‘The Bengali is at once an existential delight and nightmare, cast in perpetual drama.” “There can be no absolute, definitive story about a people, Bengali or otherwise. My goal is more modest — to tell the story of my people as seen through my eyes, Bengali by birth, cosmopolitan by practice though seeped in default Bengaliness for practically my entire life, and especially so in the years it took me to research and write this book.”
“Growing up Bengali was for me like a series of expectations, a continuous examination of beliefs in the middle of grand histories, grand tragedies, grand expectations.”
“The Bengali is a freewheeling, unabashedly empathetic and yet, I hope, unswervingly critical (if this makes me Bengali non-grata, so be it) account of a people that have for better and worse, helped shape a subcontinent.”
“This is a personalized, often anecdotal journey about being Bengali that attempts to embrace history, politics, conflict, culture and aspects of our homeland in the western and eastern part Bengal.”
“The Bengalis are the third largest ethno-linguistic group in the world, after the Han Chinese and the Arabs. A quarter of a billion strong and growing, the community has produced three Nobel laureates, world class scientists, legendary political leaders and revolutionaries, iconic movie stars and directors, and an unending stream of writers, philosophers, painters, poets and musicians of the first rank. But bald facts aside, just who are the Bengalis?”
“Make-believe Bengal, Bengal-in-our minds is a crucial life force for a Bengali, our precious store of who we are.”
“We are garrulous; argumentative and liberal, conservative and moderate, often in the course of the same argument ~ opinionated.”
It is not customary to begin a book review by highlighting more than half a dozen different quotes, but reading this book has left me perplexed. How and where should I begin? So I thought that the readers might get a hunch of the enormity of this project if they go through some of the observations and comments by the writer himself who has ventured to define in all manners possible what the Bengali community is like.
In the prologue Amra ke? Sudeep Chakravarti poses a series of questions —Who or what is the Bengali, really beyond a roiled history, schizophrenic emotion and heightened sense of self? What are the Bengali and the Bengali homelands all about, stereotypically and beyond stereotypes? What defines us? What are our defining moments? What makes us who we are?
In order to find the answers to these and related questions, the author (a Bengali born and seeped in his own culture but objective enough to give us a balanced reckoning of his fellows) delves deep into the culture, literature, history and social mores of the Bengalis.
He writes with acuity about the many strengths of the community but does not flinch from showing us its weaknesses and tormented history. He points out that Bengalis are among the most civilised and intellectually refined people on Earth but have also been responsible for genocide and racism of the worst kind. Their cuisine is justly celebrated but few remember the cause and effect of millions of Bengalis dying of famine. Renowned for their liberal attitudes, they are also capable of virulent religious fundamentalism.
Argumentative and meditative, pompous and grounded, hypocritical and wise, flippant and deep, Bengalis are all this and much, much more.
Right from the beginning, Chakravarti emphasises on “Bangla phonetics” with diacritical marks all through, and it brings out the flavour of a much talked about South Asian language in what he terms Bangla-sphere in mind, body and spirit. According to him Banglasphere includes West Bengal, Bangladesh, Tripura, regions like Cachar in the North-East, the NRIs abroad and wherever Bangla is spoken.
The arrangement is not perfect, but is intended to reach an audience bey-ond that of the linguist, scholar and reader of Bangla. .. “If you did not taste the language we love and cherish; a language we fought for and even died for, how would you know us?”
Starting with the basic introduction to the Bengalis, the author proceeds to tell us about them in detail. He divides the book into three sections. Book I titled “Utsho: Genesis and More” tells us how the Bengali race and culture was more the result of an immense mixing, an aggregation of numerous races and religions, which arrived in the subcontinent for survival and conquest with a gradual accumulation of ways, wisdom and waywardness.
After delving on the Jonmo shutro, the immaculate conceptions of the region, he tries to define the beginning of the Bangla language, the scales of religion in Haw, Maw (meaning Hindus and Muslims) and concludes this section by describing Gandhi as a brief Bengali.
The lengthiest section is Book II which is titled “Shobbhota/Oshob-bota: Culture Chronicles.” It has different interesting sub-sections, the titles of which are self-explanatory. Amader Rabindronath tells us how Tagoreana has seeped into the souls of all Bengalis around the world.
