Friday, October 12, 2007

Going Bong-kers

'Tui ki ghoti?' she asked me.

(Are you a ghoti?)

'Huh?' I responded brightly, while my mind cartwheeled over thoughts of ghoti (a metallic container for water), baati (bowl) and other such utensils.

'I mean, are you from West Bengal or East Bengal?' she explained patiently, treating me with the upturned-nose tolerance a fish-hating, probashi Bengali deserves from a blue-blooded Calcuttan.

The brass, steel and aluminium vessels making towers in my mind came crashing down as I thought for a second before replying.

This was Delhi 1999 and I had never been asked this question before. When I came home and related this conversation to my grandmother, who had left Calcutta at the age of 20 and refused to learn Hindi or what gender a car was when you referred to it, hooted with laughter (if you can imagine a 70-year old lady doing so).

As a probashi Bengali (one raised outside of Bengal), Kolkata as a concept, as a city, as a living breathing entity has always been just outside my reach. My parents were hopeless - hailing from UP and Delhi, they ensured that I spoke Hindi as a child. Ostensibly because it helped me communicate with everyone, but in reality because it helped them use Bangla as a code, against me. When I caught on (at the tender age of 5), I tenaciously tried speaking Bangla, though even today I translate from Hindi and all my true-blue Bong friends/relatives/in-laws laugh uproariously/smile tolerantly/smile indulgently respectively.

Eta shotti hocchhe.

Is what I say, which translates from wrong Bengali into wrong English as 'It is being true.' For that's what I'd say when I translate 'Yeh sach hai' into Bangla.

As you can see, my ignorance of all things Calcuttan and many things Bengali did not work well for me when I got married. After all, I chose to marry a Bengali, from Kolkata, who loves fish, who gets all mushy at the thought of Durga Pujo and can spend it nowhere but Kolkata, whose idea of keeping in touch with his roots (in extreme circumstances) often includes checking vegetable rates at the para market on some obscure website while he sits in the Middle East, whose mother mastered Bangla literature, who grew up reading fantastic, homegrown, children's Bangla literature where they eat monda-mithai rather than the unknown and unknowable scones Enid Blyton told me about, who reads and writes Bangla like a natural while I labour over the joint letters and must read out loud.

On a serious note, the one thing I regret in all this is that the beauty of Bangla literature, to me, is like outer space. I know it exists, but I have not experienced it first-hand. I want to remedy that, because my probashi father, Premchand-reading and shaayri-reciting, educated himself in Bangla and can now hold his own in a conversation on Bangla prose and poetry. So I have no excuse. I read Bengali bloggers and they are all steeped in knowledge of their literature as well as the world's, and I feel ashamed to know only Shakespeare.

In the one year since I got married, I have had several occasions to realise how little Bengali-ness pervaded my growing-up years. Sure, Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma's Bag of Tales) was read out to me and my brother at bedtime, but so were Russian fairy tales and Noddy. Durga Pujo meant new clothes, but the thrill of Bijoya Dashami and the bhashaan (immersion of the idol) went unfelt as I watched the Ravana effigy at the local Ramlila park explode while a tape-recorder played the giant's raucous laughter and people shouted 'Siya pati Ramchandra ki Jai'.

I think I am a bad Bengali. No, I know I am. My sweet tooth may have been a saving grace, but brownies and besan laddoos win over rosogollas every time. About fish, the less said the better. I dislike shukto, faint at the thought of shinni. I feel no regional affiliation at all. I don't scan admission lists or colleagues' names to see how many other names are Bengali ones. I don't go insane with joy if Sourav Ganguly scores a century. Nor do I allege regional bias when he is kept off the team. And, my goodness, I don't ooze horror like my Dida used to at the new breed of 'shekshy' (sexy) Bengali sirens 'Ghenna' (disgust), she would say, and stomp off when Bips pouted on screen.

Which means that when I am roaming the pandals of Kolkata next week in my notun-bou avatar in my first ever Kolkata Durga Pujo, I will need to lie low. Kolkata's going nuts about, and because of, Pujo as it probably does every year. But this time I watch in alarm the building tide of enthusiasm as seen on Bangla TV, because I'm going to be there. And, since I do love mishti doi, rolls and phuchkas, I will be part of the traffic jams and the serpentine queues, of the crowds at Kalpana Mishthanna Bhandar, at Samrat's Hot Rolls, at Annapurna Mishthanna Bhandar, at Bedouin's Biryani outlets, at Madhukshara Mishthanna Bhandar, at Dolly's Tea House, at Maa Durga Shooeets, and, eventually, I will be trying to cut the line at Maa Kali Chemists, asking for Pudin Hara.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Memoriam

He knelt at her grave, remembering her face as it had been when he had first seen it, radiant in the moonlight, white marble with a touch of human pink. He had inhaled sharply at the beauty of his wife. She had lowered her eyes and the submission that followed would last throughout their married life.

