If one needed to capture the Monty Python-esque absurdity of life in the state of West Bengal, the past few days would be a good place to start. On Tuesday, Mamata’s Banerjee’s government announced that it would change the name of West Bengal in order to move it up the alphabetical order.
West Bengal is one of the oldest states in the Indian Union and dates back to a time when Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu did not exist and Bihar and Assam were very different from their present boundaries.
So why was its name being changed? Absurdly, it was because Banerjee was annoyed that the name of her state forced her to speak last at Inter-State Council Meetings – hardly a sufficient reason to tamper with the identity of 90 million people.
But there’s more. It was announced that in English, the name would simply be “Bengal”, dropping the “west”. In Bengali, the name would either be “bangla” or “bongo” – the latter understandably, causing much amusement to non-Bengalis.
Babul Supriyo, a Union minister of state and a playback singer summed it up when he pointed out that the “name should not be bongo, that is a musical instrument”. This was an odd statement given that Supriyo, a Bengali from Bandel town, should have known that the current name of the state in Bengali is “Poschim Bongo”, West Bongo. One wonders what he thought that meant as he went through school – western percussion?
Of course, Supriyo’s confusion is not entirely without reason: this land does have a rather long list of names and many of them have overlapping meanings.
Let’s start with the oldest name: Bongo. It comes from Sanskrit. The historian Bijay Chandra Mazumdar said that “Vanga” is the Sanskrit name for a Dravidian or Munda-language speaking tribe which gave the region its first name: Bongo.
But hold on. How did Vanga become Bongo? Unfortunately, the Bengali language has no schwa – the vowel in words like “gum” or “drum” – or the consonent v/w. Most schwas gets converted to an “o” (similar to the vowel in gnaw) and the "v" in vanga got converted to a "b". Hence, Bongo.
But even in Bengali, Bongo isn’t the only name for the land. There’s also “Bangla” which confusingly, is also the name of the language. If you thought Bongo was funny, wait for the origin of Bangla: Bong-long. That’s the original name of the land, according to Mazumdar, in the language of the Bongo tribe. Today, Bangla is the everyday name of the region as opposed to Bongo, which is more formal, stuffy even. Think Britain versus Britannia.
From Persian to English
And what about Bengal? Well, as Persian-knowing Turks started to invade the subcontinent 12th century onwards, they used the term “Bangālā” to describe the eastern most lands their armies reached, no doubt taken from Bangla. In the 14th century, when the first independent Bengal Sultanate was established – free from Delhi’s control – the sultan took the title Shah-e-Bangālā, King of Bengal.
In Persian, soon enough, the word Bangāl came to be used, term that would also enter the Hindi-Urdu language. As British colonists came into India in the 18th century, they first learnt Persian, the administrative and elite lingua franca of the subcontinent at the time.
Struggling to pronounce the Persian word Bangāl, they morphed it to Bengal, giving us the English-language name. (In much the same way, they also morphed the Persian/Urdu Kalkattā to Calcutta, the official name of the city till 2001).
That explains the etymology – but there’s still room for confusion.
“Bongo” is very often spelt “banga” (see, for example, the Paschim Banga Gramin Bank). Why, you ask?
That’s because Bengalis transliterate their language into Roman letters using not the Bengali sounds but the Sanskritic pronunciation. This is why West Bengal’s chief minister spells her name “Mamata” but actually pronounces it more like “Momotā”.
Of course, all three words, Bongo, Bangla and Bengal, refer to a confusing set of land masses.
Earlier, Bengal was the word for the area occupied today roughly by Bengali-speaking people, which adds up to modern-day Bangladesh and West Bengal.
Since 1971, Bangladesh is a sovereign country neighbouring India, but till that year, it was commonly used as a synonym for Bengal – literally translating to “land of Bengal”.
In Aparajito (1956), Satyajit Ray’s second film in his celebrated Apu triology, for example, Apu’s headmaster tells him resignedly, “ours is a small village in a corner of Bangladesh”, meaning not the country (it did not exist then) but the Bengal region.
The first time the words “West Bengal” were used to define this region was in 1905, when the British partitioned Bengal into a Hindu-dominated western province and a Muslim- dominated east.
Bengal was unified in 1911, only to be split again in 1947, with the western half going to India as West Bengal and the eastern half going to Pakistan as East Bengal. Till then, all three words – Bongo, Bangla and Bengal – referred to the entire region defined by the Bengali language. In 1971, when East Bengal attained independence from Pakistan, it took the name Bangladesh.
If West Bengal also drops the cardinal direction, it would lead to the curious situation of two land masses with synonyms as names.
Think about what would happen if Northern Ireland in United Kingdom were to just be called just Ireland, which, in turn have the country of “Ireland” (the Republic) to its south. That makes for a very confusing sentence – and state of affairs.
But then, with Chief Minister Banerjee deciding the identities of her people based on laughably puerile considerations like having to wait too long to speak at national events, maybe confusion is an expected outcome.