Shubho Noboborsho, everybody. A very happy Bengali New Year to you. It was on the 14th.
And that was a lovely day to be a citizen of our fine state. Since morning, Calcutta Telphones, the Calcutta Police, and no less a personage than the Chief Minister of West Bengal had personally wished me their best for the next annum. The Telegraph — our city’s finest yellow pages — was plastered front to back with cheery good wishes from munificent shopkeepers, who promise to flood me with their generosity and unbelievable ‘special prices’ if I stepped into their fancy showrooms before sundown.
Which is all very gratifying, of course — I seldom feel this special, this wonderfully attended-to and cared-for — except that, despite their general consensus of goodwill, these lovely people sprawled all over my life couldn’t seem to quite decidewhat they were being so peachy about. The Calcutta Police — I beg your pardon, the Kolkata Pooleesh — appeared to think it was “Noboborsho’, which is ‘suvo’, and hence wished to convey their ‘suvechya’ for it to the general public. The Chief M’s office, on the other hand, believed it was ‘Nababarsha’, which is ‘shubho’ enough to warrant the CM’s ‘antarik priti-o-subhechha’ — affection and good wishes from the core of her being. It is also, apparently, time for citizens to join her in building ‘natun’ Bangla, or a new Bengal, so pick up your pitchforks, people!
Useful things, pitchforks. The horror genre is particularly forthcoming about their diverse uses.
Anyway, perhaps encouraged by this lack of harmony amongst public institutions, the private sector really spread its wings. Adverts covered every possible rendition of the day’s special theme: Shubha, suva, shubho, subho, navavarsha, nabobarsha, navobarsho… and so on and so forth, ad all recognisable perm-coms of the two words.This was flavoured further by the full range of good wishes for all — sakalke suvechha, sakolke shubechha, shokolke subhechha, and in the rare case of phonetic accuracy, ‘shokolke shubhechha”.
Now, usually, the ‘recognisable’ aspect being clearly present, I don’t mind the rich diversity of ways in which we feel we should ‘properly’ spell ourselves in the Roman alphabet, sans diacritical marks. I personally flinch when I see “Valo achho vai?” littered all over my Facebook feed, but disapproval of my clearly superior faculties, I generously feel, should not get in the way of these valiant attmepts to introduce the ‘v’ sound to the Bengali tongue. What does disappoint me, however, is that my spirit of democratic tolerance — which really should lead by example and wrap me in glowing warmth of modest smugness — is seldom reciprocated. Certainly, on the one hand, this proliferation of transliterative practises ‘from the grassroots’ is encouraging — if not orthographically, then certainly politically, in a cool, twenty-first century, tripping-on-social-media, People-Culture-Power sort of a way.
On the other hand, however, the missionary zeal and glowing intolerance of each Bangla-to-English subsection ranges from persistently annoying to downright alarming. And in minds that work the right way (that is, in ways I graciously approve), it promptly erases all fluffy bunny joy at the power of people writing back to the centre, cancelling subscriptions. Instead, it is eerily reminiscent of the constant battle waged amongst factions in this state for an exclusionary Cultural Authority, contesting and attempting to set rigid benchmarks in everything from the re-interpretation of classics, new flavours in familiar cuisine, and remixing Rabindrasangeet, to the removal of Bengal’s only cricketing light from the Kolkata Knight Riders, majoritarin dominance in Bengal Marxism, and how much of a whore a woman has to be before the average man would dare to rape her.
True to the general requirements of People’s Glorious Revolutions against Dastardly Tyranny, in short, one soon realises that battle here, much the same as it is elsewhere, isn’t so much about dismantling the linguistic infrastructure of power, as taking it over. Hubba hubba.
And even this I could have lived with, because a) I have a lot of practice in the area, and b) I would have to delude myself in planetary proportions to think there could ever be a sociopolitical system that didn’t function on the delusions of liberty, equality, and justice-for-people-like-us. But what gets to me, really, really gets to me, is that the average Bengalis who take their transliterative vigilantism seriously — and in my social-media circles these are mostly people educated in Bengali-medium institutions, demonstrably conscious of the perceived difference in status between themselves and their English-medium/’convent-educated’ peers — blithely ignore the enormous chasm that exists even between standardised written Bangla, and spoken. And in so doing, almost inevitably valorises the text over speech… while, of course, not changing the latter to fit the former at all. This is probably just a minor blip on our radars, us ridiculously over-educated types, us, who can read as well as speak, probably in more languages than two. But in a state and country where functional literacy is still very, very low, it does let slip an instictive exclusion of people not privileged like us. Indeed, though these fine vanguards of our culture might insist on transliteraing the Bangla word for soap as ‘saban’, they would never, ever think of pronouncing it as such, for that would instantly make them an object of comical derision, and index lower class — and therefore, often, a lower caste — origin, and might event a permanent expulsion from their cherished realm of fashionably self-critical urbane cosmopolitanism, of which their ‘organic’ Bangaliana is merely a part.
This, of course, doesn’t explain why those that mis-transliterate even by their own standards — rampant “suvo” and “suva”s this time around, despite a indisputable taleybawshaw in the Bangla spelling — or why the proud-to-be-Bengalis continue with the English and Hindi-influenced ‘a’ sounds (sakal for shawkaal/shawkol, saptami for shoptomi) when the hallmark of Bangla is the ‘o’-fication — or rounding-off of every round-offable syllable in a word — but that strain of linguistic grovelling to a perceived, if resented, superior will have to be shelved for another day.