Eastern Winds: Reflections of a Bengali as an ‘Outsider’

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.

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  1. Poila Boishakh for me meant indulging myself with my maternal family at Beadon Street.My mother who is a pucca ghoti used to deck up in jewellery, smeared with the sweat ofcourse and after a grand lunch we used to go and watch a play at one of the theatres, which by now have all closed down.I remember watching “KONE BIBHRAT” at Circarina, the city’s first revolving stage on a poila boishakh.Actually the first day of the Bengali calender used to be marked with a lot of festivity in the northern fringes of the city.Stepping into the wrong side of thirties, I have realized that it is more of EKLA BOISHAKH now….the solitary BOISHAKH..

  2. Dear Shoma Di !

    This is a typical human phenomena which rankles highly placed individuals when they are outside their roots. I feel with few exceptions like Hemant Kumar, Geeta Dutt and Kishore Kumar and to some extent Salil Choudhury, many Bengalis made Bombay their home and have shown their faces like ‘id ka chand’. S.D & R.D. left Tripura and never returned back .Once Bimal Roy left Kolkata, he never returned. So is true for Hrishikesh Mukherjee also who was an understudy of Bimal da. But all the names I have mentioned never forgot their roots like you. You may be born somewhere but initially when you were a child your parents must have embibed the bengali culture in you because they must have spent some portions of their lives in Bengal. Recently I had read an article on Late Frank Worrel, the West Indian cricketer. He was from a country in Barabados, but later in life he settled in Jamaica and died there also, his countrymen were unable to forgive him as he moved and settled down in anothe Carribbean country.

    I can only say that being famous like you is also like a double-edged sword. I remember a scene from AB’s Don where the he along with the villains are in jail. The villain (Om Shivpuri) say him that the police thinks you are a villain and we know you have been planted by the police, so none of us will leave you…..

    So I feel you also are facing the same situation, but remember Tagore’s ‘ekla chalo re’…

    I hope you’ll not mind my comments.

    Yours affectionately,


  3. As I mentioned in my piece Boi Dekha! (http://www.upperstall.com/blogs/punjab-da-puttar/boi-dekha/), one of my most exciting discoveries in recent times has been the Bengali mainstream cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Incidentally, Geeta Dutt is by far my favourite playback singer and I for one am glad she kept in touch with her Bengali roots. Otherwise, one would have missed her immortal Bengali songs like Nishi Raat Banka Chand, Jhanak Jhanak, Tumi Je Amar, Ae Sundar Swarnali Sandhya, Prabhu Sunochi Amari Gaan and others!

  4. great, Shoma, love that instant evocation of the past generation, the Bengali milieu, the kaleidoscopic elements of Bengali culture. Tantalising, we instantly want to know more.
    once upon a time, I was also told, Ekla Chalo Re. It was one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite songs. My dad’s too.

  5. Very nice and evocative piece. You’ve captured the love of the probashi for his/her roots quite movingly. The snapshots of the probashi culture in Mumbai was a real eye opener. Wish you all the best for this Poila Boisakh.

  6. I can only say that this confirms the cultural bigotry that the Bengalis also have to acknowledge is an integral part of the Bengali identity … along with the high culture that they are so proud of, although very few, unlike SHoma Chatterjee, are actually familiar with. My German husband finds it hilarious that the world according to the Bengali should be divided into Bengalis and Non-Bengalis …. unless of course the Nons are Shahebs, in which case of course they are not Nons but well, … you know what I mean.

  7. Dear Namesake,

    It was wonderful to know what life feels like for the people on the other side of the fence! I migrated, migrated and migrated…. first to Delhi, then to the Middle East and finally I’m back in your ‘para’ in Mumbai and I feel quite as dispalced. Though I have been in this game for a little over 11 years, but 3 places have given me the same feeling… waiting at the railway station, wondering which train to take to get onto the right track back….

  8. 1. Famous Hindu mathematicians, poets, and philosophers: 

Aryabhatta (Kerala), Aryabhatta (Bihar), Bhaskara (Andhra), Brahmagupta (Gujarat), Susruta (North), Panini (Punjab), Kalidas (MP), Tansen (MP), Baiju Bawra (MP), Jayadeva (Orissa), Guru Nanak (Punjab), Buddha (Bihar), Mahavira (Bihar), Vatsyayana (Gujarat), Kabir (UP), Soordas (UP), Amir Khusrau (MP), Ramanuja (Tamil Nadu), Adi Shankara (Kerala), Mirabai (Rajasthan), Tulsidas (UP).


