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13 November 2007

Kolkata: A Cultural Shock To A 'Probashi Bangali'

[Caution: The use of Bengali expletives could not be avoided in some parts of this article for the sake of an authentic feel of Bangla, in which street language, I observed in course of my life in Kolkata and visits to some suburbs, is indispensable. Readers are advised discretion.]

Relevant portions of my e-mails to friends will be added towards the end of the blog (after Anjan Dutta's lyrics) from time to time

naqsh faryAdI hai kiskI shokhi-E-tahrIr kA?
kAghazI hai pairahan har paikar-E-taswIr kA.

[naqsh = a drawn impression
faryAdi = appealing
shOkhI = style, coyness
tahrIr = writing
kAgh'azI = made of paper, fake, useless
pairahan/pairAhan = outfit, clothing
{kAgh'azI pairahan/pairAhan = plaintiff's dress
pairahan/pairAhan kAgh'azI hOnA = be a plaintiff (in an old Iranian tradition, one who came to the Shah to appeal against some injustice done to him would hang from his neck a sheet of paper, sometimes containing the written complaint, before presenting himself in the court so that he is easily identified as a complainant}
paikar = body, embodiment (of something)
taswIr = photograph, portrait]

Mirza Asadullah Khan 'Ghalib' was for the first time invited at the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah 'Zafar' II. Ghalib's poetry, as such, was highly philosophical, far ahead of his times. Given that the audience would be connoisseurs of poetry, Ghalib chose the best from his collection (the above couplet) to impress the gathering. But alas! In a type of assembly of poets where it's a convention to treat each verse with overt encomiums, not a single soul moved in appreciation. Ghalib's parlance was beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries.

Ditto my fate in Kolkata in 1989 and in the newspaper The Pioneer in 2005; hence the analogy.

The City's Appearance:
And you thought Bengalis were intellectuals? The following picture will show how much they are subjects of a herd mentality. Certain things about Kolkata do not show an inclination to (or a desire for) change -- narrow roads, for example. The administration has got so used to the sight that even when they get empty expanse of fields (the Sonarpur region beyond Garia, south Kolkata, for instance), they build 12-feet wide roads on them. Barring the stretch from Minto Park (Shahid Bhagat Singh Udyan) to Esplanade East, Salt lake and some other pockets here and there with multi-storeyed apartments, the rest of Kolkata looks like one big, stretched Middle India township: Most houses are never repainted; you may see moss and weed along the edges of most walls. The houses with broad windows are box-like, atop three or four step staircases. Manually pedalled rickshaws honk about in the bylanes of every neighbourhood. Mosquitoes trouble you even in broad daylight. Auto-rickshaws are not taxis; they take you up to a distance of five kilometres maximum...

As for the people, the young are certainly no longer miserly. But outsiders find the old antiquated; when a non-Bengali visits Kolkata and meets me on coming back, he laughs at the old folk walking about in dhuti-panjabi with a KC Pal brand chhata (umbrella) in hand -- whatever be the weather condition.

Once A Holy Cow:
Nevertheless, in the pre-1989 years, for us, the Bengalis detached from our land, Calcutta was a mother a child refused to hear censure of. I remember the almost 14 years I lived in the Hindi hinterlands as unpaid advocates of our El Dorado, Kolkata, a word only a Bengali can pronounce properly. A mere mention of disapprobation of the city by a non-Bengali, and Sandip, Soumen, Tridib, Bidyut, Partho and I would pounce on the violator of our holy cow.

Admission In College And Society:
Well, that was that. My voyage to Calcutta (not rechristened 'Kolkata' yet) began with the treachery of none other than a Bengali – Sandip Kumar Mitra. The snub I received in the Trandrima episode and the subsequent lower-than-potential fare at the AISSE exam was not enough for Sandip's sadistic satisfaction. He came back from Calcutta in July and (mis)informed me that the admissions to the colleges there had not yet begun. I believed him.

When I finally landed in the city in August, I found that almost all the colleges I'd aimed at were through with the admission round. Only pass courses had vacancies. The first disgusting figures came in the form of paan-chewing clerks of the University of Calcutta whom I had to humour to get past the migration formalities. From south of the city where I was living with my uncles to the north where the university campus was, I was made to run from pillar to post, facing interrogation of the type only criminals are subjected to by sub-divisional clerks for whom the opportunity knocked only once a year to wield the baton of authority. And they wielded it on hapless future citizens of tomorrow.

There was another unwritten code of conduct I saw the city dwellers adhered to. Those without grey hair had no right to speak. Whichever professor Jethu (elder brother of my father) and I met chose to speak only to the former keeping me out of the conversation. This was not plausible given that Jethu hardly had enough information of my educational details that far. I used to take him along only for his familiarity with the place and its people. Whenever Jethu chipped in a wrong piece of information and I had to step in to rectify it, the oldie would fume, "Badoder majhe katha bolchho keno? Tomar dhrishtota to kam noy!" (How dare you intervene when the elders are speaking!")

Towards the end of an evening, fatigued with questions that had nothing to do with academics, we trudged along into a small college situated in the midst of the only part of the city that looked like a city. It was Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose College on the street known by the same name, though the appellation 'Lower Circular Road' sounds more familiar to people of that place. The building with its two storeys was no bigger than the shed where our Holy Cross sisters (nuns) used to keep their beloved Australian Jersey cows.

The Language:
Yet there was something appealing about the ambience, besides the razzmatazz that the area is associated with. After a long time, I was hearing students speak English that I considered English. The Bangla had no influence of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's archaisms that the Bengali-medium students of south Calcutta were seen very fond of. This college's was the Bangla we spoke in Bokaro.

While speaking, where we would say tai (so), the Calcuttans said sutorang and ato-eb* as if it were a mathematical sum they were dealing with. We said, "Jaboi" (I'll certainly go); they said, "Albat jabo" (I'll but go). We were not used to adou (pronounced 'Ah + though', means 'at all') while expressing doubt in a negative statement. Then there were expletives (curiously, Calcuttans think the word 'slang' means 'expletive'!) that were new. Boka choda (idiot) was the only Bengali cussword I knew of. On asking, Ma used to be unduly boastful in her sectarianism. She had said we, the Bengalis, were too civilised to use expletives in common conversation. After living in Calcutta for four and a half years, however, I realised Bangla had more un-parliamentary words than all the seven Indian languages I knew, combined. Khankir chhele (son of a bitch) was a new one. Besides, there were permissible words with the suffix choda. This could even be a compliment. For years, friends have called me a sati-choda (pious, maybe sanctimoniously).

