Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Makes a Bengali?

Bijoya Dashami, which is happy Dussehra for most parts of the country, is a day of some sadness for the Bengali. After the intense festivity, the Goddess goes back on Dashami and despite the social gatherings, there is always a bit of melancholy in the air.
I did not know – introspection, even.
Because this Bijoya, I pondered a lot on a question a Bengali friend asked me ‘what makes a Bong?’ And he locked out my penchant for vague, tangential answers with a stern brief – ‘what are the 5 defining things that are required to be a true blue Bong?’
I am inclined to list procrastination first since I promised to write nearly a week back!

Seriously, what defines a Bengali?

Is it parochialism? Not really. Pride about one’s region & race is a very common trait among Indians –where regional identities are often stronger than the national identity.
Is it fish? Or sweets? Cannot say that either. I know many Bengalis who abhor either or both.
Is it sports? Or more specifically, watching sports? But then, a great sporting spectacle unites the country and not only Bengal. And as Bangalore just showed us, packing cricket stadia on weekdays is no longer an Eden monopoly!

So, what are those Elusive Five? Let me try my theories… every one can jump in after that.

Food
The Bengali cuisine is not about fish, biriyani or roshogolla. It is about investing deep thought and taking immense pains to eat well – and equally importantly – feed well.
Calcutta is a place where wedding menus are fixed long before the match. It is a place where people travel long distances early on Sunday mornings to capture the best cut of mutton. It is a place where people get violent discussing the relative merits of their favourite biriyani joints. And the smell of broiler chicken in a meal is a curse that requires seven baths in Ganga to expiate.
Anjan Chatterjee (of Mainland China and Oh Calcutta fame) once wrote about Chitol Machher Muittha (inadequately translated as fish balls made out a particularly fleshy fish) being prepared for special occasions and people considered it to be a scandal if a bone emerged out of any of the fish balls… That’s vintage Bangali for you!
Malayalis love eating fish. But only a Bengali would carry ilish in a cold case on a flight. And only in Calcutta airport, would they let you pass security with that. Hyderabadis invented the Paradise biriyani & haleem. But only a Bengali would know Gati does express delivery of those to Delhi. Every Bengali has at least one hole-in-the-wall joint which – he is convinced – serves the best Moglai Porota in the world and he is willing to defend it till death.
Such passion is, of course, a by-product of the wonderfully diverse Bengali cuisine that straddles a million tastes, uses a billion ingredients and engulfs the five senses.
Think about it, God gave South Indians curd and they made thayir saadam out of it. Bengalis made mishti doi.

Sense of Humour
Well, how many stand-up comedians do you know are Bengalis? Zero. No filmi comedians since Keshto Mukherjee either. Authors? Very few. Bloggers? A few, maybe. So?
Well, I should have said the ‘democratization of humour’. Because I don’t see any other state in India where the humour is so well spread out. The funniest Indians may not be Bengalis but the average Bengali is about a million times funnier.
Recently, I went to the local Bengali Society to pay the Durga Puja subscription. In the 7 minutes I spent there, two gentlemen (who – I am sure – hold very serious day jobs like database architecture and trade marketing) had me and my wife in splits. Allow me an example:
Gent 1: Kothai thaka hoi? (Where do you stay?)
Me: Sohna Road. Oboshsho road nei ekhon. (Sohna Road. Though, there’s no road left now.)
Gent 1: Kothaoi nei. Brishtir joley rasta porishkar hoye gechhey… (No road anywhere. The rains have cleaned the roads.)
Gent 2: Rasta nei. Ektu rustic. (Untranslatable.)
Okay, okay – one more.
Imagine an evening flight leaving for Delhi and turning back mid-way due to fog. And re-starting for Delhi, this time with a CAT-trained pilot. If the flight had originated from any other major city in India, there would have been aggression, raised voices and threats of legal action. I was fortunate enough to leave from Calcutta and overheard the following:
Gent 1: Bujhlen toh, aager pilot-ta CAT pash koreni. (The earlier pilot was not CAT qualified.)
Gent 2: CAT paini? Joint peyechhilo toh? (Didn’t clear CAT? What about JEE?)
This, at 2 AM!

