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Bangaliana and Bong connection

The bipolar nature of Bengali culture took centre stage on Thursday evening at a session titled Tongue Ties, where author Kunal Basu sat in conversation with singer-songwriter Anupam Roy, moderated by Debanjan Chakrabarti of British Council in India to see if Bengalis are losing their bilingual ability.

“We Bengalis are perhaps the only culture in the world which categorises all known humanity into two distinctly antithetical categories — Bengali and non-Bengali,” opened Chakrabarti.

Basu, who said he grew up in a “houseful of rebels, in politics and in culture”, quipped that the real question was not English vs Bengali but literature vs cinema. “If there is cinema, Bengali literature will survive, if there is cinema, English literature will survive. If there is no cinema, none of this will survive.”

He said he had never ever thought that he would write fiction in English. But neither had he felt that like one had to pick a side with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, one had to choose between English and Bengali.

“Because we, the Bengali intelligentsia… are this rare species on earth that is truly bilingual…. Bilingualism doesn’t mean being able to read street signs or being able to read newspapers in two languages. It means having two streams flow inside our consciousness. And being able to dip into one stream without abandoning the other. The educated Bengali actually had their toes dipped in both these streams. They read Samar Sen with a passion which was no less than the passion with which they read Sylvia Plath.”

It is only now that bilingual Bengal is becoming monolingual and therein lies not only a deep sociological crisis but also a deep cultural crisis, Basu said.

Roy, who crooned into popular consciousness a few years back with Amake amar moton thakte dao (Autograph) and of course had to sing a line or two on request, because “dheki shorge gele-o dhaan bhange”, likened English to a synthesiser, an instrument that is used to replicate the sounds of other instruments. “The entire world is at my door with English,” he said, referring to all the world literature we can read in translation if we know this global language.

But speaking of his writing, he wondered, “In what language do you invoke your muse?” When he started writing poetry at age 16 or 17, he had to make a choice between English and Bengali. “I chose Bengali because I realised that my knowledge was stronger there.”

For Basu, it is the story that suggests the language. So, though his famous short story The Japanese Wife is set in the Sunderbans, where the Dokhno dialect of South 24-Parganas is prevalent, he wrote in English because he already had his first line in English and was fascinated by it — “She sent him kites.” But there’s a story he is contemplating now and that he might write in Bengali.

A member in the audience asked if the current “Bongness” among Bengalis was a threat to “Bangaliana” and Basu made everyone laugh out loud with his reply. “What you call Bongness, we used to call tyash!”