There aren’t many better examples of India’s diverse culture than its linguistic diversity. The country is home to 780 languages with over 120 of them holding the ‘official’ status. But the other side of the story is that India currently heads the list of UNESCO’s world’s languages in danger. The constitution, in its eighth schedule, lists 22 languages as the official regional languages in the country. This series of articles is an attempt to focus on these 22 languages, their pasts and present, and cherish our linguistic diversity. After discussing AssameseBodoKashmiri and Konkani in the previous write-up, today, we shift our focus towards Bengali.

by Nilanjana Sengupta
Myanmar1Last night I returned to Singapore after spending a few days in Myanmar. I had gone expecting to find a country basking in the golden glow of post-election euphoria with perhaps red and yellow NLD banners festooned across city streets. Instead, both Yangon and Mandalay appeared strangely sterilised, scrubbed clean of any remaining signs of the election. And there was a palpable sense of nervous waiting, almost as if the country hung on the edge of a cliff. When I congratulated a friend on the election victory, she merely nodded and looked away, allowing an uncomfortable silence to hang between us and when I asked another if Daw Suu had visited Mandalay for campaigning he hurriedly replied, “No, no she didn’t have to” and changed the topic. I realised the election was a subject best left un-broached: there was too much at stake, too many years of hopes and dreams impossible to be articulated in a few words.
I could not help but think of yet another period of strange interregnum documented by so many Burmese authors – the period between around mid-August to 18 September 1988. That had been immediately after the nation-wide general strike of 8 August 1988 or shit lay-lon. On 12 August 1988 the hardliner Sein Lwin had stepped down and the more moderate academic, Dr Maung Maung had taken over and what had followed was a brief period of free press even as the nation waited for a transfer of power and a multi-party democracy. Ludu Daw Amar, one of the most revered writers of Myanmar was 73 years old then and had picked up her journalist’s pen after some twenty odd years. Gathering the scattered team of the Ludu publishing house around her and accompanied by her youngest son, Nyi Pu Lay, she had started a daily paper called 8888. In the paper her team reported on the mass movement raging across the country, of the student leader Min Ko Naing’s speeches at Yangon, of the broadcast schedules of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches which were to be aired at the Win Light Cinema of Mandalay. But it was Daw Amar who wrote the editorials for 8888. The inhabitants of Mandalay, long starved of her political writing on Burma, readily recognised her style. At that time Daw Amar had written of the need of the Burmese people to stand firm in their convictions and stand united – both the Burmese and the ethnic communities together. In her characteristic way she had drawn an analogy from the jataka tales, writing of the bodhisattva quail that helped a whole flock of quails escape the hunter’s net by advising them to fly in unison. I wished for her presence in this stressful time as well, so sustenance could be drawn from the strength of her voice.

Nilanjana Sengupta

angsuukyiExactly twenty years back Aung San Suu Kyi was released from the first of her house arrests and on 4 October 1995 went to visit the revered U Vinaya’s* monastery in the Kayin State – her first journey outside Yangon in six years.

She wrote of the journey with some lyricism in a couple of pieces titled, The Road to Thamanya – narratives which are rich with the fragrance of long-awaited freedom and the suppressed excitement of a child setting off on an adventure. The deep sense of connection she feels with the Burmese countryside is evident as she describes white stupas wreathed in morning mist and bamboo fences with their delicate frieze of flowering vines. Everything appears magical in the early morning light and the discomfort of travelling in a car in an “indifferent state of repair” cannot dampen her spirits – despite the car radio unceremoniously falling off and the first-aid box, firmly ensconced at the back, suddenly found nestling by her feet!

As she passes through the smaller townships of the Mon State there is a distinct softening of her tone as she describes the NLD offices, modest huts perched on slender bamboo poles, “These [NLD] signboards, brilliantly red and white, are a symbol of the courage of people who have remained dedicated to their beliefs in the face of severe repression, whose commitment to democracy has not been shaken by the adversities they have experienced. The thought that such people are to be found all over Burma lifted my heart…”

 

By Isa Kamari

  1. The Myth of the Lazy Native

Isa KamariIn 1966, the sociologist and researcher Syed Hussein Alatas began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of Maritime Southeast Asia to be generally lazy. His research eventually produced The Myth of the Lazy Native, a book which was published in 1977. In the book, he cited one instance of a “denigrating” view of the natives, when a German scientist suggested that the Filipinos made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: “If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labour of rowing must necessarily be suspended till they are mended again.” Syed Hussein criticised such beliefs in the book as ranging “from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship.” He also asserted that “[t]he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress”.

Syed Hussein wrote and published another book in 1971, Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. It is an account of Raffles’ political philosophy and its relation to the massacre of Palembang, the Banjarmasin affair, and some of his views and legislations, during his colonial career in Java, Sumatra, and Singapore.

Let us see whether such notion or image of Malays persists in post-colonial Singapore and whether Raffles’ scheming and colonial policies have planted and entrenched the myth in the lives of the Singapore Malays till today.

  1. The Malay Problem – Definition

At this juncture, I would like to introduce to you the phenomenon of the ‘Malay Problem’.

Malays who are a minority in Singapore poses a strong challenge to the Singapore Government. It is a fact that in the development of Singapore history, Malays are relatively backward in the economic, social and political spheres. As an under-privileged lot in a country dominated by the majority Chinese who are aggressive in the economic field and who are agile and resilient in the modernization process, the presence of Malays poses complex challenges and instil tension in inter-racial relations (Betts, 1975). This phenomenon has been rightly or wrongly called the ‘Malay Problem.’

Amitava_KumarWhen I was promoted to the rank of professor, the library at the university where I was then employed asked me to send them the name of a book that had been useful to me in my career. I chose VS Naipaul’s Finding the Center. The library then purchased a copy, which was duly displayed in one of its rooms, with a statement I had written about the book:

This was one of the first literary autobiographies that I read. Its very first sentence established in my mind the idea of writing as an opening in time or a beginning; it conveyed to me, with its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving, and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.”

By Rheea Mukherjee

In 2012, I had a fabulous poet and social activist stay with us at home, with her two kids. She was African-Canadian and had a tremendous sense of style. Walking the streets of Bangalore, she would get the inevitable stares: some curious, some awed; and some expressions were inscrutable.  Her two very young children had big hair. One had dreads, and the other, a giant bush that adorned his round face.

Once, Shanti, my house help at the time, was cutting vegetables in the kitchen. One of the boys popped out of the bedroom and walked into the kitchen. She looked at him and shrieked. Yes, she quite literally screamed in terror, then stood, frozen until I went up to her and looked at her in astonished embarrassment.

“I got so scared, I have never seen anyone who looks like this.”

Craft and literary talent mean nothing without global insight, argues Kitaab’s Blogs Editor Rheea Mukherjee in this essay, her response to Jennifer Sinor’s  One Hundred Days in India.

Rheea MukherjeeThe second paragraph of Jennifer Sinor’s short lyrical essay, “One Hundred Days in India,” reads:

“As we exited the airport, we watched the slums of Mumbai unroll for miles in all directions. Each home, constructed from cardboard, tarps, and corrugated metal, held the other homes up, so they leaned like brothers in the sun.”

This inevitable brush with slum-romanticizing could be forgiven if the essay evolved into more textured passages.  I can appreciate a perception of poverty as one layer, but then I expect other layers to fold and produce literary origami.  What does good place writing do?  I say It should say something about the larger world, collide cultures, shake them apart, ring out archaic notions, and soak the reader with an original perspective. ”One Hundred Days in India,” published in Brevity magazine, poetically describes memories in intimate scenes.