I am Bengali – I belong from a state in India which is well known for its confusing political state, its obssession with fish, intellectual addas, chop–singara–muri, its contribution to Indian Cinema, music, its extravagant Durga puja and so on. It is a beautiful state, but who doesn’t feel that way about their birth places?
But beyond all this, what is the underlying motif of being Bengali, of being part of a Bengali household? This will differ a little bit depending on which area you are from, but here’s how I see Bangaliayana as:
Being Bengali is waking up early in the morning, sometimes as early as 4-4.30 AM, freshening up and heading for a morning walk with a translucent polythene bag. The men may wear shorts and sports shoes, but the womenfolk tread on in their pumps and sarees and their petticoats and blouses, sweating profusely through them. The polythene bag acts as a storage of all the flowers that they will pick up on their walk, sometimes over a little chat with the neighbor whose trees they are picking the flowers from, sometimes secretly, making sure no one sees them in their flower-picking exercise. These little furtive activities sometimes make for the most pleasurable experiences for a Bengali soul.
Being Bengali means standing in the line in front of the dairy or the meat shop, bargaining for the best pieces of mutton: chest, leg pieces etc. Being Bengali means going to the market for the fresh vegetable produce and fish, before everyone else had picked it up.
Being Bengali means the occasional fast on a plethora of festivals, to appease the 33 lakh gods the Hindus pray to: Manasa pujo, Bipottarini pujo, Shitala pujo. Being Bengali means making luchi and payesh to break that fast, and distributing small portions of those as well as the auspicious threads to tie on the wrists among the neighbors.
Being Bengali means gossip for the womenfolk as they do their dishes and shout out from the windows to the neighbor – whose daughter was not going getting married yet in spite of looking for grooms for the past year, whose son failed in the exam because he fell into bad company, whose children don’t look after their parents after having comfortably settled in Germany, whose mother-in-law is too quarrelsome and makes life hell for the young wife. Being Bengali means womenfolk sitting on moras in winter, with the December sun lusciously teasing their backs with cozy warmth, as they knit mittens and sweaters for their grandchildren.
Being Bengali means conch shells blowing in the evening, along with the burning of incense sticks and ululating women. It means the mandatory arati of the tulsi plant, which is regarded as the sacred plant and is part of every Bengali household.
Being Bengali means prodding the children away from the television as dusk falls, to their study rooms, because the mothers and the grandmothers will now watch the serials that have been continuing over ages, and also because, everyone wants their children to be doctors and engineers and they have to beat Mr. Sen’s daughter in maths.
Being Bengali means the machher jhol ar bhaat ar akta ruti for dinner. It means leaving the dishes in the sink for the cleaning lady to grumble over the next morning. It means the tucking of the mosquito net under the mattress of every bed, irrespective of mosquitos being in the season or not.
These little snapshots in time, in my eyes, are uniquely Bengali. This is what I know my Bengali households as. I know, like every other community we have our faults and failings, but hey, every little fault makes us who we are: human. And do we excel at that!