The 'bhasha' city

Mind your language

The 'bhasha' city

Dhaka’s love affair with the language is evident everywhere — from poems at the junctions to writings on rickshaws. It definitely is a city that takes pride in its mother tongue, writes Ashis Dutta

A country born out of a language. A city resonating in the eternal charm of the mother tongue. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, can be described in many ways, but the most succinct identifier is its language — Bangla. Why, much more, having gifted the world its ‘International Mother Tongue Day’ spilling its own blood as a price, Dhaka can easily claim the epithet: World Capital of the Mother Tongue.

I thought my journey had begun when I touched down at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, named after the Sufi saint. And I was wrong. The more I roamed around the streets and alleys of the city, the further I kept pushing back my starting point. To my first accidental flipping of a dog-eared page of Jibanananda’s poetry while in college. Further back, as a little boy clothed in a pair of half-pants, to the seething excitement of seeing a Mukti Joddha (freedom fighter) in flesh and blood in that tumultuous year of 1971 — he had sneaked out of the then East Pakistan and escaped to India to garner support and resource for their struggle of independence. All along, Dhaka kept smoothing out the crumpled corners of my trip, resurrecting bits of my own lost-in-the-attic past.

The great divide

“Are you from the East or the West?” asked Moidul. In the parlance of Bengal, this means as a Bengali from India if my roots are in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), or in West Bengal. Our car was stranded in a traffic jam, which did not seem to ease in the last 20 minutes, and we were exchanging notes on Epar Bangla-Opar Bangla, the Bengal of ‘this bank and that bank’ of the Ganges, which roughly translates to the two Bengals — West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. The lyrical flow of the Ganges towards the sea divides the roots of Bengalis in east-west axis in subtle cultural ways, of which, thankfully, the feud remains fierce only in the football field.

Presently, we reached Dhanmandi, an up-scale neighbourhood of Dhaka, and stopped in front of a mid-sized house, white, much of it hidden behind the veil of trees lining the compound wall. The house of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who culled out Bangladesh on the touchstone of lingual identity — Bangla. Right across the road from the house is a memorial of Bangabandhu, as Mujibur Rahman is fondly called, in marble, black and white, sleek, simple and poignant, open on all sides, almost Zen-like.

I decided to alight the car, and instead ride on the most ubiquitous form of transport — the rickshaw. Rickshaw in Dhaka is not just a vehicle to transport people, but a moving testament of art and culture at the ground level. They are unusually spick and span for a dusty, over-populated South Asian city. The hood and the back are elaborately painted, mostly in floral designs, sometimes with a dash of philosophy thrown in — Namaaz Kayam Karo. And when one half of the road is a chance convoy of rickshaws, which often is the case on Dhaka roads, it looks like a moving art gallery.

Ode to language

Roaming around, I came across a busy junction. A slab of marble on a pedestal forced me to stop and drew me near. Engraved on the slab is a poem of Jibanananda Das, the most loved Bengali poet of the post-Tagore era, who was born in the East (now Bangladesh) in 1899 and migrated to Kolkata in the early 20th century:

Banglar mookh aami dekhiachhi
tai aami prithibir roop
khujite jai na aar …
(I have seen the face of Bengal
so I no longer wander to search for
the beauty of the world  …)

This love affair with one’s own language is visibly strewn across different stratas of the society. Bangladesh’s national anthem — Amar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal) — a composition of Rabindranath Tagore, is testimony to this. At the street level, this ardour manifests in forms ranging from the prosaic to the sublime. And this is where the simple folks in the sloppy bylanes of Dhaka so fluidly transcend all geo-political and religious frontiers. At that crowded junction, throwing all jingoism of narrow identity to the wind, Jibanananda still whispers his lovelorn twines of verses on his (undivided) Bangla.

Proving Kipling wrong, in the bedrock of the Bengali language, the twain of East and West do meet, oblivion of the vagary of margins between them, and keep singing the same songs, of Tagore and Nazrul Islam, the evocative Bhatiyali of the boatmen, the melodic renouncement of Bauls and Fakirs. And the margin in-between is forgotten.

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