A Literary Journey: The Two Bengals

An excited buzzing is palpable on this bright morning at Oxford Bookstore; the volunteers are running around; the guests are arriving one by one; the cameras are going off repeatedly. All of this can mean only one thing: the Apeejay Kolkata Bangla Sahitya Utsab is about to begin.

RJ Roy’s booming voice gets the proceedings going. The director of Oxford Bookstore, Maina Bhagat, welcomes us, speakers, listeners, nervous bloggers and all, and the inauguration is over in a blaze of lamplight and annoyed photographers’ yelling. The guests, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar, Shankha Ghosh, Imdadul Haq Milon and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, all titans of Bengali literature, along with the Deputy High Commissioner of Bangladesh, laud the efforts of the team behind the fest and welcome the unique endeavour to focus the spotlight on the perhaps increasingly under-appreciated literature of Bengal. The first session begins. 
The topic under debate, translated to English under the imperatives of the post-colonial world we live in, is “The Two Bengals: Is the Language of Bengali Literature Changing?” The effect of borders on language, and its literary produce, is evocatively brought up. The venerable Mr Samaresh Majumdar opens the discussion. 

Mr Majumdar narrates a moving personal experience: his acquaintances, from as far apart as Bangladesh and Brisbane, have called him up about this festival, expressing interest and regret in not being able to attend it. He points out the fluidity of borders in our world of social media, while welcoming the evolution and fusion that borders bring about in language. He brings up amusing quirks of the Bengali language from across the border, the ones that we, the West Bengalis, are unused to hearing.  He points out that although the languages might differ, the heart must be undivided. Thunderous applause follows. 

Imdadul Haq Milon, novelist and editor from across the borders, agrees. He speaks from a novelists’s point of view: language may differ from character to character, situation to situation, location to location and even sentence to sentence, depending on the temporal and thematic context of the writing. Language may change due to movements within society; the freedom movements of India and Bangladesh and the upheaval this caused in the Bengali language. Unusual words help to establish the atmosphere and make the characters, and in turn the novel, more authentic. Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, one of the most well-known and prolific Bengali writers, in his turn, speaks from the word-lovers’ point of view. 

A word contains a memory, he says, a feeling. Each word you put down, and each word you string after it, creates a unique life of its own. He feels like an adventurer, like a person making a discovery, every time he hears a new word and every time he uses it. The aim, says Mr Mukhopadhyay, is to avoid a pattern, and the drabness that becomes associated with predictability. The solution for a writer is to listen, he says, to the everyday words of every person one encounters. He speaks of the words lovingly, and I’m here jumping in my seat, because I know, or at least feel like I know, what he means. That childhood love of word-games and reading, of finding a new word and learning it, is an old and familiar excitement that is indescribable in words. The audience participation begins.

Perhaps the real success of the Apeejay Bangla Sahitya Utsav lies in the lit-up face of the audience as they ask their questions. The love that they have, and we share, for the first language we learnt to speak and think and feel in, manifests in the quiver in their voices and the glow of their smiles. We discuss the truth of the assimilation of languages that keeps every language current, dynamic and healthy, and cackle with Mr. Mukhopadhyay about the fact that no change on earth can possibly take out the Bengali-ness of the Bengali , no matter when or where they are (maach-bhaat for the win!), and the session closes amidst laughter and a storm of applause. 

This post was written for the Apeejay Bangla Sahityo Utshob, part of the series called “A Literary Journey”. 
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