The doors to the metro parted. Roshan stared up and down the platform, eyeing the few stragglers that shuffled in. The train was surprisingly empty. Perhaps word hadn’t spread. Or perhaps the trains peopled by public-spirited, justice-loving citizens had hummed past earlier in the day. Feeling a stab of disappointment, he stepped in, a moment before the doors slid shut.

He contemplated the rows of empty seats – a rare luxury. Nervous energy, an unfamiliar sensation, kept him on his feet. No doubt he had expected company on this short commute, of strangers, and was annoyed to be left alone with his thoughts, but he would step into company soon. He was truly on the way. His palms prickled. Feeling one with the train as it hurtled towards his destination he allowed the significance of the moment to wash over him.

Roshan couldn’t help but feel that this was one of the defining moments of his life. In the past, he had scorned such occasions as insignificant rabble-rousing, feckless anti-statism from an otherwise dormant populace. Earnest friends had often asked, if not now, when? He’d dismissed the question each time. It was an unfair tactic, he reasoned, an oversimplification of the unfailingly complex issues at hand, each of which required threadbare discussion, something he never allowed himself to get entangled in. His arguments always kept up with his comrades’ desire to rush off to central Delhi; he was a master of intellectual self-defence, of shifting the goal-post till his adversary was exhausted. They always capitulated after a few rounds, leaving him somewhat pleased. He had come to look upon it as a triumph of his arguments, rather than his obduracy.

He had grown accustomed to watching streams of people – several of his friends often in tow – parade past and make headlines, only to see the issue soon peter out. He claimed to be a champion of democracy, yet he took the fizzling out of these protests as a vindication of his own views, of his conviction that one has to pick one’s battles. He had finally picked his.

A friend had once remarked, half in jest that had the youth of the 30’s and 40’s been cut from the same cloth as he, independence would have remained a distant dream. He had taken fierce exception; of course, he would have risen to the occasion had the circumstances demanded. The friend knew better than to probe the meaning of ‘had the circumstances demanded’ and Roshan was secretly grateful, for he didn’t know himself. He said all the right things, he knew, thought all the right things, read all the right articles, but somehow, he had never been moved to act. Some argument, some qualifier, some excuse had always provided cover, protecting him from the discomfort of facing his true disposition – that of a coward.

Advertisements

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Bengalis Cover Low Res (546x800)

Title: The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community
Author: Sudeep Chakravatri
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: Hardcover 457 pages
Buy

 

‘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?