Birth matters. No one can be born in two places.
In the essay, "Englands of the Mind", Seamus Heaney registers the birthing role of place in the "interlacing and trellising of natural life and mythical life"; what a land does is to afford a man "nurture that he receives by living among his own". Bengal forms a similar geography of the mind. It received me among my own. But who were my own?
Growing up in Kolkata, I began to internalise the cultural tropes of Epaar Bangla and Opar Bangla, ghoti Bangla and bangal Bangla, Hindu Bangla and Muslim Bangla.
That was until I discovered Dupaar Bangla in Anindya Ghose.
I met Anindya (Suvo) at Calcutta Boys' School in 1973. Suvo was eight, I was 16. We adopted each other and became sibling companions. Travelling from my Park Circus to his New Barrackpore was like moving around an extended Bengali neighbourhood.
New Barrackpore had begun life as a refugee resettlement "colony" -- an awful word derived from the vocabulary of colonialism that had achieved the vindictive Partition of Bengal finally -- but had become a middle-class suburb of Kolkata by the time I met Suvo. Park Circus was an undifferentiated microcosm of the city, its existence scattered among the aspirational lives of anyone who could get there. Sealdah railway station was equidistant from Suvo's home and mine in travelling time. That is what mattered to two itinerant siblings.
Both of Suvo's parents had familial origins in Jessore, although their parents had left East Bengal before Partition. Suvo's parents did not view themselves as bangal -- indeed, Anindya supported Mohun Bagan and not East Bengal -- any more than I saw myself as a ghoti although my geographical provenance lay in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. We were where we were, in New Barrackpore and Park Circus, here and now. Epaar Bangla and Opaar Bangla met in Dupaar Bangla, an undivided Bangla of the remembered mind centred on Sealdah station.
Meshomoshai, Mashima and Suvo spoke the Santipuri Bangla which I did as well. They were Hindus in much the same way in which I was Muslim -- Bengali-speakers to whom others had attached a religious affiliation drawn from the accident of birth.
To say that religion did not matter would be wrong: It mattered precisely because it did not come in the way of anything else. After all, humans tend to have two hands and two feet, but no one introduces himself or herself by saying: "I have two hands and two feet." Humans do what they can with those appendages.
So for religion. There is no need to proclaim the fact of being Hindu or Muslim. Just get along with doing what needs to be done as humans. In the case of Bengalis, just be Bengalis. Birth is an accident: Culture is a lived choice.
Suvo, my little monkey, taught me to be a Bengali by climbing up this dada's tree. A vociferous reader of every book that he could lay his growing hands on, and there were many in his intellectual household, he went on to study Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University.
The visceral honesty of his political activism at university won him such admiring followers that, on a flight from Singapore to India many years later, a Bengali flight hostess who had studied at the university took me to be an unacknowledged socialist as well because of my vicarious claim to Suvo's fame.
I declined the honour, and she returned to her work with a defeated smile. Not all dadas can be like their little brothers, she must have sighed.
Suvo proceeded to a life in the media. At Alpha TV Bangla (now Zee Bangla), his work included developing a film package of seven romantic films that revolved around Kalidasa's Meghdoot. There were film packages for Robi Thakur and Satyajit Ray as well. He also developed blueprints for televised events such as Ilishe Parbon and Poush Parbon which became milestones of Bengali television programming. They were informed emotionally and visually by an instinctive understanding of the role of the Bengali language in the psychological and cultural reflexes of the Bengali people. They live in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.
In spite of a visit to Dhaka, opportunities for collaboration with media channels across the border came to nothing unfortunately.
Never mind. Life continues in Dupaar Bangla. Anindya, his wife Paramita, and their teenage daughter Pratiti continue their engagement with Dupaar Bangla across all parochial divides. (Paramita, whose father's family hails from Mymensingh, and Pratiti support East Bengal, pitting themselves against Mohun Bagan's Anindya.) The moral intensity with which Pratiti in particular argues the case for anything makes her the quintessential internationalist, but internationalism has to start somewhere. It starts in the nation within which lies the city, within which lies the locality, within which lies the home.
For the Ghose family, home is still New Barrackpore. I live in Singapore. Yet, I cannot even begin to think of Bangladesh, its considerable achievements and its challenges today, without remembering a wide-eyed little boy at whom I had smiled in a Calcutta school one foregone day.
It was an incomplete Epaar Bangla smiling at a startled Opaar Bangla. When Suvo smiled back at me, he bridged the putative divide with the promise of Dupaar Bangla.
May that Bangla exist forever. I cannot afford to lose the only Bangla I know and have.
Asad Latif is a Singapore journalist. He graduated with Honours in English from Presidency College, Kolkata, and read History for his Master of Letters degree at Cambridge, where he was a Chevening scholar. He was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Harvard and, earlier, a Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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