International Mother Language Day (IMLD) falls annually on the 21st February, and was first announced by UNESCO in November 1999. A day to promote awareness of and celebrate language and cultural diversity, IMLD started off as social movement built on the spirit to defend the rights to write in one’s mother language.
International Mother Language Day has been observed since 2000 to promote peace and multilingualism. The date corresponds to the day in 1952 when students protesting outside the University of Dhaka were brutally shot dead by police (then under the Pakistan government) near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh. These students were calling for the establishment of Bangla as one of the state languages of what was then East Bengal. The movement was successful, and was one of the first signs of friction against the ruling West Pakistan, which led, 2 decades later, to the trauma of the Liberation War in 1971, when Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan and faced genocidal repercussions.
The Ekushey Book Fair (also know as ‘Ekushey Boi Mela’), held annually in Dhaka, is dedicated to those who died on the 21st February 1952 and is the national book fair of Bangladesh. Lasting for the whole month of February, the fair has developed from a book fair to a national cultural festival, where people come to celebrate the power and joy of books and writing, spend time amongst authors and publishers, and pay tribute to their nation that was borne from the love of a language – Bangla.
We were honoured to be able to contribute to the translation programme organised by Commonwealth Writers which took place in Dhaka, and which produced the translations included in the most recent instalment of our Book of the City series. Many of the stories featured in the anthology highlight the inescapable link between the Bangla language – and what was both gained and lost in its fight to establish it – and the people and stories which take place within the most vibrant of capital cities. Themes such as protest, the university as a place of resistance, and even the book market itself are interwoven amongst the stories, hazily transporting the reader between the past and the present day, connecting the human, individual struggles of the characters to the, equally human, but national struggles of the past.
The careful and care-full translation of stories between languages enables us to learn and experience different cultures and perspectives from as direct a source as possible, and is just one of the ways that our cultural lives can be enriched by a multi-lingual society.
To celebrate International Mother Language Day, we’d like to share an extract from one of the translated stories from the Book of Dhaka. Parvez Hossain’s ‘The Decision’ tells the story of Anu and Adnan, a separated couple who bump into each other for the first time in a year amongst the hustle and bustle of the Ekushey Book Fair. Translated by co-editor of the anthology Pushpita Alam into English from the Bangla for the first time, we’re delighted to be able to bring a slice of Bangladesh to our English-speaking readers on this special day.
Translated by Pushpita Alam
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There was no dust at the Book Fair today. Yesterday’s rain had cleansed the air but not the trees. There were no puddles of mud on the ground. Soft clouds hung in a clear blue sky, and a gentle breeze signalled spring. Radhachura flowers blossomed by the road. Such splendour didn’t normally flourish in this city oppressed by brick, mortar, advertisement hoardings, and the glare of electric lights.
People were different though. They still overcame the stresses of life and thronged the streets. It seemed they dressed up specially, just for this occasion. Any festival or celebration was a chance to leave their worries behind – just as Anu had today, after a week at home.
When she came out onto the street dressed in a new sari, wearing a dash of lipstick, but with her hair untied, the sudden blue of the sky took her breath away. She seemed never to have experienced an afternoon such as this. Running her fingers through her dishevelled hair, she hailed a rickshaw to take her to the Book Fair.
It had been a while since she’d flipped through a new book. How could she? Her own life had been flipped upside down.
It was getting busy at the fair but the crowd wasn’t overflowing yet. One could easily walk around and browse among the stalls. Anu strolled through the area near the giant banyan tree – they called it Bot-tola – and then meandered aimlessly towards the west side of the pond, where there were fewer people. She watched them for a while, leafed through a few books, and then went back to the main building, where folk music was playing. There was such power and wisdom in these old songs, they could still move you.
Anu felt lonely even in a crowd. She hadn’t seen a single familiar face so far.
They started turning on all the lights before it got dark. There, beneath the tall trees, the open sky, and the electric lights, you couldn’t tell if it was day or night.
Anu sat down on the steps of Bardhaman House, leaning back against the wall. Her tall frame was exhausted from the long walk. The tiredness was to be expected, given that she had just shaken herself out of a long depression.
Maybe it was surprising that she had managed to extricate herself at all from those bouts of suffering and that sickening web of deceit. She had spent an entire year holed up in her mother’s house without friends, companions or a job. Had it only been twelve months?
Was it really last year that they’d visited the fair as husband and wife? Usually people sensed Anu’s mood easily, but no matter how bitter her relationship with her husband got, it never seemed to show.
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