In a video that has now gone viral in the Bengali interwebs, noted Bengali intellectual Chandril lets loose on the moribund state of the Bengali language. To sum up his arguments: Bengali as a language is progressing to its death. This is because speaking in English and Hindi has a premium feel to it, while Bengali, in its most traditional form, reeks of “I am sorry, I couldn’t do any better in life”. While recognizing the inevitability of a language changing, he draws a distinction between a type of change that is inevitable, like developing a bald spot, and the type of change that is death, like having the head cut off. Bengali, he posits, is on the latter path, and while one may have issues with his basic premise, one cannot but be amazed by the way he delivers it, the turn of phrase, the Bengali he himself uses, and the examples he digs out to support his contention.
For me personally, the change in Bengali is disquieting, in the way many other changes to Calcutta and Bengal are. I first started being aware of this change through the lyrics of Bengali movie songs like “Yeh haowa silky silky bole jaaye baatein dil ki, chalo na bheshe jaai jowaare, rubaro, masti maange dil maahi we” and “Ooh lala I love you my Soniye ooh lala” where the sheer number of Hindi words overpowered Bangla. And then I happened to watch some Bengali movies, and listen to Bengali celebrities talk, and it’s not just the words that hit me in the stomach, it was the effing pronunciation. For some strange reason, Bengalis born and brought up in Kolkata can’t seem to pronounce Bangla any more.
Where I disagree with Chandril is on the concept of death. A language does not die as long as it is used by people. Here his counterpoint is that just because a language is used by a lot of people does not mean it is alive, it matters only if it is used by rich people. This to me is elitist BS. Bangla has mutated, no doubt, and this makes many of us uncomfortable, but that does not de-legitimize what it has become.
And to me what’s important is not that Bengali has mutated, but why it has mutated. It is because the classical model of the pure tongue has failed, decades of Communism by name and now Communism by proxy, has led to flight of those who spoke in classical Bangla, to other states and to other shores. Calcutta, the bastion of the fair tongue whose demise Chandril laments, has been gutted of its middle class, leaving either the super-rich, many of whom non-Bengalis by birth, or the poor, immigrants from Bihar and UP and Bangladesh, and the mutations of Bangla, the influx of Hindi words and the twisting of the pronunciations, reflect that shift in the underlying demographics.
What Chandril ends up doing is articulating, in a very articulate way, the anger of the last vestiges of the intellectual middle class still in Calcutta, the reduction in prominence manifesting itself as rage at the change in what was once a comforting constant, the words they hear.
Which also explains why there is the strong whiff of persecution-mania that runs through this argument that Bengalis are ashamed of Bengali. As I had once said in a debate with the editor of Desh, the language you will find most Bengalis want to learn is Java, (and yes Java has all the characteristics of a language, there is good code and there is bad code and there are rules of grammar), and its not because they feel ashamed of the languages they know, but because Java is the language that affords them the most opportunities. Bengalis write in English because they want to be read by more people, not because they find it downmarket.
If there is something the Bengali intellectuals should be angry at is the manifestation of the mutation, but what caused it, and most importantly, their own continuing complicity in that very change. To put it simply, you can’t go on lobbying for Bongosommans by anointing Mamata Banerjee as Rabindranath Tagore reborn and then turn around and rue the fact that people use “keno ki” as a surrogate for “kyon ki”.
Sorry boss, it doesn’t work like that.