Pride, Prejudice and Ami Tomake Bhalobashi

Pride, Prejudice and Ami Tomake Bhalobashi

by:Adrita

Let me be completely honest with you, reader. As I begin writing this, I have no idea what to write or how it will turn out to be. Excuse me for rambling in places, or for politically incorrect gibberish. When I signed up to write a piece on “International Mother Language Day”, I had not expected to be quite so confused. I thought it would be easy. I would write something about our Mother Tongue being our identity, and how education in regional languages should be supported and yadda yadda.  I don’t have an opinion on those things (Actually, I do but that’s for another day).

21st February of every year is when International Mother Language Day is observed worldwide. To me, it is that day every year when my father tries to wake me up at 6 am, like all days, and yells “TODAY IS MAATRIBHASHA DIBOSH!” about five times before I grunt from underneath my blanket.

Forgive me for being so selfish, reader, but since I am at my wit’s end about how to write a generally relatable piece on this, I won’t be trying to. This piece is going to be hella specific and personal, it’s going to be about me and my connection to my Mother Tongue, Bengali. I am a Bengali who was brought up in Gujarat. I am going to say the word “Bengali” a lot of times throughout this piece. It’s fine, you can bleep out the word “Bengali” if you feel like it comes up too much and it’s annoying. You know what? Start right now.

International Mother Language Day is supposed to be about your pride in your Mother Tongue, but so far, I have written nothing that suggests that. I do not comprehend the concept of pride in something that you had no merit in achieving. This is not the first time I am arriving at this conclusion, but maybe I am not the best person to write this piece. 

“I sing in Bengali; I sing the song of Bengal.” [1]

I grew up listening to Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti. I was so fascinated by Bengali Literature that I would translate some works (albeit badly) so that my friends would understand. They listened to me patiently, with a smile, but I could tell they couldn’t figure out what the big deal was and what I was so excited about. One even admitted to feeling slightly lost and “not liking Tagore”. And that is when I felt my Bengali pride kick in. I said nothing, but I was filled with rage, and in hindsight, it was unreasonable and I am ashamed of it. You can’t expect someone who has only heard my horrible translations to appreciate Tagore. It was a knee-jerk reaction, and as ashamed of it as I am, it is still hard to control. This is what I am afraid will happen if I indulge in Bengali pride so much. Unwarranted Bengali Pride at that.

“I speak in Bengali; I speak of Bengal.” [1]

I have been stuck for a very long time. I remember asking a friend who is also a Bengali who grew up in Gujarat, what we really were. We can’t be considered Bengalis. Very often, my relatives have laughed at me for speaking like a “non-Bengali”. We can’t be considered Gujaratis, because we eat, speak and live differently. Our names don’t do us any favors. So where do we belong? Or do we belong nowhere? He… sort of, stared at a wall, opened and closed his mouth multiple times, and said nothing for a while. I think I broke him.
Adults confuse me too. They go from “Are you not a Bengali?” to “As if you are a Bengali” faster than you can say Heejibeejbeej.
Here’s a letter that fourteen-year-old Adrita wrote to her parents long, long ago. Of course, I made it up, but that doesn’t matter, because it says what I felt at that time.

Dear Mom and Dad,
I won’t have lunch today. Today was a disaster. They noticed I was a Bengali. They knew I was a Bengali because of my surname, but then something struck them, and then…then (heavy weeping) they looked at me with disgust and asked me if I eat non-vegetarian food.
And now, they avoid me for a whole new reason. Please do not draw more attention to the fact that we are Bengali when my friends come over. I do not like being shunned.
Yours sincerely,
<Insert embarrassing nickname that my parents call me but I know better than to put up on a public platform>

Of course, that did not happen. Not in quick succession at least. And they would not avoid me or shun me, but they would be less willing to accept anything that I offered them to eat anymore, which had never been a problem until the fact that I was a Bengali preceded any other characteristic of mine in their heads. Was I hard-done-by because of that? No. It was kind of nice. I would buy a cake from the school canteen, and they would think that the cake now has egg because I touched it. There were times when it was not so nice, like when we were looking for a new place to live, and we had a lot of trouble because of who we were and what we ate. I did spend most of my teen years thinking it was shameful to be the way I am. When we finally got a place, we had to lie about how we were “not like other Bengalis”. And as much as I tried to be more than just my ethnicity, it always lurked in the corner like a shadow. Frequently, it was at the forefront, when others introduced me, “That’s ABC, she dances well. That’s XYZ, she sings well. That’s Adrita, and she is…a Bengali.” Well, thank you, anonymous person who introduces everyone, now no one will know that I am good at making paper boats and setting them afloat in water and making them damp and tearing them to shreds. The world just missed out on so much talent and you are the reason.