[Sanskrit: Sutorang – sutah = the preceding (linked) theory + angah = (establishes) the body; this conjunction means 'therefore'. Ato-eb – Atah = henceforth + ewa = this alone; this means 'hence'. (In Latin, QED => 'quod erat demonstrandum', as is used in geometry at the end of the proof of a theorem)]

However, there is a lesson for other Indians in the Bengali usage of objectionable lingo. They are seldom uttered in quarrels. It is between friends that they find maximum usage. And no one minds. Once I asked my friend Partho how unbecoming it would be of me to call him 'son of a bitch' when I regarded his mother so highly. He asked me to keep "my brain at home" while in the company of friends and "while in Rome, do as…!"

The general English too was odd. Friends asked, "Where do you stay?" as if my house was a travellers' inn. When I said I lived in Naktala, they did not understand I was correcting them. In the rest of India, there were schools of two types: one where English was the medium of instruction; and the second where students were taught in one of the Indian languages. In West Bengal, if I had to make it clear that every word my teachers used was English, I had to say I was from a "convent". Though Holy Cross was really a convent, it was not what Calcuttans meant by the word. According to them, a non-convent was one where the medium of tutoring was Bangla although the textbooks were in English! 'Career' was pronounced "kay-rear", and 'problem' was "praw-lum".

The idea is not to poke fun at Indian English. Regional accents are too heavy in every State of India. But with prolonged exposure to English literature, films and civilisation, the influence reduces to a bare minimum. In south India as well as in Punjab, it is the ones from regional language schools among whom awkward pronunciation is commonplace. Among Biharis, almost everybody maintains his rustic accent despite many of them boasting of Westernised education. Bengal's case is different from both the scenarios.

It would not be entirely true to say that the oddity remains despite "convent" education. In fact, the odd phonetics is rather induced by the so-called convent education! This owes to the fact that Bengali teachers teach with an authority. Students, however reckless outside the premises, are epitomes of obedience inside classrooms. And mostly, a Bengali, one of the most travelled Indian, seldom travels to live out of Bengal. His travel is limited to tourism, an aspect that does not open all the windows to external civilisations. There is a popular joke among the travel agents of West Bengal: Bengalis only visit DIPUDA! On hearing it you may wonder who Dipu is. Nobody. It's the acronym of DIgha-PUri-DArjeeling. The point is, owing to Bengalis' travelling but not living outside the State, Bengal for long will remain, well, Bengal.

In AJC Bose College, for admission into the mathematics honours batch, I had to face an interview. Simple questions were asked. But the fatigue of the arduous day was too telling. I could not answer most of them. The outcome then was obvious. I couldn't make it to that college.

The Academia:
Two days later, I came across the biggest prejudice of academic Calcutta. On the bulletin boards of all colleges, notices declared that the "marks" of immigrating students would be subjected to a deduction of 20% of their aggregate score before being considered at par with the local chaps. Logic? One, the Central Boards were considered too lenient with "marks"; and two, they were also considered sub-standard. My Kolkata-fantasy was waning. The mother I'd always considered my own was turning out to be my father's concubine, my step mother. I call it his concubine because years of drubbing thereafter did not kill my father's fascination for Kolkata. A duly wedded wife, feminists say, does not enjoy such trustworthiness of her man.

The ignominy that had come with the Standard XII incident had wrecked my educational zeal. It had already ensured that I did not score well in my baccalauréat. With the score I was left with after a further reduction by 20%, I did not stand a chance of getting into a respectable college.

Many years later, in 2004, I was glad to see myself in the company of a rare species: objective Bengalis. One article after another published in The Statesman was peeling the mask off the face of the eulogised bhadraloke. And all the writers were Bengalis, many born and brought up in the very Bengal they were critical of. Let me cite my Op-Ed article, "Lord shave the queen!" that was met with dozens of letters of vindication by readers:

A way came out eventually as I was finally allowed to speak and I managed to convince a professor of Ashutosh Memorial College that I had some understanding of maths but was too drained out mentally to score well in my "Boards". He agreed to a provisional admission into the honours course. The condition was that I would be in the rolls of pass course and would have to appear for a test within a month. Provided a few already admitted students opted for other colleges after the second cut-off list was released, I could sneak in. I agreed. I had no option.

That evening, slapping myself to avoid mosquito stings the Tollygunge (as also Behala) region of the city is infamous for, I was such a relieved man. A pittance appeared godsend after the severe toil of three weeks. Those days in the editorial page of the Anandabazar Patrika, I read of similar experiences of many other fellow-immigrants (read 'refugees') in their own country.

The Political Society:
When there is a court case that hasn't reached a conclusion for some time, the party to the dispute that owes its allegiance to the Left Front Government, mainly the CPI(M) (the party that heads the coalition) approaches the Nagarik Committee of the neighbourhood for an off-the-court settlement. Thereon, the comrades force the other party to accept the ruling which they arbitrarily hand out. This is no hearsay. This has been my and many other Bengalis' experience. Obviously, you wouldn't have experienced any such difficulty in Bengal if you are positioned politically at the side of the self-styled arbitrators.

Who votes for whom is known in every locality in West Bengal. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that out. Any individual's/family's anti-Left stance spreads by word of mouth like wildfire. What follows is a kind of ostracism, making it clear that your living in the State thereafter will be difficult at every step. One day you will find your vehicle smashed. Some other day when you return from an evening walk, you will find all the window panes of your house broken. Another day, somebody will beat up your child while he/she is on his/her way back home from school. On yet another instance, somebody will kill your pet and leave its blood-splattered body at your verandah. Almost everyday, some guys ambling on a rock/rowak (Bengali colloquial term for the steps to a single-storey house) will catcall when your sister or wife ventures out of home... And yet, none of these gutless anti-social elements will appear in front of you all alone to throw a challenge.

The Amorous Society:
Nonetheless, amid all the frustration, there were two signs of coming of age, literally. One of those days, a bus conductor addressed me with an "aapni", the veneration equivalent to the egalitarian 'vous' of French, that I had found an adult alone received when addressed by another. That night I asked my mother if I'd begun looking grown-up enough. An otherwise ordinary incident was so elevating because I was used to a world where children were slaves of their parents. I gleamed with the hope that finally I'd have a say in the world's scheme of things.

