'A man’s character is known by the way he buys his pheesh," stated Mr Roy, Ashima’s quintessential Bengali father, in Vicky Donor. Kintu, ei 'typical quintessential Bangali phenomena' aeta aachey ki?
While Mr. Roy is a fictitious character, but what he said is a belief which most of my Bengali friends will not disagree with. There seems to be a meditative quality about buying fish, which comes with years of practice and observation. The ones who don’t excel in this ‘shaadhona', clearly, are not family men. Every Bengali man must be capable of differentiating between the good and the bad with just a whiff—in its literal sense, in its philosophical sense and, therefore, carrying the best ‘ilieish maachh’ from the market in his ‘nylon stripped jhola’ along with some well bargained ‘torkari’, good enough for a couple of days.
Well, I am not Bengali by birth, but I grew up in a Bengali household. Our wonderful 'Bong' tenants had a significant influence in my upbringing. To begin with, I was taught to address my elder brother as ‘Dada’ and not ‘Bhaiyya’ because that’s how it is among Bengalis.
I often wondered why Aunty fussed so much over fish everyday. Wasn’t it their staple diet? I was obviously comparing her with my mother whom I never saw being so troubled about our regular food—potatoes, bhindi and daal. Was our food not worthy of being fussed over? Was it any less important? I guess so.
Furthermore, the spread that is usually prepared for special occasions like koftas, chholey, shahi paneer, dum aloo etc, or for that matter any other delicacy from around the world, an equivalent of that in a ‘typical’ Bengali household, is fish, fish, fish, and fish. Nothing ever compares to ‘macher jhol bhaat’.
I remember how a friend’s dad was given a daily allowance every morning and in the evening, when he would return from office, he had to give an account of how he spent it. I mean I never saw any other aunty in my neighbourhood doing anything like that. In fact, in most parts of the country it’s the other way round—it’s the husbands who give their wives household expense and ask for a break up. But this uncle never objected to being treated like a kid who’d been given his pocket money. And Aunty would still complain that “uncle ekdom careless, jitnaa poisha do, shob khorcha kaar deta hai!” We used to laugh it off. But was Aunty a typical dominating Bong wife and uncle a typical Bong husband? Perhaps.
One of my friends' parents believe that no other newspaper in the country can match the impeccable language, quality of journalism, and earnestness of The Telegraph’. Calcutta edition, obviously. Whenever they travel back from Calcutta, they carry a few old newspapers with them. No other printed news content satisfies them. Mornings in their home, if possible, must be avoided. They stay in Bhopal.
An ex-colleague of mine has a long list of expectations from the man she would like to settle down with. He must have Tagore’s sense of poetry and shongeet, Uttam Kumar’s charm, Chandrabindoo-like modern take on music. In addition, he must love puchkas and jhaal moodi and pujo bhog and addas. And all this, not from a guy in Kolkata but in San Francisco. She has dated two ‘Ponjabi’ boys and has expected the same from them too. Needless to say, her search is on. I have laughed at her, even tried explaining to her but now I have accepted that I can’t change her. She is a Bong. According to her, you don’t have to be a Bengali to like all this. You can always be converted into being one, only if you’re open minded. Well, she’s right.
Dada (my brother) fell for a Bengali girl, now my Bou di. But when I see his fluency in Bangla, his food habits, his knowledge about their ‘caalture’, his dutiful trips to the Pujo Pondals, I really wonder if he was ever a non-bong. I have seen him coming back from work and asking his mother-in-law, ‘bhalo korey bhaat kheyeche?’ about his son. I have seen him hunt for a monkey cap for his kids for Pune-kind of winters. He is no more Vinay. He is Binoy. This is exactly what Vicky’s mother Dolly feared in Vicky Donor and said, ‘us Bangali ne hum sabko Bangali banaa denaa hai’ when Vicky announces his decision to marry Ashima.
Eventually our tenants in Lucknow shifted into their own house. But the smell of ‘sarson kaa tel’ never left our home, even after years. My friend’s mother who swears by ‘Jabakusum taila’ has not a single grey hair. She is 67. 'Chittoronjan' Park for all right reasons is mini Calcutta. Gitanjali and Ray films and Robindro gaan and Vivekananda have enriched my culture too. I am thankful to my Bengali friends for always gifting books to my daughter. Yes, they are a fussy, idealistic, opinionated lot. And they believe that whatever the country thinks today, Calcutta thought of it the day before yesterday. But go to any Bengali household and they will ensure you eat at least two Rasgullas. Their warmth and simplicity is just like the sweet fragrance of the Shiuli flowers in the autumn season. Take a whiff and you’ll know what I mean. And now when I visit the Ramakrishna Mission or the Tejpal Hall pujo, I don’t feel out of place either. They have converted me too.
Perhaps, ‘typical quintessential Bangali phenomena’ aeta hi aachey. Shubho Bijoya!
Juhi Chaturvedi won the 2013 Filmfare Award for Best Story for the popular Hindi film Vicky Donor
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