The Unbong Bong

I think I look like a Bengali even though I don’t have the trademark lush, long hair and am not exactly doe eyed. I definitely don’t sound like one. And no, I never wear a red bordered sari and don’t get into paroxysms every time I hear Robindro Shongeet. Sometimes people are surprised when they come to know I am from the cultural hotpot of the East.

I am a “Probashee Bangalee” which translated means a Bengali who has never lived in Bengal. As a Bengali born and brought up in Punjabified- Delhi, where people think India begins and ends with North India, I am often confronted with stereotypes. People assume all of us were born clutching a fish and have it morning, noon and night. The Bhadrolok’s love for fish is legendary but unfortunately I am not one of them. Neither am I a big fan of rice. My unconventional preferences made my Mum fret incessantly. She would often prophesize doom for me – what will happen to you if you get married into a conventional Kolkata family! Well, I did get married to a true blue bong who loves his fish as much as he does his Strauss but don’t startling contrasts make the best unions?

Although I love Kolkata, a city that has a soft corner for its three eph’s - Phish, phootball and phriends, where it’s diligent citizens express their displeasure by going on strikes - I do feel like “an Englishman in New York”, during my visits there. Most of its populace has an opinion on everything, argues with passion and is a closet revolutionary. The bhodrolok loves breaking into Keats at the drop of a hat and every adda is interspersed with a soulful rendition of Nazrul geeti or Robindro shongeet. And you are the only silent one in the room sitting with a silly, ignorant grin.

Not that it’s any better in Delhi. Tell a new acquaintance that you are a Bengali and you can bet your chhola bhaturaa that the first reaction you’ll get is Roshogulla. Yes, we invented this sugary dumpling but we invented many more legendary mishtees too. So why not a ledikeni, shondesh or chamcham? Didn’t William Cowper say” Variety is the spice of life”. And if I hear anyone say “ Aami tomake bhalobaashi” again, you can bet your sorry ass that am going to stuff your face with a treacherously bony Hilsa. Yes, just saying it feels good and dear readers please consider this a manual on what not to say when you meet a Bengali.

On Karvachauth, when most of your colleagues are decked up like Christmas trees and avoid the mere mention of water and grub, you standout like a sore thumb in your unadorned avatar and almost feel guilty glugging water from your bottle. I had to patiently clarify to my students that, yes I am married, no my husband is not planning to dump me and yes I do wish a long life for him. Once at the bus stop when one of my students wanted to know why am not wearing bangles, I told him with a straight face “In our culture the men fast for their wives”. He actually believed me. I feel like an alien when my friends excitedly exchange “kuttu ka atta” recipes during Navratra. But then, I feel out of place during the rest of the year as well- when they discuss Big Boss antics, Khatron Ke Khiladi, Mere Baap ki shaadi (is there such a soap? If not, producers please take note).

So what does that make me? A confused Bengali! A neither here neither there species! Or a Bengali proud of her roots even if she is a stranger to most of it. For me it’s a process of constant learning and unlearning. The other night as the husband read out one of Tagore’s poetry to me, we just couldn’t stop marveling at the timelessness of his works. My mother often gushes about Sunil Gangopadhay’s work and doesn’t think too highly of my choice of Indian authors who write in English. But does that make all Bengalis literary geniuses, just like we assume that southern states are home to mathematical wizards? Not really. So the next time if I hear someone say, you must be good singer no, most of you are …. that I owe my writing skills to my Bengali gene pool ,I will insist on reading out the entire Gitanjali to you in a quivering, emotion choked voice. Just like a typical Bengali!

Dedicated to Radhakanta, whose "fishy" enquiries prompted this post.
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  1. Stereotypes do warp our judgment. By the way several people ask me "Are you a Bengali? You look like one."
    Maybe the dusky complexion or my surname which resembles Guha....
    Bengal has had a rich culture and tradition of mastering fine several renowned singers, writers and musicians are from Bengal.

