A Bengali across the sub-continent – a personal reflection

When I started this blog, there were several posts that were essentially personal reflections. Over time, those posts have dwindled, as professional interests and thoughts on politics dominated. So this is a rare one…this post was written first for the Trivandrum Bengalee Association’s (TBA) annual magazine.

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Having grown up a Bengali in Kerala, I am usually the first in conversations to admit to multiple identities. Often worn like multiple hats, I have used these identities often to my advantage. I am going to talk about being a Bengali across the sub-continent – a rapid evolutionary tour, as it were.

Growing up in Trivandrum, we were the proverbial frog in a well. Our well was only as large as the Trivandrum Bengali Association (TBA). Being Bengali in Trivandrum was to grow up stumbling through reading Malayalam, celebrating Pujo, watching mostly Hindi television programmes, and reciting “Where the mind is without fear…” at every school recitation competition. All of you are living this life, so I am not going to dwell on it very long.

When I was in school, Mohun Bagan had IM Vijayan and Jo Paul Anchery playing for them. That was bad enough. Unfortunately, the two gentlemen ended up playing for the Bengal team in the Santosh Trophy for a couple of years, compelled by a domicile rule, and that is one of my early memories of being at the receiving end of some parochial hostility from my classmates.

I blended in, in every other way possible. Trivandrum was home (it still is). I did not catch on to Malayalam movies until I was in my teens, but they have turned into a lifelong romance. On the other hand, I have barely watched a handful of Bengali movies, celebrity directors notwithstanding. Remember, we were Bengalis who had never lived in Bengal. And while my parents may have moved to Trivandrum from Calcutta and thought of their new home to be a small town, for me, it was a city, way more comfortable than the towns in Bengal that we would visit during our summer holidays. There was just one thing that Trivandrum could not match Calcutta in – the Howrah Bridge.

But growing up in Trivandrum, was to grow up breathing cleaner air, going to simpler (and better) schools, but being part of an inexplicably conservative society. As a non-Malayalee, I was automatically looked upon suspiciously by those teachers in school who had taken upon themselves, responsibility of upholding the virtues of conservativeness. I often suffered at their hands. The reasons varied, but the drama was intact.

All in all, being Bengali in Trivandrum was being different, and trying to blend in. The Bengalis I saw celebrated their culture over their religion, loved their food over their rituals, cherished their authors and poets, enjoyed their tambola and card games, and more often than not, a good smoke with their tea.

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When I moved to Delhi at the age of 17, the Bengalis I met were a bit different. This was in college – so when I say Delhi, I actually mostly mean the Delhi University. Speaking better Hindi than the average Bengali did was a definite advantage. Without a doubt, the Bengalis I met there were the most impressive. In fact, it was n Delhi that for the first time, I had a conscious choice to make – was I a Bengali or a Malayalee? In Delhi, the answer was obvious. And growing up in Trivandrum had made us sufficiently malleable – a mix of traits and ability to don the hat that fit the weather.

Bengalis dominated the inter-collegiate debating circuit. They were big in Dramatics. They were good at Economics. Some of the best professors were Bengali. Bengalis were both capitalists, and communists. In my eyes, they were royalty – the intellectuals. I realised early that it would not be good to be a non-descript Bengali in Delhi. I felt like I had high standards to live up to. So naturally, I started wearing a punjabi to make an impression. I think it worked.

I spent three years in Delhi, and then moved on.

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There were several good years of my life, substantive parts of which were spent in Orissa, Chennai, Brighton, Accra and Nairobi. I skip over these years because there were very few defining experiences that stemmed from my Bengali origins. Yes, learning Oriya was made easier because I knew Bangla, and I didn’t much care about either Bengali or Oriya sweets. I also didn’t get much grief in Orissa for being Bengali – I suppose I was lucky.

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After hopping from one city to another in India and Africa, I ended up in Dhaka last year. I was quite conscious that this would be the first ever time in my life that I was going to live in a Bengali-speaking city – only, this was not in India. It could have been strange. It turned out not to be. Bengalis here eat differently from the Bengalis I had known thus far. They also speak in a tongue quite different from my own, and often, appreciate my spoken language. It is incredible, it is undeserving, but there it is. Here is a place where my Bengali identity is all that matters.

You all know how one of mainstream India’s favourite pastimes is to abuse Bangladeshis. As if the Indian government being big brother wasn’t bad enough, our people have been piling it on. For more reasons than one then, someone like me should be at the receiving end living in Dhaka. But that has rarely happened. Of course, we all know that both India and Bangladesh have adopted songs written by Rabindranath Tagore as their national songs. We also know of our sub-continental history and of the glories of ‘greater Bengal’ – all from books though, having grown up in a land nearly 3000 km away. The Bengali identity trumps my nationality.

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So what kind of a Bengali did I become? In sum, I am the kind that is far removed from the STEM fields. I belong to a community that is socially liberal. We mostly side with the small guy, and we also sometimes love a big state. I love Amartya Sen, and his thesis of people with ‘multiple identities’ fits me like a glove; people like me are also often accused of being ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ – that anti-Semitic Soviet-era pejorative, which has been somewhat resurrected in recent times by world leaders – most notably, by Theresa May in 2016.

Perhaps our greatest curse is, to borrow from Sen again, that we are argumentative. It may appear at times that we would rather win an argument, than win a battle. A desire to argue, if not out loud, at least silently, is all-pervasive. Even when one is tired of arguments, there is a different kind of fatigue I fear more – from letting go, and not arguing. This has affected my friendships and relationships equally. Sometimes, the desire to stand out is so burning, that I find myself standing alone.

Through all of this, there is a constant yearning to claim the moral high ground. This sometimes means admitting that hyper-nationalism is a problem, that our culture trumps our religion, and that both might need reform, that our professions need to do more for the society, and admitting that our education may have had gaps. There is a degree of self-awareness that comes from a composite identity – of being Bengali, varnished as it has been, by layers of Trivandrum and elsewhere.

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