Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Dying Traits of the Bangali

On a lazy Sunday, Misses (or as the traditional Bengali bhodrolok would say “songsar” or the more bourgeois would say “phemily”) and I were discussing the dying traits of the traditional Bangali and his culture (pronounced kaalture), traits that would be lost in a generation or two as he becomes globalized into that mythical beast known as the “Bong”, assailed by the integrating and homogenizing influences of cosmopolitanism.

Here are few that we identified.

Shopping For Fish: Note I do not say the love for fish—which I believe will persist for some time. What I however believe we are losing is the sense of sheer joy that people of our parents’ generation and those above partook in the experience of procuring fish for the family.
Bengalis were never an overtly religious community. The closest they came to a regular communion with God was their weekly expedition to the fish market. Make no mistake. This was a ritual. First there was the proud walk to the market holding a bag (”tholi’). This would be followed by a slow survey of the cornucopia of aquatic edibles, as the expert spotted the will-be-rotten-soon from the fresh specimens by expertly pressing the belly of the fish, glancing at the color of the gills and the eyes all the while smiling to oneself at the mistakes of the novice shopper Barin-babu who does not know the significance of a fish that has its belly full of eggs and Banerjee who is unable to distinguish genuine Padma-r Hilsa from the local variety.
Then there would be a lengthy comparative shopping/ bargaining process where the bhodrolok/mohila would wag his/her finger and through a mixture of threats (I will stop buying from you) and entreaties ( come on I am your old customer, make your profit from Barin-babu not from me) that would impress a hostage negotiator, fix the price. Finally there was the observation of the fish cutting process where the Bengali Zen Master had to make sure that the fish was being diced into appropriate sized pieces (too big makes it difficult to cook and too little means it breaks in the pan) while at the same time keeping an eye out on the rapscallion fish vendors, who were known for their legerdemain by which they would tamper with the weights or make prime-cuts that had been paid for vanish somewhere near the folds of their lungi.
Bengalis arent proud of their wealth because they have none. Bengalis arent proud of their physiques either again because they have none. But they were always proud of their fishy skills and Bengalis of past generations would discuss their fish market conquests with the same enthusiasm (”Where do you get good shrimp nowadays–all the good shrimp gets exported to the US”) and one-up-manship (You paid Rs. 50 for a kilo of hilsa —well I paid Rs. 48) with which today’s generation discuss their cellphone models.
That pride is gone today as a new generation slowly and surely migrates to supermarkets and packaged fish with even those who are still forced to go to the fish market treating it as a horrible chore that needs to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Consequently, the savoring, the languidness and the pride that used to be associated with this almost mystical activity is now slowly dying away.

Tea: Accepted that drinking tea (cha) doesnt face imminent obsolescence like the expedition to the fish market. But its pre-eminent position as the discussion-fuel of the Bangali has been challenged by the ever-rising popularity of the coffee which once upon a time used to be the exclusive prerogative of”South Indians” as an uncle would say. When people now drop in, the host asks “Tea or coffee”? A generation ago it would be “two teaspoons of sugar or three” with tea being assumed to be the beverage of choice. Not convinced about the demise of tea? Ask 10 under-30 Bongo-sontans and Bongo-tanayas whether the word “Makaibari” rings a bell or “Barista”? I am sure most of you will come to the same conclusion that I have.

