Book: The Bengalis: A Portrait of A Community
Writer: Sudeep Chakravarti
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs. 799
Though generally cagey about reviewing any book penned by a friend, I am delighted to do so in this instance. Sudeep Chakravarti has written an excellent tome on the Bengalis. There have been several serious works on us, the people of Bengal, such as the History of Bengal in 1943, whose first volume covering the Hindu period was edited by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar and the second, dealing with the Muslim rulers, by Jadunath Sarkar; or Nitish Sengupta’s Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib. Chakravarti’s is of a unique genre: one that is both historically serious and culturally situated while being incredibly observant of our mores, language and myriad idiosyncrasies and being outrageously funny to boot.
We Bongs could always claim to be the subject matter of serious books. What we needed was a thoughtful, informative but a comical, almost satirical, book to put ourselves in perspective. Despite its formidably serious title, Chakravarti provides that. The Bengalis is equally a serious and a delightfully funny tome — an un-put-downable read, where one guffaws every third or fourth page at the utter silliness and idiosyncrasies of our lot.
Contrary to popular belief, we Bongs (like the Malayalis) actually do laugh at ourselves, but only among ourselves. When the Mickey is taken out by others, we (also like Malayalis) invariably get prickly and defensive, unlike the Sardars who roar with even louder laughter. So, Chakravarti has done great service by hilariously putting out every bit of silliness and absurd superiorities of the Bongs in public domain. Parenthetically, he may have done even greater service to the Bongs by adorning the book with countless diacritical marks. I can easily imagine a Bong at the Kolkata Book Fair saying to another, “Chakravarti’r boi ta khoob bhaalo. Koto diacritical mark aachhey, porey dekhben. Buddhiman lekhok! [Chakravati’s book is very good. See how many diacritical marks there are when you read it. What a clever writer!]”.
This book, consisting of a prologue and 18 chapters, is structured in three parts.
Book I is a fairly serious, historical and politically woven piece consisting of four chapters and is called Genesis and More. Book II, entitled Cultural Chronicles, covers nine chapters and has at least a laugh per page. Book III, with five chapters, deals with turmoil and tomorrow.
Eleven words in the book summarises us upper middle class Bongs: “Growing up Bengali was for me like a series of expectations”. These expectations are intense. Being excellent in studies; having an impeccable handwriting in both Bengali and English; reading all the Bengali and English classics; knowing the works of Bankim, Rabindranath, Sarat Chandra and Jibananada Das; sitting on the floor and eating with your hands, strictly course-wise — strictly lumpen art thou if you lumped everything on the plate all at once, something that I still feel when I see others doing it; equally learning how to use knives, forks, soup spoons and napkins; being aesthetically conscious in understanding works of art; learning how to be comfortable in the world of three-piece suits and dhuti-panjabi (never kurta, always panjabi); knowing the details about every cricketer and their exploits, especially at our Mecca of cricket, Eden Gardens; being able to speak on anything and participate in any adda; and more; much, much more.
For an upper middle class Bong who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, such as Chakravarti and I, the pressures were intense. I remember my mother not being able to hide her disappointment when I missed my B.A Honours first class by a whisker; that was not compensated by getting a first in my
M.A from the Delhi School of Economics.
It is only when I received my D.Phil from Oxford in 1982 and became an academic that she smiled in utter relief. Her task was finally completed.
For me, Chakravarti’s book is about weaving the psychological, sociological, cultural understanding of us — we who have economically fallen from grace over the last five decades, with mostly the escapees of Kolkata having found their place in the sun. We needed a book such as this, if only to understand ourselves. And so did the non-Bongs, to get a context of our defensiveness and our idiosyncrasies. Thankfully, it is not just a book about Bengali Hindus. There is much about Bengali Muslims and Bangladesh. It is a book worth reading for more reasons than one.
Coincidentally, while reading the book, I discovered that Chakravarti and I are distantly related, with both claiming biological lineage to Mohini Mohun Chakravarti, the founder of Mohini Mills in Kushtia, Bangladesh — he from his father’s side and I from my mother’s.
I also thought of two perfectly psychological, real-life Bengali conversations. The first deals with the fact that we must know more than other person. The conversation goes:
He: Aapni Kulu-Manali gecchen? [Have you been to Kulu-Manali?].
You: Hain [Yes].
He: Hadimba Mondir dekhechhen? [Seen the Hadimba Temple?]
He: Boshisht [Vashist] Hot Spring?
He: Marhi, Rohtang Pass?
He: (after some quick thought) Accha, bolun to, Taat Baba’r gufa dekhechhen? [Okay, tell me if you have seen Taat Baba’s cave?]
You: Sheta abaar ki? [What is that?]
He: Arrey, Taat Baba’r gufa dekhenni, ta holey ki Kulu-Manali dekhechhen? [If you haven’t seen Taat Baba’s cave, then what of Kulu-Manali have you seen?]
The second is how we produce ‘rational’ explanations for our absurdities. In the 1970s, three of us from the Delhi School of Economics were on a train returning one hot summer from Kolkata to Delhi. Searching for a fourth to play a rubber or two of bridge, we chanced upon a recently retired Bengali gentleman, wearing a sweater, a full-sleeved Nehru jacket, a scarf and an upturned money-cap on his head. While playing, I asked him, “Eto gorom jama porchhen, apnaar ki shorir kharap? [You are wearing so many woollens, are you unwell?]”. He replied, “Na. Shimla jachhi. Acclimatised hocchi [No. I’m going to Simla. Getting acclimatised]”.
Do read this book.