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Words to live for

Languages are the homes we carry with us as we move through life. But it is always important to remember — we do not need to forget or antagonise one language to acquire another

Words to live for

I began writing this piece last year when I had just migrated to Germany and, having learnt no German whatsoever, found myself homeless, displaced and alienated. A friend had written an article about how we carry our homes in our experiences, as part of ourselves. In a globalised world where we are always migrating for jobs, for love, for a better life (in a war struck world where we are always migrating as our homes are being bombed) the idea of ‘home’ as a place to live in, to remain, to retain has become contested and so the way to survive is to carry our ‘homes’ in our memories.

And how do we do that, I asked myself. In our languages. For our memory of home is in the languages we live in. All the languages we learn to speak, read and write in are the languages that we live in. So I learned German as quickly as possible and though it’s not a well-furnished apartment, I manage to feel at home.

International Mother Language Day is celebrated every year on February 21 because it was declared so by UNESCO. As a Bengali, I grew up listening to songs like Shob kota janala khule daona (Open all the windows) and Aamar bhaiyer rokte rangano 21ey February (21st of February, bedecked with the blood of my brother) and always knew 21st February to be Shohid Dibosh — Martyr’s Day.

Languages are reflections of people — they reflect the patterns in which human beings think, feel, love and hate, negotiate and coexist. Perhaps, this is why we can learn and live in various languages.

In 1952, a handful of students at Dhaka University protested against the then West Pakistan’s state sponsored enforcement of Urdu as the lingua franca. They were shot dead. This small incident sparked a national liberation movement on the basis of linguistic freedom and lead to the political freedom of Bangladesh from Pakistan. It is to commemorate those few brave students that as Bengalis (even if not Bangladeshi), we sing songs to praise our mother tongue and thanks to UNESCO, even if on one day in the year, people around the world are conscious about and speak for their own languages.

But as a child, I found it difficult to understand why so many people who love Bangla disliked Urdu so much. ‘It is our enemy’s tongue, the language of our oppressors’ they said. But how does that change anything then? Why does liberating one language translate to antagonising another one? I was also confused at the massively borrowed vocabulary that many of our Bangladeshi friends and relatives use in their everyday bangla — a friend is always ‘dosto’, meat ‘goshto’, to cook ‘pakano’, and the choicest curse words were all derivatives of Urdu! Even among children, we loved calling each other ‘kuttar baccha’. It was the most done thing ever.

Anyway, I loved Urdu and had plenty to listen to, thanks to Bollywood. However, as I grew up, the Urdu writing on our film credits began to diminish gradually though dialogues and songs were still heavily in Urdu. When I moved to Delhi for higher studies, I read Faiz and Faraz, became more deeply embroiled in the language and decided to learn how to read. After many failed attempts, it began to work as I fell in love with an Urdu writer. In the meanwhile, the BJP government came to power and a rush of pseudo-intellectual and cultural events (well, not all of them were so pseudo) in Delhi on Urdu made me realise that we Urdu lovers were really scared.

Reading some fair history of South Asia will tell anyone how closely Urdu and Bangla were linked as languages of change. I shifted my research area to study this history, to read of the shared past when Urdu and Bangla were not antagonist languages but partner languages that propagated the people’s movements in our subcontinent. People like Kazi Nazrul Islam translated communist pamphlets coming from Afghanistan and Punjab written in Urdu/Persian to Bangla so as to spread the message of Marx and Engels to the workers and peasants in Bengal and lesser known writers like Rahat Ara Begum, the daughter of a Bengali Muslim educationist from Dhaka, decided to write fiction in Urdu.

As a student, I felt lucky to be able to study such a past, to have access to such history. In the last two years, universities and student movements in India have drawn much limelight (yet perhaps not enough), beginning with our (JNU) student president being abducted from the hostel by the police with the help of University administration. After his release, Kanhaiya Kumar became popular for his slogans of ‘Azaadi’. Last year at such a protest march in DU (University of Delhi), we saw a counter rally with a hoarding in Hindi that read ‘DU Mein Urdu Mein Banner Le Kar Naara Lagaane Waalon se Azaadi’ (We Want Freedom from Those Who Bring Banners in Urdu and Shout Slogans in DU).

How lovely it must be to be oblivious, to be ignorant! The slogan in Devanagri script had almost all of its vocabulary from Urdu. And I was catapulted back to my childhood memories and to the stories of how Urdu was the language of the oppressor. History is perhaps the language of irony.

