Growing up in and around Kolkata during the post-independence era I was aware of two distinct segments in Bengali society – the “Ghotis” and the “Bangals”. Bangals referred to all Bengalis who moved to India from East Bengal around the time of partition while the Ghotis were the natives of West Bengal.
Bangals were predominantly Hindu because the Muslim Bengalis stayed back in East Bengal which was renamed East Pakistan. Although both groups shared a common language, culture and physical appearance, there were several subtle but important differences.
The most pronounced distinction was in the way they spoke the language in informal gatherings and more precisely in the accent. The Bangals spoke with an almost melodic tone and with an abundance of colloquial words unique to East Bengal.
The Ghotis, on the other hand, spoke the language in the same way on both formal and informal occasions although they had different local accents depending on which part of West Bengal they were from. In addition, there were differences in mannerism, cooking recipes, details of religious rituals and design of outfits, especially saris.
Saris from Dhaka were universally popular among all Bengali women. Bangal parents sought out Bangal spouses for their children and Ghotis found their own kind during a search for an arranged marriage.
The classic rivalry between the two groups came into view during the football season when the Bangals predominantly supported the East Bengal team while the Ghotis unanimously followed their arch-rival, Mohun Bagan. Even the Ghotis who did not like the intrusion of a massive number of Bangals understood their plight and tolerated, if not accepted them.
This feeling never reached a degree of animosity to cause open arguments, fights or exchange of insults. The Bangals could speak the language just like the Ghotis when it was necessary in professional and social interactions. They were just more comfortable with their own accent and vocabulary in informal gatherings.
Fortunately, this division slowly disappeared over time. Part of the reason was the realisation on the part of Bangals that they had to get assimilated with locals to succeed in professional and social life. The other reason was a growing number of “love marriages’’ outside the watchful eyes of elders. One major turning point in this evolution was the war of 1971 to liberate Bangladesh under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Pakistan. Indians, including Bengalis, whole-heartedly supported Mujib.
The Indian government provided troops and arms as well as financial and moral assistance. A new country “Bangladesh” was born; its founding basis, as the name implies, was the Bengali language and not religion.
This has been a subject of envy for Bengalis in India who took immense pride in their language. Bangladesh used the Bengali language in every official document; they named their currency, airlines etc. using Bengali words. Bangladesh was officially represented in the United Nations with the word “Swagatam” in Bengali.
The name “Bangladesh” was prominently featured in a song and the concert organized by former Beatle George Harrison. Even though most Bangladeshis are Muslims, they are just as passionate about their language as Hindu Bengalis in India. Since the official language of India is Hindi, Bengali language was always overshadowed by it even though Bengalis in India consider Hindi to be an inferior language.
Furthermore, the Bangladeshi people have no problem in embracing works of Tagore, Sharatchandra and Bankim as part of their own cultural heritage. The national anthem of Bangladesh is a song written by Tagore. I am not so sure if the Bengalis in India feel the same degree of enthusiasm and passion about Nazrul Islam, Syed Mujtaba Ali etc. As immigrants from both India and Bangladesh continue to come and settle in the USA, both groups have felt a strong urge to continue their Bengali cultural tradition, especially in literature, music and performing arts, both for nostalgic reasons and to let their children get acquainted with it. As a result, several annual, monthly and quarterly magazines featuring literary works in Bengali have emerged in this country along with periodic festivities, the largest one being the North American Bengali Conference (NABC). Unfortunately, these efforts have been intentionally or inadvertently segregated either by country or religion of the organizers. Immigrant Bengalis from Bangladesh are almost certainly Muslims while the ones from India are mostly Hindus.
Activities of Hindu Bengalis are often combined or coordinated with Hindu religious occasions. Even in the literary arena, Hindu Bengalis do not contribute much to Bangladeshi publications and vice versa. Many retired elderly Indian Bengalis have devoted their time and resources in recent years to establish Hindu temples throughout this country.
These serve not only as venues for Hindu religious festivities but also as a place for holding various cultural discussions and even social gatherings. I suspect that the Muslim Bengalis from Bangladesh do not attend such gatherings simply because they are associated with a Hindu temple and/or Hindu festivities. A similar enthusiasm among them to build mosques is absent for a good reason. Islam is already well established and widespread in this country covering many nationalities and ethnic groups and is not just restricted to Bangladeshis. The mosques are also present in the US in abundant numbers, reportedly around 3,000 by the latest count.
Consequently, the cultural practices of the Bengali Muslims are more focused and separate from their religious celebrations. Much to the chagrin of the Hindu Bengalis, the Bangladeshi people seem to be promoting Bengali culture more vigorously. It is not just cultural activities; the Bangladeshi people are much more entrepreneurial, especially when it comes to starting Bengali restaurants and various stores catering to Bengali tastes.
One can find restaurants in many large cities in the USA which are owned by Bengalis from Bangladesh and serve eternally favourite food items of all Bengalis. The Indian Bengalis seem to have an aversion to getting involved in hands-on business, possibly because of the difference in educational backgrounds.
Bengali immigrants from India typically are well educated and automatically seek employment in teaching professions, medical services, accounting/economics and more recently in IT jobs. Most people from Bangladesh, on the other hand, came to this country with the specific goal of establishing businesses and not for getting higher education. Sadly, interfaith marriages between Bangladeshi and Indian Bengalis are few and far between and social interactions between the two groups are not as intense as one might expect from groups sharing a language and culture.
It seems as if the old rivalry between the Bangals and Ghotis has now been transformed into a new rivalry in this country between Bengalis from Bangladesh and the ones from India. The Ghoti-Bangal rivalry was rooted in regional differences but these two groups of immigrant Bengalis are divided by both country of origin as well as religion. Although Bangladesh was originally founded as a secular country, its later dictators have tried to change it into an Islamic Republic, presumably to get financial help and patronage from the oil-rich nations in the Middle-East. In the meantime, the Hindunationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has taken a firm grip on Indian politics.
While India has been plagued by occasional violent Hindu-Muslim riots ever since independence from the British, concerns over a deep polarization along religious lines have intensified in recent years. I wonder if we, the Bengali immigrants in the USA, will ever be able to set aside our religious/political differences and truly unite to promote our common language and culture. I sincerely hope to see efforts by our Bengali community leaders for unification of the two factions.
(The writer, a physicist who worked in industry and academia, is a Bengali settled in America.)