The Language of Puthis: Dubhashi and the Bengali Muslims

His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Indeed there are Signs in this for the wise. (The Quran, 30:22)

I once had a conversation with a known professor at Dhaka University about mindsets. A prominent public intellectual, he had a capacity to phrase things memorably, a prerequisite skill for speaking on the media platforms he often found himself on. Discussing Western literature he commented that it is worth noting that the ideal form in the European mind is a circle and the ideal form in the Asia is the egg or the oval. The difference, he elaborated, is that the oval shape implies a sort of pressure on the top and the bottom, the presence of a creator. Divine intentionality is baked-in, in other words, into our collective psyche.

This conceptualization of ideals and what it speaks to mindsets, I believe, can frame views of plurilingualism and language differences in South Asia, and Islamic communities in particular. Everything in the Subcontinent, after all, is about God, about religion. Unlike the stigma of multilingualism as a form of impurity, as Canagarajah (2013) has argued, that stories such as the Biblical story of Babel imply and has been codified by nationalist ideologies, South Asian have historically viewed language-mixing or differences as natural. This has been as true for the Muslism of the region as any other communities.

Muslims in the region of Bengal, like other Muslims in the Northwest of India, viewed that different languages in the space social space was natural and by God’s design. This was the way it always was after all, and pointed to Qur’anic ayats, such as the one above , to argue that the wise person had to know and communicate in many languages. It also means sometimes people would mix different languages as they saw fit for their pupose in single utterances. This view can be seen in the way the puthi genres made use of dubhashi (a language made up of Bangla, Hindustani, Farsi, and Arabic). Their writers and performances only thought about ways to best communicate Islamic ideas and views, not whether what the language they used was proper or not.

Folio of a puthi stored in the British Museum. The musuem has undertaken an effort in recent years to digitize and make searchable large caches of texts collected from their former colonies.

Puthis and dubashi:

At the beginnings of the 18th century, when the puthi tradition was emerging, most Bengal Muslims were generally illiterate converts – though there was a tiny strata of elites who were literate in Farsi and also saw themselves as non Bengalis. Most common Muslims were converts descended from either low-caste Hindus or (former Buddhists) who wanted to identify with a view of Creation which did not inscribe them into the lower stratas permanently. Such Muslims practiced a syncretistic Islam that mixed local practices of worship with an Islamic cosmology. These communities often told stories called puthis that featured figures of Islam, such Islamic saints, Abrahamic-prophets and the Sahabah, companions of the Prophet, fighting Hindu demons and despots. In spirit, these were stories of conversion in-line with the traditional narratives of the Middle East.

At the same time, these stories mixed tropes and landscapes only found in Bengal and would been completely alien to these protagonists of these tales. It was about mixing images and ideas in ways that resonated with the locals. Puthis spoke of Arabic figures such as Amir Hamza, uncle of the prophet and a common hero of Islamic lore, for example, battling alongside Bobibi, the Tiger-Goddess of the Sundarbans against Demons. Few Arabs would have even known of Bengal or the Sundarbans, much less quested inside on behalf of the local villagers. In puthis, as Ahmed Sofa (2002) explained in “The Mind of the Bengali Muslim,” limiting the powers of the faithful within the “realms of the possible” makes no sense when one is trying to propagandize about the miracles of the one true faith.

The language of the puthis manifested this ethos of mixing as well. The language of puthis is called dubhashi, a “mixed language mode” (Seely 2008) of Bangla, Hindustani (later to be split into Hindi and Urdu), Arabic, and Farsi. Though written using Bengali script and syntax, this language was derived of Farsi(the official language of eastern Bengal) and Arabic (the focus of the madrassahs.) This is evidenced in the following example from the 18th century puthi, Yusuf-Zuleikha, by the Faqir Garribullah, and how it rhetorically indexes the local and translocal. In this passage from a narrative, based on the story of Joseph, the Jewish prophet, in Egypt, Garribullah describes Joseph’s physical beauty in a way his Bengali audience would find familiar:

মুখ নিরমাল যেন পুরনিমার শাসি
ভমার গুঞ্জারি যেন দুই চোক বাশি
ভুরু দুই জরা যেন কামার কামান
স্থালা পদ্দা যেন তেরা দুটি কান
অতি চিকন শেকারি বাঘিনি
কালান খাজান হেরে বলে শব মুনি
শুগান্থার মাটির মালা শারীর নিরমাল
ইয়াবুতি না বন্ধমান দিতে কল
Your face seems like the clear full moon/ your eyes are black as if bees are buzzing round them/ Your eye-brows seem the bow of Kama/ Your ears seem like the lotuses of the shore/ Your waist is as slim as that of a prowling tigress/ Sages forget all when they see it/ Your body is as perfect a string of pearls/ A maid therefore, cannot stop thinking about your embrace
The lines on the left box above are a transliteration of the narrative poem from narrative poem from Yusuf-Zuleikha in Manan (1964). Words of Perso-Arabic and Hindustani origin are italicized.

This a good example of the types of mixing going on within puthi writing. The first aspect of mixing is the blend of languages that make up the dubhasi register. The mélange of Bengali and non-Bengali lexis is substantial. There are verbs (“yena” instead of “jeno” for “seem”), nouns (“sugathan mati” instead of “mukhto” for jewels or pearls), and adjectives (“ati khin” instead of “ato chikhon” or “so thin”) of Hindustani and Perso-Arabic origin. The are comparisons made explicitly referencing local idioms and culture – Kama is the Hindu God of love, the lotus is a common poetic symbol in the region – that would not have been familiar to the figures in the story. Islamic cultures also never had the figure of the sage in the Hindu sense – though there is obviously a long tradition of mystics and imams in the Islamic tradition.

Conclusion

Puthis are forms of storytelling that approach communication and language functionally, in terms of its overall purpose of imputing values of Islam to the local population. They do adhere to a norm of separating languages or genres because such mindsets did not exist for the Bengalis at the time. Everything was God and there all languages were also signs of God. No language use could be improper and the dubashi registers and hybrid nature of the narratives stem from such an ethos or worldview. Their writer’s intentions communicate their sense that differences are signs of the devine for those who know and can make sense of them. To understand dubhashi, in this way, one could argue, in reference to the Quranic ayat above, is a sign of wisdom.

References:

Canagarajah, A. S. (2013). Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. Routledge.

Seely, C. B. (2008). Barisal and Beyond: Essays on Bangla Literature. Chronicle Books.

Sofa, A. (2002). The Mind of the Bengali Muslim. In Selected Essays (pp. 13–33). Mowla Brothers Publishers.

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