  2. Well I too don't have lush long hair. I have a few strands though. I don't like fish. But I like buying and cooking fish for my Parsi fishophyllic wife. And roshogollas are famous thanks to Haldirams...Joi Bangla

  3. As much as Bengalis are Roshogullas and phish we madrasis are idly-vada-sambars. Amma saar, we eat, drink and sleep sambar. And sambar a day keeps the doc away for us. And I can understand your situation - we are migrants of different nature ;) Indian Born Confused Desi :P

  4. I didn't grow up in Kolkata,and I can't sing Rabindra shongeet to save my life. Actually, once I mentioned to someone that most of them sounded like a dirge and he thought that it was blasphemous! Nor am I overly fond of pheesh. But I do love a good adda in bangla. ...:)
    Does it make me an unbong bong?

  5. Alka...Why have stereotypes in the first place? True we all have our unique traditions but most of us have adapted to the cosmopolitan lifestyle.

    Kalyan... The spongy served cold version of Roshogulla, they serve is far from authentic. And how is it non fish lovers always end up with "fishoholics" ?

    Lakshmi...LMAO. Can so empathize with your situation :)

  6. looks like the 'stereotype week' lol
    cyber nag in her blog too has slammed stereotyping hilariously!

    no styereotypes no humour, no unity in diversity! :)

    was a fun read!

  7. Stereotypes....u face it even when u don't like one guesses I am a bong unless i told them...and then bang..where from Calcutta...No sir I have NO ONE in that place..I don't like that place except food...Man hell lotta emotions I know...


    Good reply...thats all I wish to say..

  8. Sigh. I hear you girl, I really do, loud and clear!! Been there more number of times than I care to remember. :P

    "...where people think India begins and ends with North India" Lol, how absolutely true!!

    And you are so right, we Southies are not all Math wizards!

  9. Taposhree...Say YES to adda!! Over cups of tea and yummy snacks

    magiceye...So I mentioned on her blog. This post was meant to be published last week, but then Jhalmuri took precedence :)

    Tarun...Next time tell them you are and insist on reciting an abreeti.

  10. hahaha..i could relate to almost all that you just said...including my mother's glaring worries..tor ki hobe.. :P
    totally totally understand what it is to be a true probashi bangali ;)

  11. Shail...I think it's time we formed a "Stop stereotyping me" group on FB ;)

    S...LOL yea...the neither here neither there species :)

  12. some emotions........!!in tht picture i can hear !!

    Jai Ho Mangalmay Ho

  13. I can totally associate with this. I mean my closest friends call me a 'nakli bangali' most of the times. I enjoy it actually. The fact that I have pure blooded bongs frown upon me is a different matter. They don't see the funny side of me asking if they have malls in calcutta yet.

    I have a piece similar to this one that's still unpublished and lying on the blogger ed page. I've just gotten the inspiration to finish it.

  14. phood, phish and phootball!! BHERY BHERY PHUNNY.

    haha..north india mein india begins with and ends with north india! haha..true. Few of them who know that India does not end with north india,they know that India ends with MADRAS and all those who live in south india are MADRASIs.

  15. Vish...So you can.

    Ujjwal...Time to clear some cobwebs. And finish that post phasht :)

    Always Happy...That is even worse. Imagine four diverse states clubbed as Madrasis.

  16. Purba, on a different note, CONGRATULATIONS on the 100th post!

  17. wonDOORfull. well cooked in the end.taste good.

  18. Remind me never to get onto your wrong side! :)

    Nice post, I think its always about the rasagulla cos its the most amazing thing ever! :) I would kill to eat them right now..

