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English and Bengali, together they make me truly me…


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Rhea Chatterjea, a Singaporean student of Raffles Girls’ School, won the 4th Prize in Class A of the Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition in 2006 with an essay on juggling her Bengali and English identities and languages.

English “brings me closer to my intellectual, pragmatic, practical and everyday aspirations. It allows me to understand the world that revolves
around me. English enables me to become competent, compatible and competitive” writes Rhea. However, through the opportunities offered by the Singaporean education system, Rhea was able to learn Bengali, her mother tongue.

The new generations in Singapore never had cropped wings. They were allowed to soar to their maximum capabilities and challenge themselves to reach height never before achieved. English, German, French, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Japanese – I could do it all if I wanted to…In short, I was given the opportunity to feel what it meant to be a true Bengali.

Rhea is presently a medical student in Cambridge University, UK.

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English and Bengali, together they make me truly me…

  1. 1. RHEA CHATTERJEA BANGLA LANGUAGE AND LITERARY SOCIETY SINGAPORE CLASS A 4TH PRIZE IN THE 2006 COMMONWEALTH ESSAY COMPETITION DOES ENGLISH ALLOW YOU TO BE FULLY YOURSELF OR DO YOU ALSO NEED ANOTHER LANGUAGE? English and Bengali, together they make me truly me… “Dibe aar nibe, milabe, milibe Jabena phire…” “Give and take, mingle and be mingled in (And) none will depart empty handed…” I stared hard at the translation and tongued the words, trying to feel its true meaning. They were amongst the most-quoted words from the great Nobel Laureate Poet Rabindranath Tagore. The line, being an excerpt from one of his many insightful and influential poems, never failed to touch the heart and mind. When articulated in Bengali, it resounded with the philosophy of universal brotherhood and enculturation. His simple words communicated ideas and feelings with intense meaning. My attempts to translate his poem were futile. Being a fully bilingual child, I am equally conversant in English and Bengali when it comes to day-to-day matters. I voiced my first words in English as a little baby. My first Bengali words were uttered almost in desperation while on a holiday in Delhi. Hearing my parents speaking Hindi, a foreign tongue I had never heard before, I was compelled to speak Bengali, the language of my forefathers, just to show off my yearning to express myself in a language that was closer to my being an Indian by race. I only officially started to learn Bengali when I was about to start my schooling. In my everyday life, both English and Bengali play major roles. Both help to bridge gaps, and bring meaning to ideas I want to communicate. But individually, they serve different purposes altogether. 1
  2. 2. English is my staple language, like rice is to my food. I think in English as I curse the alarm clock which starts my day; I speak in English with the bus driver, my friends, classmates, teachers, the stallholders in the canteen; actually with everybody I meet throughout the day. And I am thankful that my lessons are conducted in English, a language I can not only speak, write, and read, think and understand, but also feel and breathe. Who knows what chemistry or physics would have been like had it been taught in Bengali? I can’t even start to envisage what ‘intermolecular electrostatic forces’ or the ‘kinetic particle theory’ would sound like in Bengali. I don’t even know what ‘oxygen’ is in Bengali. Perhaps my mom knows. I haven’t the slightest clue and I am not intent on finding out either. Whatever the term is, I am sure it won’t sound terrestrial at all. I feel at peace with English when it comes to practicality in schoolwork and life in general. When watching TV at home, shows like Judging Amy, American Idol, Crime Scene Investigation and Becker top my list. My MP3 player weaves mainly English songs, songs from bands like Green Day, BBMak, Madonna and a whole list of other artists. I’ve picked out a few German songs along the way. Increasingly, the richness in the tunes and rhythms of Hindi songs seem to fuel a fire within me too. But when it comes to true meaning, weaved and intertwined with heart-tingling tunes, I seem to hold Bengali songs closer to my heart. When we race back and forth within the small island city in our car, the Bengali songs are always playing in the car audio system. Since young, my ears have always been attuned to Bengali songs. Their tunes strike a chord within me that very few other tunes can. Now, they are engraved in my perceptions of music. Time to time, when the meaning the Bengali songs convey doesn’t seem to crystallize before me, my mother explains it. And invariably it unravels a meaning way beyond the 2
  3. 3. obvious combination of words and tunes. Its essence flows in sync with nature or exhumes meanings profound in philosophy. At home, conversations with my parents, elder brother and my sister-in-law are mostly in Bengali. Though more often than not, when the right word doesn’t seem to come to mind, sentences get peppered with English. The incursion seems logical though, for all my family members go through the same English-speaking environment all their waking hours as well. It appears that the key to life is English and that with English all doors would spring open at will. Life is easy with English. Had I not known English, the world would have been a different place for me indeed. It would not have provided me with the doors to open. I smiled though I fumbled to translate Tagore’s poem in English, relieved that the language that I am conversant in is universal, and would take me almost as far as I would want to go. But the voice within told me a different story. Living 2870 kilometres away from the land of my forefathers, I am privileged