The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 19, 2000
Speaking generally

Language as bridge
By Chanchal Sarkar

IT is quite foolish to disregard the strength of subnationalisms in a multicultural country like ours. The only thing to watch out for is to see that the various sub-nations are not separated by hate. A very interesting development in the two Bengals is their attraction to one another ,bonded by language.

February 21 is one of Bangladesh’s most memorable days. On that day in 1952, the Bengalis of the then East Pakistan rebelled against the imposition of Urdu in both wings of Pakistan. The agitation was remorselessly put down and several students lost their lives in the firing. Since then ,Ekushay has been the symbol of that country’s mother tongue.

Calcutta this year celebrated Ekushay with a night-long programme of speeches, poetry and songs. Here were two people coming very close through language. It has taken a good many years for this to happen because Muslim Bengal was always a little cautious about getting very near non-Muslim Bengal even after Liberation. Partly because there was the fear of getting swamped by the culture of the Hindu Bengalis who had gone in more for higher education, and partly the fear that if the two Bengals coalesced, the Muslim middle class would no longer have the advantages they have in East Bengal.

  It was very important to quell this anxiety and assert that, having good relations and being tied by language, is not the same as political union. Slowly but surely this is coming to pass. Ekushay in Calcutta had participants from Bangladesh.

Noticeable in West Bengal is a movement called Navajagaran (New Awakening). There is more than a tinge of emotion in it. Bengalis have begun to feel that they are aliens in their own land. Unemployment is rampant among them, much of the business and commerce is in the hands of others and most of the capital, Calcutta, as well. Along with this feeling of alienation is the nostalgia for the past when many of the most distinguished names in India were of Bengalis.

Newspapers are publishing detailed stories of Bengalis who have made it in industry, business and science. Some of them are Bengalis who have settled abroad in the Britain, Japan etc but quite a good number live in India. Their example, it is hoped, would drive Bengali youth to go in more for business and commerce. Both the results — of two people coming closer and of youth becoming more enterprising are very pleasing.

Burden of being Black

Perhaps the people most cruelly treated in the world have been the Blacks in America. Brought in like cattle from West Africa in ships which were hell-holes, then sold again like animals, to masters who treated them worse than animals by whipping them, who made them work without pay from before sunrise to well after sunset, kept them in iron shackles and collars, gave them no political rights,whose families were split if one slave had to be sent somewhere, were sexually assaulted, who could be killed if caught while escaping: whose education was forbidden — the list of cruelties is long and frightening.

The Blacks are, still today, strongly discriminated against persons in the United States but they have, by courage and sacrifice, won rights. One of the most beautiful and powerful books that Ihave ever seen is called The Face of Our Past:Images of Black Women from Colonial America to the Present. Looking into archives, libraries and collections, two women have put together this amazing book of 302 images with captions. This book speaks because the photographs are eloquent. From them one gets a feeling of knowing and admiring these wonderful women who resisted the inhuman burdens that White America imposed on them. Family life, work, religion and community, education, play, and inner life are some of the sections of the book. Nothing like this has ever been produced in India where too many of photographers go in for glossiness.

Pictures are indeed more powerful than print sometimes. I saw a film about slavery where an American went to Canada (which had no slavery) and there married the daughter of a very prosperous and respected Black citizen and his White wife. This groom collected a big dowry, brought his bride to America, and promptly sold her into slavery. The story of how she was forced into a life that she was totally unaccustomed to, the affection she got from fellow slaves, as well the sexual advances from her ‘master’ made an engrossing tale. A slave was not supposed to know how to read and write, so she could not even write a letter without being discovered. Somehow she did write and her parents came to rescue her — the father having to travel as the slave of his White wife!

Rescuing a slave was a very dangerous game, but, be it remembered, too, that there was an "Underground Railway",mainly organised by Whites and also Blacks who helped Blacks get free from the South of the United States. With their help the father, mother, the young woman and a Black slave whom she had come to love ran the gauntlet of armed pursuers and, with seconds to spare, got into a boat to row to freedom across a wide river.

This is only one story, but the book portrays hundreds such. As one reviewer has written "Each picture is a feature film, each caption is a novel".

Organisations that deserve praise

Newspaper readers and television watchers must have become familiar with the names of some international institutions: Amnesty International, for instance, Medecins sans Frontieres which won the Nobel Prize for Peace and Reporters sans Frontieres. These are three of the best-known but there are scores more working in famine, disease and war-ridden areas of the world. They are non-official bodies but are able to challenge governments and they are able to bring relief not only to the hungry and sick but also to those languishing in jails and subject to torture.

Such organisations make one proud of the human spirit. The founder of Medecins sans Frontieres was Bernard Kouchner who is now the UN Representative in Kosovo. The founder of Amnesty International (in 1961) was a British journalist called Peter Benenson. The present Secretary General of Amnesty International is a Black person, Pierre Sane. I wonder why this kind of transnational bodies have not emerged in India. It would give the country a great name and enlarge our image.