Book Review: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti
Reviewed by Shikhandin
Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
‘Ergo, no matter who you listen to, we are pretty much mongrel.’
That little sentence in page 43 of Sudeep Chakravarti’s vade mecum, The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, floats up with a beastly smirk. Unless of course, you have done your job as a reader and read it not out of context, but as part of the whole subject, including the weighty preceding pages.
Still, for argument’s sake, were you to disbelieve the mongrel bit, or dismiss it as self-deprecation, you would do an injustice to the community. Yes, you read that correctly, and Chakravarti provides carefully compiled data on the origins of the Bengali race to prove it.
Being a mixed breed is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you are not mixed up, which is not a compliment one can pay to the so-called pure bloodlines, whatever that is, if at all such things exist. Besides, further up the book one comes upon this beautiful explanation of what it means to be a Bengali mongrel:
‘Our so-called purity is rooted in mongrelisation. It has taken us a long journey to arrive where we have, with our distinct streams of culture, distinctive sub-languages and dialects with a unifying super-language that is itself mongrel.
‘It is through our openness to the world and cultures other than our own, that we have evolved our Bengaliness that is so distinctive, so unique. It’s what makes us enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting, and infuriating in turn – or all at once. To be anything else would probably be so very boring’ (chapter 13, page 315).
Perhaps after reading the book, some ill-informed not-Bengalis will call out ‘Mongrel Bengali’ instead of the earlier taunt of ‘Bhookha Bengali!’ Then again, those who wish to insult will always find some term or epithet suitable enough, however misguided. Bengalis ought to take the higher ground, because we know who we are and do not need to explain ourselves. So, why do we need a book about ourselves at all?
The fact is we do. More so now, with vast numbers of Bengalis spread across the globe and our precious Banglaspheres adrift like tufts of shimul cotton on a windy April day. Bengalis have always been bibliophiles and what better way to get a sense of one’s roots than a book? Especially one that behaves like an armchair time-machine, sometimes speeding, at times cruising or even hovering, and always landing at a time and place of its choice, which every now and then turns out to be personal history. There is order in the travel stops though, where the reader must embark, get edified, entertained or even become maudlin (the last is true for Bengali readers), before moving forward again.
The Bengalis is segregated into three broadly arcing segments. Book I is “Utsho: Genesis and More”; Book II “Shobbhota Oshobbhota: Culture Chronicles”; Book III is Ogni Jug: Age of Fire”, followed by the “Epilogue: Shesher Porbo”. Here I must mention Chakravarti’s charming conceit of using Bengali words as chapter headings and then as a courtesy to his not-Bengali readers, providing a translation in the heading itself. The whole book is created for and because of, as Chakravarti terms it, ‘Banglasphere’ – a land beyond geographical boundaries, and pegged at various time-scapes that refuse to become history, preferring instead to smoulder in the world of the present, the now. And this Banglasphere’s population is as diverse as it is colourful and quirky.
For ‘who or what is the Bengali, really, beyond a roiled history, schizophrenic emotion and heightened sense of self?’ And, ‘What are the Bengali and Bengali homelands all about’ if not, a ‘state of mind’? Imagine yourself to be a minnow or a leaf when you plunge into this whirlpool of a book. As Chakravarti himself says in “Jonmo Shutro”, ‘It’s easy to get carried away in Bengal – about Bengal.’ There is more to his statement of course, for the reader to peruse, as he launches into Banglasphere by capturing in the prologue (“Amra Ke? Who, What, Why?”) not what the book is all about (for that is abundantly clear from the title), but the mood and indeed the entire personality of the community, and in the process throwing illumination upon that most Bengali of characteristics – wry and often dry, deprecating, and even self-deprecating, humour.
Journey with Chakravarti into Banglasphere, and one thing becomes clear – a simple fact: which is, that while this book is certainly a labour of love, it is tough love, scrutinised through hard, though often indulgent lenses. The book is also dotted with searing personal anecdotes. Chakravarti lays it bare, without fear. He presents the “beauty and the beast” with equal fairness. It reminds me of the famous “warts-and-all” instruction of Oliver Cromwell to his portrait painter, Sir Peter Lely.
