I grew up in northern India among Hindi speaking people. In school, I spoke English. Bangla – my mother tongue – was used primarily within the family. Not surprisingly, my Bangla had a generous sprinkling of Hindi and English words. When corrected, I would smile and say that it reflected national integration! Of course, this did not always go down well with the extended family and acquaintances. As I grew older, I learnt to keep my mouth shut during annual visits to relatives and others living in West Bengal. Over the years as I spent more time in the state, my Bangla did improve. But I was always marked as an outsider the minute I spoke. Then I went to Little Andaman and felt perfectly at home!
I had gone on an assignment to capture stories of participation and impact for a project on tsunami affected children. The project was implemented by Prayas in Little Andaman, one of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was supported by Terre des hommes Foundation. Bengalis and Tamilians made up the bulk of the population. There was another distinct group that originally came from the Bihar-Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh-Chhatisgarh belt and were known locally as the Ranchi community.The island was also home to the Nicobaris who mingled with outsiders on their own terms.I will write more about them another time!
The Bengalis had arrived either from West Bengal or Bangladesh over several decades. The islands were now their home and I even saw two Bengalis squabbling over whose island was better! But it was their language that fascinated me. Their Bangla was unique. It was colourful. It had its own rhythm. It reflected who they were and who they lived with. It was not always grammatically correct and the people I met didn’t really care about that. And I fitted right in.