What it was like growing up Bengali
[Book extract] It is a series of expectations, a continuous examination of beliefs in the middle of grand histories, grand tragedies and grand expectations.
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Growing up Bengali was for me like a series of expectations, a continuous examination of beliefs in the middle of grand histories, grand tragedies and grand expectations.
Since the age of seven or so, in a relatively privileged home in Kolkata, that eternal citadel of Bengali lore, about a year before a movement for being Bengali birthed an entire country, Bangladesh, I became fully aware of the cardinal truth that a lesser people might call unfettered delusion — there are Bengalis, and there is the world. (A corollary quickly followed — there is Kolkata, and there is the world.)
At this time, what lesser people might call a tender age, I already attempted to abide by a list of expectations. These included impeccable table manners — expected of me, it seemed, immediately after birth, and especially after graduating onnōprāshōn, an elaborate ceremony in which an infant is fed solid food for the first time, usually a morsel of our quite unparalled preparation of pāyésh of rice with thickened milk, and sweetened with jaggery. (The colloquialism is mukhé-bhāt, literally, rice in the mouth, usually offered by a maternal uncle — māmā.) That is also when, in many households, the infant is ceremonially shown a future diet, including impeccably displayed rice, vegetables and fish, evidently in the hope of an unimpeded journey along our Eightfold Path that venerates desire and usually begins with food.
That was followed by expectations of impeccable handwriting in Bānglā and English, reading which included Western classics and little of the Eastern except, naturally, Bengali; speech with erudition; musicianship with at least one classical instrument (for me, toblā and later, shétār). Then there was trivia, for a Bengali akin to The Fifth Element. A random sample: knowledge of the names of countries and their capitals — What is the capital of Upper Volta? Ouagadougou, thank you, Titu-kāku; what is the Rōbindrōshōngeet exponent Debabrata Biswas’s nickname? George, thank you, Papa (Papa? We were an Ingō-Bongō household, employing English and Bānglā with equal fervour, a home where roast chicken with gravy and potatoes was as much a treat as the chātni of tomato, dates and raisins made by Dādu-mā, as we called my paternal grandmother Nirupama — the incomparable, unique). There had to be knowledge of epic fantasies like the Mahabharata — Mohābhārōt — that we, naturally, narrated best (Who were the tragic warrior Abhimanyu’s parents? The incomparable archer Arjuna and Krishna’s sister Subhadra, thank you, Dādu-mā).
Alongside arrived knowledge of the names of our classical artists if not appreciation of their art — at seven it would have been too much even for a Bengali child — Abanindranath Tagore, or Obōn Thākur, nephew of Rabindranath; Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose. Seamlessly from the same fount of knowledge arrived executive summaries and demonstration of another, no less appreciated art form, the major varieties of fish that we ate, and hand-to-mouth expertise with which to devour these; the seasons in which certain varieties of spinach became available and the precise proportion of rice and precise dash of kāshundi — the incomparable mustard that can brighten even a luminous Bengali meal — to eat these with, and the protocol of always beginning with vegetables, bitters first, then moving along in that order to dāl, fish, then meat, and chātni before dessert, and to never, on pain of death or, at least, denial of family inheritance, to never vary from such progression or, the horror, mix one course with another; the protocol, meaning and importance of behavioural nuance at family gatherings, whose feet to touch in what order, when to smile, when to remain dignified, or deadpan (Thank you, Mā-mōni, you jewel among mothers).
Photo: Aleph Book Company
The state of politics was always abysmal; so were national priorities — in which the Bengali would always rule best, had he or even she ever been permitted to rule in the first place (Thank you all, family and friends of the family, the barber, the family doctor, the dentist, the orthopaedic surgeon, the homeopathy consultant, the neighbourhood chemist, the neighbourhood newspaper and magazine vendor and bookseller, the neighbourhood dry-cleaner, the neighbourhood grocer, Monōhor-babu, our chauffeur).
My sister, who was three at the time, had less expected of her. She had merely to smile beguilingly at everyone; sing the national anthem of India and another paean to the pride of identity and hope that would shortly become the national anthem of Bangladesh — both written by Rabindranath Tagore, the first Bengali to win a Nobel Prize; begin a charming rendering of these songs and recitation of the Bānglā alphabet in front of guests, who would dutifully smile; some ladies would, in turn, lightly hold her chin and then bring that flowerbud of fingers of their right hand to their lips in a loud smack, appreciation of such regimented but undeniable sweetness, and say, “Ki mishti”. Besides, she would need to behave impeccably at the table.
More knowledge would quickly follow. More awareness. More theories. More truths. More absolute truths. More contradictions. Meanwhile, the world revolved around us, the Bengalis — that much was axiomatic. I cannot speak for my sister (but, of course, I shall — imprinted in our cultural double helix is the right to speak on behalf of entire civilisations, what is a mere individual, even a sibling?) but it all seemed like we were part of a grand experiment. At the very least, we were a part of something interesting, of which we understood little but saw much. The world around us was in churn. Kolkata was a violent place, a geography of urban warfare between left-wing rebels and police and the government’s henchmen. Our parents and family would speak in low tones about trouble brewing in East Pakistan, maybe a war. Why didn’t anything seem to work in Kolkata? Why were there so many poor in our city, and wherever we went outside the city? Why were cinema halls closed down so often? Why were red flags everywhere? How could we be such a great people and yet, as Father kept repeating, in clipped Ingréji, be “going to the dogs”?
(Excerpted with permissions of Aleph Book Company from The Bengalis by Sudeep Chakravarti.)