An Obsession With Catching The Cold: The Bengali is always catching a cold or the flu, at least much more frequently than any other lingual group in the world. Critics say that is all nonsense and just an excuse to avoid work but to be honest the Bengali does not need an excuse to do that since shirking work is his birthright.
So yes. It is true. Bengalis do have a genetic susceptibility for viruses and bacteria which explains why we have CPM and the Trinamool Congress and why we are forever sneezing and sniveling and running up a temperature, blaming it on what we call “season change”.
The Bengali has historically been well aware of this limitation of his constitution. That is why he used to fortify himself against the cold, even if it as mild as the Kolkata one, in such a heavy-handed manner that non-Bengalis could barely suppress their mirth. First there was the ubiquitous monkey-cap, black or brown in color, with which the Bengali would cover his head making him look he was on an expedition to the Antarctic than on a quiet stroll in the park on a November morning in Calcutta. Then there was the muffler and the turtle-neck sweater protecting the neck and torso from the depredations of Mother Nature. If one was going out for a picnic to Calcutta Zoo (which is where 80% of family expeditions finished up), the Bangali almost always carried a thermos flask with hot tea and oranges for the Vitamin C.
The women, unfortunately, did not have the luxury of the monkey-caps but had voluminous shawls and sweaters that kept them warm together with heavy woolen socks that protected their feet (since cold evidently attacks from the feet). During the winter, windows were usually stuck tight with the first breeze of spring (bosonter haowa) considered specially treacherous, known not only to bring out romantic poetry but also snot from the Bangali nose (Rabindranath Tagore reportedly tried to rebel against this trait of the Bengali to isolate himself from the environment by keeping his windows open during the extremes of summer and winter but then again there are certain changes even he failed to bring.)
Today’s generation of Bengalis have become more “fashionable” and scoff at wearing the monkey-cap and the woolen socks publicly. But they are still as afraid of the common cold as their predecessors were and don’t be surprised to find them surreptitiously wearing three heavy cotton vests beneath their shirts and thermal underwear beneath their trousers as they look over their shoulders from time to time to check if their biggest enemies are creeping up behind them.
Namely capitalists and rhinoviruses.
A Healthy Disregard For Allopathic Treatment The Bengali spends much of his lifespan in pain—either doubled up from stomach convulsions or sitting on the potty passing stool or having ice-cold napkins pressed to his forehead. But there was one thing old-timers avoided like the plague even in the midst of all this pain—allopathic medicine. As a matter of fact, the ultimate macho Bangali line used to be ” I do not believe in allopathy” with those who took Crocin or Enteroquinol being considered wimps of the first order.
For the Bangali Sunny Deol, any disease, from cough to cancer, could be cured by neem/basak leaves, karola (karele) and “chirotar jol” with the potency of the “medicines” being directly proportional to their vile taste. Every Bengali mashima (aunty) was an MBBS in plants and herbs while Bengali meshomashai (uncle) knew everything there was to know about homeopathy. This meant people went to Dr. De’s allopathic clinic round the corner for two reasons–1) death was imminent or 2) a fake health certificate was needed to explain why someone fell ill on the very day of the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match.
Today’s kids are however different. Having lost their faith in the remedies of old and slavishly following the West, they rush to the allopathic doctor at the first sign of trouble, whether it be a slight rumble in the stomach or a temperature of 99F.
Adda Again it is not that Bengalis do not get together and talk today or will cease to in the future but the defining characteristics of what was the Bangali adda (community chat sessions) is gradually dying out under the ceaseless attack of modern life and bi-yearly performance evaluations at work. Much as we Bengalis want to cling onto our glorious pasts and our four-hour workdays, the breakneck culture of today makes it impossible for the Bangali to come home from work at 3 pm, take a relaxing siesta, have a cleansing bath with Margo soap, wear a “photuya” and “pyjama” , slip on a hawai chappal and walk over to the community tea shop or to the “rock” of a house (an elevated unroofed portico) and have a relaxing discussion with fellow Bengalis over tea and alur (potato) chop.
There is much romanticization of the adda of old as if the topics of discussion were almost always Socrates and Camus and Trotsky and Tennyson. It was not. Much of adda was idle gossip about whether Uttam Kumar was really going out with Supriya and whether neigbhourhood Minu who had run away with the taxi driver will ever be able to get a decent husband. [Satyajit Ray’s “Agantuk” has a discussion on this with Rabi Ghosh asking “Rabindranath ki adda diten?”(did Rabindranath engage in adda?)]
Just to make things clear once again. The concept of adda and gossip is as alive as ever and will always be with technology like the internet allowing it to expand its scope beyond the boundaries of geography. However what is steadily dying out is the languid late-afternoon community gatherings and the face-to-face meetings as Twitter, email and SMS take their place.
Maidan Football Ask any Bangali old-timer about cricket and the chances are he will tell you that it is a pansy game played by imperialists. Not that the Bangali did not love cricket. After all in 1976, more than 40,000 came to the Eden Gardens on the fifth day morning to watch Bishen Singh Bedi bat as India crashed to a loss to Tony Greig’s England. But the passion generated by cricket was nothing compared to that generated by the baap of all games—football. More specifically local club football played at the Kolkata maidans.
The bitter rancor between Shias and Sunnis pales in comparison to that between old-time East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans with migrants from Bangladesh (Bangals) constituting the support base of the former and the traditional denizens of West Bengal (Ghotis) comprising the latter. Offices would empty during East Bengal-Mohun Bagan games and those unable to leave work would huddle over radios and transistors at their tables as all life would come to a standstill. There would be heated debates during and after the game with hands reaching for collars and with even bricks being thrown after particularly acrimonious referee decisions. The first game of the season used to be a social occasion. Goshto Pal and Chuni Goswami had their place in the pantheon of Bangali Gods along with Subhash Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. And grandfathers would get all teary-eyed and emotional as they would recall how in 1911 Mohun Bagan taught a colonially suppressed nation “to believe” when they defeated the “sahebs” to lift the IFA shield, an act the British never forgave the city for leading to the shifting of the capital to Delhi (All historians would disagree with this being the reason why the capital was shifted but try telling that to an emotional Mohun Bagan dadu).
For today’s generation of Bangalis however, cricket has knocked football off its pedestal. Blame it if you will on the steady decline in the standards of Maidan football or on the jazzy marketing strategies of cricket or the arrival of a certain man from Behala. Even those who still love football follow Manchester United rather than Mohun Bagan and obsess over which club Cristiano Ronaldo will be playing for as opposed to Baichung Bhutia. As a result of this lack of interest, Maidan football is slowly dying out and with it a hallowed Bangali tradition.
Elocution (abritti) and Rabindra Sangeet In College Fests: Tough for the young uns to believe today but the abritti competitions and the rabindra sangeet concert were some of the most well-attended events in Kolkata college socials during our parents’ generation with artists like Chinmay Chattopadhyay enjoying the kind of adulation reserved today for a Lucky Ali or a Shan.
But then the “social” became the “fest”. The old flowery elocution style with the trembling voice went out of fashion. Rabindra Sangeet is now considered too boring for the “masti public” since it doesnt get the crowd head-banging and grooving in the same way that Bangladeshi rock bands with their profound songs like “Frustration. Ami hote chai Sensation. Jiboner Expectation gulo sudhu baaki roye jaaye” [Rough translation: Frustration. I want to be a sensation. My life’s expectations remain unfulfilled] do. Which is why they are no longer financially viable in the corporate jamboree that college fests have become.
One can still take a look at how things used to be if one goes to college reunions, whose organization is typically dominated by generations past. Here elocution and rabindra sangeet is still the accepted mode of entertainment as the oldies sit awash in their memories.
And bachelor Debu-da wonders how his life would have been if he just had the courage to put the rose in Debolina’s Geetobitaan in 1966 as he wistfully looks at the 250 lb giantess that is the Debolina of today. However in his mind’s eye he sees only the Suchitra-Sen lookalike of 1965 which is how he remembers her.
Yes. The Bengali is changing. Fast. Not always for the good. But somehow I do not think that the romanticism that is wired into our DNAs, that Debu-da part of us, can ever be wiped away. And for that strangely I am thankful.