Bengali to English

Bengali to English – where vanity & hegemony had its kickbacks, much to the advantage for the Darjeeling Gorkhas ?!!


Good Morning ... all !!



The Left Front policy of banning English from primary school boomeranged to produce young Bengalis with little Bengali, says Anasuya Basu

My daughter has read all of Maugham and Hardy already. She is an avid reader of English literature and tops her class in the subject,” boasts a mother of a 12-year-old. Then she adds with an indulgent smile: “But I just can’t get her to read Bangla books.”

The lady in question was speaking recently, but middle class and upper middle class Bengali mothers, and fathers, have been making this statement for decades now. It increased in frequency after the Left Front government banned English from junior school in 1982.

Bengali is steadily losing ground to English. A generation of Bengalis from Calcutta, sent to English-medium schools following the government decision, has grown up without much Bengali. Much less Bengali, at least, than the English-medium educated Bengalis of previous generations possessed. It is not uncommon for someone from this generation to call a Kumartuli idol-maker “mritoshilpi” instead of “mritshilpi”, though the former would mean a dead artiste and the latter someone who makes clay idols.

Later generations are following suit. It will be interesting to survey how many young Bengalis going to English-medium schools know the Bengali alphabet well.

How many English-speaking Bengalis today read Bengali books? “I cannot read Bengali at the same speed I do English,” says 27-year-old Kaberi Das, a content writer. She has studied in an ICSE school. “If I had to read a Bengali novel I would read it in the original but it would take a long time,” she confesses. She is used to reading English newspapers and magazines and her Bengali “is just out of practice”.

Many read Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series in English translation. The vast repository of Bengali literature is out of bounds for many of this generation.

And sometimes, the entire Bengali family converts to English. At a sabeki Durga puja this year in a north Calcutta household, a sabeki lunch of khichudibegunilabdaluchi,phoolkopir torkari and chatni was served by women from the family in sabeki wear, but in English. “Can I serve you one more luchi? A little more torkari?” a lady wearing a red-bordered taant the traditional way kept entreating.

School shutdown

That Bengali will be replaced by English to some extent is expected. “The Bengali language is being cornered by English,” agrees poet and teacher Sankha Ghosh. This is somewhat inevitable in the age of globalisation. Adds Ghosh: “The same trend can be observed in Bangladesh, where Bengali is the official language.”

But for Bengal, Ghosh also blames the policy of banning English from classes I-V for the current predicament. At that time scholars like Nihar Ranjan Ray, Sukumar Sen and Pramathanath Bishi had voiced their protest.

Soon Bengali-medium schools saw a dip in enrolment as there was a scramble for English-medium schools because of the Left Front policy. “Bengali-medium schools witnessed a 50 per cent dip in enrolment, about 250 Bengali-medium schools shut down in Calcutta in a hurry. Till date 2,500 Bengali-medium schools in the state have closed because of low enrolment,” says Kartik Saha of West Bengal Primary Teachers’ Association, an SUCI-affiliated primary teachers’ body.

Consequently, the standard of teaching Bengali started to decline, feels Ghosh. In the English-medium schools, where Bengali mostly enjoyed second-language status, the importance of the vernacular seemed to lessen as the stress on learning English became greater. Parents wanted to keep up with the times and see that their children had the advantage of English.

Teachers contradict this. Says Devi Kar of Modern High School: “We have been under the West Bengal board till recently and Bengali has always been taught with a lot of care here. Even after switching to ICSE, we put a lot of stress on the vernacular languages and encourage children to use them.” Attributing the declining standards to the common perception that Bengali was a “useless language”, Ghosh says: “Bengali was not a language that would come into much use. So what was the point of teaching it well?”

Bengal was always in favour of learning English and following its example. Writer Nirendranath Chakraborty points out how English had started influencing written Bengali even before Independence. “Way back in 1946, a Bengali newspaper wrote ‘Swadhinata ekhon koromordan durotte’ . That is a poor Bengali transliteration of ‘Independence is just a handshake away’. The correct expression should have been ‘swadhinata ekhon nagaler moddhe’.” Chakraborty speaks of another Bengali report that used the word “kumirasru”, a literal translation of “crocodile tears”. “The correct usage is ‘maya kanna’,” he adds.

