“Say their name. Start there,” said President Dalton, a character in the popular American television series, Madam Secretary. In this fictitious story, the president encouraged the leader of Myanmar to recognise a faction of its citizens, the Rohingya. In various parts of the episode which aired in 2018, the terms Rohingya and Bengali seemed to be interchangeable. Dismissing this misnomer as artistes exercising their creative licence, we thought nothing more of this.
It all came back to us recently when our thoughts took a somewhat alarming turn upon reading the newspaper report, ‘Muslims, Hindus sidelined in election’.1 Although our hearts went out to the hardships and challenges faced by the marginalised in Myanmar, we zoomed in on the fact that the term ‘Bengali’ is now a pejorative one normally used to refer to the persecuted Rohingya, and that Muslims across Myanmar were being coerced into adopting ‘Bengali’ as an identity.
For reasons that will become clear, we will admit that our initial instinct was to vociferously defend the erroneous use of this term. This was soon tempered by an overriding need, instead, to first understand the actual import of the article and then set right the misconception surrounding the term ‘Bengali’. This also arises from our vested interests at being referred to as ‘Bengali’ all our lives.
For example, during our discussion, one commented that, “Even those who guess my family’s origins refuse to accept it. Some ask if my mother’s Chinese. Now, I just accept being Bengali. Much easier.” When the other was once asked, “You not Indian? You Shah Rukh Khan?” she didn’t give in to the temptation to reply, “No, I Kajol”.
We will, therefore, humbly ask that we be allowed to showcase why it is of utmost importance that the term ‘Bengali’ be treated with respect and dignity, instead.
For a start, the word ‘Bengal’ is believed to be derived from a tribe called Bang that settled in modern-day East Bengal around the year 1000 BCE. Although the Bengali people are its dominant ethnolinguistic tribe, the region has been a historical melting point, blending indigenous traditions with cosmopolitan influences from pan-Indian subcontinental empires.2
Its language, Bengali, is spoken by more than 210 million people – 100 million of them in Bangladesh, 85 million in India (primarily in the states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura) and a sizeable number of immigrant communities in the UK, US and the Middle East.3
In fact, towards the end of the last millennium, the Bangladeshis started an initiative to honour their language. As a result, on 17 November 1999, UNESCO formally recognised International Mother Language Day as a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and to promote multilingualism.4
With what veers on an obsession in the arts, almost, it is no surprise that Bengalis are some of its most illustrious proponents, advocates and supporters. Through their works, they have changed the course of world history and left indelible marks in their chosen fields.
In 2016, during a visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi announced the renaming of the Indian Cultural Centre in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre. This was to honour the Indian nationalist whose defiant patriotism made him a hero in India. However, during World War II, Netaji’s attempt to rid India of British rule resulted in an unresolved mystery surrounding his disappearance and death.
An earlier protest against British rule (and in this case, cruelty) was by yet another Bengali – Rabindranath Tagore. He renounced the award of a knighthood by King George V as a response to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab. The world still celebrates this Nobel Laureate’s works, the most famous of which is his collection of poems, Gitanjali.
The other Bengali Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, is an alumnus of the learning institution that Tagore is credited to have founded, Shantiniketan, as is Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India.
We cannot help but include the penmanship of Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri whose literary works are not only read, but studied and researched in academic circles.
A spectacular collision between spirituality and literature occurred in mid-20th century with the publication a seminal classic, Autobiography of a Yogi by the son of Bengal, Paramahansa Yogananda. It is widely reported that when Steve Jobs died, those who attended his funeral were each given the gift of this book.
Paramahansa Yogananda’s brother in the most ancient order of monks and fellow Bengali, Swami Vivekananda, gave a speech at the First World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA in 1893. The words he uttered then resonate now more than ever:
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization [sic.] and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.”5
One of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, Satyajit Ray, was an illustrator and writer. His creative genius added flavour and finesse to celluloid technique and style. Still on the topic of films and closer to the times, Bollywood actresses like Sushmita Sen and Rani Mukherjee continue to be the favourites of many moviegoers.
There is no doubt that the world of music would be quieter had there not been Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar music he created touched souls and influenced many other musicians throughout the world in the latter half of the 20th century.
From the few people mentioned above, it is clear that the term ‘Bengali’ is weighted with the gravitas of a people with a glorious history and heritage. To say it, but view it in any other way would be unjustified and uncouth, to say the least.
- Muslims, Hindus sidelined in election. (2020, August 29). The Star. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.thestar.com.my/aseanplus/aseanplus-news/2020/08/29/muslims-hindus-sidelined-in-election
- (n.d.). Bengal. Https://En.Wikipedia.Org/Wiki/Bengal. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Bengali Language. Britannica. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bengali-language
- (n.d.). International Mother Language Day. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Mother_Language_Day. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Mother_Language_Day
- SAHU, S. N. (2020, August 5). Babri Masjid demolition. The Citizen. https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/4/19154/Sectarianism-Bigotry-and-its-Horrible-Descendant-Fanaticism-Have-Possessed-This-Earth—Swami-Vivekanand
Dr. Swagata Sinha Roy is Assistant Professor of English and co-organiser of the Paperback Book Club, Kuala Lumpur who likes to read Bengali books and their English translations to understand how words and nuances stay true to the original content. Aneeta Sundararaj is a writer who regards the now worn-out copy of Autobiography of a Yogi she received as a birthday gift many years ago as a family heirloom.