to be able to learn Bengali, in a country I now call my own. Back in 1982, when my parents migrated to Singapore, the emphasis on the mother tongue only resided in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, the three of the four official languages in Singapore, apart from English. Being unable to fit into any of these categories, my elder brother was forced to learn Malay as his second language. When this seemed too much to adjust to, my brother opted for German, an even more remote language perhaps. But in time to come, German gave him an edge when he went to Switzerland for his studies. It was a very pragmatic decision, I suppose, definitely not by choice, but more because of a lack of one. I wonder whether German gives him a sense of belonging to the language and culture like Bengali gives me, but I doubt it. I learn German too, thanks to the Singapore education system where one can choose to take up so many languages if one really wants to. 3
  4. 4. English, Malay, German; my brother even dabbled with a bit of French in the university during his undergraduate years and some Dutch while doing his PhD in the Netherlands. It is truly amazing, how he knows so many languages. “A true cosmopolitan,” I mused. But alas! When it comes to Bengali, he can only converse in ‘Benglish’, Bengali speckled with English words. He never had the opportunity to explore Bengali at a greater depth, to feel its charm and character. We’d tried to teach him to read individual Bengali characters, but by the time he got to the end of a sentence, he’d forget what the last few words had been! I suppose, the idea of allowing the minority languages to be offered as mother tongue languages came to reality in Singapore too late for him to take advantage. The song ‘Jharo jharo barishe baridhara’ does not bring in the sound of incessant rain, pouring down on all sides, as it does for me. Gazing at the dark pregnant monsoon clouds, sliced into pieces by the violent lash of the lightning, my brother will never be able to spontaneously break into the Tagore song: ‘Chanchala Chapala chamake’ (the restless lightning flashes with a startle). The deep unsettling rumble of the monsoon clouds which I can almost hear in Tagore’s songs about the rainy season does not reverberate thoughts in his mind like it does in mine. It’s not because he never listens to these songs; he always does. But the meaning of the lyrics can never penetrate him in Bengali. The moment they are translated to English, they lose their identity. More importantly perhaps, the songs remain as mere songs to him. There is no instrument to translate these words into realisation for him, like the strum of strings translates into music. Without the knowledge or feel of Bengali, the impregnated lyrics fail to convey their heavily imbued meanings to him or dazzle him with myriads of colourful images on the canvas of his mind. Without really feeling the essence of the language, he is in a way, held back from being himself, from feeling like a true Bengali. Born into the world fourteen years after my brother, many things have changed, fortunately for the better. The new generations in Singapore never had cropped wings. They were allowed to soar to their maximum capabilities, and challenge themselves to reach heights never before achieved. English, German, French, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Japanese – I could do it all if I wanted to. But more importantly, I was not only allowed to, but was 4
  5. 5. encouraged to find out and experience who I really was, whom I was really consanguineous to, through learning my own mother tongue. In short, I was given the opportunity to feel what it meant to be a true Bengali. In addition to the opportunities of self-realization offered by the language options in Singapore, the Bengali Association in Singapore plays a major role in helping me truly realise who I am. Through regular functions to celebrate typical Bengali festivals, I am able to get first hand experience about the culture. Every Bengali child gets to find out what Bengali dances, dramas, songs and recitations are all about. Being fluent in Bengali, in spite of living across the Indian Ocean, I can fully tune myself to the notes and rhythms of the culture when we make our annual trips back to Kolkata in India. The sounds, the colours, the dresses, the sweet-ridden customs, the slower pace of life and even the bony fish dished that bring out a true Bengali’s skill are not out of sync for me. Every trip to India is another rich adventure of experiences that I always look forward to. I feel the closeness to my relatives and the passion for the culture through the most vibrant vehicle of the culture, the Bengali language itself. “Bah, tumi Bangla porte jano?” (Oh! So you can read Bengali?) my relatives would exclaim in wonder. “Hae, aami schoole Bangla pori,” (Yes, I learn Bengali in school.) I would reply proudly. And my relatives would gleam in just as much pride, knowing that I am a part of them, a part of the culture. They know that in spite of living very far from the country, I still hold close to my roots. I truly belong to the Bengali community, not just through official recognition, but through the feelings, the understanding, the realisation and awareness of my Bengali existence. It is the knowledge of English that brings me closer to my intellectual, pragmatic, practical and everyday aspirations. It allows me to understand the world that revolves around 5
  6. 6. me. English enables me to become competent, compatible and competitive and thus successful in a measurable way. But it is Bengali that tells me who I am, and enables me to truly mingle with those from the same Bengali culture, where I belong. “…Dibe aar nibe, milabe, milibe Jabena phire…” I would give and take and be true to myself. I would mingle with others and be mingled in. I would take what others offered and offer what I have. And in the end, I would not return empty-handed. English and Bengali – without either one of them, I would never be truly me. 6