BY Vani IN Book Reviews
Beyond ‘Futbol’ & ‘Mishti’, a ‘Complete’ Book on Bengalis
Vani via Quint (This article is also available to read on Quint)
“The Bengali is at once an existentialist delight and nightmare, cast in perpetual drama,” says Sudeep Chakravarti about his people in the introduction of his latest non-fiction book, titled: The Bengalis, A Portrait of a Community. In the book, Chakravarti, a seasoned journalist, who has authored numerous bestselling works of narrative non-fiction (Red Sun, Highway 39, Clear Hold Build), and fiction (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings), writes with intensity, passion, verve and aplomb. He addresses everything Bengali – their culture, cuisine, politics, social mores, literature, and even the thorny issues of their history, ethnicity and religion, tracking their progress through centuries from the time they first appeared (proto-Bengali) to now.
In a voice that is sometimes witty and humorous, at other times prickly and sardonic, Chakravarti paints a genuine and most authentic portrait of the Bengali community, all the while keeping a sharp eye on his reader. “I have written the book so that anyone, a Bengali, part-Bengali, a NRI Bengali, a Bengali who does not know much about his or her own collective past, or a Bengali out of touch with Bengali roots can benefit from the book,” he tells me over an email, and adds how a not-Bengali (the word non-Bengali is offensive to him) may profit from all this knowledge, too – the Bengalis are a quarter of a billion and the third largest ethno-linguistic group in the world, after all! Here is an excerpt from the book:
“You will find Bengalis at every noteworthy ‘View Point’ on every noteworthy hill…They will leave their footprints on the damp impermanent sands of every ‘seebitch’…The urging will be to come by and see the opurbō, unparalleled, or phantashtik, bhew on their side, or from their spot a few feet away. They will be found chattering continuously while riding on skittish hill ponies along Camel’s Back Road in Mussorie, sinikbewty of eternal snows not far to the north be damned, the male parent coaching the discomfited yet proud child and the irritated female parent as if the torrid blood of several generations of Bengal Lancers flowed through his veins.”
Furthermore, in a market that is inundated with literature on Bengalis – Ramesh Chandra Majumdar’s The History of Bengal, Nitish Sengupta’s Bengal Divided: The Unmaking of a Nation 1905-1971, and Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, to name a few – Chakravarti’s book stands out for the sheer magnitude of its scope. “My book is the first that attempts to bring together several aspects of what I call ‘Banglasphere’ and Bengalis as a whole, and specifically address the Bengali,” he says, adding as to how he used notes and observations going back a couple of decades, in addition to archival material that was in some cases several hundred years old, but active, to write his book. “I believe in translating research, interviews, reportage, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling,” he says – and if you read the book, you cannot not picture every detail in your mind’s eyes. Here is an excerpt that serves as a good example – this one deals with the Bengali obsession for food:
“There is great ritual attached to banter with the shōbjiōālā or the female equivalent, shōbjioāli, over the quality of produce. The quality comes first, the price always later, and of course a face-saving exit if it proves unaffordable…The māchhōālā will be stretched to the limits of his vast reservoir of patience as the babu diligently inspects the freshness of the fish by expertly prising open the gills with a thumb to check if it is the expectable hue of darkest-pink-bordering-on-red, or prods the flesh of the fish to check if it is acceptably firm; and, of course, the fidgety, bony kōi-māchh and kānkrā, crab, will simply not be considered unless these are demonstrably alive.”
Or how about this one that deals with the Bengali obsession for everything not food:
“…bhromon-pagol – travel mad – another form of madness that so many Bengalis are gladly infected by alongside the happy insanities of being boi-pagol (book mad) or futbol-pagol (football mad), kreekat-pagol (cricket mad), mishit-pagol (mad about sweets), gan-pagol (mad about songs), an infinity of lovable obsessions. ‘Ki-re pagla?’ (What’s up, nutcase?) is not an unknown greeting.”
It is not just Chakravarti’s sparkling wit that flavours his narrative, but also the way he peppers it with personal anecdotes – the ones on religion, especially, where he describes how his mother’s side still uses maw and haw to describe a Mussulman (maw) and a Hindu (haw), tracking this deep-rooted religious schism in his family (and his community) to the history of Bengal from the time India was partitioned to the genocide in Bangladesh. However, he also uses his experiences of visiting his ancestral property in Kushtia years after displacement as an example to underscore the pointlessness of carry-forward hatred and of carry-forward hurt. Beyond this great religious divide, there are many more points of unity, of being Bengali that Chakravarti successfully highlights, making The Bengalis an overall wonderful read.