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Of Mother (and other) tongues: Preserving my memory in Bangla

Feb 21 is the International Day of the Mother Tongue


Last week, I was violently sobbing on the floor of my room, because it hit me rather suddenly that to be understood by anyone around me, I have to forcibly articulate myself in English. I'm a writer, I've spoken English all my life, and I've held on to this linguistic skill as a privilege to protect myself from multiple intersecting marginalisations. Yet, as I learn more about the violence of the colonial tongue, I teach my tongue to be gentler, to myself and to others, and to speak with more pride one of the world’s sweetest languages - Bangla. 


Even as I type this, the grammar-correcting software wields colonial power in a subtly aggressive red underline on ‘Bangla’ - it’s called ‘Bengali’ in English. I obstinately keep saying it - Bangla, Bangla, Bangla - a language with pride so powerful and legacy so strong that my family members and community have been martyred to defend its legacy.


February 21st is internationally recognised as International Day of the Mother Tongue. On this day, the United Nations steps up and marks a day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, even as most of its ‘six official languages’ have deeply imperial implications on many communities. ‘Official languages’ often reflect an attempt to represent collective stories as a homogeneous whole, leading to an erasure of collective memory. English is a widely spoken language, but that is not a ‘merit’, it is just a symbol of the different tongues that were disciplined into speaking this language as survival. 


The history of February 21st is shrouded in resistant blood for Bengali peoples. On this day in 1952, Pakistani police opened fire on Bengali protestors in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan), as they demanded Bengali to be an official language of the state, in addition to Urdu. The erasure of languages has always been a colonial, imperial project of discarding entire memories of love, grief, joy and resistance of people, and to commemorate the martyrs of their language, Bangladesh requested the UN to mark February 21st as the International Day of the Mother Tongue, or Bhasha Dibosh in Bangla. The Bengali community across Bangladesh and India also celebrate the day as Language Martyrs’ Day.

 


I have family who fought the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. As an Indian who has often been taught that Hindi is our ‘national language’, although India DOES NOT HAVE a national language, I am viscerally aware of linguistic homogeneity being shoved down our throats as a nationalist project. To subdue a diverse population, a rather smart tactic of nationalist violence is to erase the diversity in our languages - after all, language is memory and metaphor. One of the most devastating acts of colonial violence on Indian peoples was the Partition of India of 1947, in which our British colonisers finalised a plan they had sown for ages - to divide Punjab and Bengal along religious lines. As a result, we have people still deeply divided, but with vastly similar experiences of food, clothing, language, and collective memory. 


As a settler on stolen land, I recognise my deep fortune in being able to speak my mother tongue. I have been able to preserve recipes and instructions, blessings and stories from my grandparents in broken words, but in a mostly unwavering train of thought with only a few translated words. Many mother tongues in the world were lost and forcefully disappeared to colonial violence, along with mothers that were lost and children that were stolen. To erase a language is to erase its people, its movement of love, resistance, and grief through the world, and its preservation of life and memory. 


As a migrant, I find solace in my language. If I don’t find the time to call my parents, there goes by days when I don’t speak Bangla at all, except maybe look at a particularly annoying maskless person on the tram and mumble bokachoda under my breath. Language is a shared code that is encoded with meaning on one end, and it only finds meaning when it's decoded on the other end. I don’t know many other Bengali people, and that is often incredibly lonely, as though I encode words and strew them around the world, with no one to catch them for me. 


The white world has a funny way of chewing you and spitting you out, sometimes. Migrants are deemed disposable - Morrison takes our curries and throws the rest of us out. On the nights when the imposter syndrome hits, such as this one, I find solace in my immaculate playlists of Bangla songs, smile at myself, and remember how our songs were written - on nature, God, love, and revolution - one and the same, if you’re Bengali. In a desperate desire to fit in, the migrant tongue disciplines itself into accents that will never fit in anywhere, not even in my own body sometimes. At the end of a bad day, when I don’t feel like I will ever be good enough, I remember the resistance of my people, the bloodshed that preserved my future, and the outrage, hope and love my veins carry, martyred on February 21st - 


Tomar rokte raanga, Ekushe February. 

(coloured in your blood, the 21st of February)

About the author

Srishti (they/them) is a Bengali writer, community organiser, and policy nerd. They research and write on dissent, collectivism, and technology, and is a bonafide cook in their spare time, perfecting family recipes for Bengali food to preserve their culture and memory.

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