Bengalis -- the pride of Bengal. What makes them tick?

by Nabanita Dutt, Nov 27, 2002 | Destinations: India / West Bengal

I had the misfortune once of having to visit a government office in Calcutta to get some papers signed by a middle-level official. "But the big man is occupied at the moment", we were informed by his secretary, who was busily making preparations to take an early lunch break. We can sit and wait.

Gesturing to the row of mismatched sofas arranged along one wall of the spacious reception area, Mr Secretary walked purposefully over to the washbasin where he spent 10 minutes, noisily blowing his nose and washing his hands. Back at his desk, he proceeded to dry his fingers - paying careful attention to each digit - with a handkerchief he had unfolded from his pocket. That done, he delved into a capacious office bag and pulled out a plastic packet containing a grubby little tiffin box. For long moments, the man stared fixedly at it -- a guess-what's-inside-today game he played perhaps at this time every afternoon. The box opened finally to reveal Lunch -- 4 pieces of toast with jam, a banana and a hard-boiled egg.

Our friend selected one piece of bread, and before biting into it, queried: "Do you want some tea?" Startled by this question, my friend and I, who were mesmerized by the man's progress with his Lunch, mumbled a hurried "no". Mr Secretary returned to his food, one bread at a time, then the banana, then the egg, the debris collecting neatly in a pile on his desk. Stomach full at last, the man let out a loud belch, and began the unpacking process in reverse order. Another trip to the washbasin, noisy cleaning of hands and mouth, handkerchief used and folded away for the final time in his pocket. The ritual had taken 45 minutes. Finally, Lunch was over.

What about the paper? Will the boss sign it now?

"He will call you." Mr Secretary was settling down for a post-Lunch snooze.

Has he even been told we are waiting for him?

"What paper is it that you want signed?" asked the man exasperatedly, waking long enough to show us his irritation.

I pulled out the sheets and handed them over. "Oh, these? No, no, this boss is not the guy. Go down to the first floor and turn right after two doors. Ask somebody in the hall there for the Receipt department. They will show you." No sooner was the sentence over, than his head dropped on the table and then there was no waking him for further clarifications. An hour wasted for the pleasure of watching the man eat!

We carried on to the Receipt department, were sent to several departments, up and down the stairs, then up again until it was Lunch break - the real one this time - and no official would be available for the next hour to look at our documents. "Come back after 2 pm."

Another break for Lunch would be difficult to stomach, so we gave up the project midway and returned home.

"Patience is the key", we were told later by the agent who ultimately did the job for us. "Don't forget you're dealing with Bengalis."

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The worst place to encounter a Calcuttan (and by that I mean a Bengali) is at the workplace. Be it a clerk or a peon or a junior manager - everybody is king of what little he surveys. And how does he exercise that power? By making your smallest requirement of him, more complicated than rocket science. The phrase "Hobe na" ("Can't be done") can go down in the history of languages as the contribution of Bengalis "in service", who, after retirement, look back at all the cups of tea, the extended Lunch breaks, gossip, and making the simplest task difficult, and beam with satisfaction at a job well done.

The best place to get to know them, on the other hand, is on the street, in the marketplace, at parks, at traffic signals - any place where the Bengali is not hard at work, trying to make a living. Bengalis at leisure are perhaps the friendliest and most informal creatures on earth.

No need for an introduction. You can't be in Calcutta, and alone and friendless for long. A South African tourist once told me about the amazing reaction he got from ordinary passersby, when he suffered a small bout of sun-sickness on a busy Calcutta street. "I was holding onto this lamp post, fighting down waves of nausea, when I noticed a small crowd had gathered around me. They enquired if I was feeling OK, and dispatched a young boy to get tea from a nearby tea stall. Then they hung around waiting for me to finish the cup."

Having just arrived from Singapore and aching for some human contact, he welcomed this chance to talk. What he got, however, was much more than he had bargained for. Questions flew in, fast and furious, from all sides - What is your name? Ah, O Connor, so you must be Irish. How long are you here? What do you think of India? What do you think of Calcutta? Do you know this city is known as the City of Joy? "In 15 minutes, I had more human contact than I'd had in my own neighborhood back home in the last 15 years!!"

It helps that the average Bengali speaks and understands English, so you don't have to resort to sign languages. (In Singapore, where the most profound question in any case would be `How are Yooooou??, you can get away with a smile and a gesture. Imagine, however, explaining to inquisitive Bengalis about your country's stand on South Asian politics with a few facial expressions and wagging of your hand?)

The Irish-South African O Connor was extremely touched by this spontaneous display of concern, and he swore that the affection he got here was something he had never come across anywhere else in the world.

