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!)