The other phenomenon was just short of an aphrodisiac: Hordes of young men and women were seen moving about with the arms of one locked in the other's. To a poetic child in love with a dream-girl Anamika, who, it appeared, could only be fancied but never realised, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. I was very pleased at the sight of freedom, the freedom to love and be loved. I thought my days of falling head over heels for a girl were in the offing. And that could happen in the very college I would spend the three following years. For a moment, I deliberately became unmindful of the fact that mathematics scared the hell out of women and that the chances of finding a girl, let alone one of my liking, in my batch were slim.

Jane Austen's Bengali Plot:
Back from the humdrum of the academia, in the contemporary society, I saw another noticeable change. It was an extension of the Indian form of democracy. As we have a nominal head, the President of the state, and the real one, the Prime Minister; in Bengali households, there was the father and the mother.

It seemed as if the moment a child gained consciousness, the first lesson the mother gave him was that his father was the biggest idiot in the world. In almost all family feuds I was a witness to in Bengal, the father appeared vastly outnumbered. In every quarrel, the children sided with the mother and the father was ultimately made to kneel down. Be it a macro issue of which school the child should study, or a micro one like whether a refrigerator or a television set needed to be bought first in a family of limited income, it was the towering matriarch who had the last laugh.

There is nothing objectionable in that. The problem starts when this matriarchy tears apart the fibre of Indian culture. Here, 'Indian' has a loose definition. Yet it translates more or less as conservatism.

Elsewhere in India, a father leaves home with the unstated (yet understood) assurance that the child is in the safe custody of his/her mother. Not in Bengal. All that a youth has to do to go wild in Bengal is to return home before the father does. And the mother will never let him know what misadventure the youngster has been into. So much so, the 'Young Turk' does not even have to leave home to be reckless.

If you are a man/ boy, call up your girlfriend and ask her whether she is alone at home. If she says she is with her mother, do not get hassled. Go there anyway. Have 'fun' (read 'sex'). While you are in the act, the girl's mother won't even peep into the room. She would further ensure no one else does. It is even easier if you are well established in the society to offer the mother the assurance of a rich jamai (son in-law). The girl here is a mere trap to ensnare a potential son in-law. And she need not be bothered of the boy's ditching her, as it is generally the man that is victimised in urban Bengal.

Welcome to the other England: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And Austen, a woman, could not have been a male chauvinist to create such a mother character in her epochal novel.

In various societies that I have lived in, I have always advocated the right of individuals to choose their life partners; if that has sometimes meant going against the wishes of the parents and society, so be it. In Kolkata, I was dumbfounded while fighting this social war as I didn't know how sincere the young people were whose battle I had to fight sincerely. After years of courtship, few pairs ended up getting married. Something would go horribly wrong days before the wedding date was to be finalised. Not that I found individuals loyal to their partners in Delhi, Mumbai, Vanves, Paris, London, Glasgow, Sydney and Melbourne. But certainly, the urge to project oneself as an epitome of religious purity is ubiquitous and all-pervasive only among Bengalis (For one, many Bengali middle-aged and old people still associate sari and denim with two different, immiscible and mutually conflicting cultures). So, all the episodes of liaisons of one's past are tucked away in the mind's attic while getting married to someone the person does not love after falling out of grace from the one who was the love interest till yesterday. Many years later, when truth unfolds, the lives of several individuals -- the couple and pre-marriage partners of the man and his wife -- are wrecked all at once.

My objection to this is on several counts. First, as usual though parents generally object to the child's choosing his/her own partner, the child concerned does not give two hoots to their concern. This shows that he/she is not a traditional person. However, for some reason when the relationship fails, the person reverts back to the same poor old parents whose views the 'child' had discarded outright once, and plead, "I am in grave trouble, please bail me out of this soup!" And then the parents, considerate of their child, quite unscrupulously catch hold of an unassuming chap with a clean history to bear the dodgy fellow's burden for the rest of his life.

But why is it a burden? Simple: A person who has had a failed relationship is normally left with a lot of bitterness and the spouse has to virtually play the role of a psychiatrist at home to counsel him/her for every little move in life.

Secondly, such people have a very poor opinion about the opposite sex just on account of one wrong person of that sex he/she had encountered in life. Thus, no matter how good the intentions of the spouse are, he/she is always a prima facie suspect; and it takes too long for him/her to prove he/she is a nice person.

Then comes the question of identifying with a certain mould of your belief system. A person who depends on his/her parents to fix a matrimonial match is traditional. One who does not could be called modern. But what would you call a person who first refuses to heed to the caution of his/her parents but eventually seeks the refuge of the same two persons to save him/her from society's censure? An opportunist, of course. He/she has had as much fun as the adventure of 'love' could offer; and then had to resort to tradition for the sake of security in future.

In case of boys/ men, if you are in wrong company and your father comes to know of it and bars you from bread, tiptoe into the house when he is not around. Your mother will lovingly feed you and ensure your route to escape.

The mother knows everything the child is into merely a few days after his or her going astray. The father comes to know of it only when there is an emergency. Maintaining a façade of discipline in front of all and living the devil within surreptitiously happens day in and day out until one day either a crime in case of a boy, or unwanted pregnancy in case of a girl, brings facts to the father's notice. The poor chap then has to unleash all resources at his disposal to bail the wretched child out. Otherwise, he is no more than a money-churning machine, doing a nine-to-five job, unmindful of the hell that has broken loose at home.

The roots of the oddity that was apparent to me as I was from the Hindi Gangetic belt go deep in evolutionary anthropology. Punjabis and Bengalis are unique. They are Indians but not historically. From the physical appearance it is too evident that people of the two regions are progenies of crossbreeding. While Punjabis are result of Central Asians fornicating with Indian women slaves, Bengalis have come as a result of hybridisation with various Mongolian tribal people, chiefly the Burmese, Burma being the neighbour of undivided Bengal.

And the Mongoloid society to the immediate east of undivided India is a matriarchy. With the genes from the Burmese as well as Indians, Bengali men are neither as macho as the Hindi-speaking Indians nor do they stay in drunken stupor as Burmese and Thai men do at the cost of their womenfolk, who must toil hard for a livelihood.

