Every time I pass through the no-longer-new Terminal 3 at Delhi airport, I cringe. Anxious to spare no expense for this showpiece facility, they had the English announcements recorded in real canned memsahib accents, no doubt at many times the fee the priciest Indian voice would command. As a result, India’s capital now makes foreigners feel at home with flights to Khol-khyat-tah, Amm-head-ah-byad, and such exotic destinations.
In the city The Telegraph still calls Calcutta, we are happily catching up with our enlightened capital in this respect. This was most recently evidenced when the English name of the state was changed to Paschimbanga. Now that the state assembly has formalized the change, it seems a good time to take stock.
This article is not to debate the merits of the change, still less of the specific name. It is to examine an interesting syndrome thrown up in course of discussion among citizens of the state, both Bengali and other.
It bears recall that till last week, ours was the only Indian state to have a separate English name at all. No one complained that the rest did not make this concession to cosmopolitanism. But when we dispensed with it, that was seen as a parochial and intolerant move, arguably an attack on the integrity of India.
Let us take a few simple ideas on board. They are, or should be, familiar. The Indian state is multilingual and multicultural. Despite the disaster of Partition, it has achieved a degree of political and economic integration that Europe, a comparable demographic expanse, is still trying to achieve. This naturally means that people of all states can live, work and travel in all other states. In the metro cities above all, the workforce and resident population will reflect this exchange. The more successful a city or state, the more its mix of population will vary from that of the villagers dwelling there 500 years ago. This is a blessing the descendants of the latter must bear in mind. If they searched back through history, they would no doubt find that their own ancestors migrated there 500 or 1000 years earlier still.
It is also true that various parts of the country are the seats of various rich and distinctive cultures, usually anchored in particular languages. When the states were demarcated after Independence, the guiding principle was linguistic. Other factors have later come into play, but language is still a chief marker of regional identity. It does not seem irrational to hold that of all Indian tongues, Tamil would be the chief language circulating in Tamil Nadu or Marathi in Maharashtra. The ethnically-oriented name of the first state matches the language; the second mirrors it in sound, and there is almost certainly an etymological link. Yet the latter’s denizens would protest — militantly, going by recent history — if their homeland were given an English name, even one so flattering as ‘The Great State’. The Bengali language and culture has its chief seat on Indian soil in another such state. On the same principle, there seems no good reason why everyone should not refer to that state by a Bengali name enshrining its Bengali identity.
It is a different question whether, within the resources of the Bengali language, a better name could have been found. That is to be debated by people who care for the language (not necessarily native or ethnic speakers). The move for such a name cannot be condemned out of hand by those who do not — sometimes, amazingly, after self-declaredly living in the state for generations. They are apparently not struck by the contrariety of their assuming proprietory status in a city and state with whose principal language they will not come to terms. The globally sophisticated tone of the protests suggests that their makers would despise migrants to London who blanked out the English language from their lives. But to be globally sophisticated in Calcutta/Kolkata, you must blank out the Bengali language, and read symbolic meanings into Bengalis’ refusal to do so. Some objections border on the fatuous, like protesting that ‘Paschimbanga’ is hard to pronounce. We have lived with ‘Tamil Nadu’ all these years. Any North Indian who thinks this easy to pronounce has obviously not heard the authentic rendering.
Of course, many of the protests have come from Bengalis. Some of them, far from dismissing the language, have contributed notably to its cultivation. One eminent cultural figure wrote in from the city now called Chennai, in the state now called Tamil Nadu. I do not know what he thinks of those changes, made in the last century. Maybe he deplores them too. Yet he must see them as testifying to a general trend.
Perhaps such Bengalis feel they must adopt a more open cultural, not to say moral, stand than their compatriots. Bengalis are widely credited with a tiresome and misguided penchant that way. If so, it has done them little good if after all these years, changing the name of their home state brands them with linguistic chauvinism.
There is a sinister context of actual chauvinism we should not forget. We are currently repeating as farce a practice that began elsewhere as tragedy. In many shopping precincts in Calcutta, an unobtrusive Bengali version has recently been added to English shop-signs. This does not reflect a sudden love of the language among the owners (most of them, interestingly, not Bengalis). It is a new fashion mechanically imitating an imperative practice in Mumbai, where every shop-sign must, on pain of damage or assault, display a Marathi version.
We know too many cases of what happens in Maharashtra to people suspected of a whiff of a thought against the supremacy of the Marathi language. The route numbers on Mumbai buses are written in local numerals. Even The Telegraph, that Calcutta paper, acknowledges the existence of Mumbai. This must be reassuring for the staff of its bureau there.
Heaven preserve us from emulating our flourishing sister city in this grotesque respect. Equally, let us not confuse militant chauvinism with the natural right and desire of a people to practise their own language in their home state. If some of us originally from elsewhere make our home in that state, let us not lose out on the opportunity to imbibe its language and culture, while opening up our own to the others.
In this last respect, the Bengalis’ own past record is deplorable. They paid a bitter price for it in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the adjacent states, as linguistic and regional pride developed in the latter and sometimes took violent form. There was also a price to pay in the opposite situation, fighting domination by other languages in Cachar and, above all, in what is now Bangladesh. Contrary to the general view, this has left the Bengali deeply insecure about his own language.
It is easy for other communities to target that insecurity; easier still for individual Bengalis to evade it by self-deprecation, implying that they, superior souls, are above their benighted compatriots. The English and Hindi languages offer excellent tools for such self-distancing from the tribe. The Indian without English (unless he be a Hindi-belt politician) is, of course, a natural subaltern everywhere in the land. The Calcuttan without Hindi, or with an egregious pidgin Hindi, can prove an underdog in his own state while negotiating with shopkeepers, taxi-drivers, porters, or other functionaries who will work here all their lives but not learn the language.
These depressing encounters will increase as the city and state become more prosperous, opening their doors to more and more workers from across India. As I said at the outset, such human exchange is part of the blessings of development. But employment is the least part of this process of exchange. If we are genuinely to share a common existence, each sharer must give something to the other, but also allow the other to retain what it holds most precious.