Easy Riders
Bengalis love effortless people. And underdogs.
India admires Satyajit Ray – the legendary filmmaker who wrote his own scripts, designed sets & costumes, composed music, wrote books and was a certified genius. In Bengal, Ray’s charisma is matched by Ritwik Ghatak, who made only a few films and died in poverty of alcoholism. But oh - what films they were! And with what little effort!
In Bengal, the heroes are never the class toppers. They are the bloody swatters, who had no brains and slogged their bums off (gasp – how ghastly!). The heroes are the guys who spent the night before the exams at Dover Lane Music Conference and managed to answer only one question in the whole paper. But man, you should have read that answer. Isaac Newton himself would have sat at that boy’s feet to understand its gravity. Of course, he flunked the exam, the course and is now an accountant at a private tuition centre in Jalpaiguri but I am telling you that boy had the ‘potential’ to become a Head of Department at Harvard.
The word ‘potential’ is a big favourite in Bengal. It brings out all the unsung geniuses (heroes or otherwise) who could have but didn’t.
And even the workaholic Ray reveals a soft corner for the unsung genius, in the way he wrote Sidhu Jyatha (Feluda’s uncle, played brilliantly on screen by Harindranath Chattopadhyay). When complimented by Felu (“If you had been a detective, we would have been out of work”), Sidhu Jyatha responds – “If I had done a lot of things, a lot of people would have been out of work. So, I don’t do anything. I just sit here and keep the windows of my mind open…”
If Bengalis were as rich as Punjabis, they would have thrown coins when this line was first said on screen!

Stories
Every Bengali is a storyteller.
The ‘adda’ is a common phenomenon across India, where people get together for some chat & gossip. But in Bengal, it is an art form – ranging from the organized (where famous authors are invited to participate in addas) to the impromptu (while waiting for the next bus and continuing till the last bus has gone).
If you read Anandabazar Patrika (or The Telegraph), the journalistic style is very anecdotal. More often than not, the reports start with a story. Descriptions of how political leaders were dressed at rallies are again common. And first person accounts are almost de rigueur for most stories. For example, when a Metro snag happens – Delhi’s Hindustan Times runs a story like this (“Longer Metro ride, technical snag yet again”). The Telegraph leads with “Pride Derailed”.
Every mundane, day-to-day event of no consequence gets suffused with suspense and emotion when a Bengali narrates it. A simple interaction with a parking attendant who did not have change can assume the proportions of a Rushdie novel. A joke is not a joke. With a virtuoso performer, a joke can extend over an entire evening – not unlike a raag – interspersed with mimicry, leg-pulling, social comments, jokes within jokes (meta-jokes!) and requests for more whiskey. The stories are always long, never boring and sometimes true, even! But then, the truth is never allowed to spoil a good story.
A famous Bengali litterateur (Syed Mujtaba Ali) was once asked if the story he just recounted was true. He said, “A prince went hunting in a deep, dark jungle. There, he came across a big, bad tiger. The tiger said – Prince, I will now eat you up. This is a story. But tigers do eat humans, don’t they?”

Culture
This is the easiest one to propose and explain. Let’s face it – the stereotype is true. And everybody knows it.
The average Bengali has read more books than the average Indian. Hell, he may have even written more! He has certainly heard more music (not counting DJ music, where Punjabis beat him). He has learnt to play at least one musical instrument (male) or one dance form (female) as a child. He has written more Letters to the Editor. The aforementioned editors also had a higher-than-average proportion of Bengalis. And if they aren’t Bengalis, they will soon be claimed as one.
Only a Bengali will ask what defines a Bengali. And only a Bengali will oblige.
And yes, only in Calcutta can Ritwik compete with Hrithik.

These are – what I think – defines the Calcutta Chromosome.
And while on the topic, Delhi DNA or Mumbai Mitochondria just doesn’t sound so elegant – no?
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