In my first office, Computer Point, Calcutta, and the current one, CMYK Printech Limited (the company that publishes The Pioneer), New Delhi -- both workplaces with an overbearing presence of Bengalis -- bosses don't rapproach but scold the subordinate staff as if the former were an annoyed father and the latter his spoilt brat. If Bengali men are seen yelling at each other in offices; and beating up their children black and blue when back at home -– as I'd mentioned in the second chapter of this autobiography (from which I have copy-pasted to create this blog) -– it is an aftermath of the frustration of losing the authority to their wives in crucial domestic matters.

Misplaced Concern For Health:
Decades of economic recession and the culture above have taken an inevitable toll on Bengalis' health and psychology. Here are some excerpts from my recent article on hypochondria(sis). (Just the other day a fellow Bengali from Delhi observed, albeit with some exaggeration, that 50% of women in Bengal have lost their uterus and the rest have lost their appendix!):

It happens to two classes of people: One, who are not able to engage themselves enough in constructive work and, two, amateurs in medical science.

The first class of people while idling around indulge in various useless thoughts, one of which is a compulsive niggling notion that something must be wrong in their body. It is, therefore, a major problem in those regions of the world where unemployment is a widespread phenomenon: Erstwhile socialist countries in Europe, a major part of Latin America and the State of West Bengal in India.

But hypochondria does not spare the prosperous people either. There, the victims are casual students of medical science. While being initiated into physiology, these amateurs read about various diseases and tend to take the reverse route to analyse their health. That is, they first read the symptoms, then recall their environment and physiological history, tally the third with the second and the first, and infer, wrongly, that one of the diseases mentioned in the books must have afflicted them. It is this reason that turns many Americans, Britons and Germans hypochondriacs.

As consumer awareness is high in these countries, and medical service falls in the ambit of consumer rights, lay citizens are given an elementary idea of various common diseases, their causes, symptoms and treatments. While this makes some people health conscious, others turn hypersensitive to possibilities of ailments...

But out of the two kinds of hypochondriacs, Bengalis are the worst hit. For them, it is a vicious circle where the first reason (decades of recession in West Bengal) augments the second (health consciousness). It is a rare phenomenon to come across a Bengali from the State --
probashi or non-residents are a breed apart -- who does not complain of ambol
(indigestion). If the listener is unlucky enough to be caught unawares by a Bengali hypochondriac, a larger health bulletin will follow, and a gamut of gastro-enterological ailments will be listed.

Regular visits to the local physician, right from his childhood, gives a Bengali a fair idea of names of a plethora of diseases and drugs. This, rather than keeping him alert of impending health crises, keeps him preoccupied with a phobia of diseases. He is obsessed with bodily functions and interprets normal sensations (heart beats, sweating, bowel movements, etc) or minor abnormalities (a runny nose, a small sore, slightly swollen lymph nodes, etc) as symptoms of serious medical conditions...

[A poem I had written in Urdu on 11 Sept 1998]
ai bin kinArE kI nAmurAd kashtI,
lutf-e-gh’am hai sirf tErI Ek mastI !

dUr sE bas gh’arIbI kA nuqs pAyA,
pAs sE dEkhA -- lagI har chIz sastI !

sIĐhiyOŇ pE baiThkar bEkAr laĐkE
’aql yUŇ bAŇTE ke jaisE kOI chishtI

ghar mEŇ bAp kOsE, mAŇ rOyE din bhar
muhallOŇ mEŇ bETE kI fAqahmastI

Ek taraf ’Alim-O-fAzil kE woh majmE’
Ek taraf har shakhhs kI woh tangdastI

communist bhI pUrI tarah nahIŇ hai tU
ghar ghar mEŇ dEkhI hai maiŇ nE butparastI

kuchh ‘guru’ jinkI taswIrEŇ dIwArOŇ par
lagA, unhEŇ bhagwAn samjhE sArI bastI

yAd kar tawArIkhh tErI aur sharm kar
khhAkistar kyOŇ ban gayI tErI woh hastI ?

kAmyAbOŇ pE fiqrA kastE kastE
Aj talak sudhrI nahIŇ hAlat khhastI

jinhEŇ talAsh-e-manzil hO woh yAŇ kyOŇ ho ?
rAh mEŇ bEmurAdOŇ kI lagI gh’ashtI

galiyOŇ kO kyA kahUŇ dil bhI tang tErA
miTTI yUŇ ke dIwArEŇ har roZ dhastI

tErE a’lAwah kaun tujhE shahar kahtA hai ?
hAi bastI, hAi bastI, hAi bastI !

Just in case some Marxist pseudo-intellectual calls my assessment of Bengal the rant of the bourgeoisie, I submit hereunder the lyrics of a song written by Leftist lyricist-composer Anjan Dutta, which paints no less grim a scenario:

আকাশ ভরা সুর্য্য তারা, আকাশমুখী সারী-সারী
কালো ধোঁয়ায় ঢেকে যাওয়া ঠাসাঠাসি বাক্সবাড়ি
এখান থেকেই চলার শুরু, এখান থেকেই হামাগুড়ি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি

১২ তলার অপর থেকে ১২ বছর কেটে গেছে
ইস্কুলটা যাওয়া ছাড়া নামা হয়না মাটির কাছে
শোবার ঘরের দেওয়ালটাময় হাস-মুর্গী অনেক নাচে
তবুও নানার চোখের ভেতর কোথাও যেন কান্না ভাসে

সেখান থেকে একটু দূরে, একটুখানি এগিয়ে গেলে
একলা থাকেন নন্দীবাবু, বন্দী সে যে বয়সকালে
সংসারটার হাল ধরেছে বখাটে তার ছোট্ট ছেলে
এক কাপ চা দিয়ে গেছে কখন জানি সাতসকালে
রেডিওটার ব্যাটারিটা হঠাৎ কবে গেল ক্ষয়ে
খাটের থেকে নামতে মানা, বুকের ব্যথা গেছে সয়ে
নীলিমার মা তাইতো যে আর ভাবেনা সংসারটা নিয়ে
এঁদো গলির সেঁধো ঘরে সবই কেমন বয়ে গেছে
এখানটাতে আটকে পড়া, এখানটাতেই ঘুরোঘুরি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি

