A bespectacled, dhoti kurta-clad gentleman haggling over the price of fish in heavily accented Hindi — if that’s your idea of a typical Bengali, then most Dilliwallah Bengalis would definitely not fit into the frame.
The Bengalis who are settled in Delhi, many of them since generations, have created an identity quite distinct from their cousins in Bengal. If language is the carrier of culture, their Bengali has almost turned into a different dialect.
“Our Hindustani is chaste and idiomatic while our spoken Bengali is often sprinkled with Hindi and Urdu,” says Subhadra Sen Gupta, a well-known children’s author. “When we go to Kolkata, we find it difficult to comprehend the street slang but have no problem in exchanging banter with a rickshawalla in Hauz Qazi.”
Bengalis and Delhi go back a long way. The first bunch of intrepid Bengalis settled down in Delhi in early 19th century for want of better opportunities. They were mostly professionals like doctors, lawyers or administrators. When trains first connected Calcutta to Delhi in 1864, they brought even more Bengalis.
The next big wave of Bengalis that hit Delhi came more out of compulsion. When the British Raj shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, along came the Bengali babus, their families in tow.
The Bengali settlers were first put up at Timarpur. They belonged to central government departments like Post and Telegraph, Government of India Press, Accountant General of Central Revenues (AGCR), Railways etc. “When my father came to Delhi in 1924, houses for government employees were built near Gole Market,” said SK Roy Chowdhury (78). “Bengalis had no option but to move here because of work but we clenched on to our culture and still do.”
The very British-sounding Irwin Road, Albert Square and Havelock Square became Bengali para (neighbourhood) in not time. Small clubs and libraries soon grew up and evening addas became main forms of recreation.
Shops came up in Gole Market to cater to Bengali taste and needs. Bengali books were available at Saraswati Book Depot, household goods at Kamala Bhandar, Bengali sweets at Kamalalaya Mistanna Bhandar and saris and dhotis at Mahamaya Stores.
“The Basu Lodge, which came up 1931 near Gole Market and existed till a few years ago, was popular among Bengalis who had just arrived in Delhi and were looking for temporary stay,” said Chittaranjan Pakrashi (79), who has done extensive research on Delhi’s Bengalis.
Did they long for the home and hearth they had left behind? “The first generation always planned to go back but as their children grew up and settled in Delhi, most couldn’t,” said Roy Chowdhury. “After retirement, they moved to areas like Karol Bagh and WEA and later to south Delhi and NCR.”
For the present generation, there is no question of going back — Delhi is their home. “I love to visit Kolkata on vacations but can’t even think of living anywhere else but in Delhi,” said Sumona Chakraborty (29), a fourth-generation Dilliwallah Bengali.
Like most of her ilk, Chakraborty is a Dilliwallah first and a Bengali later.