Of Sandesh and Sangeet: How I Learnt to Embrace My Bengaliness


Of Sandesh and Sangeet: How I Learnt to Embrace My Bengaliness

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

There’s nothing sexy about being Bengali. We’re loud, pretentious, dramatic, and often argue just for the sake of it. We’re not famous for being particularly good-looking, and we aren’t much fun either. As a result, I spent my entire childhood trying to avoid my “vast and glorious heritage”, of which I was reminded on a regular basis by my Banglaphile (if that’s a word) Didu (naani).

Being a shehri bachcha, I was able to steer clear of all the Bengaliness on a day-to-day basis. All my friends were from different parts of India (far more exotic than Bengal), so most were ignorant about my regional peculiarities. Unfortunately, my maternal grandparents lived in Shantiniketan, house of all things Bengali, where watching the entire population collectively orgasm over some obscure Bengali poem or song wasn’t an uncommon sight. My mother forced us on to the Shantiniketan Express about three to four times a year for heritage-related indoctrination.

From the second we boarded that train, we weren’t allowed to speak in English. We were forbidden from calling her mom or mumma (she disowned us quite heartlessly when we did). Only Ma was granted. Instead of chocolate biscuits or chips, we were fed jhaal muri and lebu cha, which were purchased from the many passing vendors. We would take our revenge at Bolpur station – we’d force her to accompany us to one of the toilets of the famous Indian Railways where we’d inevitably find a guy singing Rabindra Sangeet, laugh loudly at him, and thus embarrass Ma thoroughly. At the end of the journey, our grandfather would receive two buoyant children and their haggard caretaker on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the station, and we’d set off for Prashanti – the abode of the Sens.

Wintertime in Prashanti was synonymous with party time. Together, we’d try to escape from home on cycles, have midnight feasts and subsequent tummy upsets, get routinely yelled at by our grandmother, get treated to Sandesh by the cook, and take rides on the nagordola (Ferris wheel) at the mela until we ran out of pocket money.

However, behind the innocuous surface, darker forces were at play. It was here that the plan to “Make the Children Bengali Again” would commence. First things first, lunch was all about macher jhol and bhaat, after which the adults would retire for an afternoon siesta, warning us kids to stay out of trouble. My cousins, both girls, were around the same age as my brother and I, and we’d usually play some light Westlife or Avril Lavigne numbers (we were very young), while we discussed our crushes in excruciating detail and tried on make-up. The cacophony thus created would inevitably wake my grandmother up, who’d scold us for constantly listening to “jaa ta English music” after which she’d feed us mangsher chop and entertain us with stories of her childhood. She’d then attempt, not so subtly to nourish every single stereotype associated with Bangla-ness in us. She insisted that we had “golaye shur (literally, tune in our throats)”. She sang Bengali songs out loud all day in the hope that we’d hum along. When we didn’t, she sang English songs, hymns about “Jeejusji”.

Grandma insisted that as a true Bengali, I should top the class. I didn’t know how to remind her that I’d never come first at anything, ever.

A strong believer in the supremacy of all things Bengali, she never understood my reluctance to embrace my heritage. She insisted that Bengal was where true culture and sophistication lay, not with those “uncivilised” North Indian heathens, nor with the tetul-eating South Indians. Clearly, Subhas Chandra Bose was greater than Gandhi, Tagore was better than Shakespeare, and Amartya Sen better than Adam Smith himself.

Grandma encouraged us to pronounce our names in the “correct” (read Bengali) way. As if having names like Katyani, Vinayak, Anwesha, and Amarabati weren’t Bengali enough, we were forced to introduce ourselves as kattayonee, been-aah-yolk, onnesha, and aww-more-a-boti. The side effect of this was that no one knew us by our “good names” and we were widely referred to by our daak naams, which were Goga, Poga, Rai, and Babulal Darwaan respectively.

Since Bengali was my third language in school, I’d never taken to reading and writing it. My mediocre performance was met by repeated chee, chee, chees. Grandma insisted that as a true Bengali, I should top the class. I didn’t know how to remind her that I’d never come first at anything, ever. Nevertheless, she took it upon herself to buy me Feluda books and forced me to read out two paragraphs to her every day for an entire month, the one time she visited us. She insisted that nothing in the world could beat Bangla poetry and that I was too much of a “taansh phiringi” to appreciate it. She insisted that Bengali was the sweetest language in the world, something that was presented to me as a statistic and not an opinion.

That aside, she was also convinced that I had it in me to be a great artist and writer, so did my cousins. My brother, luckily, had been pronounced devoid of any artistic ability. She would spend hours encouraging us to draw, paint, write, and be more Bengali, and we in turn spent every single one of those moments defying her and assuring her that we liked none of it.

The years passed and we succeeded in shedding our Bengaliness. Or so we thought. Recently, I went to visit my cousins in Bangalore. We spent hours laughing about our childhood and spoke about the horrors Didu had inflicted on us every time we visited her.

One evening, we all dressed up and were set to go pub hopping, when we started wondering if we should go grab some dinner instead. Onnesha wistfully mentioned, “Should we go have some luchi mangsho at Oh! Calcutta?” Aww-more-a-boti and I looked at her scornfully. “After that, do you want to just go back home and listen to some Bangla songs,” asked Aww-more-a-boti.

I knew that I would be thrilled to do it. My Bengaliness had eventually seeped into my soul. All that remains is for me to burst into a beshuro rendition of Aguner Poroshmoni, to which Didu, if she were still around, would head bang with all the enthusiasm of a metalhead and gleefully cackle that I did indeed have shur hidden somewhere deep in my throat.