The "land, labour, language and body" of Bangladesh has been physically and ideologically colonised by various colonisers in different times. The British colonial period is precisely marked from 1757 to 1947 in Bengal and Indian subcontinent. The tyranny of Bengal was threatened by the British during the reign of Nawab Siraj-ud-Dawla. Finally they took the power-position in Bengal in 1757 by defeating the last Muslim Nawab of Bengal. Then began the colonial rule of the British Empire where “the sun never sets".
The history of colonialism is the history of oppression, suppression, physical and ideological subjugation, individual and collective alienation and so on. The British exploited the colonised people both physically and mentally. In the process of colonisation, language was one of the major target areas to subjugate people. In that case, the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o rightly writes, "bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation" (Decolonising the Mind). The colonisers aimed at omitting the remaining language by imposing their English language on the native Bengali people. The reason behind omitting Bangla and establishing English was simple and clear. They wanted to erase our very own Bengali culture and cultural understanding by injecting their English culture in our vain and English knowledge in our brain.According to a legislative act called English Education Act 1835, the council of India took an effective decision to promote English as a language of instruction from 1835 on. The British colonisers claimed that western education required superior understanding which could only be perceived through the medium of English.
In this way, English became the language of acquiring formal and higher education. In order to become civilised, superior and cultured like the white colonisers, the people were bound to learn and use English in schools, colleges and official sectors. Thomas Babington Macaulay commented on his Minute, "Whoever knows [English] has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations". These discourses made people believe that the only powerful language is English which produced all the higher and superior knowledge in the world.
People of Bengal soon started writing in English on the basis of the knowledge they were provided, that too, in English by the English. But the problem is, the first generation Bengali writers who wrote in English were just following the footprint of their colonial masters. The English would teach them English language and ideology, but they would not appreciate their productive works. This is why, the father of Bengali sonnet and the pioneer of modern Bengali drama Michael Madhusudan Dutta was not much acknowledged when he wrote his literary pieces in English. He was greatly influenced by the famous English poets like William Wordsworth and John Milton. The then president of the council of education suggested him to follow the English style and use his own Bangla language to compose literary pieces. Then Dutta switched to Bangla language and wrote a few masterpieces on the basis of the English knowledge and style.
The first generation Bengali writers, thus, could not remarkably write about their colonial and subaltern experiences in the colonisers’ language. English language has been imposed on native Bengali people through the enforcement of power. Michael Foucault writes, "Where there is power, there is resistance." As time passed by, the writers of later generation started showing their resistance against English. They started writing about their own experience and story in English.
English has become a global language. It provides an international readership when a writer writes something in English. The new generation Bengali writers properly utilised this global quality of English language. Chinua Achebe, the Noble Prize winning famous Nigerian writer, writes that English language is able to carry his African culture by becoming Africanised English. Similarly, English language can carry Bangladeshi experience if we own this language.
William Shakespeare portrayed a character called Caliban in his last play The Tempest. The colonial master Prospero teaches Caliban his language English. After mastering, or I will rather say owning, the language Caliban shows his resistance against his master and says,You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse.
(William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene II).
In this way, the colonial slave Caliban becomes a postcolonial hero. Similarly, by owning this global language, we can learn to curse the colonisers.
Mastering a language gives strength, increases confidence and develops power in any individual. An international language like English actually makes the subaltern speak. We can write about our version of history and let the world know about it. Many writers have written English books on our Liberation War. It is very important to let people from the other side of the globe know about our national and collective struggle during such a miserable time. Many writers have written about our tradition and culture in English. For example, Syed Waliullah's Laal Shalu is a very popular and critically acclaimed Bengali novel. The author depicts a blindly religious society and the people living in it. The English version of this novel entitled Tree Without Roots is internationally read and admired. After composing the same novel in English, the writer gets his international readership.
The famous contemporary Bangladeshi poet Kaiser Huq's widely read and analysed poem "Ode on the Lungi" has been included in our national curriculum for a long time. This poem represents the subaltern group of this continent. The British taught us to wear boots and suits. But poet Huq here celebrates our traditional costume "Lungi". It is, in this way, also a kind of resistance against the English. Another contemporary female novelist Tahmima Anam's debut English novel The Golden Age is nationally and internationally admired. By setting it in the context of 1971, Anam writes a story of passion, revolution and heroism.
It is an undeniable fact that English language still rules all over the world. It is also true that we have to be connected with the world through English. It is also a matter of fact that this language will give local writers a global platform. English language has given us a reason to revolt for ourselves; a voice to raise for our right; a choice to make for our betterment and a power to build and establish our own identity. The British might think, as it is said in Urdu, "hamari billi hami se meow". But it is time to fight back. It is time to own this language and use it in our way to express and share our story.
We must learn to curse in English. For example, I am writing my articles in English just to share my version of ideas. I am writing about the brutal history of colonisation in the colonisers’ language. I have learnt to fight back. I have learnt to curse. Thanks to our English daily newspapers for letting the Bengali people share their thoughts with the world in a language which was used as a tool of subjugation, and now is used as a weapon of resistance.
The writer is a Lecturer,Department of English Language and Literature, Premier University Chittagong