In North India, Urdu and Hindi have coexisted with each other for so long, they have grown up together, in so many ruptures and digressions that it is a waste of time to even try and differentiate between the two. All one can do is replace a Persian vocabulary with a Sanskrit one — the verbs though remain stubbornly the same.

Not to get too comfortable, as the Modi Government works on it. Many of us believe he takes notes from Zia’s rule in Pakistan when Urdu and Arabic were imposed upon all offices and people. In Pakistan, Urdu is still enforced upon people under the garb of official language (like Hindi in India) as Punjabis continue to fight for the fair representation of their language in schools, jobs and formal sectors. The struggle is on for Sindhi, Saraiki, Pashto, Balochi, Hindko to name a handful.

In a country where more than 90 percent of the population speaks other languages, it is impossible for the official language to not become the language of the oppressor. Oppression is the language of power. It is the language of fundamentalism, divisive politics and abuse. Languages are not only Punjabi, Bangla, Afrikaans. Languages are tangents of colonialism, capitalism and fundamentalism. Ten years back, we used to have tea from roadside tea stalls — it would take us 5 rupees, a smile and a friendly chat with the tea seller and a squeezed corner somewhere at the edge of the shack. Today we go to cafes — so we do not get to meet, smile at or chat with the tea sellers anymore. We are taught to speak the languages of a neoliberal café and we forget the ways in which we used to speak before this enforced age of excess. It’s the same with words — on a regular basis, we are directed towards what to read, write and talk about, forgetting the ways in which we used words before. The words we lived in are being constantly replaced by new words, pushing us to lose our individual languages, our sense of belonging.

Today, we are taught languages of fear (imposed by State and religious authorities), languages of value (imposed by capitalists) and languages of regression and ridicule (imposed by the likes of Donald Trump).

Words that divide, words that rule, words that enclose and create borders are filtered to us every day and a positive image of excess and power is created that should make us from the poor countries feel happy and content. Meanwhile, an awareness of our rights, duties and freedom is constantly blurred, smudged and thus, forever deferred.

Languages are reflections of people — they reflect the patterns in which human beings think, feel, love and hate, negotiate and coexist. Perhaps, this is why we can learn and live in various languages — even if there are no equivalents, we have, as people, the same patterns, always encoded in our various tongues. Their intrinsic value goes beyond that of utilitarianism — they are our shadows, footprints to remind us of the stories we want to forget.

It is as important to tread on new languages as it is to hold on to the older ones. Jhumpa Lahiri, a Bengali-American writer whose mother tongue is perhaps a mix of Bengali and English, decided at one point in her life that she will write and read only in Italian, a language she feels more close to than any other. She wrote the story of this transformation in Italian, translated in a lovely book called In Other Words. I was amused to read that in order to acquire Italian as a natural language, Lahiri gave away her connection to all her known languages. For one year, she moved to Rome, removed all texts and books and notes written in English, Bengali or any other language and decided to ‘drown’ (she uses a beautiful imagery of language as a deep lake) in Italian — only to find, the word for neck in Italian ‘gola’, is the same as the word for neck in Bangla ‘gola’!

Languages are rivers. They carry wisdom from mountains and seas, recycling the patterns of the earth. Languages are the homes we carry with us as we move through life. And each of us must have the right to save our homes. Linguistic migrations, transgressions and translations are the acts of faith that can help us understand each other better and perhaps make it possible for us to live in a saner world. But it is always important to remember — we do not need to forget or antagonise one language to acquire another. Unlike people, languages are not so self-obsessed.

It is also important to remember — as badass celebrated linguist Professor Ayesha Kidwai tells us on International Mother Language Day — not to vote for the right wing parties. ‘They have a tendency to invade your home and kill.’


The writer is a native Bangla speaker from Calcutta. In her work, she tries to bring together the various languages she loves.’

Farha Noor

The author is a PhD scholar at the South Asia Institute at University of Heidelberg. She is also a research candidate for the German Research Foundation.

One comment

  • As I have said on different forums, in the last few years there has been a steady increase of Bangladeshi students in my Introductory Urdu classes at NYU. They are a delightful, eager lot, bringing with them no biases or hang-ups about this language or that. I do, however, begin with the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh on the first day so that we all understand where we are at, and what brings us here, to this classroom, to learn how to read and write and speak Urdu. We have great fun together.

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