Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Us and them

It was a constant of my schoolday mornings. The tea tray, the newspaper, the voices slightly tinny as they poured forth from the old National cassette deck, my father unconsciously beating time on the chair-arm to “Sajani sajani kunja maajhey” and occasionally trying to instruct me on the finer points of the young Rabindranath’s budding genius in Bhanushingher Podaboli. At that age, I took the “Thakur” part of “Robi Thakur” very literally – I thought Rabindranath was actually a minor member of the Hindu pantheon. (This view may actually hold true in Bengal at large and Nandan in particular but is sadly absent in the rest of India among those exiles from true “kaalchaar”¸ the “non-Bengalis”.) What stuck in my 7-yr-old mind, however, was the fact that Robi Thakur’s first published work was not in Bangla but in Maithili - “Baba, was Rabindranath a khotta?!” My young mind was shocked that The Man himself had condeigned to write in any language other than Bangla.

After all, we Bangalis are the chosen ones. Can any other language compass the thoughts of our greatest literary genius?

I grew up. My attitude changed. But not, alas, the Bangali mind-set. Not the sweeping dismissal of all other ethnicity as O-Bangali. Nor the loving epithets – Khotta, TNetul, Pnaiyya and of course the ubiquitous Maaru. Even today, ten years into the 21st century, the educated and supposedly liberal Bangali who prides himself on being a global citizen can be dismissive, even pejorative, about “other” Indians. Granted, this parochialism is not violent, nor even xenophobic in the manner of Maharashtra or Assam. The Bangali does not seem to support political organisation on the lines of linguistic identity. The “Amra Bangali” party has had some limited electoral success and entered a Legislative Assembly, but in Tripura, not in West Bengal. Yet in some sub-stratum of the general conscious, independent of “Proutist” ideology, there persists a nagging resentment of the O-Bangali. This is of course most frequently voiced against the ethnic group that seems to be the most prosperous, the Marwaris.

I cringe when I hear the term Maaru. Even when it is used in jest by one of my Marwari friends. Because they are paying the price for prosperity. The community is not new to Calcutta. A friend of mine – Calcutta born, mostly Calcutta educated, proud of his roots in Mymensingh – received his come-uppance in a conversation some years ago, when one of Calcutta’s best-known citizens mentioned gently “My family has lived in Calcutta since the 18th century. Perhaps in another hundred years we’ll be accepted as Bangali”. In another well-known and oft-vilified Marwari family, known for their proximity to a previous Chief Minister, the present generation studied Bangla and not Hindi as a second language; at home they converse in Bangla, a rule made by the patriarch 40 years ago. But of course, they are only Maarus. They waste their time making money and what is worse, they buy out the houses of old Bangali families instead of letting them live on in genteel poverty in their old decaying mansions. Most reprehensible.

What about the community whose very names most easily set them apart from the Dhars, Bhars and Bhattacharyas? One of Calcutta’s most visible and successful Anglo-Indians, son of a grand old man who has represented his community in the State Assembly and in Parliament, told me that his proudest achievement is not that he is known across 5 countries, but that he was at one time goalkeeper for Rajasthan Club on the Calcutta Maidan. Anjan Datta’s nostalgia on celluloid may harp on how they are different from the Bangali mainstream, but they are for the most part “simple fish-eating Bongs.’

Perhaps these attitudes do not intrude upon personal interactions. One of my closest friends from school is a Sikh. On 31st October 1984, after walking home through the disturbances, I called him to find out if his family was safe in their Gariahat home – five floors of burly Sardars perched above a petrol pump, terribly vulnerable to arsonists. Chuckling at my concern, he told me that their neighbours had taken it upon themselves to throw a cordon round their house until the trouble subsided. A heartening story, and one that supports my hypothesis that Bangali parochialism is rarely violent.

There is even a subtle distinction between the Calcuttan and the “other” whose roots lie upcountry. The Calcuttan used to be the most reluctant to leave his city, the most convinced that his life was best between Dum Dum and Garia, the one most likely to refuse an assignment in Purulia or Jalpaiguri. This was succinctly summed up by a colleague in the IPS when he said “WE are the real Bangalis, we have worked all over Bengal. YOU are only a Calcuttan.”

In one respect there still exists a disconnect that nobody will openly discuss. In my experience, this is more common among a previous generation and, strangely enough, more common on the city fringes, in the suburbs rather than the truly rural areas. The same “cultured”, supposedly educated Bangali who declaims the poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam is perfectly capable of asking, “Is he Bangali or Mussulman?”

The wheel seems to have come full circle, though. A certain class of Bangali is most likely to deride paati Bangali attitudes and lampoon “Bong” stereotypes. Good or bad, they have positioned themselves outside the narrower Bangali identity in favour of one that is more pan-Indian. Is this a sign of growing cosmopolitanism?

(This was in the Bengal Post, where I am allowed to faff on any given Monday. And they pay me for it!)


Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed the last few pieces you put up, but this one really resonated with me. Good show JAP.

-- Richie

Tania said...

Loved it. Here's what I had written a while back.Posted it today inspired by your post.http://thetryingpoetinme.blogspot.com/2010/08/about-breaking-stereotypes.html

bongopondit said...

Enjoyed this thoroughly. Nicely captures the how we are often parochial, without really being so.

Interestingly, I've had Bengali friends living in Delhi all their lives (CR Park, where else) laying greater claim to 'Bangali-yana' with same argument of me being a Kolkata-an rather than a Bangali.

