The first time I went to Calcutta, I must have been 6 or 7 years old. You would think I wouldn’t remember much about the trip but I do. My father tells me I have an elephant’s memory. To a child though, Calcutta was just a holiday. What does a child understand about exploring roots or your own culture?
My family moved from Delhi to Bombay when I was 11 years old. I didn’t give Calcutta a second thought till I was at least 18. Since neither of my parents are from Calcutta and we are what we call ‘Probashi Bengalis’, meaning Bengalis who live outside of Calcutta, I grew up in a different setting. I didn’t grow up with a lot of Bengali friends, and from my observations, none of my Probashi Bengali friends liked interacting with each other in Bengali. Evidently, I didn’t pay much attention to what it means to be a Bengali. Over the years, I have endured a lot of taunts from other Bengalis on social media about how I am less of a Bengali because I don’t listen to Bengali music or muddle up Bengali words and mix up Hindi and English seamlessly into my mother tongue. Something I assure you annoys me immensely. Since when did identifying or belonging to a culture become a competition?
Who are the Bengalis?
A quick Wikipedia search tells me that Bengalis are the third largest ethnic group in the world, after Han Chinese and Arabs. If you are familiar with Bengalis, you too might hold some much loved stereotypes about us. For example, if you believe all Bengalis can sing well or are artistically inclined in some manner, I would be more than happy to introduce you to my brother who has absolutely no drop of artistic talent. If you believe all Bengalis are highly intellectual, please acquaint yourself with Mamta Banerjee. Do all of us worship Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray? I have only ever watched two movies by Ray and read two books of Tagore. Granted, I did try to learn Rabindra Sangeet like a good Bengali girl and do know two of his songs by heart. Also, not all of us eat sweets every single day, especially not Rosogolla. I don’t even like Rosogolla! My point is, Bengalis are not the sum equivalent of your generalisations.
Let me acquaint you to a few things I have observed about my own community of people.
- Lethargee demands to be a surname– Bengalis are notoriously lazy. A point I want to elaborate upon when I talk more about Calcutta.
- We like to sit on our high horse– Elderly Bengalis will miss no chance to tell you how ours is a community more superior and intellectually blessed than the rest. Never-mind that they themselves might not have read a single book in their lives or uttered a single intelligent word in their entire lifetimes.
- Look, we are so cultured!– Bengalis will miss no chance in keeping up appearances about being ‘cultured’. If culture is wearing saris and rustic jewellery and a giant-sized bindi, then yes, we are all very cultured.
I know it seems like I do not like Bengalis at all. On the contrary, I revel in being a Bengali. This is why I also believe that I have the licence to critique and question a culture I belong to, in order to understand it better.
Long story short, I have been thirsting to travel to Calcutta since the moment this need to explore my roots hit me. This year in February, I finally flew to the city of joy. Was it everything I had hoped for? Did I find what it was I was looking for? I will blog about how I experienced Calcutta in the new few posts.