চৌধুরীদের একুশ তলায় মদের নেশায় ঊঁচু গলায়
ঝগড়া চলে গভীর রাতে, লাজ-লজ্জার বাঁধ ভেঙে যায়
কোর্ট-কাছারি অনেক হল, হলনা যে ছাড়াছাড়ি
সন্তানটি আঁকড়ে ধরে গভীর রাতের মারামারি
সেখান থেকে একটু দূরে, পাড়ার মোরটা একটু ঘুরে
অলি-গলি পাকস্থলির ভেতর কারা গুমরে মরে
বলি হল আরেকটা প্রাণ - মস্তানদের ছোড়াছুড়ি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি সারি-সারি

চিলেকোঠার বারান্দাটা বন্ধ কেন জান কি তা?
এখান থেকেই লাফিয়ে পড়ে লাহা বাড়ির অনিন্দিতা
গভীর রাতে তাইতো কেউ আর ওঠেনা যে অদের ছাদে
অন্ধকারের বন্ধ ঘরে কারা যেন ডুকরে কাঁদে
সেখান থেকে একটু দূরে, ছাদের পাচিলটা ঘুরে
এক চিলতে রোদ্দুরেতে ছোট্ট মেয়ে নামতা পড়ে
তাইতো কালো ইঁটের ফাঁকে বটপাতাটি জিভ ভ্যাঙচায়
পাড়ার নেড়ি বাচ্চাটাকে মুখে করে হাটতে সেখায়

এখানটাতেই আটকে পড়া, এখানটাতেই ঘুরোঘুরি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, আমার বাড়ি
আকাশ ভরা সুর্য্য তারা, আকাশমুখী সারী-সারী
কালো ধোঁয়ায় ঢেকে যাওয়া ঠাসাঠাসি বাক্সবাড়ি
এখান থেকেই চলার শুরু এখান থেকেই হামাগুড়ি
এখানটাতেই আমার বাসা, তোমার ভালবাসার বাড়ি


A letter to an old-time friend from Kolkata who now lives in Mumbai. I had compared Kolkatans' promiscuity with Mumbaiites' using the film, Life in Metro. The lady fumed, outraged, just as June has done in her comments to this blog. So I had to clarify more:

... ... ...
First, BPOs were unheard of in the 1990s when I saw Kolkata. Second, in the film, Life in Metro, three characters were from a call centre, others were not (therefore, it wasn't a call-centre culture on show, but Mumbai's culture on display). Third, why just zero in on one film? Watch all of Rituparno Ghosh's Bengali films -- mostly real life portrayals. Paramitar Ek Din is a case in point. Kolkatans and Mumbaiites may not agree, but this is anathema to the larger Indian culture: I have never seen among any other linguistic community a grandmother (Aparna Sen) having a secret lover (Soumitra Chatterjee), whom she helps to come out of a financial rut and the old hag accepts the money day in and day out shamelessly.

It's not one or two or three... I have seen them all over the place in Kolkata and its suburbs. Show me one -- just one Bengali boy in Kolkata -- in his late teens who does not drink. And then show me how many of their parents know that they drink. Every year during the Durga Puja, before and after I started drinking, I found hordes of boys looking for a hideout to drink -- in deserted houses under construction, in the Dhakuria Lake (Rabindra Sarobar), in Maidan, in Victoria Memorial's lawns behind the bushes... where not? Then they would mouth a fistful of Pan Parag before leaving for home to suppress the smell or wouldn't go back home at all.

Next is the high frequency of boys who frequent Sonagachhi -- I do not expect you to know this. They are mostly students from Bengali medium schools and colleges, frustrated at the sight of their English medium counterparts, whose lives appear glossy from a distance. One such gang (of which my best friend Parthasarathi Ganguly was a part) had challenged me that I was plain sanctimonious, and that I too would "enjoy the experience" when I am there.

A year had passed since that challenge was thrown at me. For a few months, I would be very wary whenever, along with Partho, I was taken to any old locale of the city. I had this much idea that Sonagachhi was in old Kolkata, but I hardly knew the city then. I would, on the sight of old houses in any locality, rush out of the bus and run for life in the opposite direction. Later, I would be laughed at by all members of that gang.

But in a year I almost forgot the challenge of Rs 100 (that was a big amount for students like us) thrown at me one day inside a park by Partho. Snehasis and I had stated vehemently that he could never take us to Sonagachhi; Partho insisted somehow he would manage.

That year during the Durga Puja, as in the previous year, we hired three taxis to see all the main Pujas in the city. Inside the taxi I was a bit drunk when it drove to Sonagachhi. But soon I realised where I was. As the rest disembarked, Snehasis and I refused to get down. They went away and came back with two pimps and a whore. By then, we had locked the car's doors from inside. They started banging the door. The rear window was lowered. They tried to pull Snehasis out as he clutched my hand as a last straw.

After a while they must have thought that energy was better spent in sex. So we were spared. About an hour later, they re-emerged from the stingy lanes, too exhausted to resume the fight. But before that I saw a plethora of known people emerging from there -- a few among them had supposedly had a happy married life. Many of them were held in high esteem by me till that moment. That gave me an inkling that I could remove the masks from the faces of many more 'gentlemen'.

In the next year, Partho went there at least twice (that I know of). I followed him in another taxi without his knowledge and stopped in front of the petrol pump of Chittaranjan Avenue (that's the spot from where Sonagachhi begins). And as suspected, I saw more people known to me emerging from the brothels.

My interactions with Partho gave me an eye to identify brothels. And then I realised Kolkata holds a world record, maybe second only to Bangkok, in this regard. Sonagachhi is hyped. To an extent Boubazaar and Kalighat are known. But among the less known, but far more populous, are the narrow lanes somewhere tucked between massive houses in almost every locality -- from Garia to Dum Dum. They used to solicit sex from rickshaw pullers, bus drivers and daily-wage workers for a price as low as Rs 20 per session back in 1991-92.

As the city became more familiar, I found every ground and park to be extensions of the above brothels: They were the 'playgrounds' of the unregistered whores. During my college days, in the evenings we would go to one of the grounds for adda when we would run out of all the latest films that were released that week. Not a single evening passed when we were not approached by prostitutes.

Mercifully, with my constant rapproachment and counselling, Partho eventually stopped visiting brothels. I am thankful to him for at least one more thing: He opened the windows to the dark side of the city that I would have otherwise not come to know. As I have written in Shailesh Vora's (an orkut friend) scrap, nobody in the city admits to it.