“I love in Bengali; I love the land of Bengal.” [1]

When people hear that I am a Bengali they try to utter multiple hilariously incorrect variations of “Ami Tomake Bhalobaashi” i.e. I love you. I used to correct them, but now I just throw back my head and laugh. It is easier that way. Yeah, it’s annoying, but kudos for trying y’all. I love you too. And I am trying very hard to ignore the fact that the only time anyone has ever said that they love me is when they are trying to prove they can speak Bengali. I’ll be right back; I have to go cry over the zero gifts I received for Valentine’s Day.

Did I manage to convince you that you should be proud of your Mother Tongue? No?! Because I could not convince myself either LOL. To sum up, I was ashamed of my Mother Tongue because I feared that I would be othered. I was also reluctant to be proud of it because I feared I would be the one doing the othering. I think I wanted to write this piece for myself. To clear my own confusion. And I have not been very successful, so yeah stop booing at me, no one had fun…
But it’s not over yet, ladies, gentlemen, and others. When I say I have trouble being concise I mean it. What’s the deal with 21st February, though? Why do we celebrate International Mother Language Day on 21st February?

“The 21st of February, spattered with the blood of my brothers.
How can I ever forget the 21st of February?
The 21st of February, damp with the tears of a hundred childless mothers
How can I ever forget the 21st of February.” [2]

In 1948, the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan appointed Urdu as the only national language. Back then, East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh), which was contained in the Dominion of Pakistan, saw widespread protests since the majority there spoke Bengali. The Government banned public meetings and rallies because that is the logical thing to do (yes, sarcasm). However, in an act of defiance, the students of the University of Dhaka organized a protest on the 21st of February, 1952. The police opened fire and killed and injured many student activists. In 1956, the central government granted official status to the Bengali language. 21st February is therefore proclaimed to be the International Mother Language Day the world over, in honor of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the sake of their Mother Tongue, 

You can afford to be cynical of ethnic pride when your identity isn’t under attack. In true human fashion, one only realizes what something is worth when someone else threatens to snatch it away from them, and until then, they are free to utter as much intellectualized jargon as they can to take it for granted. When I say I am proud of my Mother Tongue, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be proud of yours. I am proud of it because I understand it and relate to it and I am sure I would be fascinated by yours if I could understand and relate to yours in the same way.
I can’t convince you to be proud of your Mother Tongue. It is beyond me. But I can tell you this. I spent most of my sentient years ashamed of the language I speak at home and I also spent those years wallowing in a puddle of self-loathing. The best reason I can give you as to why you should love your Mother Tongue is the same people give you as to why you should love yourself. Your contempt for your Mother Tongue is in many ways an extension of how you feel about yourself. So, if people who are overly proud of their language and their ethnicity are arrogant bigots who have achieved nothing worth being proud of in life, you are not much better, sweetie, you hate yourself and that is not better.

Did I offend you? Because I kind of did offend myself. If there’s a petition to get back at me for what I wrote, please send it to me, I would like to sign it too. 

In conclusion, I would like to say, love your Mother Tongue because it is part of you. Rather reductive. I really hoped I could have gone on a “Michael” Madhusudan Datta-esque journey in this and discovered that I am proud of my roots and what not but this probably just turned out to be a teenage girl being pretentious. Speaking of pretentious here’s another letter nineteen-year-old Adrita wrote to her parents today.

Dear Maa and Baba,
Thank you for keeping me in touch with my roots. I know it’s very random, but there’s this thing I was writing. I know you are mad at me; I’ll go have lunch.
Yours sincerely,
<Nope, still not proud of that name>
[1] Translated lyrics from the song ‘Ami Banglay Gaan Gaai’ by Pratul Mukhopadhyay.
[2] Translated lyrics from the song ‘Ekushe February’ by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury.

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