By Shikhandin

Sudeep by Ushinor Majumdar Colour

Photo Courtesy: Ushinor Majumdar

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction – Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis. He has written two novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings) and his essays and short fiction have appeared in collections in India and overseas; like his books, these have been translated into several languages.
He is among India’s leading independent commentators on matters of conflict and conflict resolution, democracy and development, political economy, and the convergence of business and human rights. An extensively published columnist at Mint and elsewhere, he has over three decades of experience in media, and has worked with major global and Indian media organizations including the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he began his career, and held leadership positions at Sunday, the India Today Group and HT Media.
An avid scuba diver, Sudeep’s key interest away from writing and travelling remains marine conservation. He lives in Goa and in the Velliangiri Hills, Tamil Nadu.

Shikhandin: In the acknowledgements page of The Bengalis, you have touched upon how the book came about. Could you let us know a bit more here?

Sudeep Chakravarti: I have for long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal — by that I mean West Bengal and East Bengal, now Bangladesh — with a personalized touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a great degree of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. I had even proposed it to a major publisher, but I put it on ice for a couple of years on account of a few issues with that particular publisher. I subsequently brought the project to David Davidar of Aleph. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.

I was keen to translate research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my books, fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. The difference with The Bengalis is that I am occasionally involved in the story as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis. It’s not so much about a different eye as a necessary eye: The Bengalis is not a brochure, it’s an attempt at a portrait of a people painted with what I hope is honesty, honour, some horror and a lot of humour. David liked that approach right from the first draft. A second draft and a couple of proofs later, we were done. He and Aleph’s managing editor, Aienla Ozukum, really got into The Bengalis.

Then there is the cover, a work of great care and aesthetics by Aleph’s art director, Bena Sareen (who also designed the cover of my book Red Sun when she was at Penguin). The cover image of The Bengalis, besides being elegant and arresting, conveys several layers of the Bengali – the people as well as the book: a hankering for history, a faded grand past, the playful and yet focused child a symbol of a possibly energized future, the Bengali obsession with football and politics, the slightly rural tone even in an undeniably urban setting. The image by Plabon Das works wonderfully. As to the content, the book of course attempts to deal comprehensively with all this and much, much more.

There was a process to the selection of this image. We were very concerned that the image should not crudely reflect a stereotype, or alienate a vast number of Bengalis. There were other images in the initial design line-up; for instance, a beautiful image of a rickshaw puller in front of a grand North Kolkata mansion. I felt that was too ‘guidebook’ or ‘coffee-table’, like a couple of other options. In any case we didn’t want something to be too Kolkata, as it were, as if other places in what I like to call Banglasphere don’t exist.

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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
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‘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 Bengalis 2

5

Āmādér Rōbindrōnāth

Tagore plus

The Bengalis are a lot more than Rabindranath 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. Although we might often seem to be striving, quite correctly, to escape the stereotype of being longhaired poets or rebels with or without a cause, that our three most famous sons—bongōshontān—have bestowed on us, we actually adore these images of us. Culture and cause, even reflected culture and cause, provide for some a core, for others a sheen with which, in our minds and through our days, we keep ordinariness at bay.

These three aside, there are several Bengalis who are known to the world outside Banglasphere. However, many not-Bengalis are unaware that a number of these worthies are Bengalis or have Bengali roots. Some of our greatest are not known outside Banglasphere but that’s fine too. It’s enough if we laud our own, if others do too, that’s a bonus.

Let me name a few here (numerous others appear elsewhere in the book), those whose names and influence have transcended our chauvinistic borders or, even if they haven’t, have enriched or enervated our lives in Banglasphere and outside it, shaped us for better and worse. If these judgement calls invite energetic and emotional debate — so be it.

Let’s begin with Satyajit Ray. In the 1950s, he marked the beginning of a certain global acclaim for Indian cinema and moved generations with a mix of realism and class. My former colleague and Ray aficionado Sumit Mitra recalls that time in Calcutta:

During the release of the Apu trilogy, between 1955 and 1959, his apotheosis was complete. The coffee-house crowds began to referring to him by his pet name, ‘Manik-da’.

Gatecrashing into his home on Lake Temple Road in Ballygunj on flimsy excuses became so common a cultural pastime that Sandip, his schoolgoing son, always full of pranks, posted a notice on the front door demanding an admission fee of eight annas. By the ’60s, he was too famous a figure to visit his favourite haunt, the corner room of the Chowringhee coffee house, which was called—still is—the House of Lords.