By Swagata Sinha Roy and Aneeta Sundararaj
It starts with staring. Then, the licking of lips. Pulling his hands out of his pockets, he summons the forces within and blurts out, “You fair lah. Chinese or what? Indian, ah?”
“Yes. Indian. Bengali.”
“Oh…” Scratching his head, he says, “Bengali is what ah? Malaysia got, meh?”
For a start, the word ‘Bengal’ is believed to be derived from a tribe called Bang that settled in modern-day East Bengal around the year 1000 BCE.1 Its language, Bengali, is spoken by more than 210 million people.2 In fact, towards the end of the last millennium, the Bangladeshis started an initiative to honour their language. As a result, on 17 November 1999, UNESCO formally recognised International Mother Language Day as a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and to promote multilingualism.3 With what veers on an obsession in the arts, Bengalis are some of its most illustrious proponents. Their works have changed the course of history and left indelible marks in their chosen fields.
In 2016, during a visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi renamed the Indian Cultural Centre in Brickfields to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre to honour the Indian nationalist whose defiant patriotism made him a hero in India.
An earlier protest against British rule was by another Bengali – Rabindranth Tagore. He renounced the award of a knighthood by King George V as a response to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab. The world still celebrates this Nobel Laureate’s works, the most famous of which is his collection of poems, Gitanjali.
A spectacular collision between spirituality and literature occurred in mid-20th century with the publication of a seminal classic, Autobiography of a Yogi by the son of Bengal, Paramahansa Yogananda. His brother in the most ancient order of monks and fellow Bengali was Swami Vivekananda. Having visited Malaysia in 1893, Swami Vivekananda then gave his seminal speech at the First World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA.4 Today, the ashram built in his name – the Vivekananda Ashram in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur – is both an iconic and heritage building in memory of this august man.
One of the greatest filmmakers, illustrators and writers of the 20th century, Satyajit Ray had the kind of creative genius that added flavour and finesse to celluloid techniques. Still on the topic of films and closer to the times, Bollywood actresses like Jaya Bachchan, Rani Mukherji and Kajol, continue to be the favourites of many movie goers.
There is no doubt that the world would be quieter had there not been Pandit Ravi Shankar. The sitar music he created touched souls and influenced many other musicians throughout the world in the latter half of the 20th century.
In Malaysia a ‘Bengali’ tends to be identified with the Sikh Punjabis because the Sikhs from India reached our shores via the Bay of Bengal. Does it matter, though, if people are perplexed when they look at us and wonder if we’re Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalee, Maharashtrian, Tamil, with a hint of possible Chinese? Not really.
Frankly, we are sincerely happy and truly proud to be ‘Malaysians.’
We rest our case.
1. ‘Bengal’; From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal. Accessed 11 June 2021.
2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bengali language”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 Jul. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bengali-language. Accessed 11 June 2021.
3. International Mother Language Day; From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Mother_Language_Day. Accessed 11 June 2021.
4. Sahu, S.N. (2020). Sectarianism, Bigotry and its Horrible Descendant, Fanaticism, Have Possessed This Earth. The Citizen. https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/4/19154/Sectarianism-Bigotry-and-its-Horrible-Descendant-Fanaticism-Have-Possessed-This-Earth—Swami-Vivekanand. Accessed 11 June 2021.
About the Authors –
Swagata Sinha Roy is Assistant Professor of English, and co-organiser of the Paperback Book Club. She labels herself as an educator, observer of life and an armchair traveller, who oftentimes disappears into books.
Aneeta Sundararaj is a versatile writer who trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Her recent novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Anugerah Buku 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia.