I do not quite care for the word probashi prefixed to my Bengali identity. It is a heavy, emotional and cultural baggage I have been carrying, much against my wishes, all my life. For me, probashi is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. The Mumbaiyya Bengalis consider me a traitor because I migrated to Kolkata, never mind the marital coercion involved in the shift. Ten years down the line, Kolkata refuses to accept me as one of her own.
Bengalis across West Bengal decided long ago that I do not qualify to comment on anything that has even remotely to do with the authentic Bengali identity, the Bengali mindset and the Bengali psyche. Their massive Bengali ego would just not allow for such primitive and non-intellectual indulgences. All this, because I have been born, bred and educated in Mumbai to parents who were probashis themselves, and because I have been a thoroughbred Mumbayite for almost two-thirds of my life. For the first time in 60 years, I have been asked to reflect on the Bengali New Year or Poila Boishakh. It has been the happiest experience in my 25 years of writing.
My credentials as a Bengali have always been suspect. So, alongside other things, my life is defined by this constant and desperate struggle to be accepted as a true-blooded Bengali minus suffixes or prefixes. Things might have been different had I been a NRI Bengali from the US or UK or even Dubai, whose annual visits ‘home’ to ‘discover’ her ‘roots’ are backed by eager relatives waiting to pounce on plush Samsung suitcases and Gucci bags spilling over with French perfumes, Swiss chocolates and diamonds from Belgium. But it is only Mumbai after all. So friends, relatives, relatives of relatives, and that most dreaded of all filial appendages – my in-laws spread across nooks and corners of West Bengal, berate me for, what they consider, is a ‘hybrid’ identity.
My first Poila Boishakh in the mid-Fifties began with a melodious rendering of Tagore’s Hey Nuton Dekha Dik Baar Baar, sung by girls and boys in the neighbourhood on the platform-turned-stage of the Bengal Club at Shivaji Park. I wore a brand new frock made of starched, white organdie with lots of frills, new shoes and socks, with a white satin ribbon holding my curly hair in place. The surprise package was Mala Sinha. She sang Ningariya Neel Sharee Srimoti Choley from the film Dhuli beautifully in her sonorous voice. Mala Sinha from Nepal spoke impeccable Bengali, acted in Bengali films, and then migrated to Mumbai in search of fresh pastures. Can one honestly deny her a true Bengali identity?
Every Bengali function beginning with Poila Boishakh and closing with Saraswati Pooja at the Bengal Club was complemented with a cultural function where Hemanta Mukherjee, Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood, Mohammed Rafi, Salil Choudhury, Ravindra Jain and Mukesh would sing songs on an indigenous stage set up within a large pandal. Hemanta Mukherjee once sang fourteen songs, taking in the request slips happily. He pulled in the bellows of his harmonium only when his voice began to crack. Lata Mangeshkar came once during a Durga Pooja function and sang one Bengali song after another. None of them charged a single naya paisa for their performance.
The Bengalis here accuse me of having more than a reasonable command over English, Hindi and Marathi, refusing to listen to repeated pleas that I am perhaps much more ‘Bengali’ – Bengali than they claim to be. The fear of seeing disbelief written all over their faces prevents me from telling them that I can read, write and even speak Bengali much better than many of them would care to know; that I switched from the snobbish and expensive Bombay Scottish School to join the mediocre Bengali Education Society’s High School because I wanted to have Bengali friends; that most of these ‘new’ friends did not weary of ragging me and taking potshots at my ‘English’ upbringing, till I had the last laugh by scoring distinction marks in Bengali in my school board exams.
When a Bengali asks who my favourite author is, ‘Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay’ is my immediate response. He looks shocked, making me feel almost guilty for preferring a Bengali author over Shakespeare or TS Eliot and Salman Rushdie, Amitava Ghosh or V.S. Naipaul. Comics and soppy romances like Mills & Boons were a big no-no at home. My father handed me a slim booklet with “What is Marxism?” written on the cover when I was 18 and forced me to read and re-read it till I got some inkling of what Marxism was all about. The result was – I went on to major in Economics.
I have grown up on mandatory Sunday breakfasts of luchi and jhola gud (semi-liquid jaggery) savoured against the backdrop of 78 rpm. records playing Tagore, Nazrul and Rajanikanta songs alongside KL Saigal, Kanan Devi and Pankaj Mullick numbers from New Theatres productions. The daily diet consisted of shukto, chacchari, bhaate and lots of fish- fried, curried, steamed or cooked in spicy mustard paste downed with fine basmati rice available dirt-cheap at the local ration shop. My favourite to this day is posto-bata – a hot concoction made of poppy seed paste, mustard oil, salt and green chillies eaten with a plate of hot rice.
My ambitious mother, forever in literary overdrive, forced me to read Sarat Chandra, Bankim and Tagore in the original, till I began to enjoy what I read. She spelt out the finer nuances of a Tarasankar or a Bibhuti Bhushon or a Manik and a Satinath (Bhaduri) and promptly packed me off to all Sunday morning shows of Bengali films ranging from Harano Sur through Kabuliwalla and Mahaprasthaner Pathey to Pather Panchali to ‘get the hang of being Bengali’ as she put it. That is when I fell in love with Uttam Kumar. Forty years have passed since, and I am still in love with him.
My probashi parents were passionate about bringing us up within the best of Bengali culture against a largely cosmopolitan setting. The modest family budget allotted a monthly sum towards Bengali films and Bengali theatre. So, I got to watch at first hand, Tripti Mitra in an abstract from Bahurupee’s Setu, followed by entire productions of Raja and Rakta Karabi at the Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in 1961. We also watched an entire retrospective of Utpal Dutt’s plays from Tiner Talowar to Ebar Rajar Pala and probably everything Badal Sircar ever produced from Michhil to Hattomalar Oparey. But my earliest brush with Bengali theatre was when my mother took me to watch part of a National Theatre Festival. I saw Ritwik Ghatak in person, as actor enacting an important part in Dalil. The experience was quite obtuse and depressing for a girl of ten, but as an adult, I feel enriched by the memory.
Like all other years, I wait out this year’s Poila Boishakh too, at the waiting room in a terminal railway station, long after the last train has left, not knowing which train – the up one or the down one, will readily pick me up and take me along, as one of its own.