Sylhet, Mymensingh and Bengali in India: A Symbiotic Relationship
East or West: The Twain Shall Meet Shantanu Basu Working presently in Assam, I hear migrants from Mymensingh district inBangladesh being talked about with an alarming degree of rancour, even ill-will.However, no one remembers the fact that this Bangladeshi district contributed a wholegeneration to the Bengal renaissance of the late 19th and 20th century in the form of theRay family - Upendra Kishore, Sukumar and Satyajit, author Nirad C Chaudhuri,Anandamohan Bose, Indias first Wrangler and President of the Indian NationalCongress, magician PC Sorcar, children’s writer Leela Majumdar, academic Dr. NiharRanjan Ray, Rabindra sangeet exponent Debabrata Biswas, West Bengals formerAdvocate General Snehangshu Acharya, apart from Syed Nazrul Islam, painter ZainulAbedin and latterly Taslima Nasreen. Sixty seven years after Partition, posted to Guwahati, I find the pristine Bengalispoken in the heart of what is now Bangladesh is being liberally used by my Bengalioffice personnel, mostly way beyond my low level of understanding as I speak to them inEnglish. Born and bred in Delhi with Hindi for my second language, I have always foundit difficult to follow even the Kolkata colloquial, which my wife or Secretary translated tome. However, in Guwahati I have had to come face-to-face with Baangaal that I haveseldom heard, spoken only by the remnants of the Partition-affected generation and adecade back in Delhis CR Park. This Bengali is also pristine in that it distinguishesbetween baari (permanent home) and baasa (a temporary birds nest), Delhi being mybaari, my Guwahati bungalow being my baasa. Although sometimes delivered invocally violent intonations, the Baangaal taan is a piece of human creativity. It meandersits way through with seemingly needless add-ons to the Kolkata colloquial – korchhenreplaced by kortasen and koro naa by karosh naa and so on. Nonetheless, it makes itspoint more vociferously and aggressively than does its Kolkata colloquial cousin which isperhaps more urban. Baangaal’s cousin, Sylheti, however, sounds like an overspeedingtrain – a trait that is more a genetic hand-me-down than acquired. For me it’s as good asLatin or Greek. Yet the Guwahati office staff writes English extraordinarily well, that tooin proper Central Secretariat style, even Assistants and Section Officers, are able to carryforward a conversation in near-perfect English for as long as two hours, something manyof my own civil service brethren often find difficult, before lapsing into Hindi! TheseBengalis have lived through, and continue, to live through trying times, many in penury,deprived of their home land, despised by the local population, yet preserving their ownlanguage, its dialects, their religion and social practice but speaking Ahomiya quitefluently, some even marrying into their families. Indeed adversity has bred in them thewill to survive with dignity and create a new world!! In a similar vein, Baangaal and memories of pre-1947 Bengal similarly play outat our New Delhi home as my nonagenarian father hosts fellow nonagenarian survivorsof Partition, many of whom are domiciled in Delhi since 1948-49. I am astounded bytheir vivid recollection of events stretching as far back as the early 1930s. What emergeswas a life of honor and plenty in a society where best friends often belonged to other
communities - the evergreen Padma river hilsa and the rajbhog from Rajshahi – cookedby Hindus in Muslim homes and vice-versa and had in each other’s company off bananaleaves on the floor. I heard tales of how Muslim families sheltered their nownonagenarian friends and their children and spirited them away to the relatively safeconfines of Calcutta. Names like Shahjahan seamlessly merged with Nirmal and Barun.Indeed Bengal of the 1920s and 1930s was a role model of communal harmony at least atthe local community level. Priests of any community did not demand nor received theirupkeep from public coffers then. Yet it was not as if a difficult life had just passed the nonagenarians by withoutsome hilarity. They remembered how a witty Dhaka garwan asked a customer paying hisfare in the horse carriage by stamps (since coins were melted for munitions during thewar) if his horse would now have to write letters on which the hapless passenger’s stampscould be affixed! These garwans were singers of some repute with their pithy lyricsdelivered in earthy tones. Fond memories of the boat ride to Goalando Ghat, the Sylheti-cooked chicken curry and rice on board, train rides across now human-createdboundaries, post-1947 visits to see their ancestral properties and cross-border connectionssuch as those with Oxford University Professor Salahuddin Ahmed, Vice Chancellor LateProf. Ali Ahsan of Dhaka University, my father’s recent visit to Dhaka’s ArmenitolaGovt. High School (where he was received warmly as their oldest student by thePrincipal, faculty and students in a public show of love and affection) et al. These get-togethers are not just a visual and audio treat but also speak volumes of the trying timesthis generation went through, a generation virtually forgotten in their own land, reducedto penury and not exactly welcome in their ‘adopted land’- a land they never dreamtcould be whimsically partitioned by a felt pen drawn by a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe.Incidentally, Radcliffe did not claim his then princely 5000 pound fee when he saw themisery of people in the biggest migration in human history. Yet Radcliffe achieved with apen what Viceroy Curzon was not able to do with his imperial military, police andpolitical might. Legends like PC Mahalanobis, Sushobhan Sarkar, Amartya Sen, JC Bose,Somnath Hore, Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray and his cousin Nitin Bose, Barun Sengupta,General JN Chaudhuri, Anandamayi Ma and Goshto Pal not only adopted the newlyformed India, indeed embraced and brought it laurels that perhaps few migrantcommunities have done globally. I wish my 22-year old son, who was ever busy on hisiPad, listened to even a part of these conversations as these nonagenarian survivors ofPartition relived their idyllic childhood, turbulent student life and the post-Partitionstruggle to survive, without any ill-will or rancor toward any community, caste orreligion, secularly accepting, as a matter of fate, the will of the Divine Hand! Like theHolocaust that never dimmed the will of the Jewish people, Partition did not dim the willto survive of the Partition generation as they brought laurels to the land that was alreadytheir own, but turned by history and a pen, into their adopted land.The author is Principal Accountant General (A&E), Assam. His views are personal.