song “Emon manob janom ar ki hobe, mon ja koro toray koro ei bhobe” (“Will this human birth again occur, O heart of mine do what you do quickly while here in this world”).
My experience in Bangladesh ended up motivating my academic pursuits. I completed two MA degrees in South Asian Studies and Comparative Religion, all the while taking Bangla and Sanskrit language classes. While there I encountered the work of Carol Salomon, whose translations of Lalon I have co-edited and published with Saymon Zakaria through Oxford University Press, titled City of Mirrors: Songs of Lalan Sai
Now I am happily married, have a little boy, and am working hard on a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of California. My wife Madeline has returned to Bangladesh with me on numerous occasions, and has also taken an interest in learning Bangla. We practice the language regularly, including with my son Eddie — one of the first songs we sang to him was Rudra Mohammad Shahidullah’s “Bhalo achi bhalo theko”. I can say with utmost sincerity that I will always carry the language in my heart and appreciate the immense beauty of the people who speak its lovely words, sounds and whispers.