Then comes the aspect of falling in love (or imagining to have fallen in love) at a premature age. Most of them do not culminate in marriage. It is not that I never craved love. I did. Very much so. But whichever girl I met in Kolkata was found to be 'booked' after a few conversations. And yet a few months later, we would come to know that the girl concerned did not get married to the boy she was often seen going around with.

There are three aspects that facilitate the above scenario, none of which apply to Delhi. First applies to Kolkata: Decades of economic deprivation. A young man who couldn't get himself a job for five years, who is heckled by his father and grudgingly tolerated by his mother, who is looked down upon in the neighbourhood where he lives, must hunt for happiness. And that 'happiness' is offered by whichever girl is ready to oblige him.

The second applies to Mumbai: Though everybody appears sporting in nature, there is a detachment that separates each one from everybody else. "Abhi dhande ka time hai" is the common refrain. No time for developing relationships. The void this creates in each individual's life is filled with sex. In this case, sex is a compromise for love.

The third factor applies to Kolkata again -- what I wrote in the last section of "Façade of intellect": Most fathers have lost their authority at home. They are merely sponsors of the family. When a girl meets her puberty, it seems her mother has got back her own lost youth. She tickles her daughter's mind to get into a relationship sooner rather than later. Then, as and when a boyfriend steps into her life, the mother often arranges for their rendezvous surreptitiously, without the father knowing it. Only in extreme cases -- positively, when there has to be a marriage called at short notice, or negatively, when the girl needs an emergency abortion -- is the father notified of the developments.

The uncle of a Bihari friend of mine who lived in Kolkata for 21 years -- and loved Bengal more than his native place in Mithila -- left the city huffing and puffing in fury one night when told by his son that he was going to be married the next day. He said just one thing before leaving the city, dragging the whole family along: " Tuhau Bangali ho gaichhai (You guys too have become Bengalis)?"

It is only in Bengali families where I have seen that in family quarrels, all children side with the mother and shout in one voice: "Baba, tumi kichhu bojho, chup karo!" Now, who told the children that their father is an idiot? Well, that is the first lesson Bengali mothers impart to their children. Indirectly, of course: Every child grows up hearing his/ her mother say the same words to his/ her father during every fight they have.

If you had read the scrap carefully, you would not have freaked. But your love for your native place blinded your discernment. I did say that dubious people abound in Delhi too. But they are very forthright about their whereabouts. Therefore, the probability of an innocent person getting ensnared is slim. A boy in Delhi drinks with his father as often as he drinks with his friends. In so many marriages whose courtship phase I have been a witness to, both the partners revealed whatever was there worth letting the other person know from their respective pasts -- be it past girlfriends/ boyfriends or sexual escapades with others. An aquaintance here, Subhro Dutta, went to the extent of telling the women in his office that he loved his wife very much but wanted to have 'fun' with other women too without any commitment beyond those few minutes in bed. Some women agreed to this open 'contract' and had 'fun' with him. He never pretended he loved any woman he slept with and nor was such a thing expected back from the women gratifying him in bed. This was very much unlike the KK Menon's character in Life In Metro.

Of course, I must add a disclaimer here. I have always maintained that I do not like to pass judgements on societies I haven't been a part of, of places that I have toured but not lived. Therefore, what I have said about Mumbai could well be a hypothesis that may be proved wrong if I ever have to live there.

But Kolkata? I'll stick to the horrendous opinion I have about that glorified Dharavi -- a.k.a. Kolkata. Forever.

In 1989, I didn't go to tour Kolkata. I have lived with pain every moment of those four-and-a-half years (September 1989 to February 1994). In 1990, I discovered that my khurtuto bhai (cousin) was no different from Partho and my khurtuto bon (cousin-sister) was no different from the three women I had written about in "Anatomy And History" (a chapter from my autobiography which shatters the myth that a man has to depend on a woman's word to know she is a virgin).

... ... ...
I'll take you to the lower middle class areas of Delhi (like the one you saw me living in, in 1998). See for yourself the purity in every heart and soul. I agree they are not generally intellectual-looking as Bengalis are. They too have dhandas like Mumbaikars have. But they don't forget they have a family while doing any dhanda (work/ business). Of course, I'm not taking into account the gay fashion designers of Hauz Khas, the frustrated, divorced womenfolk of Vasant Kunj and the sex hungry BPO guys of Gurgaon. The Delhi outside its posh localities is much bigger and is the real Delhi. And that is the Delhi I love. And that is the Delhi for which I am in Delhi.

To end for now, here is the lyrics of a song by Anjan Dutta:

akash bhara surjo tara, akash mukhi sari-sari
kalo dhonyae Dheke jaoa ThashaThashi baksobaD'i
ekhanTatei aTke paD'aa ekhanTatei ghuroghuri
ekhantatei amar basha amar baD'i
akash bhara
ekhanTatei amar basha tomar bhalobashar baD'i
(full song already cited above)

(I conclude,) quoting from my scrap to another Kolkatan, another orkut friend:
"ei drishyo protiniyoto Kolkatar protiTi paD'aay dekhe-dekhe abosheshe bitahshraddha hoye 13 bachhor agay tomar shahor chheD'e diyechhilam. abangalider kachhe aswikar korleo tumi ei gaaner katha katokhani sotyi ta bangali mahole (abangalider abartamane) aswikar korte paro?

(Being witness to this sight -- as depicted in the Anjan Dutta song -- so very often in every neighbourhood of Kolkata, I left your city 13 years ago, disgusted. Much as you may deny the truth in the words of the song in the milieu of non-Bengalis, can you, in their absence, deny it in Bengali circles?)"

... ... ...
Kolkatans pan Kolkata every moment and yet are too laidback to revolt. They reserve the criticism for the city as their sole right; no outsider like me dare raise a finger.


Musings of June said...

This is a horribly terrible,an utterly blasphemous and sacrilegious article ever written on Bengali community,I've ever come across till date that almost snapped off my friendship with this author.

A word of caution,No sane Bengali should read this and I very much doubt that whether he'll be able to successfully finish off reading this without ever having the urge to shoot the author.

