Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XXIIIby Nurul Kabir
SARAT Chandra Chattopadhyay was exposed to similar, if not the same, question, as did Tagore, by his Muslim admirers of East Bengal, famous among them being Motahar Hossain Chowdhury (1903-1956) and Mohammad Wajed Ali (1896-1954), as to why he kept silent about the Muslims in his great literary life. Motahar Hossain Chowdhury complained to Sarat Chandra during a conversation at the latter’s residence in 1936 that the ‘Hindu litterateurs have hardly portrayed the Muslim characters or treated the sorrows and happiness of the huge Muslim society in their literary works’, and ‘urged’ him ‘not to create Hinduised literature meant only for the Hindus’ and ‘draw the Muslims nearer by way of writing about them with sympathy and affection.’
In response, Sarat Chandra admitted that the complaint was not unfounded, but attributed his failure to the prevalent Muslim intolerance towards any criticism of the Muslim society by the Hindu litterateurs. He said, ‘I am aware of such [Muslim] grievances, but affection and disaffection, appreciation and reproach, praise and criticism go hand in hand in literature, particularly in fiction. The problem is, you (the Muslims) would neither consider this, nor would you forgive [the writers.] You would perhaps determine such punishments [for the writers], the imagination of which is enough to get scared. It is, therefore, safer [for the Hindu litterateurs] to maintain the status quo.’ [Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, ‘Sahityer Arekta Dik’ (Another dimension of literature), Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Collected Works of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay), Volume II, Sukumar Sen (ed.), Ananda Publishers Limited, Kolkata, 1393 Bangla calendar, p 2167]
In Sahityer Arekta Dik, Sarat Chandra did not mention the name of Motahar Hossain Chowdhury; he rather referred to Chowdhury as ‘a young Muslim friend — a litterateur and scholarly professor whose heart has not been infected, and sight not blinded, by religious communalism.’ He referred to the conversation and revealed Chowdhury’s name while delivering his presidential address at the 10th annual session of the Muslim Sahitya Samaj the same year. [see ‘Muslim Sahitya Samaj’, ibid, p 2169] In the speech, Sarat Chandra mentioned the name of Wajed Ali, who critiqued the contents of Sahityer Arekta Dik, originally published in the annual Barshabani, which was reproduced in the monthly Bulbul under the title of Abanchita Baybadhan. Wajed Ali politely rejected Sarat Chandra’s explanation for the Hindu writers’ silence about the Muslim society in their literary works.
Understandably, Sarat Chandra refused to take the responsibility of his, and his Hindu colleagues’, literary silence about the Bengali Muslims, who constituted the majority of the Bengal population. He rather blamed the Muslims for the Hindu failure, almost the same way Tagore passed the responsibility on to the Muslim litterateurs.
However, Tagore not only carried forward the Hinduised linguistic and literary tradition inaugurated by means of avoiding Muslim characters and Arabicised/Persianised words used in the Muslim society in his literary exercises, he also contributed to dividing the Bangla language on geographical line, Eastern and Western Bengal, by way of recognising the ‘dialect’ used in a particular radius of the Kolkata city as the ‘standard’ language for Bangla literature. He also pleaded for accepting the pronunciations, and spellings based on the pronunciations, of the people living in and around the Kolkata city as the standard pronunciation and spelling of Bangla words.
As regards the standard pronunciation of Bangla words, Tagore wrote in 1885: ‘There are different kinds of pronunciation of words in different regions of Bangladesh. But we have to take the pronunciation practised in Kolkata as the standard, for Kolkata is the capital. Kolkata is the essence of entire Bengal.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Bangla Uccharan’ in Humayun Azad (ed.), Bangla Bhasha: Bangla Bhasha Bishayak Prabandha Sankalan: 1743-1983, (The Bengali Language: A Collection of Linguistic Essays on the Bengali language: 1743-1983), Volume I, Revised second edition, Second print, Agamee Prakashani, Dhaka, 2002, p 207]
The political argument of the linguistic practices put forward here was fundamentally flawed, for, in the first place, Kolkata, the centre of political power dominated by a colonialist Hindu-elite those days, hardly opened its arms to embrace the Muslims of East Bengal, and could never become the ‘essence of entire Bengal’ in the holistic sense of the proposition. Secondly, the vast majority of Bangla-speaking population of East Bengal, Muslims and Hindus, found no reason to make any efforts to learn the Kolkata pronunciation for Kolkata was not connected in any significant way to their livelihood.