In Obangali (A complex and much else), we are told how a great part of being Bengali is to be aware of what we are not. A substantial part of the crude snobbishness against Obangali is rooted in the days when Bengal was the spearhead of modern sub-continental aspiration, and Kolkata the colonial capital.
In Dapot, domon (domination) we are told how nearly forty tribes call West Bengal home and many of them want to reject the Bangla script, which is a matter of particular resentment among nationalists in some places; it is seen as a symbol of domination, cultural and otherwise, by outsiders.
If West Bengal’s treatment of those not of Bengali origin has remained less than salutary, Bangladesh hasn’t done that much better. Kichhu bolchen? (Do you wish to say something? ) is an interesting section where we are told how wordsmithy is a time-honoured Bengali pastime as in any culture with a sophisticated language.
“And what is Bangla — language and person — without English? If Bangla is soul, Ingreji is surely soul food.” So we have the phrases like daily-passenjari, the antel that the bhadralok uses and this urge to be counted in English is a common affliction among Bengali urban folk of broadly the lower-middle class upwards. Ma tells us about the frenzy surrounding Durga Pujo and Kali Pujo apart from social reforms, Khela-dhula (Games we play) highlights the Bengalis’ obsession with football and cricket.
Sinikbewty (Stories of travel) is a hilarious section which talks about the way Bengalis travel like an irresistible force driven by an irresistible urge. They are bhromon-pagol — travel mad — and they travel irritably, loudly and occasionally helpfully. They love to come by and see the opurbo or phantashtik bhew on their side of the mountain and have the ubiquitous mankicap on so that thanda cannot overcome them.
Food is such an obsession that revelling in it, immersing oneself in it is utterly unconscious. So in Khai-khai (To eat, to live), the author tells us that if you were a Bengali you would instinctively know descriptions of food and culinary companionship to have indisputable merit in a book on human rights and business. Probashi, bideshi (At home in the world) talks of the Non-resident Bengali and how once they are outside the subcontinent, Bengalis from both India and Bangladesh come together for various social functions.
Ogni Jug (Age of Fire) comprises the third section of the book. In it politics in all forms plays a major role. Thus in Aloron (Turmoil) the author tells us how in Bengal, cause and courage have usually triumphed over effect — as the adoration of several generations of revolutionaries since the early 20th century show. Nokshalbari (Your chairman, our chairman) gives us the details about the spark that set a subcontinent on fire. In the section called Mastan (Mastanocracy) Chakravarti tells us how our thugs are mastans.
In Banglasphere, mastani, the act of being a mastan is about intoxication with violence and power as a way of life and livelihood. It has proved to be quite infectious. Mastanocracy, as Banglasphere now knows well, truly arrives when the state turns mastan.” In Bangladesh (Bengalidesh) we are told how Bangladesh is a project — Bengali and otherwise, in every sen-se of the term. And it literally began with resh-aping history.
In the last section titled Porshu (the day after tomorrow) the author talks about a defining characteristic and that is migration. West Bengal has absor-bed a series of enormous migratory hits of Bengalis.
Tripura and parts of Assam including Meghalaya have seen enormous demographic changes too.
Amid all these sociological forays, a deeper point that Chakravarti drives home is that the “Bengali” identity is as much about the once-lowly Bangladesh, wh-ich has now made handsome strides economically, particularly in textiles and garments.
“Bangladesh is a country that was born because it wanted to be Bengali” writes the author.
Living outside Bengal for more than three decades, Chakravarti’s journalistic career, as well as his earlier stint in writing interesting pie-ces of fiction and non-fiction, lends a kind of objectivity in his narration that is worth going through the 400-plus pages of this book.
Though one cannot breeze thr-ough the book, replete with both serious, well-researched infor-mation and interspersed with wry, tongue-in-cheek commentary, Beng-alis and “not-Bengalis” alike should congratulate the author for undertaking such a monumental task of defining an entire community.
Despite a few typos, this book is a must read for all those who enjoy knowing about cultures.
The reviewer is Professor of English, Visva-Bharati University