But from the Eighties there was no stopping the takeover by English. Ironically, erstwhile education minister Kanti Biswas points out that the state government’s English ban, based on the recommendations of the Himangshu Bimal Mazumdar committee constituted during the Congress government in 1975, was “in the interest of the young minds for whom the study of two languages simultaneously would be unscientific and tortuous.” A number of committees had been formed since Independence to formulate English language studies in the state. “Starting from the Harendranath Choudhury commission in 1948 to the Ashok Mitra commission in 1991, all had recommended that the study of English should not start before Class VI. Even a Unesco report says the medium of instruction for primary teaching should be the mother tongue,” says Biswas.

The same Left Front government turned its own decision on its head in 1999 on the recommendation of the Pabitra Sarkar commission and started teaching English from Class I. Today, the government has even started opening English-medium primary schools of its own, says Biswas. “It was for the sake of globalisation and the age of computerisation so that our children could retain the competitive edge,” he says.

In the intervening years, students got away without learning Bengali. Since there is no enactment by the government making it compulsory to study Bengali, students in ICSE and CBSE schools can choose not to study Bengali at all.

Low on the ladder

Bengali was socially downgraded. A hierarchy of languages grew in the state where English was established as the language of power and Bengali, a “subaltern” language.

The story is different in the villages. Bengali still survives and survives well beyond the urban precincts, in the mofussils and villages. Says Pabitra Sarkar, the erstwhile vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University: “The English bias pertains to a very narrow segment of society, the upper middle class, which can afford to go to English-medium schools. Only 15 per cent of the schools in the state are English-medium,” he says.

The real story, Sarkar believes, lies with the vernacular media. “Look how Bengali channels are proliferating, there are more of Bengali newspapers. The channels are being viewed internationally.”

And the NRIs are doing their bit to preserve the language. There are 13 Bengali magazines that are published from New York. Australia and Toronto, too, have a fair share of Bengali papers. Ghosh feels this was a result of identity crisis among the NRIs. “The Banga Sanskriti Sammelan and such things are attempts to cling to their roots. They are caught in a dilemma, not belonging there and also not belonging here,” says Ghosh.

He concurs with Sarkar that Bengali is thriving outside the city. But it goes on to justify his view of the urban-rural divide in the language practice. He recalls an incident in the city that shows how Bengali is viewed in the city.

“I was at a bookshop in front of Lighthouse. There were two youngsters browsing books. They conversed in English between themselves but when they turned to the bookseller, they switched to Bengali,” recalls Ghosh. It was another thing that the bookseller was not a Bengali.

Even in social dos, Bengali and Bangaliana seem to lose out to English. Wedding venues proclaiming the marriage of a Bengali groom and bride are written in English rather than Bengali. So is born the legend Chandrani weds Santanu. “Why can’t we have Laboni Akhil er biye at least at a biye badi,” asks Ghosh. “Look at the road signs and directions in the city. They are in English. The other day I found the police hauling up two very poor citizens for not following the directions in English,” he adds.

“There is no contradiction in learning both English and Bengali. Why does one have to learn one language at the cost of the other?” asks Nirendranath Chakraborty.

Bengal is unlike places that grow on the strength of their own language. Countries like Japan, China, France and Germany have been able to progress without the help of English, but it is the legacy of colonialism that has stood in the way of Bengalis respecting themselves.

Bengal is unlike some other Indian states as well. In Tamil Nadu, English and Tamil are both compulsory in schools. In Maharashtra all schools must teach both Marathi and English. But Bengal does not have a dual language policy. “When we asked the government to make it mandatory to learn Bengali as second language in these schools, the government couldn’t succeed in implementing it,” says Ghosh.

As Ghosh says in one his poems: “Banglae ek Kolkata achhe bote, she Kolkatae Bangla kothao nei”. Roughly translated, it means there’s a certain Calcutta in Bengal, but in that Calcutta there’s hardly any Bengali (the language).


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