Shymacharan Ganguly, the Bengali linguist who was opposed to the idea of the political capitals solely determining the course of the development of the literary languages and mindless borrowing of Sanskrit words, wrote as early as in 1877: ‘In the development of the literary language, political capitals have in the past exercised but too much influence. Provincialisms have not been allowed fair play: They have but too frequently been kept out of the literary language, simply because they have been provincialisms. A better course than this would be to absorb into cultivated dialect all that is of value in the several kindred dialects. Such absorption would be more real enrichment of a language than thoughtless borrowing under the bias of learning. If this principle were admitted and acted upon, provincial peculiarities would, generally speaking, have a chance of being incorporated into the literary language in proportion to the mental activity of the people who speak such dialects. Local centres of culture would thus have their due share of influence on the literary language of a country.’ [Shyamcharan Ganguly, ‘Bengali, Spoken and Written’, in E Lethbridge (ed.) Calcutta Review, Volume LXV, 1877, p 412. Also reprinted in Annadashankar Roy and others (ed.), Akademi Patrika, Third issue, Pashchim Bangla Akademi, Pashchimbanga Sarkar, Kolkata, May, 1999, pp 27-28]
Ganguly’s approach, anyone with a logical mind would agree, looks not only rational, but also accommodative of different dialects of a language, which promises better enrichment of the language concerned. But Tagore apparently refused to accept the democratic argument of linguistic accommodation.
He took the same position about the standard spelling of Bangla words in 1901, as he did about their pronunciation in 1885: ‘The spelling of Bangla words that I will discuss about will be done based on the pronunciation practised in Kolkata. The pronunciation practised in different areas, other than Kolkata, is to be justifiably considered regional.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Bangla Krit O Taddhit’, Rabindranath Tagore, Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindrnath Thakur), Vol 6, Pathak Smabesh, Dhaka, p 633]
In 1931, Tagore described the Bangla of East Bengal as a ‘sub-language’. [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Chalita Bhashar Roop’, Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindrnath Thakur), Vol 16, Pathak Smabesh, Dhaka, pp 417-418]
Finally, in 1938, Tagore unambiguously recognised the ‘dialect’ practised ‘around the Kolkata city’ to be the ‘standard language’ for Bangla literature and advised all the Bengalis to accept the dialect’s universality: ‘Question arises at times as to the spoken language of which region of Bengal should we accept as the standard dialect for Bangla literature. The answer is, the dialect of a particular region always gets the status of universality for particular reason…the dialect used around the Kolkata city has naturally been recognised as the standard language of Bengal. It is advisable for all to accept the universality of this dialect for the welfare of entire Bengal.’ [Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Banglabhasha-Parichay’, Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindrnath Thakur), Vol 13, Pathak Smabesh, Dhaka, p 587]
Then, in 1940, Tagore argued in a letter that ‘for the sake of avoiding future difficulties in the literary practices’, ‘it is essential for the people of all the regions of Bengal to learn the conversational language practised in Kolkata since childhood.’ [Rabindranath Tagore’s letter to Chittaranjan Bandapadhya, Rabinndrasamagra (Complete works of Rabindrnath Thakur), Vol 16, Pathak Smabesh, Dhaka, p 418]
However, the fact remains that Tagore’s advice for the people living beyond the Kolkata city, particularly those in East Bengal, went unheeded. The people outside Kolkata continued to speak the Bangla language in their own styles, for there were certain fundamental cultural differences, linguistic included, between the peoples of East and West Bengals.
