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The sound of my neighboring land
(This is an updated/edited version of the original article)
One of the sweetest sounds to soothe my ears is the Bangal accent. Bangal is different from the kind of Bengali I speak, as an inhabitant of Kolkata, India. It is the accent of Bangladesh (our neighbouring country). More specifically, I'm referring to the accent of Barishal. This is a large district in Bangladesh where many of my relatives originally come from. They poured out of the erstwhile East Pakistan as penniless refugees, in the wake of the post-partition riots. After decades of struggle, India had just emerged from centuries of colonial occupation, but with two of her 'arms' hacked off. The nation of Pakistan was born, as two areas to the west and to the east, separated by more than thousand miles of Indian territory. This was because, leaders of men had deemed that Indians of different faith cannot live together in independent India, and Muslims needed their own country to govern.
(Ironically, modern, secular India is home to the second largest population of Muslims on the planet. Also, linguistic and cultural imperatives inspired the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 - out of the former, undivided Pakistan)
Was a referendum ever held to find out if the average Joe on the street, whether he be Hindu or Muslim, also wanted this splitting to happen? No consideration was given to their shared heritage of culture and language, the things which unify them as one, inseparable people. Religion was used as a tool to cut open deep fissures in the psyche of the gentle, passionate people of Bengal. Neighbors turned against neighbors, and there was a mass migration of religious minorities out of areas where they didn't feel safe anymore. Those who were reluctant to leave the land of their forefathers, were either killed, or driven out forcefully.
The same happened to my relatives (mainly on my father's side), who belonged to the Hindu minority of Barishal. Driven from their homes, they streamed into India along with thousands (perhaps millions) more, and settled in colonies on the outskirts of Kolkata. They gave priority to education and built schools and hospitals, even as they lived in thatched huts. Many of them had lost considerable wealth in the great uprooting, but were determined to build a better future for their children. Two of my aunts, teenaged girls at that time, had one pair of shoes between them. One of them attended the morning school, and the other the day school. They exchanged shoes in the middle of the street, on their respective journeys to and from the school. For them, life had changed inexorably, and they gradually adapted to the ways of their new surroundings.
Bengali was the common thread, but it was spoken differently in Kolkata. Many of my senior relatives, uncles and aunts, eventually learned to speak a relatively unaccented Bengali. But, given an opportunity - as in intimate family gatherings, they love nothing better than to lapse into the accent of their childhood. Many of them have passed away, and their children now have their own children. But the spontaneous, mellifluous flow of that 'eastern drawl' is something they have guarded with care. When it pours forth, it is like music to my ears.
I can't speak it beyond a few disjointed words, like 'aichhi, khaichhi, zamu'ne, khamu'ne,' which kills rather than nourishes it, for I speak a tongue which is neither 'Ghoti' (the way Bengali is spoken by the original inhabitants of Kolkata) nor 'Bangal' (the accent of the eastern refugees). It is like a mix of the two, and its hardly surprising that our Kolkata-born generation has been jokingly dubbed 'Bati'.
Sometimes, when I wish to get a dose of that sweet drawl, I visit Bangladeshi newspapers on the net. Even though the language used in reporting is free of accent, I find what I'm looking for in the quotes of such and such, or in the comments sections - where they sometimes write in the way its actually spoken.
Mind you, I am not knowledgible enough to differentiate between accents used in different locations of Bangladesh - e.g. Dhaka, Noakhali, Chittagong, Barishal etc, for these may vary widely. As mentioned above, I'm mainly familiar with the Barishali one. Many years ago, when I was roped in by a British anesthesiologist to interpret on behalf of him and his patient (a Bangladeshi lady admitted to a UK hospital - she was about to have a baby), I realized that I didn't understand a word of what she was saying. But she could understand me clearly! And both of us were supposedly speaking the same language. Then her husband intervened, saying (in english) that she's from the far eastern parts of Bangladesh, where the accent is quite different from say, in Barishal, and definitely in West Bengal, India. According to him, the way I speak Bengali is how its usually written in journals and newspapers. That is, mine was accent-free. I couldn't tell if it was a compliment or a criticism :) But I loved being the two-way info channel between the anesthesiologist and the pregnant lady. I hope she has had a beautiful, healthy baby.