Book I recalls Bengal’s ancient history from proto-Bengalis to (the people of) Bengala of the fourteenth century traveller and chronicler Ibn Batuta, right up to the advent of the ‘politically and commercially agile but linguistically tone deaf British’ (a fact abundantly clear from the many Indian words rendered bastards by their anglicised avatars), and Bengal’s and therefore India’s colonisation, and the eventual bloody parcelling off of Bengal.
Book I would have been less harsh as a history book to read, were it not for Chakravarti’s own sojourns, anecdotes and entwined family history; immense credit goes to him for not being judgemental and maintaining quietude and balance throughout. He has relatives in Bangladesh and (Indian) Bengal, and has journeyed extensively as a journalist and as the chronicler of this book. The fragmentation of Bengal was no less intense than that of the western part of India, and much more prolonged. The fragmentations happened in so many different ways and locales that it seems to have become embedded into the Bengali psyche. Chakravarti quotes from Deb Chowdhury from Barak Valley in Cachar, in his (Deb’s) vehement denial that the Bengalis living there are in any way “probashi” or expatriates – “It is like the fragmented dismembered parts of a body with tremendous suspicion asking each other: Brother you are me, right?”
‘Bengal is a place of spectacular, savage death from storm, flood, hunger and the rage of revolution and religion’ (chapter 4: Shei Shomoy). This is a succinct summary of Bengal’s neglected (in the larger sphere) history. It is not sufficient that only those Bengalis living these memories as part of their everyday lives should be the only ones to know and understand Bangla’s past. For that reason alone, the book should be read with care by both Bengalis and those not.
Book II, the “Culture Chronicles”, provides some respite after the intensity of the previous chapters. It aptly begins with a chapter titled “Amader Robindranath: Tagore Plus”, nailing it in the opening line itself: ‘The Bengalis are a lot more than Robindranath Tagore, our most-cited cultural icon, Subhas Chandra Bose, West Bengal’s most-cited political icon, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s most cited national icon.’ Chakravarti goes on to illustrate his point, mentioning a small galaxy of Banglasphere’s stars, from the fields of literature, music, science, cinema, music, and so on, before coming around to Tagore again. Why Tagore, when he has been and continues to be worshiped to death? Because, ‘Tagore gave us something to be proud of, a humanity that we Bengalis so dearly cherish even as we’ve repeatedly proven ourselves to be purveyors and practitioners of the bleakest inhumanity.’
The chapters in Book II continue to illustrate Chakravarti’s unflinching scrutiny. Aware as we Bengalis are as a community of all that we are not, our disparaging of others and even those we consider not Bengali enough, our cultural conceits, our attitudes towards our neighbouring communities, our ill-concealed dislike for Marwaris, our disdain for rural Bengalis and our domination of lesser Bengalis, we are simply not conscious enough. We too have disparaging and insulting descriptions of the ‘nots’ and ‘not-enoughs.’ Our shortcomings pale in comparison with our hypocrisy towards Bengali women – on one hand worshipped as the Mother, in real life Bengali women are far more oppressed than their lesser sisters in other parts of India; this is a sorry fact few know and even less acknowledge: ‘The stereotype of the emancipated Bengali was born in a hall of smoke and mirrors, historically a place of domination and deceit for the Bengali male, certainly the bhodrolok, who lived in such self-important recesses in which the Bengali woman belonged to his command and control structure. Her emancipation lay in worshiping this prescribed lord, master and better, even to the extent of sharing him with other women.’ All this would begin to change with the arrival of the renaissance, and that of certain key people, both British and Bengali. Though, as Chakravarti says, ‘the gender enlightenment … (is) still a work in progress!’
A book on Bengalis without football would be blasphemy. The promise was made in the book’s cover itself, and kept in chapter 10, beginning, rightfully, with a recalling of the day when Mohan Bagan wrested the IFA shield from the British, the first Indian team to do so. Even for an ignorant lay person like me, this chapter was truly a pleasure to read. Chakravarti captures the heartbeat of that day perfectly. When it comes to football, Bengalis are ‘utterly insane!’
