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General News    H4'ed 5/11/18

My Language

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My language is Bengali (or Bangla) but I don't know it very well. I can speak well enough but I can barely read. And I can't write at all.

I was born into a middle-class family in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1960. I attended English-medium schools, like St. Joseph High School. I had to study the vernacular, but I hated it.

I envied my father who never had to study Bengali. He was born in Calcutta in 1933 before the creation of India and Pakistan (I don't call it partition because the land had been united by the British imperialists: there was nothing to partition. It had been more like the Ottoman Empire.). He attended the English-medium Hare School and in East Pakistan, St. Gregory's College, also English-medium.

My father's English was very good. At Hare School, the headmaster read his writing and told him in private, "Some day you'll be a great writer." Of course he had no wish to be a writer. But his correspondence was pure literature. He would agonize over a word, seeking the mot juste, an expression borrowed from Flaubert that he often used.

He changed his job and went on a management course, first to Istanbul, and then to London. My mother, brother and I followed. Incidentally, it was in Istanbul that I saw my first mini-skirt! This was in 1970. When my wife and I visited Istanbul in 2014, we saw women wearing hijab.

We moved to London where we had planned to stay three months and then return to East Pakistan. The country was then in the grip of two demagogues, Sheikh Mujib in the East, and Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto in the West. The war began, and we found ourselves stranded in London.

My father got a job as a clerk despite having a master's degree in economics. He didn't have a British degree. We lived in cramped quarters, and I recalled the bungalow-like house that we had lived in in Dhaka, with its large compound; back then we had a car (very rare in those days) and servants. I began to resent London and longed to get back home, not realizing that things had changed.

In London, I attended Noel Park Junior School. The kids there were surprised by my English. They wondered where I'd learnt it from. I picked up an English accent, but carefully avoided the cockney the boys and girls spoke. I never said 'ain't', always 'haven't' or 'didn't'. I was a snob and I told them about the lavish life we had back home. They were plebeian, I was patrician. I felt superior, but I was a second-class citizen.

I began to long for home (now Bangladesh). Bangladesh for me then meant the sun - the heat, the humidity as opposed to the cold and rain of London. I never thought about the language.

We returned to Bangladesh in 1973. The firm where my father worked had left. Everything had been nationalized. My father had no job for a year.

Then I entered school. I will never forget the first day. My mother had bought all the textbooks and lovingly wrapped them in white paper. When I got back from school, I announced that I would never study there. Why? Because everything was in Bengali.

The government had made Bengali compulsory for all schools. This was Bengali nationalism. St. Joseph used to be English-medium, as the reader will recall, but now it was forced to teach in Bengali. The headmaster, Brother Thomas Moore, pleaded with the government to allow subjects to be taught in English; he was almost thrown out of the country.

Consequently, I loathed school. But my father introduced me to English literature. I read almost all the novels of Thomas Hardy. I read the essays of Robert Lynd. Then I discovered English poetry. I read Byron, Shelley and Keats with avidity as though my life depended on it.

I also discovered the Bible, the King James version. I didn't care about the religion, but I worshiped the language. 'Before the co*k crows thrice, thou shalt regret me three times'. 'Inasmuch as ye shall have done it unto the least of these thy brethren, ye shall have done it unto me; and inasmuch as ye shall not have done it unto the least of these thy brethren, ye shall not have done it unto me'. I am quoting from memory.

I shall forever be grateful to the English language for saving me from the madness of Bengali nationalism.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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