Away from the unsympathetic critical gaze of fellow humans, most Bengalis quietly battle towering language challenges. For example, consider the times we need to rush to the bar at a party and gasp 'gobet' when the entire world is questioning the necessity of adding potatoes to biryani. Or when we are struggling to describe a friend's fiance without sounding exceedingly uncharitable and 'kyabla' seems just perfect. Oh, and every single, painful time, we realise it would be so much easier if everyone learnt the word 'nyaka' instead of splashing around a cocktail of words like 'pretentious', 'dramatic', 'attention seeking' etc.
Since life is a sum of half-satisfying and satisfying bitching episodes, the absence of a consummate language can be very daunting. That is perhaps why Bengalis, on spotting fellow Bengalis in a place where the language is rare to come by, occasionally launch onto what may seem like a tirade in alienspeak to others.
Okay, make that often.
Actually, it's every bloody time.
And between shrieking 'oma, Bangali?' to firmly concluding that Old Monk is the best 'maal' (alcohol) in the world, we have also managed to piss off everyone from colleagues, flatmates and even the bartender (who we take to calling 'dada' after two drinks). And I have not even gotten to the most fascinating bit of this story. The one where we conclude that the reasons why everyone around is annoyed with us, are usually a bad stomach or general 'non-Bengali' intolerance.
And between shrieking 'oma, Bangali?' to firmly concluding that Old Monk is the best 'maal' (alcohol) in the world, we have also managed to piss off everyone from colleagues, flatmates and even the bartender.
It is never us, nope. After all, you need to be dreadfully choleric to not appreciate the lyrical flourish of 'nyaka' or the precision of 'bere paka' (precocious and silly), right? As much as my heart, and its allegiance to the mother tongue, wants to say yes, the answer's no.
Recently, I clicked on a Quora question that exasperatedly wondered, 'Why are Bengalis so proud of Kolkata?'. With words like 'deemer devil', beguni' and 'egg tarka' hovering on my finger tips, I opened the link only to find myself partially in agreement with said critic of my city.
One of his accusations was this: "Its like being in another country. For example Montreal is French speaking part of Canada where people expect you to understand French. Same in Kolkata where people in workplace expect you to know Bengali." Though the unnamed person goes on to suggest a north India versus Bengal battle, that probably exists only in his imagination, it is not difficult to see what has spurred him into jumping into these sweeping conclusions.
Anyone who has lived and worked in Kolkata will attest the fact that even in the most professional spaces, Bengalis, since they are in a majority, tend to speak in their mother tongue. My friend Kanav Bakshi, a business analyst from Rajouri (Jammu&Kashmir), recounted how alienating it was for him to not know Bengali at work. "When I joined Cognizant a lot of people were not open to talking in English or Hindi. Most of meetings were also conducted in Bengali. I used to request them to speak in English/Hindi – while some were polite enough to switch most of them continued in Bengali. However, this changed once we became friends," he told me.
Another friend, a media professional who was based out of Delhi, till very recently, recounted a similar experience in a Delhi office where a majority of the members of her team were Bengalis. "Most people were Bengali so they'd switch over to Bangla during meetings... It was very alienating for the non-Bongs... especially the junior ones. Very few people like my boss and I replied in English/ Hindi when spoken to in Bangla," Aditi Jain, who worked in an advertising agency recounted.
In a Reddit thread discussing racism faced by people from the north East, someone pointed out, how in a hostel, Bengalis often spoke in their mother tongue despite people of other ethnicities being present with them and around them.
Now, it's kind of difficult for a Bengali to come up with a convincing English replacement for say 'dhhur chhai' - a word we use in times of extreme disappointment, irritation or even sadness, depending on the intonation. And in our heads, it is nearly tyrannical to expect us to forgo the satisfaction of the word and settle for 'oh, shucks' instead. Or even 'screw it'. But imagine, for a person, who knows neither 'dhur' nor 'chhai', it may seem like he or she is in the vicinity of cassette, whose tape has gotten stuck in the player, right? It could be as baffling as what 'Hamma Hamma' means in everyone's favourite Bombay song.
But, instead of acknowledging that, the Quora thread robustly argued that Kolkata is a city to be proud of. Of the various reasons offered, were pictures of roshomalai, biryani and puchka. Some others contended that we have College Street, without quite explaining how that would be of comfort to a fellow who doesn't get Bengali.
Another user argued, "The young 'anarchist' jholawala bearded guy - Ask him about the origin of languages. He will tell you everything about the origin of Indo-Aryan languages. He will finish with a poetry from Tulsidas or Kabir." Unless, Google walks the streets of Kolkata in said human form, that's as sweeping and inaccurate a statement as saying 'nothing moves in Kolkata'.
Yet another user, firmly declared that if Bengalis are indeed speaking in Bengali around a person who doesn't understand the language, it is because they don't want him/her to be a part of the discussion. Because that is a completely fair thing to do. Suppose they are discussing the best way to cook hilsa and you don't know what it is, what's the point of acknowledging you exist at the moment, at that place, right? "Which workplace have you been to? Education? Jobs? If there are people of this generation, they will speak in English mostly. If they speak with you, it'll be in a language you know. If they are speaking among themselves in a language you do not know, rest assured you are not meant to hear it," is his robust defence.
Over all, majority of the commenters, refused to acknowledge that it is even a legitimate problem. If I were to be speaking in Bengali, I could have dismissed all these contentions as 'dhop' (a very juicy word for 'lie').
Without comparing how mother tongue enthusiasts of other languages fare, we can safely say that Bengali words tumble out of our mouths, despite our best intentions, when we spot another speaker of the language
Without comparing how mother tongue enthusiasts of other languages fare, we can safely say that Bengali words tumble out of our mouths, despite our best intentions, when we spot another speaker of the language. At least, that's the case with a majority of us, lovers and practitioners of the language. It's not always meant to alienate -- me and my friend spent a considerable amount of time promoting the usage of 'ekta ghushi marbo' as a friendly threat among our former colleagues in Bombay -- but it does often seem like that.
There are two ways to address this. One, don't warble in Bengali amid speakers of other languages. If you are beyond repair like me, and find the idea as terrifying as consuming fish fry made from a dreary basa, and not beckti, try subtitling what you're saying.
So suppose Bengali friend has got you a gift, hold back, 'ki mishti tui' till you have uttered, 'you're so sweet'. Or while articulating your boss' tyrannies, say, 'what's this tyranny' after your have blurted out 'ki ottyachar!'. Trust me, you're going to forget to translate every now and then. And please, if you spot three people rolling their eyes around you, please don't wave a picture of Howrah Bridge at them like some of those Quora users. It matters as much to them as vada pav does to you.
And if nice-ness is not your thing, for the sake of the dignity of gorgeous words such as 'kyalane' (idiot), 'jompesh' (awesome) and 'barabari (overdoing, over-reacting), don't shower them on and around people who don't get them. Those words don't deserve to be eye-rolled at for your indiscretion.