Friday, October 13, 2006

The Octopus Yearns for Chittagong

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mohammad Yunus motivated me to check The Daily Star, the major paper in Bangladesh, for the first time in a few years. The Star was not muted in its coverage of Yunus's prize: "After independence in 1971 and restoring democracy in ’91, Bangladesh witnessed the biggest achievement as Professor Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank were declared yesterday to win the Nobel Peace Prize 2006 for pioneering the use of micro-credit to benefit poor entrepreneurs." The Star goes on to note that two other Bengalis have won the Nobel Prize, Rabindrath Tagore for literature, and Amartya Sen for economics, but Yunus is the first Bangladeshi to win the prize.

In poking through the various articles today on Yunus, I learned that he was born in Chittagong, and taught at Chittagong University. Both sets of my grandparents lived and worked in Chittagong, and both my parents grew up there. The articles about Yunus got me reading about Chittagong, a bustling port city in the very far southeast corner of the country, near the border with Myanmar (Burma).

On our family trips to Bangladesh, I always preferred the time we spent in Chittagong over our time in the congested and filthy capital, Dhaka. The air was much cleaner in Chittagong, and the landscape much more interesting -- much of Bangladesh is flat and low-lying, but Chittagong is hilly. And the whole town has that seaport feel of being open to the world. "Chittagong appears to have been thriving as a port as early as Ptolemy's era (2nd century AD). He described it as one of the finest ports in the east." Lonely Planet: Bangladesh. The Chinese poet-traveler and Buddhist pilgrim, Xuan Zhang, who visited the port city in the seventh century, wrote of the city as "a sleeping beauty emerging out of the misty water." Xuan also noted that Buddhism thrived in the region at the time of his visit: he recorded the presence of 30 Buddhist monasteries and a population of 2000 monks.

My great-grandfather, I'm told, made his fortune in shipping, and my father's family, which was in Chittagong for as long as anyone can remember, apparently featured a long line of merchants who had a taste for trade in the famous port. My father's side also liked to joke that they were descended in some way from the infamous Portuguese pirates who long preyed on the rich maritime trade in the region, before settling down and mixing with the already heterogenous population of Dravido-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman Bengalis in Chittagong.

My grandmother and my parents and their siblings still often slip from proper Bengali into Chaţgaiã, the local dialect of Chittagong. The makeup of the dialect is a melange -- the constituent parts are like a sedimentary history of the port.
Most of the vocabulary of Chittagonian, like Bangla is derived from Sanskrit. It also, like Bengali, includes a significant number of imported words from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, as well as, to a lesser extent, Portuguese. In addition, English words are widely used in spoken Chittagonian, just as it is in almost all other Indian languages, as a result of the legacy of the British Empire. Although much of the vocabulary of Chittagonian Bengali is the same as standard Bangla, there are several distinguishing features. The contribution of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words to Chittagonian Bengali is far greater than that to standard. This is due to the fact that Chittagong was a port city that was open to traders from Arabia, Persia and Turkey since ancient times, naturally absorbing their words. This is also meant that Chittagonians were amongst the first to convert to Islam and consequently, as Muslims, they were further influenced by Arabic, Persian, and Turkish vocabulary, as these were the languages spoken by the Muslims of the time, especially the traders. Among Europeans, the Portuguese colonists were amongst the first to reach Bengal, and Chittagong as a port city, was for a time under the administration of the Portuguese. This has meant that there is a larger proportion of Portuguese loanwords in the usage of Chittagonian speakers than that of standard Bengali speakers.

Apparently, locals will tell you that the name "Chittagong" comes from "chattagram," which would mean "small village", but some sources say it is more likely that the name derives from an Arakanese phrase, "tsi-tsi-gong", which was inscribed on a tablet brought to the area by an invading Buddhist army. The phrase apparently means "that war should never be fought." Lonely Planet: Bangladesh.

I haven't been back since 1997. I hope to go back sometime soon, and to post from the ancient and bustling gateway from the Bengal to the world.

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