Until 1905, West Bengal and East Bengal (now Bangladesh) were the same state and the language spoken across the region was Bengali or colloquially, Bangla (Baa-ng-laa). According to the 2001 Indian census, there are 83,369,769 speakers of the language in the country making it at that time, the second most spoken language in India. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is credited with refining the Bengali alphabet and simplifying the type. For an insight into the concept of bhakti (devotion), patriotic fervour in pre-Independent Bengal or the abolition of the zamindari system, one needs to look no further than the treasure trove of Bengali literature. The most prolific and perhaps best known name in Bengali literature is that of the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Apart from short stories, novels and poems, Tagore also wrote the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh. Spoken Bengali varies from its written form. So, while the greeting, 'Namaskar' is written in Bengali as having an 'a' vowel, it is pronounced as 'nomoshkor'. Also, among the words that are common to Bengali and other Indian languages, those with a 'va' alphabet are pronounced as 'ba'. So, Monday is 'som-vaar' in many of India's languages, but pronounced in Bengali as 'som-baar'. When in Bengal, if all else fails and you are unable to understand what is being said, simply say, 'Ami bangaali boli naa - tumi ki, English bolte paro?' or 'I don't speak Bengali - do you speak English?'
An edited version of the article was published in Culturama's December 2012 Issue.