But that's how they are - this witty, relaxed breed of interesting people that come from Bengal. Rub them the right way, press the correct buttons, and they will be good sports, best friends and the most gracious hosts you're indeed likely to come across in all of South Asia.

And buttons, Bengalis have many: big ones and small ones, so you're at liberty to pick and choose. Here are some of the biggest and brightest:

The Bengali's Culture:

Bengalis thrive - or suffer, as other Indians will always say - in their sense of "culture". Art, music, literature: you name it and Bengalis will produce a dozen other Bengalis who've blazed a trail through that discipline. Half-a-century ago, maybe, but that's not the issue. You cannot expect a Nobel Prize-winning poet like Rabindranath Tagore or an Academy-acknowledged filmmaker like Satyajit Ray to come along every five-years, do you? And not only will they know all there is to know about their own culture, they'll teach you a thing or two about yours too.

The Bengali's Sport:

Since post-Independence, Bengalis have cheered - overenthusiastically, other Indians will always say - at the prospect of football. Since Bengalis have maintained their miserable track record in the game, this would strike you as somewhat strange. Unless you were aware that the local Mohanbagan football club had thumped the British in a landmark victory, which passed into legend during India's freedom struggle. The thought that their barefooted boys who couldn't afford boots took on the British, shod in spiked football shoes, can still swell chests and jerk tears of pride out of the Bengali's eyes.

The talents that Bengalis have managed to produce since, would make football-playing slum dwellers in Rio appear of Ronaldo's caliber, but that doesn't stop them anticipating the FIFA World Cup like their own team's in danger of making off with the trophy this year.

The Bengali's Food:

Bengalis love - fish, fish, fish, other Indians will always say - their food and support well-rounded paunches in their midsections to prove it. No matter what the family income, there will be 6 different items on the table every day, and there will be enough left over for chance guests who will not be allowed to leave unless he has had a stomach-full of Bengali hospitality. Generous to a fault, and thrilling in big appetites, women in a Bengali household judge a visitor by his capacity to pack it in, and if you're a hearty eater (facility in the art of de-boning small fish, and you'll probably qualify to marry into the family) there'll be a standing invitation every day, for the length of your stay.

The Bengali's Travel:

Bengalis are compulsive travelers - cheap package tour types, other Indians will say - and rare is the destination where you won't hear Bengalis nagging in a vernacular chatter at their children to bundle up and pull the monkey-cap lower on their faces. They will find the cheapest lodgings and journey in buses when money's short, but most will have traveled as widely and as often as their budgets have made possible. And when they visit a museum, they examine every artifact, when they see a monument, they will already be familiar with its history, when they visit a restaurant, they will only sample the local cuisine.

The Bengali's Aches and Pains:

When it comes to hypochondria - and other Indians need not add anything here; the facts are self-evident - Bengalis know no equal. From enlarged liver and cardiac murmur to chest pains, gripes and arthritis - Calcutta's 10 million population to a man will cite "acidity" as the root cause. The community is unusually concerned with their digestive systems, and symptoms of indigestion get precedence in the health complaint list over everything else - even their common cough and cold. (Change in seasons is anticipated with mounting fear, and before the Celsius can drop even five degrees below normal, Bengalis have thrown blankets, shawls and monkey caps over themselves and their families to save their lungs from a grievous attack of phlegm.) Enquire into a Bengali's health at your peril, because he enjoys nothing more than giving a detailed account of his well-being, or lack of it, and nothing from his bodily functions to his bathroom habits is beyond the pale.

The Bengali's Inverse Snobbery:

Unambitious lot, other Indians may say, but fact is your posh penthouse apartment, designer clothes and fancy set of wheels won't turn many Bengalis green with envy. Rather, he will wonder what crooked path led you to the windfall, as he fingers the used bus ticket in his pocket and gets solace from the fact that such glamorous acquisitions haven?t vitiated his secure existence.

Bengalis can be terribly fulfilled, whatever their surroundings, and if they turn up their nose at anything that's deemed ostentatious or costing over 500 bucks, the apathy is genuine more likely than a mere case of sour grapes.

The Paradox Therein:

A community that's declaredly above material pleasures, should be equally sublime in the face of other people's triumphs and good fortune. But surprisingly, that's not so. The impulse to gossip and pull others down attains maniacal proportions when Bengalis are at it, and this paradox that has always roadblocked their progress towards Buddhahood.

The phrase "Para Ninda Para Charcha" (Criticism and Debate about Others) enjoys an acronym (PNPC) due possibly to overuse, and deconstructing the conduct of people, places and things are all an integral component of adda - extended argument sessions that Bengalis find most constructive.

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