The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Czech that out in Tagore’s tongue

“You must be Poborsky!” was how a group of football freaks in the city greeted one of them, having heard they were from the Czech Republic. Jakub Wolf nodded politely and said he wasn’t, while Ondra Abonyi stood beside him and grinned in amusement. But the spontaneous reference to the Czech national winger left the duo even more enamoured of The Calcuttan.

“In other cities, they ask you things like your name, where you live, whether you have a girlfriend and so on,” says Ondra, “but here the second or third question is whether we’ve read Rabindranath or seen Ray’s films.”

Neither poser is a problem for Ondra and Jakub, since the subject they are specialising in at Charles University, Prague, is — Bengali.

They are part of a class of 12 (“we had started out with 24”) who are doing their three-year bachelor’s in Indology with specialisation in Bengali. This trip to Calcutta — Ondra’s fifth and Jakub’s wide-eyed first — is for “roaming the streets of the city, mingling with the people and visiting as many places in West Bengal as possible”.

Thus “goriahat” and “howra” roll off their tongues as easily as any Calcuttan’s, and they are full of stories about their trips to Santiniketan, Bishnupur and Darjeeling.

But why learn Bengali in Prague' For 25-year old Jakub, who is simultaneously completing his master’s in international relations, it was Sanskrit, a language he studied for years, and a fascination with South Asia that drew him to Bengali.

“India is a fast-developing nation, but has a rich heritage and tradition, too,” he says. And knowledge of contemporary languages can only help understand the country better, he feels.

For Ondra, the reason was more routine. “Each year, the university offers one Indian language for specialisation. The year I decided to enrol, it was Bengali,” he smiles. But Ondra has spent a lot of time in India, having started off with a school trip to Rajasthan for a wildlife project. Wildlife is a passion for the 23-year-old actively involved with New Odyssey, a Czech body studying migratory habits of black storks, from Siberia to India.

The university where the two study had a tradition of Bengali for decades. But problems arose in the 1970s, with the institution deciding to focus more on subjects that drew in a full class (“like chemistry”), rather than Bengali. Things eventually got better and in the mid-90s courses in Bengali, Hindi and Tamil were started again.

Currently, Charles University has just one Bengali teacher, Hana Preihaelterova (Hanadi to the students) — a lady in her 60s who had studied in Santiniketan for a year — but there are PhD students to assist her. The Bengali community is small (“about a 100 in Prague”), which prevents the students from polishing their language skills, but they “try to talk to the Bangladeshi shop-owners as much as possible”.

Calcutta is way ahead of Mumbai in their books, and not just because it is similar to Prague in some ways. “The Metro and the tram remind us of Prague…Also the fact that on Sunday most shops remain closed,” offers Ondra. But it is the order in the chaos that draws them most to Calcutta, they say, even as Mamata Banerjee and her men besiege Esplanade and a sea of people engulfs the duo from Prague.

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