[Btw, I too used to believe in the literal divinity of the "Thakur" title, till I learned that Sharmila was also Tagore/Thakur, and she obviously wasn't godly.

Anyesha said...

And then there are those Probasi Bangalis!

Vivek K said...

And most of the "maarus" do not even have their roots in "marwar"! But then, stereotypes are never about accuracy anyway.

Partho said...

I have always defined myself as a Calcuttan. Not Bangali.

Sue said...

By and large this stuff doesn't bother me but the husband is a product of such an upbringing and calls people Mero and Khotta despite being a Bihari himself!

Ricercar said...

nice post. i more than agree with you. however there are a few exceptions to the rule too. for example a family who are friends of my parents, i think you might know them too that i grew up thinking of as very bangali, i found out later were actually from punjab settled in bengal for many generations. i thought at one time that the degree of resentment depended on the success of the community. bengalis hated the maru because who are they to come along and work their butts off and be succesful. but they still hate bihari's taxi drivers and bangladeshi's refugee types and generally everyone whos not a bengali. after so many generations here, i still am told my many personal foibles can be attributed to my being bangal (though they are happy to claim the more illustrous imports from dhaka and their saree's). countless families in calcutta who are more bengali than many bengalis i know are still marked as being a-bangali. infact as someone once pointed out to me, bengalis are the only people who have a specific word for it: a-bangali. throughout school and when i worked in calcutta i heard comments on the fact that i chose to hang out with people who werent bengali. my family is mixed: dhaka, bihar, westbengal. we're not counted as proper bengali either. so the criteria for being included is pretty strict :-)

incidentally, i too thought thakur meant they he was a god. caused a lot of confusion when i met real people and was was told they were related to him (because ofcourse people are introduced my who their great grandfather was)

Ricercar said...

and the Mussulman aspect ofcourse is a whole new can of worms :-)

Lazyani said...

Agreed Japda.I have two strange bits to add to your well written piece:- One of the members of the 'obangali' family but having old roots in Bengal from the pre-partition days mentioned by you (I think I can guess their identity)casually mentioned to me that doing business with the Bangali is preferred in his line of business, as they are better paymasters than the obangalis:)

The other is about my cousin brother who was born in Jharkhand (Bihar) and studied and works in Mumbai. We were watching a cricket match together where Sourav was having a torrid time. After some time my brother said 'Shala Bangali dubaa diyaa!":)Imagine the reaction of my staunchly Bengali Family :)))))

I said...

I'm new to your blog, and I loved the first couple of posts I read. I think I'm going to have to read up all the archives.

Soma said...

Dear JAP,
I am a Calcuttan, who spent the first 15 years of her life amidst a chaotic 'Modhyo Kolkata para' nestled among Gujju Mota bhais who had taken over every corner of the blind alley other than the three/four hapless Bangali baris. I learnt how to speak Hindi like a 'hindustani' from Masterji, who lived in a single room with his brood of three sons and a wife who forever remained behind her 'pallu, in the same alley .. I still remember my 'bhushiwala' Bihari neighbours who had an autistic son and right outside the alley was the beginning of a Mussalmaan para. Yet every Durga Puja, two neighbouring alleys would compete with 'disco' light and 'art-er thakur' but being from such a 'jawgakhichuri para' what I did miss out on in my erstwhile alley were Bangla 'abritti protijogita''bose anko protijogita''Bijoya Sammaloni' and 'Rabindra Jayanti' . When we moved and kept moving I came across the fiercely parochial Bangalis, who you speak so highly of, in CR Park and in a city in the Middle East and all that I had missed out in the name of being a Bangali earlier. And I often wondered, was it okay to be such an aberration, to be Bangali and not be parochial? And then I stumbled upon your 'pimped' post ...

Anonymous said...

Niiice!!! Summed up so succinctly.

eve's lungs said...

Doesnt much affect me since I am a Kokatan by marriage but the husband lays great stock by all this - he's a true blue Bong very happy in his Bangaliyana and his Kolkata iana .

Mita Basu said...

Didn't once Vir Sanghvi state that Bengalis are the only community who divide the world into -- Bengalis and non-bengalis?

So true what you say in your post. I have this huge gripe against the Bongs. You fail to mention how the the Bengalis call the rest of the Indians as "hindustanis"..not realizing that they are one too. I am sure proud to be a hindustani.

Good job!

Anonymous said...

More, more, more.

Where are all the cols you didn't post?

Anon E Mouse

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Richie, muy obrigado

Tania, loved your verse

Pondit Moshai, Sharmila could have been a nyaka debi

Anyesha, Probashi ? "Amon which number, good my lady, be ye one?

Vivek, so right. Stereotypes are never about accuracy.

PDot, you stand alone, out-topping knowledge

Sue, you can call people by any name that fits. And some that don't.

Rai Sorcar, "people are introduced by who their great-grandfather was' - that's a gem. But not limited to Bangalis.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Hale Queen Rose, the column should be in YOUR paper. Except that YOUR blog is much better.

Eve's Lungs, and what were you before marriage?

Soma, like I said, you're kind. And post about your experience of Bangaliyana

Ani, identities of convenience?


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Mita, if VS did say that, shows his acute observation

I, welcome. Hope you visit often.


km said...

"and after all, we're only ordinary men"

Excellent post.