The other insanities of Bengalis – wanderlust, adda and food – get their due in this book, peppered with historical titbits and spiced with Chakravarti’s indulgent, self-deprecating humour, which serves to soften the daggers from his critical eye. The three addictions are often indulged together. Definitely food and adda. So it is no surprise that his chapter on food “Khai Khai to Eat to Live” is almost like an adda in itself. Apart from the usual on how Bengalis are about food, there is a portion on pairing Bengali food with wine. Unfortunately, the source for Chakravarti’s information, and even quotes, appears to have limited knowledge of Bengali food and wine and also seems to harbour an archaic snobbery towards new world and Indian wines. According to this source, shukto (bitter gourd stew) which is a palate cleansing first course in a proper Bengali lunch, should never be paired with wine, when in fact, it goes pretty well with certain sweet white wines. More importantly, you do not tone down the spice factor or in any way bring down the quality of Bengali food just for the sake of pairing it with wine. There is something decidedly parvenu about such a practice. Rather, you go and seek out the wines that would best complement and even palatably contrast with Bengali cuisine in situ. Such wines exist. There’s a whole world out there. Bengalis being what they are, wine pairing and Bangla food is hardly a new thing; it’s been around for decades, even in small pockets right here in India.
The chapter on food also brings one face to face with that disgraceful British ordained catastrophic human tragedy, the Bengal famine of 1943, as well as the other famines and food scarcities, and no, the world is still unaware, even though these have all been documented. With regard to that one in particular, once again, Chakravarti leads it home bleeding and raw, by providing a glimpse into his own life. His tone is matter-of-fact, quiet. Too quiet. You want to get up and scream with the pain of it. He ends it with a reproof: ‘The dead remain as nothing but fragments of our imagination.’
Book III speaks of turmoil – the turmoil that began long before Naxalbari, and is in a way the history behind this greatly romanticised Bengali turmoil. Before delving into history, Chakravarti eloquently explains, ‘Ogni Jug, our age of fire began in the first decade of the twentieth century, and it has had the longest run, nearly a hundred years from the comet’s head to tail. The fires of rebellion against the colonial Britain transferred to what rebels called “neo-colonialists” of the Indian state and various provincial governments. The tag of the angry Bengali isn’t unfounded even though it didn’t – and doesn’t – apply to all of us. But for so very long raging against the system had almost become a religion.’ As for the history that went before, there is a slice of glory in it, for the Bengali, those ‘languid Bengalis best suited to slavery to a foreign yoke…!’
The Bengalis nears its close with a critical and matter-of-fact account of Naxalbari. Chakravarti talks about Bengal’s economic decline and present political and social scene as well, including mastanocracy. I am reminded of an old Bengali saying, ‘obhaabey shobhaab noshto’ – poverty destroys behaviour/culture. Earlier in the book, Chakravarti mentioned various Bengali industries, including his family owned mill in Kushtia, present day Bangladesh. I wish he had written a bit more on the industrialised portions of (entire) Bengal’s history. There was a time when Bengal had many thriving businesses and companies, big and small. One name that comes to mind, not mentioned in this otherwise detailed book is that of the industrialist Sir Biren Mookerjee.
Young Bengalis and not-Bengalis have only known Bengal as a land bereft of opportunities. Those who grew up during the seventies and eighties witnessed the drain. Few remember those days when Bengal led the way, socially, economically, intellectually and artistically. I got a sense of this bereavement in Chapter 15 and onwards. There is a sense of despair as the facts pan out on the pages. There is also longing. Bangladesh of course gets equal attention. Born out of the same fracture and reborn again, ‘Bangladesh is a project, Bengali and otherwise, in every sense of the term.’ Not to speak of the “liberal fundamentalism”. Whether here or there, what happens in Banglasphere affects Bengalis. Wistfulness casts a shy sheen on Chakravarti’s journalistic prose in the last chapters. The book ends on a tone of hope though, a wish, of what Bengalis can do, are capable of achieving.
As for me, I must end my rather rambling review on a personal note. It was impossible not to be emotionally affected by this book, impossible not to uproot myself from it from time to time, just to breathe normally for a few moments. Impossible to not wake up in the middle of the night and think of what I’d read the evening before. If it can affect an old blasé dog like me, what can it do to other, younger Bengalis, those who are as estranged from Banglasphere due to distance and isolation and, yes, even social dilution? The question sits across from me, unaffected by my inability to respond. All I can say is, whether you are Bengali or not-Bengali, go ahead and read the book, if not for anything but for the sheer beauty of being allowed to understand (no, you don’t have to necessarily empathise; Chakravarti himself doesn’t seek it), indeed comprehend, a community that ‘lives under a vast sky’.
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection ‘Immoderate Men’, was published by Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). A children’s book is forthcoming from Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad, and been widely published worldwide.