Every other day a family member will chime in to ask me if I’m teaching Noah (my 14 month-old) Bengali the language and the culture. And every time I silently shake my head.
As if I am qualified enough to teach any language. As if culture is a thing that can be taught.
The answer to these questions however is a solid no. Don’t get me wrong, I am immensely proud of my heritage. I come from a clan of Muktijodhhas, anarchists, who fought and brought down the high and the mighty. I come from Dhaka – a city that was once the powerhouse of muslin production, borne the rules of the British, the Moguls, the Sena dynasty and has been one of the most prosperous cities of all eras. It stands strong and proud today with the Buriganga still flowing through its arteries.
But I’m not sure any of us living and breathing in 2020 remembers or embraces much of that legacy. I’m not sure about what this rich culture has been reduced to in the midst of its current insecurities and in keeping up with the phantom American-ized dream.
I’m not a nationalist. Call it an occupational hazard but my mind is not trained to see things through monofocal lenses. And the culture that I do see having survived does little to encourage me to feel otherwise.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the Bangali/Bengali culture? Close your eyes and think for a second. What immediately comes to my mind is disrespect. Disrespect that starts at the dinner table where hardly anyone sits anymore. When they do there are mobile phones that every individual feels obliged to use. There are tablets and more mobile phones that are shoved in the kids’ hands because let’s face it, nobody enjoys the company they keep. I see no love lost between parents and their kids and between the wives and the husbands. There is no love, no hand-holding, no kisses and no freedom to express one’s individuality. These qualities or lack thereof have become the primary prerequisites to be a Bengali. Am I willing to pass on the very things that have taken me a lifetime to unlearn? Hell no.
Every other day I get told how my little one does not behave like a typically demanding and disrespecting little Bengali brat. I don’t like to hear this because the truth behind it hurts. Because unlike the majority of Bengali families anywhere in the world, ours happen to be one where he is not growing up watching his mother, his closest next of kin, being subjected to all forms of disrespect and abuse from firstly the father, then his grandparents and then once outdoors, from the entire society at large. He is not growing up watching his mum being passively accepting of gross misconduct from all around. He is not growing up watching his mum’s internal struggles. This is not his norm or reality. And as long as I live, it won’t be.
During my recent visits to my city of birth, I have seen copious amounts of disrespect being thrown around with ease from the elders to the younglings and vice versa. There is a constant struggle in the air, like every person is involved in a never-ending scuffle with their neighbour, head-butting, sniping without a moment of peace. You only feel a force to comply and coercion. And I will be honest that I have been just as guilty for never speaking up against any of it, whether the disrespect was dished out towards me or bounced off around me, I put my head down and walked away, afraid to disturb whatever alliance I have left with the system. I found the philosophy of the three wise monkeys as the only coping mechanism there.
But now I’m afraid. I’m afraid of my next trip. Because I am no longer alone. My son is with me constantly, watching my every move. And my reaction to everything is his school, his biggest teacher in life. And I’m afraid I have to very respectfully decline the need to be respectful of most people. It is a battle I will no longer have a choice but to fight.
In the end if you ask if there isn’t a thing related to this culture worth preserving and passing on, then the answer is, oh yes. The long forgotten hospitality of the Bengalis, the fighting against massive odds, the resilience, the fagun hawa, rickshaw rides with the hood down, smell of the first rain, tong er cha and endless banter with the mama sitting inside the shack (assuming the role of the Bengali bar-shrink), the smell inside an old Chinese restaurant, mangoes, shutki bhorta, books from one of the most enriched literatures the world has ever known, poetry, Tagore, the ability to imagine and the language that is heartbreakingly mishti.
In other words, I cannot wait to pass on what it really means to be Bengali to me that has nothing to do with the current generation’s cultural coup.