The 'Bong' connection
Our roots have this strange thing of cropping up suddenly, on life’s path, to remind you “where you come from”. You may be living in icy Reykjavík, but, one day, be on the lookout for butter chicken because you have Punjabi bones under your shell jacket. Or be tempted to break into a bhangra to the strains of Icelandic rock.
When I first moved from Calcutta (or Kolkata) at the turn of the millennium, and came to New Delhi, the first thing most people I knew asked me was: “Will you live in Chittaranjan Park?”
I had heard of CR Park, never visited (until much later); it was commonly referred to as the “Bengali ghetto” in India’s national capital.
“Why would I want to live in the Bengali ghetto?” I’d respond airily. “I want to broaden my horizons.”
“Uff, you don’t understand, there’s a certain comfort being in the midst of your people, you won’t feel homesick. Plus, CR Park has the best fish market, all Bengali-type varieties.”
It took me some time — and lots of effort — to convey that I’ve never enjoyed eating fish. There was always an aghast “How can you not? You are a Bengali!” line hurled at me.
Pretty much the same scenario played out when I came to Dubai. When I said I lived in Bur Dubai, I’d get, “Oh good, the Durga Pujas take place in Bur Dubai, you won’t feel out of place… we also have a WhatsApp group of Bengali ladies — domiciled in the area — who sell saris that you should totally be a part of.” By now, I’d learnt not to say, “Not really interested in attending Durga Pujas or purchasing saris” and would just nod — it saved me the trouble of yet another pointless back and forth.
Interestingly though, I’m usually quite happy to meet Bangladeshi cabbies, it’s a guilty pleasure — ‘guilty’ because it goes against my alleged ‘cosmopolitan’ grain. While talking to them, I realise that language plays a way larger role in unifying than borders divide.
The other day happened to be Bengali New Year. I had quite forgotten. There’s only one new year, or year, I am acquainted with. The Gregorian one. The rest don’t matter.
But from early morning onwards, there were hordes of Bengalis (including a few honorary ones), from all the world, wishing me ‘Shubho nobo borsho’ — the Bengali equivalent of HNY. Someone had sent me the greeting in vernacular mode, so I immediately copied it and started pasting it as my stock response (I even got a few admiring messages on how I knew the Bengali script so well that I was capable enough to incorporate the same in my texts — despite my dislocation from geography).
One of my friends probably had a day off from work, so she embarked on a long-drawn-out (virtual) conversation on how she plans to celebrate the Bengali New Year. I asked her if she knew which year it is in the Bengali calendar.
“Er, no, but I can Google.”
“Strange, no, that most of us don’t even know which year it is, and yet we keep bombarding each other with greetings? By the way, do you know your Bengali birth year, or the year you got married? Better still: which was the year of the pandemic in provincial terms?”
In a rather hypocritical about-turn, when a Malayali friend and her (north) Indian-Canadian partner wanted to have a “Bong lunch” a couple of days after Bengali New Year, I offered to be their food guide. You see, if there’s one thing that stokes my Bengali-ness, it is food.
The three of us marched off to a restaurant in Oud Metha that serves ‘authentic’ Bengali food. There, as the other two looked on in awe, I took over the reins of “order” and tagged every item with an explanation. Hilsa is a fish with very fine bones, so be very careful while eating it. Bengali dal is usually made with a medley of five spices (paanch phoron), which is why it tastes different; it pairs best with fried brinjals (begun bhajas) and finely-fried potatoes. DO NOT mix up courses: it’s a blasphemy to mix the mustard gravy of the fish with the dal. Kosha mangsho (slow-cooked mutton) should be eaten with luchis (the Bengali version of pooris). And so on.
Post lunch, I took them to a neighbouring shop that sells mishti doi (sweet curd, endemic to Bong cuisine) and sandesh made with notun gur (a kind of jaggery), and made them have the two in tandem.
“That’s the way we eat it back home,” I beamed.
“Gosh, Sush,” they said. “You are such a Bengali!”