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To Speak Or Not To Speak Sylheti

To Speak Or Not To Speak Sylheti


That was the dilemma that our narrator faced while residing in Kolkata – for her new home rendered her an outsider – for speaking her language, Sylheti

By Suranjana Choudhury

“So you are from Bangladesh!”
“No, I am an Indian.”
“Oh! Then you must be an Assamese?”
To which I would respond firmly, “Yes, from Assam. I am a Bengali.”

This answer would be met with a pronounced tone of incredulity from the other end. These are the past snatches of conversations of which I was an unwilling participant during my long stay in the city of Calcutta. This would be invariably the conclusive round of queries each time I completed telephonic exchanges with my family and friends back home while moving around in public vehicles.

A city which was otherwise full of warmth, hospitality and exuberance asked me such questions quite often. I experienced annoyance, unhappiness. Most often I delivered an unpleasant look at the person who asked me such undesirable questions. Sometimes when I was in a more charitable mood, I would explain/deliberate on my stance as a Bengali who chose to speak a different variety of Bengali.

I grew up speaking Sylheti, I didn’t have to labour to learn it. In my newly acquired home, my tongue rendered me an outsider, it decentred me. I gathered they would never know what it meant to live outside. I remember an amusing episode which forms a comical constituent of familial anecdotes. It is about a distant family member who resisted speaking the variety of Bangla spoken in Calcutta, he rather resorted to sign language in his communications with shopkeepers and other everyday functional circles. That was some  activism.

Back home in Barak valley, the situation is curiously bizarre. In refined polite societies and in public spaces, Sylheti is very often fiercely disowned by the native groups. Holy Cross, my school, was no exception.

Language was immersed in a gendered matrix. I realised it on hindsight. Outside classrooms or in tuition classes, whenever we lapsed into our mother language, boys inevitably embraced Sylheti as the preferred spoken language whereas girls measuredly spoke the Calcutta variant.

Sylheti was invested with a raw, elemental, male energy and the other one was looked upon as the coy, feminine kind. What an intriguing binary! These days, as I walk around in my home town, I discover that Hindi is the language chosen by young boys and girls. The most interesting aspect today is the hierarchy attached to the various degrees of proficiency acquired by people who have relocated permanently to Calcutta.

Those who can speak almost like people in the city are pathetically dismissive of people who have failed to achieve a certain level of expertise. I had an interesting Sylheti family as my neighbour during my stay in Calcutta. Outside the precincts of that residential campus, this couple would hardly speak. They suffered from some insane anxiety that their position as ‘not really insiders’ might ruin their fragile, vulnerable assumed identity. During extremely compelling circumstances, the volume of speech would be barely audible. I pitied such affectations.

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  • Nothing exudes the magic of emotions better than our own mother tongue/dialect. Such a beautiful, heart touching write up❤️

  • It is indeed tragic that many of our languages are dying at the hands of those who inherited them but are for strange reasons compelled to disown them. Well said.

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