The late Bhanu Banerjee, movie actor of yester-years, had made the Bangal accent famous in West Bengal. He would frequently use it to portray various characters. A superb comedian, he had provided much hilarity in my childhood days. He used to shine like a star! His 'Mashima malpo khamu' has become a legendary dialogue in Bengali movie history (think of Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back"). As also that other phrase immortalized by the author Rajshekhar Basu -"Hoy, hoy, Zanti paro na!" There was this clever use of the english letter 'Z' (in Bangla print), which is missing in my diction, but is plentiful in the Bangal accent.
A few years ago a group of my relatives, all senior citizens, made a plan to visit Barishal. They bought plane tickets and got their visas. One of them was a retired surgeon. Her late husband had been a refugee. She had never visited her in-laws' original home (shoshoorbari), for the simple reason that they had moved to Kolkata. So this was quite special to her. She wasn't even sure if she would be able to find the place, for the original house was burnt down in the riots. Her in-laws had barely managed to come out alive.
Using the services of a guide, they reached the area. Henceforth, local villagers came forward enthusiastically to show the Indians their way. Finally, the visitors managed to reach the late husband's ancestral home. Or what had remained of it.
As is typical of construction at that time, the house was originally built upon a man-high brick platform. Made of wood, and two stories high, it had been quite a large, sturdy structure, from how it was described to her in the numerous tales of a long gone, but barely forgotten childhood. It was as if she herself had been there in the past, her 'narrated memories' of those pre-partition times were so vivid. Naturally, when she witnessed what was there at present, it was a bit of a jolt to her. A family of modest means now lived in that peaceful place. The original brick platform was considerably reduced in height, and a single-storied structure now stood there. Children were playing about, and hens, with chicks scurrying along, were strutting about.
The people in that village were very warm and welcoming, and they called in a few older men - grey-haired, with grey goatees. They still remembered their neighbors from the past, who had to flee or be killed. Cross-border news had occasionally drifted in, and they were aware of how their former-neighbors had fared in Kolkata. They knew that one of the sons had become a doctor in Kolkata, and had married another doctor. Although they had never hoped to meet that 'daktar bou', they were overjoyed to see her, and their joy infected the visiting group.
The attackers on that fateful night of rioting were outsiders. After the carnage was done, and the rioters had left, the stupified victims - their houses burnt to ashes, slowly drifted back from their hiding places. It was some of these locals, the grey-haired people who now stood before them, who had initially given them shelter and food.
There's had always been a peaceful village, with rich social/cultural bonding between the communities. The reason why her late Father-in-law had erred in judging the course of divisive communal politics. On that night, he was totally taken by surprise, even when others like him had been selling off their land little by little, and leaving for the western border. He was the owner of large tracts of farm land, and ponds rearing fish. Obviously, all these he had to leave behind, becoming a penniless refugee. Years later, a stooped old man, half blind, he would take great joy in tending to a vegetable garden, in the little patch of land which was his new home in the refugee colony.
The older men in that Barishal villlage then recounted with fondness those bygone days of peace and harmony, and how they were playmates to her husband and his brothers. One of them even spread his arms around, indicating at the lush fields - 'As far as you can see, this had all belonged to your Father-in-law.' The visitors were sat next to a pond, which was already familiar to her from the many descriptions she had listened to, ever since she met her future husband as a junior doctor. When the villagers learned that she was a medic (even though retired at that time), a group of kids were lined up before her and she was requested for a quick check-up!
Except the accent, which had that easy, melliflouous drawl, it was as if she was in another village in West Bengal. When it was time to leave, she was wondering if it was right to have compared (by visiting) the reality, with the image that was in her mind. She decided that that magical place would always remain intact, for time had moved on, and this was another place, in another time.
Kolkata (originally published in 2015, update/edited in Jun 2016)
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