On first two readings,I branded him sick and then again when I read it for the third time,many things written here made sense and I realized no use trying to pretend that these attitudinal problem do not exists in Bengal.They do very much and I think this article would be Cathartic to those who read it.

Lastly,I'd like to tell my friend here that times have changed and people are shedding off those bourgeous mentality and are actually rejecting such hypocrisy.

Surajit Dasgupta said...


Had the comment not been what it has come from June Nandy, it would have appeared a concoction. I expect most Bengalis to react this way on reading this article.

However, as it has happened to every Bengali who has listened to my story so far with a sense of outrage, on second thoughts, they tended to agree with me as June has done, albeit with a rider.

No one can deny the following facts pertaining to West Bengal:
1. Easy concepts are taught in ways turned deliberately difficult in schools, colleges and textbooks.
2. 20% of the intermediate-level score is deducted for immigrating students with the presumption that people outside Bengal are less evolved intellectually, besides, of course, trying to safeguard the interests of the local students, which is a perfectly legitimate concern.
3. Kolkata indeed bears an overbearing grey look with its never repainted houses except those in the posh localities. Most houses are indeed box-like with ancient-looking big and broad windows. These mostly single or double-storey houses are atop about three stairs known in the local lingo as ‘rok’. Funnier, most of these assembly-line houses have blue or green doors made of cheap sal wood. There’s more: Forget villages, in Kolkata itself you will find thousands of bamboo houses with tiled roofs. These are called in Bengali ‘berar badi’. And of course, beyond the Esplanade-Minto Park stretch, there are few three-lane broad roads.
4. (Presumably) falling in love at a tender age is a big social phenomenon in W Bengal. In no other city/ village in India does one see such a massive population of young men and women/ boys and girls in amorous relationships. I find nothing wrong with it. On the contrary, the whole world should be like this – a paradise of love and freedom. But that is not what it is. These partners are seldom loyal to each other. As a result, whoever you marry from the State is bound to have a murky past of multiple relations. It’s murky not because it’s multiple, but because everybody tries hard to hide his/ her past and maintain an image of religious purity.
5. Bengalis as a group are awkwardly hypochondriac. Not a day passes without devouring medicinal drugs, mostly for assumed illnesses. If by a stroke of bad luck you ask a middle-aged Bengali, “How are you?” you’ve had it. He’ll spoil at least half-an-hour of your precious time enlisting everything that is wrong with his body from 'ambol' (indigestion) accompanied by 'choya dhekur' (sour burps) to 'baat (arthritis) to kidney or gall bladder failure… That will be followed by recent reports of surgical removal of his wife’s uterus and his daughter’s appendix. There is no other community in the world with such a large percentage of women without uteruses and appendices (anybody who finds this unbelievable can watch any Bengali art film; a character looking perfectly alright would casually open the drawer in his study, pop up a pill or two and gobble it up for no rhyme or reason). This hypochondriasis is an aftermath of mental depression. If Bengal is such a wonderful place, why are its people so depressed?

Musings of June said...

There he goes again and how I wish I wouldn't be part of this.But I am to say to make him see sense.

1.What do you mean by murky past and multiple relations??Boys and girls do fall in love and there are failures in love,not just in bengal but all over the world.So??Are they supposed to wear their heart in their sleeves displaying a broken heart??

2.Hypochondriac??So what??At least they are fantasizing about their own health and not burning their wives for dowry and killing their unborn female child.

3.Atleast 20% deducted for the immigrant students??What happens outside Bengal with all those Caste based allocation of medical/engg.seats??All of them seem to become SC/ST/OBCs.I've even seen them converting to lower class for getting seats and govt.jobs.

4.Yes,Bengal has not yet evolved much in the scene of bribing/scams/corruption/real politik/and unholy nexus with underworld and human traffiking.

5.Don't talk about the buildings and the houses and the rok and the adda.It's better than the chawls/dharavis/bastis in the heart of the other metros.Atleast we have Bari and not tin and asbestos chawls ubiquitous in Aamchi Mumbai.

Yes,What else,Surajit.I'm in the mood to fight with you seriously.I remember doing it before as well with Rabindra Sangeet.

Surajit Dasgupta said...

June ignored the final sentence in the paragraph on 'love'. I had made it clear such things happen everywhere but it is only among Bengalis that throughout the society there is a tremendous urge to put up a 'clean' image. Either the past is never divulged, or it is disclosed at such an opportune moment that the guilty can argue he/ she has been 'honest'.

The malaise goes beyond frivolous relationships. When it comes to young adult men, almost all of them drink and a substantial chunk of the population visits brothels in areas like Sonagachhi, Kalighat and Boubazaar. And if any man happens to stroll leisurely in Maidan, prostitutes approach him for as less as Rs 50 per 'session' -- the scenario is worse than Bangkok. From Garia to Dum Dum, almost every neighbourhood has a lane where sex is available easy and cheap. However, for all his dark night outs, at home a boy's parents think their son is Shravan Kumar personified. To maintain this IMPRESSION, along with celebrations in this festive season (October to December), boys are caught in a funny indulgence -- looking for hideouts to drink and company to go to Sonagachhi. These are the same regular guys who are seen as the epitome of courtesy and politeness at home, with parents and relatives.

In my 14 years in Delhi only once did I come across a boy who frequents GB Road. That boy was several ranks lower than me in social status. But in Kolkata, the visitors of Sonagachhi I know belong to families comparable to mine. Frustration (that finds a vent through paid sex) among the deprived sections of society is understandable. That among the reasonably affluent class is not.

Any objectivist will say, "Two wrongs do not make a right." But June's comparison of Bengali hypochondria with north Indian dowry and bride-burning phenomena is really amusing. Anyway, I do not have a high opinion about those communities as well. There is a thread "Anti-north Indian feeling" in the orkut community, "Indian Politics," where my posts are evidence enough. I just have to, one of these days, compile all the anti-Bihari stuff I have written in various places to create another blog.

Nonetheless, in matters of honesty and integrity, an average rustic Bihari is far more trustworthy than a polished and urbane Bengali. As for the Punjabi cheats, just like the American crooks, their speech is so salesmen-like that one is promptly on his guard to avoid being trapped. A Bengali's mind is far tougher to read.

In elite and reputed educational institutions like the IITs, caste plays no role in admissions. In BITS, of course, the qualification mark for SCs and STs is very low -- too low for one to trust such engineers.

