Speaking 'Spoken English' in Bangladesh
A joke goes about our circle of friends. A 'khyat' (translation follows as you go on) returns from England in a state of culture shock. Nudity, obscenity, loose morality, premarital sex, post marital infidelity, violence in disproportionate proportions have laid waste to his sense of 'values'. 'However the greatest thing about England' he allegedly tells one of our friend 'the average man in the street is very educated and cultured - they all speak fluent English!'
Those were the days of bellbottoms and tight tee shirts, which we wore, tucked in - for no other reason but just to showoff a 2 inches thick monstrosity around our waist called 'broad belts'. Boys and girls wore 'platform heel' shoes - which were literally covered with the pants bottom. You could add atleast four more inches to your height. The 'flares' or as the bottoms were called, could be 40 inches and your thighs as tight as you wanted them to be.
My friends and I had one other thing in common. We speak most of the time, which was all the time: in English. It was a fashionable snobbery we indulged, as speaking anything, but the Queens language decided whether you were with the 'in' or 'out' crowd. We spoke with an American twang. We were always 'in' with our English jargons and appropriate mannerism. You did not say 'cool' in those days, you were 'hep', you did not smoke a cigarette - you 'fagged', and you did not 'party' like they say it these days, you went to 'mixed parities' - where girls and boys sort of 'mixed'.
The 'mixed parties' were really daytime affairs. The venue would usually be a friend's house, their parents 'conveniently' absent or 'abroad'. We covered thick curtains or stuck black papers to all the windows in a bid to blacken and smother mother sun out to bring in a 'synthesized night' when it was like three in the afternoon! In comparison, 'parties' of today are vibrant dusk to dawn affairs.
We danced with ceiling, pedestal fans and music systems (the term 'turntable' and 'tape deck' had just entered popular usage replacing record, cassette players) on full blast. Very few people had A/C in their houses like they do today: unless they were filthy rich (we avoided them) so that, when we danced cheek to cheek, we were not having a 'close' dance or 'dirty dancing' as is referred today, we were 'sweating into each other'!
And ofcourse, we all spoke in English!
The year was a turning point in my life. For my fashionable friends and me the students of Arts College looked ...well almost like us. To be dressed otherwise was to be termed 'khyat' - literally 'paddy field' translated to mean rural, rustic, peasant stock, and village like - backward. One more year in college, and then - where? I have an artistic bent of mind or so I thought. The Institute of Fine Arts or popularly called, Arts College beckoned me, but the future - what does it hold for me?
Somebody asked me to 'go check out the Arts College. My friend Yasmin Moni Lashkar's eldest sister my most affectionate Nurun Nahar Lashkar (Papa bu for me ) was convinced that I could make 'something' out of the bum I was, by evaluating the random psychedelic painting I had done in my room. She volunteered to let me 'get a hang of the place' and asked me to come over the next Saturday, at eleven in the morning and to behave.
"Allaher Kosom bubu" I said.
I went over appropriately attired - and found a ravishing beauty coming my way. Wow, she was our kind, her dress said it all. ' Ahem?..Excuse me, I am looking for Nurun Nahar apa of the second year, can you help me find her?'
A very simple sentence, which I articulated as carefully as possible, and hurled at the 'hep gal', spiced with the twangiest American accent I could muster. I had to impress her.
She looked devastated and smiled wryly, exclaiming in pure Bangla - "Amee apnar ekta kothao bujhlaam na - Banglai kee bolben?"
My ego and pride both took a thud on the face. Good God, this one is a 'khyat'? I got around finding Papa bu, and met more of the 'out' lot dressed up like the most fashionable 'in' lot in town, who were no one else but 'us'; No English? Unreal.
Papu bu later put me through one of her lovable lectures - "Dekho Maqsood shob jaigai oto Ingraji fotor fotor korbaynaa - Bangla tao khub RICh bhasha".
My dreams of becoming the Picasso of Bangladesh died the same evening!
I join the University of Dhaka (bombastically dubbed Oxford of the East!) in the Department of English. My friends join equally fashionable departments: International Relations (IR), Management, Finance, and Business Administration - however English remains our lingua franca. I join the band Feedback in Hotel Intercontinental as the lead vocalist - my reputation of being 'hep' gathers further momentum!