That the Bangla of East Bengal, particularly its pronunciation, is quite different from that of the West Bengal, and that the difference owing to separate history and culture kept the peoples of the two regions politically separated for ages, found clear expression in an episode of the famous comedy, Sadhabar Ekadashi, written by Dinabandhu Mitra (1830-1870) in 1866. While drinking alcohol together, Atalbihari, the son of a Kolkata-based rich Bengali, ignominiously calls Rammanikya, a rich man from Bikrampur of East Bengal migrated to the Kolkata city, a Bangal — the satirical synonym for a Bengali. Rammanikya reacts sharply: ‘Why do you call me a Bangal? Do you think a Bangal is in any way inferior to you? Bikrampur is not that far from Kolkata, it’s only eight days away from the Kolkata city! Any big difference?’ [Dinabandhu Mitra, Sadhabar Ekadashi, Dinabandhu Rachanabali, Dr Ajitkumar Ghosh (ed.), Haraf Prakashani, Kolkata, 1974, p 137] Atalbihari, however, does not bother to reply. He continues to stigmatise the people of East Bengal by calling Rammanikya a Bangal.
Rammanikya seems to have eventually realised that it was not mere a few hundred kilometres of geographical distance that separated East Bengal from West Bengal; rather it was much more than that, which obviously included his Bangla language and pronunciation.
Enraged by the repeated criticism by Atalbihari, Rammanikya speaks, obviously in an East Bengal dialect, about the ‘qualities’ of the Kolkatans that he tried to acquire to be one of those, and laments that he is still not considered to be one by them. The list of the qualities in question, however, does not reflect positively on the Kolkatans: ‘Why should you repeatedly call me a Bangal, when I have done almost everything that a Kolkatan does? I have eaten a lot of un-edibles, visited brothels, dressed the prostitutes with chikon dhoti, taken biscuits in Englishman’s house, smoked ganja; and still I am not considered a Kolkatan…’ [ibid]
Kamruddin Ahmad, an activist intellectual from East Bengal, rightly observed: ‘[T]he people of eastern and western Bengal did not belong to the same stock and the people of western Bengal, who could not rise above the influence of the Sanskrit language, ridiculed the dialect, accent and customs of the people of eastern Bengal, who also returned the compliments in the same terms.’ [Kamruddin Ahmad, A Socio Political History of Bengal and the Birth of Bangladesh, Fourth edition, Inside Library, Dhaka, 1975, p 17]
Understandably, Tagore did not take the trouble to realise that Kolkata was not the ‘entire Bengal’ in the first place, nor was the city the ‘essence of Bengal’. If at all, the Kolkata city those days was the ‘essence’ of the Bengali bhadralok class, born out of Lord Cornwalis’s Permanent Settlement of lands and Lord Macaulay’s Despatch on Education, which had nothing to do with the general masses of Bengal in general and East Bengal in particular. Besides, the pronunciation and dialect of the Bengalis living in and around the Kolkata city of West Bengal were fundamentally different from those of the vast majority of the Bangla-speaking people, both Hindus and Muslims, living in East Bengal.
However, by way of recognising the ‘dialect’ of the Kolkata city to be the ‘standard Bangla language’ of the entire Bengal, East and West, Tagore, the most influential Bengali litterateur, had, in fact, sided with the politically powerful minority elite of Bengal vis-à-vis the politically weak majority of the Bengali masses living outside Kolkata, whose ‘dialect’ he called a ‘sub-language’. To put it differently, in the political struggle between the two ‘dialects’, the one of Kolkata won, and got recognised as a language, while the ‘dialect’ of the rest of Bengal, particularly East Bengal, got defeated and came to be recognised as a ‘sub-language’. A ‘dialect’ or ‘sub-language’ is, after all, nothing but a politically defeated ‘language’.
To be continued.
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