The ABC of Bengali Indigestion


The ABC of Bengali Indigestion

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

We, the big-eyed, gentle-faced, afternoon nap-loving species nestled in the bylanes of Calcutta, are well known for our varied anomalous penchants. Like vehemently believing that potatoes belong in biryanis or that our homes are incomplete if they don’t possess tubes of Boroline. We are also inevitably drawn to monkey caps in November irrespective of global warming, sincerely practice the art of embarrassment known as “daak naams”, and believe that the sole purpose of watching any film is surmising that “Satyajit Ray could have done it better.”

But amid this intense and all-consuming layer of Bengali snobbery that our identities are often intertwined with, lies a grim tale of suffering that not many are privy to. For, our bhodro existence is also marred by a potent shadow of the world’s most deadly dose of ABC – ambol (acidity), bodhojom (indigestion), and constipation. It’s no wonder then that while the rest of the world lauded Shoojit Sircar’s Piku as a romantic comedy ahead of its time, for us Bengalis, its contents was straight out of a reality-based horror film.

For the residents of the weak-bellied city called Calcutta, every day of our lives is essentially a stark reminder that gluttony comes with a heavy price.  If there’s one thing us Bengalis fear more than uncultured adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s stories into pseudo-intellectual short films, it’s our delicate stomachs revolting against our “reech” (rich) food choices. Enter our nemesis indigestion, because believe it or not, our collective immunity system is weaker than a model surviving only on a diet of tomato juice. In every household in Calcutta then, the Great Bengali Bowel Movement becomes the only daily primetime debate that anyone seems to care about.

Like Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) in Piku, most of our waking hours are also dominated by dissecting every bowel movement of our family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers to get to the root cause of the indigestion woes. In fact, the easiest signifier of two Bengalis being close to each other is them shedding their inhibitions and discussing their respective bowel movements in salacious detail. Although, it’s not like that needs any investigation anyway; our weak digestion capabilities are essentially the fault in our stars. At this point, it’s only the worst kept secret in the world.

Naturally then, the helpless band of Bengalis, who nurse an incurable weakness for Bengali cuisine and for shamelessly advocating its superiority to anyone who will listen, are forced to go through their lives with their own set of tips and tricks. The dates of Poila Boisakh, Durga Pujo, Kali Pujo, and December weddings are urgently marked out on the calendars in the beginning of the year. For it is during these wondrous days that every Bengali needs to be extra careful about his/her body, revolting against the eighth helping of deep-fried luchis, copious amounts of chingri, and the stomach wearing a general uneasy feeling of “pet-bhaar” (A typical Bengali condition in which the last meal’s remnants refuse to be digested, forcing a Bangali to utter a sorrowful word when kosha mangsho is offered to him: no).

In every household in Calcutta, the Great Bengali Bowel Movement becomes the only daily primetime debate that anyone seems to care about.

And finally, a week before these festivities the big guns are laid out. Us, Bengalis start doing something that we have never been good at: taking care of our bodies. It’s a revolting exercise, yet we sincerely march on and say no to food – to gulping down telebhajas and mutton cutlets with gusto after sunset, carelessly drinking water after eating chanachur or fruits, and staying away from ghee as much as our willpower permits us.

What makes this ordeal slightly easier is being reunited with one of our loyal allies. It’s during this festive season that the world learns the most important alphabet that come after ABC: D, aka Digene. You will often hear parents, friends, relatives uttering the phrase “There’s Digene after the meal” at every festive gathering, important occasion, or a Sunday bhoj. It becomes the pick-up line that all of us don’t just desperately need, but also deserve.

The significance of digestive enzymes in our lives becomes all the more sacrosanct in the light of two things. One, the great Bengali stomach holds a reputation for its unpredictability. And two, this peculiar talent becomes all the more harmful when accompanied with one of the most addictive Bengali habit: our inability to say no to third helpings, come what may.

Overeating is the only way Bengalis eat anyway, and cries of “Yes, I’ll have one more” can be heard at every Bengali household from October to December. It is this lethal combination of self-destructive, regretful behaviour that leads us straight to the doorstep of Digene.

Which is why, much before our passionate love-affair with Boroline comes Digene. Because chapped lips we can live with, but indigestion might give us heartburn which is more fearful than heartbreak. After all, which Bengali would like to be acidic on Ashtami? We’d rather munch on a fish fry. With extra kasundi please.