I finish my Honors examination and start hunting for a job. The WANTED column advertises jobs for people with 'experience'. I have no proverbial maternal or paternal uncle to help me! I am on the verge of giving up when friends shock me by saying, 'don't worry about experience, you can speak fluent English - you can always apply'.
Taking their timely advice, one afternoon I walk into a Travel Agency looking for Sales Executives, where I lay on my 'twang' on the Sylhetise speaking boss.
An hour later, I walk out with an appointment letter - Takas one thousand to start with - and lunch and tea on the house. A lot of money and perk in those days guys!
I meet this strange guy going back to the UK. When I ask him what he does for a living - he tells me he is a banker? There was an LTI (Left Thumb Impression) in place of the signature in his passport and I could tell that this guy was lying - I was also responsible to check for fraudulent travel documents - so I begin to question him closely.
He senses my apprehension and goes on a comic defensive. 'Ah - I don't like really 'work' in a bank, but I have to go there every week to deposit all that I earn as unemployment benefit. Believe me, I have experience that can be any bankers envy!' - he chortles. It was heavily accented with the Sylhetise dialect - but you guessed right it was English that he spoke - so I write him out his British Airways ticket to London and ta ta !!
A brave Bileti Bekaar - bit hell do I care - he speaks English, that is important for me!!!
I meet this smashing young lady at a party in Baridhara, who tells me that she has known me for years. Now this is a bizarre situation as I have my wife for company, who I thought knew most everything that she needed to know, about my well not so 'checkered past' as a bachelor!
I wreck my brains trying to recollect without luck. A second clue - we went to school together - Shahin School? Good grief - more trouble I still can't figure out. I apologize profusely for my blurred memory but still no luck. A while later I realize that this is good old Halima who went away to the States with her parents in 1976.
She is a fabulously 'brand new person' (straightened her slanted eye as also her curly hair!) - and has a brand new, very foreign sounding Bengalee name: MALIHA!!!
Phew! I breathe easy.
I am at the Head Office of Biman Bangladesh Airlines in the room of my friend Yousuf Ali, then the District Manager - Dhaka. There is tension in the air as shocking news comes in. Pilots and ground handlers at the Airport have gone all out and had a rollicking fisticuff.
Now the literal 'punch line'.
An 'Ingraji gaali (English expletive) leads to an altercation and a 'punch-up' brings all operations of the national carrier to a grinding HALT. No flights coming in our going out. Those already in the ground do not have stairs for the passengers to disembark etc etc.
It seem a pilot not getting the better out of a ground handler, used the 'Ingraji gaali' IDIOT, meaning as the Dictionary states 'a person too deficient in mind to be capable of rational conduct' - and that was it!
High-level management intervention defuses the situation. Peculiar but true - Bengalees react violently if 'Ingraji gaali' is used.
Yousuf asks me to take a lesson and warns me; "Mac never in your life use English words like Stupid, Nonsense or IDIOT if ever you are in an argument with a Bengalee. Use a proper 'your mothers so and so?' or your 'sisters so and so' etc in proper, proper, Bangla - never in ENGLISH, now do you understand" - he exasperatedly barks at me!!
'Yes Boss' I nod and leave! The wisest counsel I could have ever had, as times would teach me.
It is 10:30 a.m. in the morning and Dilkusha Commercial Area (where I then had my office) - has a treat. Everybody stares at members of a heavy metal band who walk in to meet me - ostensibly about a concert they were organizing where I am one of the participants.
Smart young men - they are dressed in a veritable mix of John Bon Jovi, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Mettalica, G&R etc. They wear leather in summer and chains, sport unshaven faces, shoulder length hair, belts with studs, dirty high boots and bandanas, and smell of after shave and cannabis. They also wear an ATTITUDE - which is okay with me.
I enjoy talking to them which reminds me of my non-conformist 'hippie days' of the mid seventies. But wait a minute - they speak a Bangla, which is quite foreign sounding but then intelligible.
I notice a 'twang' in the way the sentences are phrased. Hey, I tell myself, the landscape of Bangladesh has gone through immense changes - this 'sounds' like the tip of the new 'soundscape'! So much the better - but there is one small problem that bugs me?
