February is known as the month of love, but in Bangladesh a more important thing is celebrated—the love for the Bengali language.
I take pride in the fact that despite being born and raised in New York City, I speak Bangla pretty fluently and I credit this mostly to my parents for being Nazi-like in their approach to teaching us a language that their forefathers sacrificed their life for. February 21st is recognized by UNESCO as National Mother Language Day, in honor of the Dhaka University students that lost their lives on February 21, 1952 in a crusade to allow what was then the East Pakistani government (today known as Bangladesh) to let Bengali remain their national language, instead of the West Pakistani dialect of Urdu.
My younger sister and I were not allowed to speak to our parents in English for the first fifteen or sixteen years of our life, to do so was considered disrespectful and would result in severe punishment. Despite the fact that our parents speak English, they never conversed with us in anything other than pure, ‘shudho’ bangla at home. If we wanted something or if we had something to say, we could only say it in Bangla. I was so accustomed to speaking in my parent’s tongue that my grammar school put me in an ESL class in Kindergarten because I was too shy to speak in English (I was transferred into a regular class when my teacher figured out I was just timid and didn’t have an English-speaking problem).
My mother was a housewife until her first child (me) started kindergarten and I have very fond memories of those years. I was taught Bengali songs, about Bengali poets and writers—I learned the romanticisms of the Bengali language. I will admit that even though I think, read and write primarily in English, I can’t really claim it my first language. My parents made sure than my first language was Bangla.
When I was 15, my father sent me to Bangladesh on my own to spend the summer with my grandmother. When I arrived, my relatives in Dhaka were amazed at the ease and clarity with which I spoke Bangla. I was amazed at the fact that they would even fathom the idea that I could not speak Bangla. How else was I supposed to communicate with my parents? The idea that speaking in English with my parents or any other adult family members was a form of disrespect was drilled into my brain.
Bangla is close to my heart, as it is to Bengalis all over the globe. Just as the Bangla language represented to the Dhaka University students in 1952, their heritage and identity, Bangla to me, growing up, was a mystical language, that I claimed all my own, that my sister and I used to communicate outside of the home, on the street, where we could freely say anything without anyone understanding, we could giggle away without our friends understanding. Growing up in NYC during the 80’s and early 90’s when people did not even know where Bangladesh was, and referred it to ‘that little country next to India’, Bangla was the strong thread that kept my family together—it was something my parents shared and entrusted to their American-born children.
When I started high school, I hoped and prayed that I would make a few Bengali friends, with whom I could communicate with in my mystical language. But that didn’t happen until I started college. I wished so badly that my Guyanese, Dominican and Indian friends were Bangladeshi because there was just some things that were easier to express in Bangla. Whomever I spoke Bangla with, I connected with them on a different level—my mother, father, sister, cousins, uncles, aunts. At that age, I neither understood the sweetness nor the history behind the language—I just knew that it was important in helping me figure out who I was, which knowing Bangla helped me do. A language that helped identify who I was and constantly reminded me that I belonged somewhere, part of a centuries-old culture. As part of a history project in 10th grade, I decided to research the origins of Bangla. I discovered the Bong (Vong) tribe and Bangla’s close association to Sanskrit. I discovered Ekushey February and National Mother Language Day.
I do regret not being fully literate in written Bengali. My mother’s cousin taught me halfway and then stopped when she got married and moved away so I never got the chance to finish. I want to read for myself Rabindranath Tagore and Lalon Shah instead of only listening and watching. But why the obsession to belong to a culture I’ve never seen firsthand? This was the same culture that prevented me from wearing shorts and skirts after the age of 13, that didn’t let me go to my ‘bideshi’ (foreigner) friend’s houses. It was a need for a sense of belonging. I grew more and more close to my roots, despite being so far from it. I figured if I wasn’t supposed to act ‘Bideshi’, why not act what I’m supposed to be?
But, with everything else in history, how easy it is to forget something that only occurred five decades ago. To this day, it baffles me when I see that some Bangladeshi parents living abroad don’t take the trouble to teach their children a language that was literally fought for. I have Latin American friends who’s families have lived in The United States for many generations, yet every single generation speaks Spanish with fluency and vigor, so why such neglect on the part of Bangladeshi parents, especially in those cases where their children are only second-generation?
After ten years, I’m back in Dhaka. In the past ten years, I have graduated high school, college and enterd the working world as a journalist, but my summer spent in Dhaka was never forgotten. On February 21st, 2010 I went to Shaheed Minar for the first time. I’ve heard stories (my grandmother’s uncle was a part of the police force that was ordered to shoot the Dhaha University missle students—the story goes that he refused to), read books, seen movies about Ekushey February’s historic momentum. But, nothing had prepared me for the elusiveness I felt once I entered Dhaka University’s campus. Walking past the Bangla Academy, I found myself wishing that I was a part of Bangladesh’s history as a Dhaka University student.
Out on the streets, ‘Ekushey February’ seemed more like a day to make a fashion statement in black and white (although I do admit, I am also guilty of this and got a salwar kameez custom-made for the occasion—then again Dhaka has always been a city for fashion and that’s what us Bangladeshi-Americans look forward to the most when we come to visit—shopping!). So, when my aunt and I made plans to go to the Shaheed Meenar in the morning, I didn’t expect much except a lot of crowding, a merciless sun and a chance to probably not be able to see anything up close.
And yes, there were undulated crowds pushing me this way and that, and a sun that turned my skin two shades darker, but to my left and right there were the fruits of the shaheed’s labor. Mass amounts of people who openly spoke a language that was almost banned—pushing and tripping over each other in a country that is free from anyone’s rule except its own (even though the politics in this country would put the shaheeds and mukhthijudhas to shame). I shared an entire heritage with these people to the left and right of me—we’ve all faced mass genocide just a few short decades ago. We were all here because either our parents or grandparents or we ourselves survived the slaughtering of our language and of our freedom. When I finally got up close to the bright red sun in the back of a mother beckoning to her four kids, I found myself closing my eyes among the pushing and pulling of the crowds for a brief second—expressed my gratitude for these 5 men for laying their lives down so that my parents could openly speak and study in a language that have existed for centuries and then move to the other side of the world and use it to form a bond with their children.