2. Famous Indian kings and emperors:

Ashoka (Bihar), Chandragupta Maurya (Bihar), Samudragupta (UP), Bimbisara (Bihar), Raja Raja Chola (Tamil), Akbar (Delhi), Krishna Deva Raya (Karnataka), Tipu Sultan (Andhra), Shivaji (Maharashtra), Kanishka (North India), Prithviraj Chauhan (Rajasthan), Vikramaditya (MP), Rani Lakshmiba of Jhansi (MP), Rajendra Chola (Tamil), Harsha (Haryana), Zamorin (Kerala), Ranjit Singh (Punjab).


3. Famous Indian battles: 

Kurukshetra (Haryana), Panipat (Haryana), Haldi Ghati (Rajasthan), Pataliputra (Bihar), Puru-Alexander (Punjab), Vijayanagar-Bahmani (Andhra-Karnataka), Ashoka-Kalinga (Orissa).


    4. Ancient Indian religious and philosophical centers:

Varanasi (UP), Tirupati (Tamil Nadu), Haridwar (Uttarakhand), Nashik (Maharashtra), Ujjain (MP), Dwarka (Gujarat), Puri (Orissa), Prayag (UP), Mathura (UP), Ayodhya (UP), Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu), Gaya (Bihar).


    5. Classical Dances in India: 

Bharatanatyam (Tamil), Odissi (Orissa), Kuchipudi (Andhra), Manipuri (North East), Mohiniaattam (Kerala), Sattriya (Assam), Kathakali (Kerala), Kathak (Hindi states).


    6a. Ancient UNESCO world heritage sites:

Mahabodhi (Bihar), Hampi (Karnataka), Ellora (Maharashtra), Ajanta (Maharashtra), Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu), Konarak (Orissa), Khajuraho (MP).

6b. Medieval UNESCO world heritage sites: 

Qutb Minar (Delhi), Taj Mahal (UP), Red Fort (Delhi).

6c. Majestic palaces and forts: 

Lake palace, Udaipur (Rajasthan), Amber Fort (Rajasthan), Gwalior Fort (MP), Hawa Mahal (Rajasthan), Jantar Mantar (Delhi, Rajasthan). 

    6c. Ancient universities and monasteries: 

Nalanda (Bihar), Taxila (Punjab/Pak), Ratnagiri (Orissa), Sanchi Stupa (MP), Vikramashila (Bihar).


    Bengalis are 15-20% of the entire population of South Asia. Yet they accomplished NOTHING until the British came and gifted them with Kolkata city and modern education.

    These Bengalis profited from British invasion when the rest of India was ruined.

All Kolkata monuments are British gifts: Victoria memorial, Howrah bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Esplanade, etc. 

    Tagore, Bankim Chatterjee, Jagdish Bose – all a result of sycophancy towards the British. British sycophant Tagore wrote Jana Gana Mana only to kowtow to the British overlords. The only truly “patriotic” poem he wrote was for ANOTHER country (Bangladesh). The rest of the Bengali “freedom fighters” were only motivated by the partition of Bengal. They hadn’t raised a finger during 1857 when Mangal Pandey of UP had to lead the uprising in Kolkata.

  9. KAM,

    I am flattered that you have read my blog more than one year after it was first posted and I had almost forgotten about it. But I am also amazed about the bias you hold against Bengalis in general and against intellectual stalwarts such as Tagore, Bankim Chandra, Jagadish Bose and others.

    Just to jog your memory a little, Tagore rejected knighthood as his voice of protest against the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre. Tagore passed away long before Bangladesh was born in 1971 so he did not write it FOR Bangladesh but the newly formed Bangladesh chose AMAR SHONAR BANGLA AAMI TOMAYE BHALOBASHI as its national song. The same goes for JANA GANA MANA. Not a single line in this long poem that later became our national anthem offers even a hint of sycophancy towards the British! Tagore did not even write it as the National Anthem! It was later chosen as the anthem by the government at the centre! He is the first to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are two more Nobel Prize winners from Bengal. One of them is Amartya Sen (Economics) and the other is Mother Theresa (Peace) who considered herself a Bengali. Another Nobel Prize winner, Mohammed Yunus from Bangladesh, is a Bengali.

    Murshidabad is named after Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, the Dewan of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under Emperor Aurangzeb, is intimately related to events that ultimately changed the history of India. At Palsy near Murshidabad was fought the historic battle between Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula and Lord Clive. The relics strewn today speak of those times. But the history of this region dates back perhaps a little farther. The travelogue describes Karnasubarna near Murshidabad as the first capital of ancient Bengal. Both Siraj and Murshid Quli Khan were Bengali.

    From the 8th to the 12th century, Bengal was under the Buddhist Pala dynasty, based in neighbouring Bihar. After about 1200 it was governed by semi-independent Muslim rulers, and from 1576 it belonged to the Mughal empire. When Mughal power declined in the 18th century, a separate dynasty emerged in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. Its rulers, known as the nawabs of Bengal, soon came into conflict with the British, who had established themselves at Calcutta in western Bengal (1690) and who took possession of the nawabs’ realm in 1757-64.