While they could talk in details about their heroes, down to the minutest details of Joe Satriani's guitar 'licks and riffs' and also sing - in well, tolerable English. their language of preference however is this new foreign sounding Bangla - not English! I am more than slightly disappointed.
A candle that burns twice as bright extinguishes just as fast.
Zafar Iqbal (R.I.P) movie actor and 'star' extra ordinary, former rock guitarist and lead vocalist in the late sixties band at Hotel Intercontinental -- "Time A Go Motion" which later became "Rambling Stones", departs from planet earth quite suddenly. He was a hero who could transcend generations and while he was my eldest brother Mahmoodul Haque's friend - he was also mine, down to dirty talking, smoking cigarretes and pot - and hard drinking.
A restless yet wonderful soul, he was ladies heart throb and gents heart burn, with a life long penchant for the theatrics in his 'real life'. He lived his life - as he acted and it was only natural that he became anxious when I told him casually one day that I had never witnessed a film being shot on location or at a studio. He promptly summoned his secretary who looked up the 'stars' appointment book and announced that indeed two-day later was to be the 'muhurat' of a film.
Now the nuts and bolts.
The location was a stately suburban mansion with a huge green lawn behind the shooting range in Gulshan - not a regular studio. A 'muhurat' for the uninitiated with the 'filmy' world is an occasion where the first shots of a film are shot, and the first clap stick 'clapped'! It calls for raucous celebrations with an assortment of cinema crew, hero, heroines, 'junior artist' (extras), sycophants (chumchaz), make-up artists, lightman, cameraman, the press and a human species mysteriously called 'PRODUCTION".
Anyone who was in anyway remotely connected to the incumbent film was there. Sprinkled into this masala or salad are fans, producers, their relatives, and relatives of relatives and so forth.
'Lights', 'Camera rolling and ACTION' - the demure Babita appears from nowhere, and does her bit. A fly pesters in from somewhere destroying the perfect frame the director had composed. He flies into a rage screaming 'PRODUCTION' as two helpless souls go at the fly with a can of repellant. 'Madam' as the crew reverently refers to Babita, remains unperturbed and prepares for her shot again.
The second time around a pretty little girl with a neatly tied hair bun lunges on to Babita and the frame, red rose in one hand and an autograph book on the other. 'PRODUCTION' somebody shouted, and immediately a petty fellow in a petty uniform of a policeman, promptly took charge of public order. A third attempt was made and aborted for some technicality.
Time for a break and I again heard someone screaming 'PRODUCTION' and bottles of cold drinks hot tea, samosas, singaras etc materialized from thin air. Make-up artists were furiously at work on the face of the 'Boss' as Zafar Iqbal was lovingly called. As I stepped in he gave me a bear hug which was so typical of him and made me feel more than a little important. He began introducing me to his friends, colleagues and important people in the movie business. However something did strike me as very peculiar. The 'Boss' was jabbering continuously in English - not that there was anything wrong with his English, (he spoke it perfectly -- almost to a fault) the problem was he was talking literally with 'everybody' in the Queens language.
I was convinced that other than a handful, nobody understood him, yet 'everybody' nodded their heads 'yes,yes'yes' or no'no'no' and there were some weird cats who interjected 'ofcourse, ofcourse, ofcourse'. The least interested just smiled or betrayed a blank expression: LOST!
Zafar Iqbal's English was progressively beginning to annoy me - so I pulled him aside and asked him somewhat irreverently - 'what the hell is going on…why aren't you speaking in Bangla Boss?'
With a look of shock writ large on his face, he told me ever so politely -'boy don't you realize, that 'this lot' will respect you, consider you 'hep' or 'mod' (read fashionable) only if you speak in English? Don't you realize what power you wield with the English language? Now come on don't be silly - and don't you utter a word of Bangla around me while you are here'.
I didn't have much of a choice!
Having made his dramatic monologue, he went ahead with his shot with Babita, which was thankfully perfect this time around. Before disappearing into the wintry night - 'Madam' did her bits in English with the 'Boss. 'See you', 'good-night', 'ta,ta' followed with BYEEEEE!!
Everybody present CLAPPED hard and long?
As the evening wore on the sycophants warmed up to Zafar Iqbal who was ofcourse 'addafying' (to use his expression) in English! Six Heineken later, I bade farewell. In parting he said 'take care my man, stay and play safe - will you'.
