First History Lessons: The Languages of Our Country


First History Lessons: The Languages of Our Country is the English language translation of the book Itihase Hatekhari: Desher Bhasha. The Bengali original was written by Debarati Bagchi, a senior research fellow at the Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies, New Delhi. Arunava Sinha, co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation at Ashoka University, worked on this English translation.

The book is part of the project ‘Revisiting the Craft of History Writing for Children’ undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata and sponsored by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New Delhi. The other books published under the project include: Itihase Hatekhari: Desher Manush or The People of our Country and Itihase Hatekhari: Deshvaag or The Partition. The books, aimed at young readers, have been illustrated by patachitra artists Ranjit and Sirajudaulla Chitrakar.

Desher Bhasha or The Languages of Our Country examines the politics of language in India and how it creates conditions for the rise of differences and hierarchies within a population based on the languages they speak. The book uses the Bangla language as an example, tracing its history from the British rule to the partition of India and beyond. It follows the changes in Bangla, its dialects, and their history in various regions of the then Bengal Presidency to bring forth the connections between language and power.

Across six chapters, the book looks at how languages are connected to identity, the positions certain languages enjoy over others, and whether languages unite or divide people. Illustrating this, it explains how the colonial British government popularised Bangla from Kolkata over other dialects in the region to serve its own business interests. It further explains how this limited patronage resulted in the neglect and erasure of other dialects and languages in the region.

The book maintains that languages can coexist peacefully and that trouble arises only when “one language tries to assert itself over the others”. Recognising a similar imbalance in historical narratives, the book tries to highlight marginalised voices and groups whose social and economic mobility was affected by borders created in colonial and post-colonial times.

The 58-page book explores these conflicts and questions across six chapters: The Frontiers of Language (Chapter 1); Major Languages, Minor Languages (Chapter 2); Bengal, Bangla, Bangladesh (Chapter 3); Language Binds, Language Breaks? (Chapter 4); The Country Belongs to Everyone, but are Some of Them Still Left Out? (Chapter 5); and And Finally (Chapter 6).

Focus by Ria Wadikar.


Author: Debarati Bagchi

Translator: Arunava Sinha

Illustrators: Ranjit Chitrakar, Sirajudaulla Chitrakar


Institute of Development Studies Kolkata and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New Delhi


Mar, 2023