As for bribing, Bengal is indeed at the bottom but that too in a funny way. Cops still accept Rs 10 to Rs 20 to let off traffic-law violators. And once, while I was caught drinking whiskey sitting atop a tree in Rabindra Sarobar (Dhakuria Lake), I was let off by the cop for Rs 13.50. He insisted that I give away the 50p coin as well!

Musings of June said...

I just cannot talk of such classes and hence I'd rather not post any more here because you are making it more murkier.

If this is a ploy to silence your opponents,then I have nothing more to say or add. I was talking of that strata where we belong to.I'm not aware of the happenings of such class.Next if you start talking about mafias or smugglers ,supari killers or other such depraved people,I will at the most be just a mute reader to those lines because I don't belong to such class.

No,that doesn't make me a dweller of Ivory Tower.It's just that every city in the world has such murky and dark parallel underworld and all the people really do not care what happens there.It doesn't affect our lives in any way.

I just know that prime movers or productive people who are the change agents of the world do not belong there,so I needn't really waste my time on such purposeless discussions.

Surajit Dasgupta said...

Again my clarification and finer points have been ignored by June. While the anti-social elements in other communities live at the fringe of their societies, in Bengal these characters bear the looks of law-abiding citizens. They are members of well-off families. Partho is an FCI officer's (now retiired) son. His friend Saikat, who smuggles electronic goods via Bangaon border, belongs to an erstwhile zamindar's family that is still affluent. The father of Moinak, who is a pimp of upper class call girls, owns a shipping corporation... And none of the families know of these dark realities of their sons, which Partho might not have let me know if he could predict that I would someday become a journalist who thinks every truth is printable. The list of rich men's progenies leading such dual lives is endless.

rAjA said...

Surajit da,
Probably you have written the article and the comments on an old thought about WB. Few visits in a year or staying here for few years or listing about WB from the elderly persons do not give so much idea to draw the final conclusion. Yes, we have problems but the picture you wanted to draw does not match with us.

Surajit Dasgupta said...

Yes, the appearance has changed -- some for better, some for worse. There are now several flyovers spanning the city while they used to be few and far between when I used to live in that city. But it's funny to note at the same time that some flyovers cannot bear the weight of public transport, for which buses are not allowed to ply over them!

Yes, there are more jobs now. Yes, the Bengali youth is less depressed now. But looking deeper, one sees that the wounds haven't healed.

No, I was not a tourist or casual visitor to Kolkata. In 1989 when I went to live there, I didn't know I would (have to) leave the city out of a sense of disgust in 1994. And that was a rather painful decision.

Today, while the kind of depression that is borne of joblessness has waned, that caused by betrayal in love affairs has waxed. In India, Kolkatans had pioneered the phenomenon of boys and girls uniting amorously in public places. But till the late 1980s, such sights used to manifest true love. Now, you see a man/woman having had multiple conjugal relationships before a formal wedding with an altogether new person. The number of cases of divorce has skyrocketed. So Mumbai-, Bangalore-, Delhi-like! But Mumbaikars, Bangaloreans and Delhiites can be pardoned, as they don't preach values all the time like Bengalis do.

Hypochondria has increased too. I have hardly had a visitor from Kolkata who has not inquired about the neighbourhood 'chemist' shop.

Economically. while the Bengali youth is more affluent today, the virtue of the time when I lived with Bengalis -- intellect -- has vanished. They don't discuss subjects of the type that we used to discuss in college canteens till the early 1990s. Except for the language, you cannot tell a Bengali youth from a Kolkata-bred Marwari his age. And the language too is worsening by the day. The '20-somethings' think no sentence in Bengali is stylish enough without a few words of Hindi punched in. Overall, they cut quite a sorry face.

Durga said...

Thanking the Thankless Past?

Beautifully written(read as portrayed) article.Some of the incidents mentioned in this article are not unique to Bengal alone.It is widely seen in other states of India too...like children siding their mother in family quarrels,a mother expecting a gharjamai.The scenario is slowly changing.I would say men are being victimised in urban India.And we scream that we 'live' in a 'Patriarchal' society.

The writer sounded emotional while describing Delhi..particularly,the last two sentences on Delhi.

Modern Indian may prop up the characters in 'Paramitar Ek Din " as intellectuals cum liberals ;-)

Does your blog carries any article on Gender studies?If not,i request you to post one on gender issues :-)

Fawkes said...

An older article of yours that I discovered today while browsing through your blog.
Unlike you, a probashi bangali who spent 4.5 years in Kolkata during the 1990s, I am a UPian (by parentage) who was born and brought up in Kolkata and lived there from 1979 to 2003. I can personally attest to most of the things you have written in your article, though I would agree with many of your commenters that the article is not a pleasant read. The one thing I have not experienced is Sonagachhi / prostitution. Perhaps I moved around in staid circles.

When I was living in Kolkata, I was aware of the flaws of the city, but since I was born into it, many things looked to be of the natural order. It was only after I landed a job in a software organization, and moved first to Trivandrum for a 3 month Initial Training, and then to Delhi for 7 months and finally to Pune that I realized that I had been languishing in fetid backwaters of moral corruptness.

Thankfully my experience in Kolkata didn't scar me for life (or so I would like to believe). I have been able to put behind me the moral and political bankruptcy of Kolkata behind me, and I wouldn't want to go back for the love of God. There is something frightening about the level of violence (both latent and in the open) in the Kolkatan society which you very correctly depicted in the section about what happens to people who don't vote for CPM.

Btw, the 20% deduction of marks was applicable not just for immigrating students, but also for students who had studied in ICSE/ ISC or CBSE schools. I had studied in ICSE, and despite doing reasonably well in my Class X exams, I could not get admission into WBHS institutions like St. Xavier's etc. Like you, I too had to be content with Ashutosh Memorial College. There would be daily "michhils" - processions -protesting some or the other perceived or real injustice. Sometimes we would be attending a lecture in our class, and some senior students would come in, and ask the teacher to release us from the class, so that we could attend the michhil.

A lucky few of us escape that cycle of political and social violence, and I feel grateful to be among that lucky few.

Below is a blog post of some characteristics of bengalis (or bongs if you will) written in a lighter vein. I had received this write-up on mail several years ago, and no one seems to know who the original writer was. I found it reproduced on a couple of blogs, and I am passing on the link here :


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