The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The lament for the demise of the Bengali language has almost taken on the dimensions of an official obituary. The discussion held on the dais of the Desh auditorium on the last day of the Calcutta book fair fell little short of a slightly woolly-headed dirge. This is not to trivialize the scale of the problem and its significance for regional culture or the sincerity of the luminaries who participated in it. The sense of a dirge is constituted more by the evident lack of direction in the discussion. The young Bengalisí ignorance of and total disinterest in the language and its glorious ó if comparatively youthful ó literary tradition is common knowledge. But as the discussion brought out, it is mourned only by a limited number of the cognoscenti. While it is true that not being able to respond to the most basic literary allusions is evidence of a blissful ignorance of texts around which the older Bengali once constructed his sense of identity and unique culture, it is also true that problem runs much deeper than that. A glance at any piece of graffiti or poster, any credit line in a Bengali production on the small or large screen, will show that people who might have received a Bengali language-dominated education are no better than their peers who were being accused in the discussion of being only interested in learning English.

Some bogeys have to be demolished. The peculiar notion that learning English itself constitutes a gesture of disrespect towards the mother tongue dictated the Left Front governmentís education policy for years. Mr Sunil Gangopadhyay exposed the fallacy at the root of this argument by saying that there is no conflict in learning two languages. But the Left Frontís policy, which has been recently revised, was really the clue to the greater malaise. It is the indicator of a deep insecurity, comprising a two-way reflection of a lack of belief in the strength of Bengali as an opening on the world and falling standards in teaching. It is good that the chief minister has said the government would try to improve the standards of government schools. His feeling that enforcing Bengali by law may not be a solution is sensible, but in any case that would hardly have helped. Mr Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay felt that the Bengaliís lack of pride in his cultural identity was at the bottom of the disrespect towards the language. But pride is built on substantial achievements, ranging from economic prosperity to political presence. It is the Bengalisí sense of lagging behind that must be addressed first; pride in language and culture might then begin to return.

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