Everybody present CLAPPED hard and long?
Out at the portico I overheard the 'PRODUCTION" lads talking among themselves of how 'educated and cultured ' the BOSS was and what impeccable English he spoke. Since I was the 'bosses' friend and could communicate with such ease with him, they thought I must be equally 'educated and cultured', they wondered aloud - and I was well…….PLEASED!
Little did I know that would be my last meeting with Zafar Bhai. His last words in his dying hours to doctors attending him were also in English! A hapless, helpless, 'I love you doc, you've tried your best' followed by ---'can I have one last BEER?'
An open-air rock concert at the RAOWA club where a rookie band is making its debut. The object of curiosity, their Bengalee lead singer who has come in all the way from the 'U S of A'. He is a head banging rockers who jumps on stage, grabs the nearest microphone and screams 'F*** Ya all' in English, I repeat in English? He gesticulates with his middle finger raised upward and demonstrates what he calls, his 'cool attitude'. The motley crowd of six thousand or so reacts violently to his 'ingraji gaali'!!
The show ends in a pandemonium and a mob starts chasing our debutante with chairs, sticks and, Lord behold those very, very embarrassing bamboo's!! On duty Police at the very last minute extricate him to safety - otherwise rock in Bangladesh would definitely have had its first martyr that fateful evening!
The message sent loud and clear to the rock fraternity - English songs are passe in that the audience has no clue about the lyrics being 'screamed over' as they do not know more than the name of the cover artist being 'covered' - but replicating 'Ingraji gaalis' ala Axle Rose is still a far away thing in Bangladesh!!
Brave attempt nonetheless.
A pesky journalist from a vernacular daily questions me as to why all Bangladeshi bands have these English names - while they all have songs in the Bangla language? Being a singer for a English sounding band, I reply tongue in cheek, that very few bands with Bangla names have survived like us for eighteen years.
'Why' - he presses on, hoping that I would 'intellectualize'. I engage in some Bangla verbosity and tell him - 'I believe we Bengalees as a race have this foreign fixation, and anything foreign sounding is more acceptable to us than others. Anybody that has English name affixed to his band or his name is expected to be - well 'hep' 'cool' etc and his standards are judged accordingly'.
The journalist is disappointed with my answers - but knows I am telling him the truth.
Two students from the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation tourism school are assigned to a familiarization course in the office I work. I am to train them? The male student has a neatly tied knot on his business like shirt and blue dress trousers - there is however no trace of intelligence in his face! His two toned pair of shoes shine to a sparkle. The frame on his eye is Christian Dior (?)- and he gives me an over dressed complex. The female student wears an exquisitely motiffed Pakistani dress - she looks horrid.
The male does most of the talking - which is in outrageous English, which I digest for about ten minutes before reacting. I ask the two of them if they would prefer to speak in Bangla with me - because my English is unfortunately not 'as good' as theirs! 'No, no, no' the male blurts out - our instructions are, always, always speak in English - twenty-four hours if necessary'.
Their instructor in the school is a foreigner, and it is the local teachers in a bid to make their jobs easier are the ones it seems - given them the 'local instruction - SHUN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE'.
They were wasting my time and I insisted that I speak to them in Bangla, and understanding their limitations, I could well figure out that they would never ever pass a written English test. I wanted them to understand everything that I was teaching them while they were my 'students' - exhausted as it was; teaching them in English during office hours and retranslating into Bangla during lunch break or after office.
Dinner at a suburban Chinese restaurant, where the ambience is mellow and the food delicious. The stewardesses are extremely polite and helpful - only problem - they speak in English - even when what you have to ask is in Bangla! I ask the one taking my order if she is a foreigner - to which she reacts with a dumbfound expression 'no no Sir, I am a Bengalee' was her proud answer in English!
My next question freezes her. 'Can I have your permission to speak to you in Bangla please?' 'By all means Sir, after all we are all Bengalees' was her answer, again in English. I ask her as to why she has to continuously jabber in English.
The blunt answer again in English 'Sir, customers have a very low impression and often question the standard of any restaurant where stewards or stewardesses do not speak in English. Management instruction's SIR - please do not mind'.
I slurp on my soup and think about the bill.
First published October 23 1994