Fourteen children. He was a busy man, and she had been quiet, uncomplaining, silently supportive if not always understanding what his life was like. Affairs of state kept him from her. And though he could not confide in her about taxation issues and political upheavals, though she would not understand the burden of what it meant to be him, he still waited eagerly for time he could spend with her, coming away soothed, calmed and enclosed in unconditional love.

The son she gave birth to was the bane of his existence. How was it, that the thing that tied them together also destroyed all that they had stood for?

Dead, cold, gone.

He would remember her. He would make sure the world remembered her. Cloistered in his gilded cage, a stooped man with failing eyesight, he would squint into a convex mirror that allowed him to see her grave. And the shimmering white mausoleum built over and around it.

The world would come to pay homage. To her. To him. To art. To beauty. But for him, it was just his beloved's grave.

Monday, October 01, 2007


I've been tagged. Okay, make that very, very past tense.

First, Choxbox tagged me to list 5 eccentric things about myself. Now, that's hard to do, because however weird I may be, I am of course completely normal in my own head. So let me just list things that people think are weird about me (oh, you judgemental people - you're all going to hell!):

  • I hate mixing up food on my plate. Everything is cooked separately, right? So it should be eaten separately too, right? Mixing it up (other than with rice) is disrespect to the cook, right? So my plate always has clearly demarcated areas and runny foods MUST go into a bowl. (It may now be superfluous to inform my readers that I have never lived in a hostel.) This means that if someone is serving me a helping of something , I point frantically to the unused spot of my plate where it should go. Which my loving mother ignores, always dumping, say, daal where sabzi used to be, or making my roti all soggy with a misplaced helping of gravy :(

  • I think I use up several people's quota of Dettol soap. I wash my hands before I brush my teeth, after using the broom, after touching (even with just two fingers) the kitchen-counter mop, after putting away newly-bought vegetables, after bringing out packets of frozen meat to thaw, so what if the block of icy meat cannot possibly ooze unmentionable stuff on me.

  • I CANNOT walk barefoot in the house, even my own. I carry slippers even if I go somewhere for a single night. There was once a fire scare in our next-door building and we had to evacuate the house at 4 am. I rushed to grab my slippers before heading out, even as smoke billowed out of the next building. I am a very unhappy person if I don't have my slippers on. Yet, if it is a guaranteed clean floor, or grass, I love the feeling of a fresh, cold surface under my feet.

  • I am afraid of ghosts. The moment I am alone in the house at night, every horror scene from any scary movie I have ever watched will float back into my mind and often cause me to stay up at insane hours of the night. As a child I used to sleep with my head covered even in the summer, thinking (ah, innocence) that a ghost couldn't get past the white sheet. Hah! Ghosts invented the white sheet!

Ok, I'm sorry Choxbox, but I'll stop here. I cannot think of any more eccentricities!

For this, I tag: Suki, Eve's Lungs, Orange Jammies, Sandeepa, Candy.


Now for Suki's tag. I'm being lazy and pasting the rules straight from her page.

Rule 1: Without changing the first word, after each letter of the alphabet, write a sentence that captures you/your essence.

Rule 2: Tag as many people as you want, but do tag at least one. This is an eye opening experience and can express to those who read it, things about you that they did not really understand before.

Rule 3: List who you are tagging.

*A* Accept blame for your mistakes and learn from them.

*B* Break stereotypes.

*C* Create happiness.

*D* Decide never to look back.

*E* Explore the reasons behind other people's actions, especially when they are too nice or too mean to you.

*F*Forgive only when you are certain you no longer hold a grudge against the person who wronged you.

G* Grow closer to your loved ones, not away.

*H* Hope that at the end of your life, you are surrounded by people who love you unconditionally.

*I* Ignore snobs and hypocrites.

*J* Journey into people's minds to see what they are like. And treat them accordingly.

*K* Know your priorities in life.

*L* Love unconditionally.

*M*Manage time. (Sorry Suki, ripped this one off!)

*N*Notice the small things people do for you. And reciprocate.

*O* Open yourself to suggestions.

*P* Play games that make you laugh and/or sweat.

*Q* Question assumptions.

*R* Relax with people who bring you peace.

*S* Share time.

*T* Try to avoid sarcasm.

U* Use all your muscles, but your heart and brain the most.

*V* Value the time you have with people you love.

W* Work to live, don't live to work.

X* X-ray your mind to analyse the real reasons behind your actions.

*Y *- Yield to wisdom, to love, to puppies, to hugs.

*Z* Zoom into the past and dig for happy memories whenever you are down in the dumps!

I tag... Choxbox, Mad Momma, Tharini,