    As the direct political disciple of his grandfather, Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last Nawab of Bengal during the British rule, was aware of the global British interest in colonization and hence, resented the British politico-military presence in Bengal represented by the British East India Company. He was annoyed at the company’s alleged involvement with and instigation of some members of his own court in a conspiracy to oust him. His charges against the company were mainly threefold. Firstly, that they strengthened the fortification around the Fort William without any intimation and approval; secondly, that they grossly abused the trade privileges granted to them by the Mughal rulers, which caused heavy loss of customs duties for the government; and thirdly, that they gave shelter to some of his officers, for example Krishnadas, son of Rajballav, who fled Dhaka after misappropriating government funds. Hence, when the East India Company started further enhancement of military preparedness at Fort William in Calcutta, Siraj asked them to stop. The Company did not heed his directives, so Siraj-Ud-Daulah retaliated and captured Kolkata (Shortly renamed as Alinagar) from the British in June 1756. During this time, he is alleged to have put 146 British subjects in a 20 by 20 foot chamber, known as the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta; only 23 were said to have survived the overnight ordeal. The real facts around the incident are disputed by later historians, but at that time the lurid account of this incident by one survivor – Holwell – obtained wide circulation in England and helped gain support for the East India Company’s continued conquest of India.

    If you have read Bankim Chandra’s novels like Ananda Math, Kapal Kundala, Durgesh Nandini and so on, you would have thought twice before labeling him a sycophant. The wireless discovery by Jagadish Bose is now known to have been appropriated by a Western scientist. It appears that Bose’s demonstration of remote wireless signalling has priority over Marconi. He was the first to use a semiconductor junction to detect radio waves, and he invented various now commonplace microwave components. In 1954, Pearson and Brattain gave priority to Bose for the use of a semi-conducting crystal as a detector of radio waves. Further work at millimeter wavelengths was almost nonexistent for nearly 50 years.

    RADHANATH SIKDAR was a Bengali mathematician who, among other things, calculated the height of Peak XV in the Himalayas and showed it to be the tallest mountain above the sea level. Peak XV was later named Mount Everest. In 1851 a voluminous Survey Manual (Eds. Capt. H. L. Thullier and Capt. F. Smyth) was published by the Survey Department. The preface to the Manual clearly and specifically mentioned that the more technical and mathematical chapters of the Manual were written by Babu Radhanath Sikdar. The Manual proved to be immensely useful to surveyors. However, the third edition, published in 1875 (i.e., after Sikdar’s death) did not contain that preface, so that Sikdar’s memorable contribution was de-recognized. The incident was condemned by a section of British surveyors

    SATYENDRA NATH BOSE specialised in Mathematical Physics. He is best known for his work in Quantum Mechanics in the early 1920s, providing the foundation for .Bose-Einstein Statistics and the theory of the Bose-Einstein condensate. He is honored as the namesake of the boson. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1954.

    The Pala Empire was a Buddhist dynasty in control of Bengal from the 8th to the 12th century. Palas created a distinctive form of Buddhist art known as the “Pala School of Sculptural Art.” The gigantic structures of Vikramshila Vihar, Odantpuri Vihar, and Jagaddal Vihar were masterpieces of the Palas. These mammoth structures were destroyed by the forces of Bakhtiar Khilji. The Somapura Mahavihara, a creation of Dharmapala, at Paharpur, Bangladesh, is the largest Buddhist Vihara in the Indian subcontinent, and has been described as a “pleasure to the eyes of the world.” UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1985. The Pala architectural style was followed throughout south-eastern Asia and China, Japan, and Tibet. Bengal rightfully earned the name “Mistress of the East”. Dr. Stella Kramrisch says: “The art of Bihar and Bengal exercised a lasting influence on that of Nepal, Burma, Ceylon and Java.” Dhiman and Vittpala were two celebrated Pala sculptors. About Somapura Mahavihara, Mr. J.C. French says with grief: “For the research of the Pyramids of Egypt we spend millions of dollars every year. But had we spent only one percent of that money for the excavation of Somapura Mahavihara, who knows what extraordinary discoveries could have been made”.

    I do not think I need to throw up any more of history.

  10. @ KAM:
    Please refrain from confirming the stereotypical Bengali fear of the stereotypical “non” Bengali … it does no-one any service! Not only do you reveal your abysmal ignorance of history, you are in fact parading your lamentable lack of critical thinking and tragic susceptibility to chauvinist polemics. Good luck, you are evidently in need of it!!

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