Becoming Bengali, over many years
Radhika Mitra
I was born a Bengali. And then, twenty-one years later, I became one. Growing up in Calcutta, I took my Bengali-ness for granted. I saw myself as someone who just happened to have Bengali parentage. To be fair, fifty per cent Bengali percentage. My father was Bengali, my mother wasn’t. But she was raised in a very Bengali para of the city, spoke the language fluently and since marrying my father, had learned to relish aloo posto and neem begun. Which made her Bengali enough for most.
I resented the cornerstones of a typical Bengali upbringing. In my Sunday morning Rabindra Sangeet class, I cowered in a corner, a six-year-old baffled by lyrics she didn’t understand. Instead, I found myself drawn to the easy tunes that I discovered while rifling through my father&’s stash of old records. Music that he’d brought back from his American university stint in the ’70s. Elvis Presley. Simon and Garfunkel. Queen. And finally, the LP that kick-started my life-long love for four blokes from Liverpool. Help by The Beatles.
But I was born a Bengali. And it&’s common wisdom that Bengali-ness implies a predisposition to the arts. After my music debacle, my parents did their bit to preserve the cliché. An art instructor was engaged to shepherd me through the vagaries of sketching, etching and painting, but soon, I told my parents with the inimitable succinctness of a pre-teen, “Art isn’t my thing”.
I was in equal parts a voracious and precocious reader. But my world of literature was decidedly British. From Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton as a child to Dickens and Wodehouse as a teenager—my literary world was populated with artful pickpockets, erudite butlers and absent-minded earls. I have blurred memories of my grandmother lulling me to sleep with stories from Thakurmar jhuli. But I struggle to recall one in its entirety. Perhaps because I never really ‘read” one on my own.
Unlike my artistic inclinations, which were lacking by Bengali standards, there was one realm where I did my community proud from the outset. I was a born foodie. Yet, while I savored my robibarer mangsho and bhekti paturi, my palette, perhaps by virtue of being an adventurous Calcuttan, was markedly cosmopolitan. Prawn cocktail from Park Street&’s legendary Sky Room. Lung Fung soup at Tangra. Cello kebabs slathered with butter at Peter Cat. Rum balls from the grand dame of confectionary—Flury&’s.
I turned my nose up at our dinner table at home, creaking under the weight of a Bengali dozen delicacies night after night.
And then, it all changed.
Not too long after I moved to the States as a 21 year old, in true Proustian vein, I found myself overwhelmed with a remembrance of things past. Smells. Sights. Sounds. Tastes. And then, beyond nostalgia, I started actively seeking out experiences that I’d derided when I was younger. Only this time to explore, indulge and savour them. I was surprised to discover that all of these endeavours had one thing in common. They were downright Bengali.
It was here in Austin, while working my student job at the university library, that I found myself trekking to the South Asian book collection one evening after work. At the Bengali language aisle, I paused almost involuntarily, even though my reading skills were pitifully rudimentary. I stared longingly at the soft cloth binding, the brittle paper, and the irregular, blotchy printing.
It was two aisles down, in the Bengali-English translation aisle that I found books that I would subsequently read many times over. Stories that were penned in Bengali but found their way into my consciousness in slim paperback volumes, with new age fonts and digitally designed covers, translated into English by Rhodes scholars from Oxford.
It was here in Austin, a couple years later, that I’d spend many weekends watching Bengali DVDs that I’d eagerly sourced from eBay and Amazon. Since then, I have discovered my Bengali-ness in more ways than I care to recall. Much like my younger self, it&’s no longer something I mull over or intellectualise.
To an extent, I still take my Bengali-ness for granted. I don’t define myself by it until I am in a room full of Indians in a crowded Diwali party in Austin or San Francisco or even Gaithersburg, Maryland and someone stops to admire my crisp jamdaani saree. You must be Bengali, they say. You have those large Bengali eyes, set wide apart. I bet you sing beautifully.
Meanwhile, I still adore The Beatles and Elvis. I make a living writing in English, often about spectacularly pragmatic things—semiconductors, cloud storage, high yield mutual funds. At home, on my lightly textured walls painted a creamy ecru, ornately framed oils scoured from cramped studios on College Street and Bowbazar, signed Bhattacharjee and De and Das, jostle for space with mixed media collages and digital ink art hand-picked from Soho and Greenwich village and Montmartre. On most nights, I’m as likely to fall asleep to McCartney serenading me through my headphones with I want to Hold your Hand as I am to strains of Tomaro Ashime Prano Mono Loye, soul-stirring in Debabrata Biswas’ rich baritone.
And yet, as I travel the world, fork in hand, living the life of an urbane, incorrigible epicure, I’m frequently reminded that the Bengali in me will never rest.
I could be sampling skewers of street food in a Bangkok alley or diligently pacing myself through a seventeen course tasting menu in a Michelin-star brasserie in Paris, when suddenly, mid-bite, I’ll pause, as though struck by epiphany.
Staring longingly at the exquisite butter-poached lobster tail on my plate, there&’s a voice inside my head that won’t pipe down: Admit it. Wouldn’t this be heavenly with a light drizzle of mustard oil…
The writer is a freelance contributor.