  19. last time i loved the letter in bold , this time i love all the FOOD you have mentioned :)

    Oh no .. ok ok i wont ask anything from you.. pakka..

    and wud be fun to watch baap ki shaadi he he he he i remember there was this movie on similar theme ...

    on serious terms i havethat a lot here in uk people asking where u from, what vilalge and blah blah i HATE IT .. now when they say where i from, i say BIRMINGHAM :) they shutup


  20. Hah! Blame the Aami tomake line on that movie song. Thats what most people know.
    And I knew a few more dishes than Rasogullah, so don't blame all North Indians as I am one too.

    A Bong lady who lives nearby was complaining to my grandmother that her young grand daughter refuses to eat fish. It was something about only widows not eating fish and blah blah.
    P.S. Bong is also a device used to smoke Marijuana.

  21. Don't we all face something like this... just like when someone knows I grew-up and lived a major part of my life in Punjab they will change tracks and start talking in Punjabi... and I am like uhh.. but I can hardly speak in that language.

    and if they get to know I am a Sikh, oh but you don't like one... what are they supposed to look like??? we are not born with horns!

  22. Oh yeah, I so hear you! We get the other end of it - All that we eat is idlis or Dosas :) And of course the Sambhar :)

    But you make me drool, mentioning all those Bong dishes! I grew up with Bengalis -all my closest friends, neighbours, classmates were Bongs and I still long to eat food at their homes - and that does NOT mean a roshogulla :)

  23. Hey, I am not saying that we should have stereotypes...but that's the way it is. And yes,in Metros, that distinction blurs. But I take it as a compliment. It is a matter of pride to be a Bengali.Personally I have great respect for Bong intellect and fine taste for arts..Unlike the city where we live which is devoid of any culture.

  24. Always...100 really? Even I am impressed :D And thanks a ton.


    Pri...Did you know the Bengali version is denser and is had warm?

  25. Bikramjit... Bengali food is yummy. In the "gora" world all brown skinned people are South Asians.

    Prats...Bong intoxicates...LOL And try "kemon achho" next time.

    Pallavi...But I love talking in Bangla. Especially when I spot a Bengali, can't help it. And LMAO @ "what are they expecting, horns?"

  26. Smitha...We all share the same rant. I love hogging on Bengali dishes and can happily get fat on my visits to Kol.

    Alka...Our city is a city for migrants where we all live in our isolated islands.

  27. haha! This was pretty awesome....Ive heard kalyan rant abt similar stuff. When i was in Chicago and I would cook dinner for friends.. I would everso often get the all knowing American who would smell my chicken curry and say oh what brand of curry spice do u use. I would cringe and be like what? I was like its a thoughtfully done complex mixture of various spices that go in a specific order. And WTH is curry spice. hence my name. :)
    Oh and today I had this bengali sweet which had a lovely granular exterior and the center was this honey dipped rasgulla.. for the life of me i cant remember what it is called. Maybe you can help me. :)

  28. Oh you are not like the lady in the portrait.

  29. bangalis have a lot in common with malayalees- fish, football, revolution, rise or is it rice?, arthouse movies, communist politics..

  30. In spite of being a Bengali living in Bengal for 12yrs of my life, I can tell you for a fact that I totally related to this.
    No, I don't lack any love for Bengal. I am just not a typical Bong. (Though, yes, I love the "phish"; an inevitable discovery made only after living a thousand kms away from my Bongo deshi maach bhaat)

    More so, because when I landed in Bengal, I was a semi-Britisher tiny tot with Firangi ways.

    I totally enjoyed your style of writing. The title especially grabbed my eyeballs.
    You definitely deserve an applause for this post.

    Do drop by my blog here.

  31. Oh my taste buds for Rasagulla are on a rampage now...

    I'm going to stuff the one's we get here into the microwave and try it. :)


  32. I have a lot of bengalee frnds and ami ek tu ek tu bangla bolte pare... bhalo kore bolte pare na kintu i'll perfect that :). having studied in jamshedpur i developed a love for bengalee culture.
    and as of stereotypes... ask me. the moment people know this guy is from UP and that too from Azamgarh they either give me looks reserved for uncivilised, unruly trouble maker or ask me About Abu salem :-x

  33. CurrySpice...There's a story behind your online moniker...Wow

    That sweet is called "kheer kodom".

