24 Feb 2007

They Died for their Langauge: Ekushey February

How important is language for any community? Is it secondary to other facets of identity like religion, culture and race? If one looked at the history of Bangladesh—a country born out of its people’s deep-rooted identification with their mother tongue, Bangla (or Bengali), the answer would be a resounding no. Ekushey (meaning twenty-one in Bangla) February marks the genesis of a movement that established language as the primary force that binds a community. Such was the impact of this movement that a whole nation was carved out on linguistic and cultural lines; even though the people shared the same religion (Islam) with other citizens of the country they were initially part of.

In 1947, India’s independence from British rule came at a steep cost. The country was divided on the basis of religions into India and Pakistan. The latter officially became a Muslim state, while the Indian constitution laid down secular foundations for the country’s people.

Pakistan found itself in a somewhat tricky situation. The country had two provinces—West and East, which were distanced not just by geography, but also by language and culture. East Pakistanis, who formed a majority of Pakistan’s populace, spoke Bangla as opposed to the Urdu spoken by the people of West Pakistan. The country’s government declared Urdu as the official language, even though the majority of people didn’t communicate in that language. In fact, it was even proposed that Bengali documents should be written in Arabic script. Understandably East Pakistanis weren’t amused at the idea. A movement, mainly spearheaded by students and supported by other members of the intelligentsia, gathered momentum. Sensing the magnitude of the simmering unrest, the government clamped down by declaring Section 144, under which all public meetings were deemed illegal.

When defying the ban, students of Dhaka University took out a peaceful procession on February 21, 1952, the police opened fire on them. Several students were killed. This only further infuriated the Bengali population, which culminated in the cessation of East Pakistan from the territory of Pakistan. In 1971, a new country, Bangladesh, was born. Bangla became its official language.

In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Tongue Day.

Can I forget Ekushey February
That’s draped in my brother’s blood?
Can I forget this February
That’s made of a thousand son-less mothers?
Can I forget the February
That’s coloured in the blood of my golden country?

~ Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury

(Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)

20 Feb 2007

Tuntuni and the Cat by Upendrakishore Ray

There’s a brinjal plant in the backyard. Tuntuni has built her nest by stitching the plant’s leaves. Three little fledglings lie in the nest. They are so small they can’t fly or even open their eyes. They just open their mouths and call out “cheen-cheen.”

The family cat is really wicked. She just thinks I shall eat Tuntuni’s fledglings. One day she came near the brinjal plant and said, “What are you doing, dear Tuntuni?”

Tuntuni bowed and leant her head by the branch of the brinjal plant and said, “Salutations, your highness.” The cat went away happily.

She would come every day, Tuntuni would greet her and address her as “Queen” and the cat would go away feeling happy.

Tuntuni’s fledglings have grown up now. They don’t keep their eyes shut anymore. Seeing this, their mother asked them, “My dear ones, can you fly now?”

The little ones said, “Yes, Ma, we can.”

Tuntuni said, “Let’s see if you can hop over to that top branch of that tall Tal tree.”

The fledglings immediately flew over to the top branch. Tuntuni smiled and said, “Let the evil cat come now!”

In a while, the cat walked in and said, “So, what are you up to, Tuntuni?”

Tuntuni gestured a kick at her and said, “Get lost you wretched cat!” With that, she quickly flew away.

Baring her teeth in rage, the naughty cat jumped upon the brinjal plant, but could neither catch Tuntuni, nor eat her babies. She returned home, wounded with the sharp gashes off the thorns of the brinjal plant.



Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

17 Feb 2007

Upendrakishore Ray: Bangla Literature's Hans Andersen

A twittering bird, tiny of frame but weighty of mind always won battles that defied her puny physical stature. She would often flap her wings by the window of my childhood and delight me with her sharp wit. I related so well to Tuntuni, the little bird. Perhaps because I was petite and shy myself, but not as dim as some of my teachers considered me.

Tuntuni’s tales filled up the phantasmic canvas around me with magical hues. The thin book carrying records of her victories, complete with bright images that lent credence to the words, became my good friend.

All those years ago, I didn’t know who created the adorable Tuntuni. Her presence was enough to make my heart soar. All these years later, little Tuntuni still smiles through my window. And it’s time to thank her creator, too.

In a sense, Upendrakishore Raychowdhury (U Ray) was the first children’s writer in Bengali. This gifted writer and block-making expert devoted a large chunk of his writing life to creating fascinating stories for children. Before him, there was no established form of Bengali children’s literature. Most of the stories children heard were mythological or religious tales recounted by grandparents. These would almost always carry moral messages and examples. U Ray blazed a new trail by writing stories for kids that were pure fun, replete with strokes of humor, fantasy, and idiomatic peculiarities.

This pioneering writer didn’t just limit his children’s writing basket to Tuntuni’s stories. He rewrote the two Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata to bring them closer to children. The simple language he used for these was in keeping with the tradition of elders telling bedtime stories to children.

In 1913, U Ray started Sandesh (the name of a traditional Bengali sweet), a children’s magazine. The magazine, filled with his writings and illustrations became a hit with young people and remained that way through generations as his illustrious son, Sukumar Ray and grandson Satyajit Ray managed its affairs after his death. I grew up devouring Sandesh month after month and thoroughly enjoyed the stories, poems, quizzes, along with the scientific and cultural facts the magazine packed within its pages.

Tuntuni has remained with me even through my growing years as have other stories of U Ray, one of them (Goopi Gayen, Bagha Bayen) having been immortalized by Satyajit Ray on the silver screen.

Smart and witty Tuntuni will come greeting you soon. Keep an eye on that window of yours.

7 Feb 2007

Hason Raja's Songs

A while back, I wrote about the timeless appeal of Kabir. What is it that makes any creation timeless? The most obvious answer would be that the creation continues to make an impact long after it’s first created. However, another facet of ageless works is that they continue to hold relevance even when seen outside their original context; they fit into any and every life situation and require no knowledge of the backdrop in which they were created.

I say this as I contemplate on the songs of Hason Raja, a 19th-century mystical poet from Bengal. I first heard the songs some six-seven years back, when my brother brought some audio tapes from a trip to Bangladesh. The songs had a distinct folk identity, marked by earthy tunes and simple, everyday language. A few of them touched me instantly.
Roop dekhilam re noyone
Aaponar roop dekhilam re

Amar majh to bahir hoyiya

Dekha dile aamare

I saw my reflection
In your eyes.
You revealed yourself to me
By emerging from within me.

The reason I mentioned context in the beginning of the post is that once I read facts about Hason Raja’s life, I was nearly bowled over. His songs reflected a Sufi-inspired minstrel who spent his life celebrating the oneness of all creation and seeing the divine in everything. On reading about him I found the reverse was true, at least as far as his youth was concerned. Like most members of the affluent community, he spent his youth in the company of dancing women, financial and material indulgence, and much of the symbols associated with the hereditary rich of 19th-century India (Bengal was still a part of undivided India at the time). In his later life, however, he turned away from the material way of life and became mystical inclined. He wrote hundreds of songs using simple language, most of which underscore the undivided nature of all life—an idea that seems increasingly relevant and important.
“Tumi ke aar ami ba ke
tai to ami bujhi naa re.

Eke bina dwitio ami

Onyo kichhu dekhi naa re.”

I cannot fathom
Who you are and who I am.
I fail to see
Any second thing apart from the One.
To listen to songs of Hason Raja, visit this link.

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