Spellings That Be

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.

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40 comments

  1. Shuvo Noboborsho to you Priyanka. Came across your post from a similar tag that we share – ‘Bengali’! Well, why be so harsh on our Pooleesh phellowmen or other Bengalees? The New Year has just begun and so will the new ‘topics’ for you to write!

    • Onek dhonyobaad, Ishita. Aapnar jonyeo shubhechha roilo.

      As for harshness, I’ve often wondered about the cult of ‘niceness’ we’ve been importing recently. I learnt politeness via a wooden ruler, so I certainly practise it as often as I can, but must be allow politeness to get in the way of protesting actively prejudiced social exclusion? Besides, as you no doubt know, part of the Bengali ethos is “Lorai lorai lorai chai! Lorai kore bNachte chai!” 😉

  2. Brings back my Madhyamik days when we had an entire chunk of Bengali grammar devoted to the Bengalification of English names eg: Shakespeare (Shekkhopeyor). Did you have to go through that? I often wondered why Tagore was not spelt “Tyagor” in Bengali and not Thakur?

    • Haha. No, I was in The Other Board, so we got away with reading a golposhonkolon, an anthology of poems, and one novel by Tarashonkor. None of this translation business. But I do remember a very amusing piece in Shunondor Journal (in Desh) on translations in exams.

  3. Knob.o.bor.show.r pretty grow.hone core.ben (this is from the tiny minority of people guided by predictive text/t9 in their spelling).

    Really funny piece. Much thought went into it.

  4. fish=ghoti. o rawkawm kawrey naa, rimishownaa. taahowley byapaar taa khoob khaaraap hoy. btw byapaar eo toh tahowley ‘y’ dewaa uchit noy, taai naa? 🙂

    • S-di, Kaeno noy? Baa baa blacksheep er moto ‘byapaar’ er ‘byaa’ ta ki tumi uccharon koro na? Ami toh kori. Besides, I think I’ve made my generosity of spirit to diverse spellings quite clear. You won’t catch *me* wagging a finger saying “Moteo eta kawra uchit noy!”. More importantly, the point of the post is really in the last two paragraphs.

  5. Shoe Vow 9 Vawrshaa!

    protibornikawron/pratibarnikaron/pratibarnikawron/protibornikaran khoob/khub koThin/kaThin/kothhin/kathhin. khawma/khamaa sawhoj/sahoj/shawhoj/sahaj.

    • Dipanjan, to repeat myself — All India Radio hobar chance ta foshke gelo — khoma toh ami korei achhi, ba rather, khomar kichhu achhe, eta ami mone kori na. Tobe banan-fundamentalism er pechhone jei mentality ta achhe, sheitake khoma korte parlam na.

  6. Shubho Noboborsho to you too , my chomchom ( that by the way is my most favourite sweet so you should be homoured )

  7. I agree with your two main points. Diversity in transliteration standards and pronunciation variations are legitimate and should be welcome, not looked down upon. But I must admit internal inconsistency and non-existent variations bother me a bit. For example, going back to didi’s message, “antarik” bugs me a little as I am not aware of any variation where the first two vowels are pronounced the same. I am perfectly fine with aantorik, antorik, aantarik. antarik is a little painful. But I manage to overlook/excuse given how difficult it is to transliterate in any standard way.

    • Precisely. I am lax about my own transliteration standards, but I am deeply contemptuous of the inconsistencies of those that turn vigilante on others. But I’m beginning suspect my writing is losing its edge — I’m all too easily misunderstood these days 😦

  8. Her Loathsome Puissant Highness Khomota Banerjee probably meant “Antrik Shubheccha” judging from the petbyatha (I used the y here Su DChaudhuri 🙂 ) that everyone is getting in Calcutta

  9. More than anything else what she has achieved is reinforcing and vindicating age old attitudes and prejudices against the underclass. It is a disservice to those who are not at all like her, but will now be tarred by the same brush of opprobrium.I can see a hardening of attitudes already.

        • But of course. Most of just will eagerly grasp any excuse at all to go back to the prejudices we learned growing up, and it matters little if they are reinforced by someone trying her best to act like us.

        • You know, Rimi, no one believes in Father Christmas, or the tooth fairy, but no one disabuses a child of theses notions because of some solid reasons. He/ she grows up a complete person.Even if socialism does fall into the category of these beliefs, there is a reason why humanity should continue to believe, before we as a whole reach a certain maturity.

        • On a completely different note — or maybe not that different after all — someone I’ve just met (and whose company I rather enjoy — you would too) would be delighted to see you say Father Christmas. He is half American and half English, and deeply bothered by the cultural colonialism whereby “Happy Christmas!”, Father Christmas, mobile phones etc. are being replaced the world over by their American equivalents (“Merry Christmas”, Santa Claus, cell phone).

        • Oooh, very well said indeed! Tobe nokol holeo, it’s *our* nokol. The point of pride is not the authenticity, but territoriality. To illustrate the point: I just had a little biryani for lunch. Not a native to these parts, biryani. But we will defend our potatoe, meat and rice concoction from the advancing ‘authentic’ Lukcnow and Hyderabadi hoardes till kingdom come. The same goes for our territoriality towards English, the language 🙂

        • Which brings us straight back to Mamata. What would she be, without her one-point agenda to supplant the CPIM and attempt to appropriate its administrative approach?

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