    Giribala...LOL, I can always try.

    Harish...Yea I love Mallu cuisine and especially that brown rice that you only get in Kerala.

  34. Enchanta...Why thank you so much sweetheart. Will definitely visit your link.

    mazingout...Not more than 30 secs :)

    Fatte...Jeez, everyone has a story to tell and am loving it:) And your Bangla is pretty good.

  35. I didn't know much about bengalis and what people ask them when they meet one. Thanks to this post, I can now talk about rasgullas with my bengali friends. :P

  36. And this is for all the Probashee Bangalis out there! Being raised as an army brat I am one too, though I did live in Calcutta (I prefer calling it that) for nearly five years, it never affected me with the phish (I despise fish), though I did get the other ephs embedded in me! Not a typical Bong at all from any point of view, it really makes me wonder to a point of irritation sometimes when my literary and musical knowledge is attributed to my genes. It can be darn frustrating. I don't even look Bengali. Part Nepali and part Delhi-ite, maybe.

    Could relate with this post completely, Di. The roshogulla might get on my nerves if people ask me to get it for them once more (I do not live in Bengal!)

  37. Nethra...Remember to post their scowling expressions on FB.

    D2...Does anyone love fish anymore...LOL And you have no idea how much I love it when you and Samadrita call me Di :))

  38. I like your statement 'Delhi, where people think India begins and ends with North India'. 'Singhada' & 'kulladh chai' are the other typical trade marks of Bengal. It is really difficult to come out of your own culture when it comes to be different.

  39. As usual, great post, I wish to state here,of a news that had found headlines in kolkata, of some mysterious disease in fishes and warned of death too. but still, the fish market was full of customers. One reporter asked a man who had just bought fish.did he know he could die also if he ate it. He said- naa khele emani more jaabo.

  40. you can take a bengali out of kolkatta, but can you really unbong a bengali, and even if we can should we? i love bengalis, in kolkatta and elsewhere, especially of the female variety, for the looks, the culture, the food, and their animated zest for life.

  41. Hey Purba,
    You are very much a bong, not a punjabi bong, not a confused bong. Don't you prefer a sweet roshogulla to a spicy tandoori chicken?

  42. Ayyangar Sir....Shingara with cauliflower filling is an eternal Bengali favourite. It's tinier and the spices are subtle.

    Pramod...Hahah, the typical Bengali can't live without his fish.

    Menon...Bengali women are fiery just like the mustard in their curry.

    Vikram...I prefer both :)

  43. Aren't we all getting to be aliens! removed from the traditional Indian society, more cosmopolitan that our own seem firangi to us! What we have become is an evolved version of Indian that suits the modern be it.

  44. yes we all have the need to grow away from the identities foisted on us-but I am sure you will wake up one day to find a sudden craving for Hilsa or Mishti Doi and your grandson would be into Robindro Songeet.Its freaky as well as sneaky-the ways our culture gets us all.

  45. I think you echo the sentiments of thousands of Probashi women, with the neither here nor there syndrome..I experienced the same pangs that you did and still do. Though I'm a proud Bangali & detest the word Bong cause it does nothing to reflect who a Bengali is..I think somewhere down the line it's ok to kind of settle in and find your roots as an individual, an Indian and as a world citizen while retaining the Bangaliana in us. Good read :)

  46. Bhery Phunny and Troo !! Get the stereotypes all the time and I am sure now that I am back for good there will be another addition to the effect of the West. Well said Purba. Keep them good writing coming. Will come back to catch up on the older posts. Brilliant.

  47. Nalini...Evolving towards a global culture...where everyone listens to the same music, prefers the same brands, speaks the same language. Fruits of liberalization.

    Varsha...I think it's because it's our culture which gives us an identity. Makes us stand apart :)

  48. Maitreyee..Like I have said in one of my previous comments...we imbibe the best of both.
    Somehow I have never found the term Bong derogatory :)

    LEB....You my dear are a true blue Bangali...Full full khaantee with no adulteration.

  49. Nice one! And so true!
    From the beginning there has been this unwritten rule that a Bong kid has to be au courant, be able to distinguish between raags right after he/she is born, and develop an enduring love for rossogullas. I personally like modaks more. :)

  50. Your story realizes me how its gonna be ,for ME in future....belonging from kerela, m one of the FAKE MALLU...thts wht all say to me now....But well yes thr r few things which only a genetic mallu can do,,,,like pronouncing few difficult words of my language... :-p !!! So i believe its all whts in heart whichever part u belong and live,its the culture and respect which be the same forever :-) !!! Well expressed :-)

  51. Sourabh...You must be from amchi Mumbai...Yet to taste a modak :)

    Raisa...I have a love-hate relationship with Delhi and a wide eyed touristy love for Kolkata :)

    And LOL @ Fake Mallu.

  52. Interesting post..and one that I could relate to. I have also been trapped in the same space of wondering where exactly I belong... I am a South Indian born and brought up in Kolkata. I speak fluent Bengali, most of my friends are Bong and I miss Kolkata (warts and all) terribly whenever I am away from the city. As a consequence I am generally accepted to be more Bong than South Indian. I am also not super conversant with the language or customs of Kerala (dad) or Tamil Nadu (mum). Though there is a lot I love about these states as well (food for one thing).
    Sometimes, its difficult to manage the dichotomy between what you are expected to be and what you really are. But eventually I just consider myself lucky to have the best of 3 cultures. Besides, where's the fun in being a stereotype... ;)

  53. Haha, you share the agony of a million others. I hate to generalise except when it comes to Surds and Bongs: the cutest communities.

    So, tell me, does your daughter go to a music school? Can you kill for Soroubh Gangoolee?

  54. Supernova... You must be such an interesting person. A delectable melting pot... Yea, normal IS boring :))

    Mangoman..Am not a cricket fan and my daughter doesn't go to any music school. Cute??? Come up with a better tag please?


  55. Good one

    we are always expected to be representatives of our cultures...if we are not, we are chided for not being. And if we are , then we are labeled as typical.

    "I feel like an alien when my friends excitedly exchange “kuttu ka atta” recipes during Navratra. But then, I feel out of place during the rest of the year as well- when they discuss Big Boss antics, Khatron Ke Khiladi, Mere Baap ki shaadi (is there such a soap? If not, producers please take note).".....hah hah, bang on!

  56. This might come heavily overdue but having run across this article, I have to say you are quite right. My own situation is a bit different but also similar in many ways: I am a Tamilian by ancestry, but apparently do not look or seem like one. Some people actually take turns at guessing where I'm from, though most of them reach a consensus at Punjabi or Bengali (which is the most common assumption). But perhaps a few things are indeed genetic like Raisa says - my clean and refined Tamil often baffles people in Tamil Nadu who often have little inkling that I'm a tamilian like them!

    Over the years each of my cousins have married a man or woman from a different part of India and thus we have become an all-Indian family.

    Maybe we'll be aliens, or maybe we'll form a new culture on our own. But I can't shake the feeling of "neither here, nor there" because a lot of people think I'm Bengali, while I'm truly not hehe :)

    Though of course, the thought has struck me that I could be a very good sleeper agent :P :P

    For that matter I don't eat idlis, vadas or sambhar or rasam....I'm all about chapatis, rotis and dal. And yeah I love modaks and rasagullas and gulab jamuns. Truly "questionably south Indian"!

    P.S. A lot of my best friends are Bengalis and oddly enough they are all Probashees like you! :D

  57. What a fab post, Purba! Loved it and read it too late :). I have my own bunch of grouses about stereotypes. Perhaps will make a post out of that one soon.


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