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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Review: The Bengalis by Sudeep Chakravarti

Well researched and elegantly written, Sudeep Chakravarti’s book on one of the largest linguistic groups in the world manages to simultaneously praise and send up Bengalis

books Updated: Oct 27, 2017 21:15 IST
Sudeep Sen
Sudeep Sen
Hindustan Times
Staunchly Bengali: A still from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959) featuring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore.
Staunchly Bengali: A still from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959) featuring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore.(Alamy Stock Photo)

The Bengalis by Sudeep Chakravarti landed on my desk with a hurrah, one that promised “at once an existentialist delight and nightmare, cast in perpetual drama.” I have been reading this book for the past week and have been totally immersed in its fast-paced narrative and fine non-fiction storytelling.


The book is well researched, elegantly written, witty and sassy. The most refreshing aspect about the book is that it simultaneously praises and takes the piss out of the Bengalis with fairness and a sense of understated irony. The latter is a difficult ploy to adopt as a writer — especially a Bengali writer — as Bengalis tend to have “a roiled history, schizophrenic emotion and heightened sense of self”. But Chakravarti with his elegant turn of phrase and natural wit overcomes any of those problems — in fact he soars over all that with lucidity, style and panache.

The following extract demonstrates much of the above in the chapter, ‘Āmrā Ké? Where, What, Why’, in lush gunfire prose:“We are garrulous; argumentative — and liberal, conservative and moderate, often in the course of the same argument — opinionated; often contemptuous of those not-Bengali; eager to be appreciated by those not-Bengali; blithely unmindful of such hypocrisy; intensely curious — not merely curiosities; feminists; chauvinists; misogynists; ultra-leftist; leftist; ‘rightist’; ultra rightist; haters of colonialists; lovers of colonialism bashers; lovers of colonialists (in a range from Britain to Pakistan); lovers of bashers of colonialism bashers; revolution-minded in theory and sometimes in practice; entirely evolution-minded in practice; among the gentlest people on earth; among the most vicious people on earth; creators and perpetuators of the most vicious gangs and political gangsterism; lovers of love; lovers of hatred; lovers of life; lovers of death; lovers of our land; lovers of the lands of those not-Bengali; lovers of rivers and rain; vastly literate; vastly illiterate; lovers of words, literature, poetry, theatre, cinema, art, any art form worth a form; lovers of witty comebacks and innuendo; populous — not to be confused with popular, although we can sometimes be that, too; pompous; quick to anger; quick to laughter; loud; noisy; eager transporters of such noise to some of the quietest places on earth; inveterate travellers; perhaps the greatest users of that odd phrase: sinikbewty; exhibitionists; drama queens; often colour blind when attempting Western clothing and interior decor; exquisite wielders of colour in art; sufferers of some of the greatest famines — the phrase bhookha Bangāli, the hungry, starving Bengali, still endures in northern India and Pakistan; fanatical about food; creators and worshippers of some of the most delicately flavoured foods on earth; fanatical about football; strangely fanatical about Argentine and Brazilian football players, nobody else matters except occasionally the French or Portuguese; terrible losers; weavers of the most exquisite fabrics of form and colour; wearers and exporters of such exquisite fabrics of exquisite design; lately, wearers of the most exquisite fabrics rendered hideous with overwrought design; unarguably the greatest users of balaclavas in the world other than terrorists and special operations personnel, they sometimes call their Hollywood-stamped versions ski masks, we call our simpler version mānkicap… . We are confounding. And, as you already know, we are legion.”

Tram at Park Circus, Kolkata
Tram at Park Circus, Kolkata ( Hindustan Times Media )

Chakravarti’s use of diacritical marks for Bengali words in the book is critical as it makes it easier for the readers to pronounce the Bānglā original words/phrases correctly and properly. This is utterly important as inherent in the rightly enunciated pronunciation lie the musicality, tenor, cadence, subtle lyricism and meaning of the words/phrases.

This book is divided into three parts or sub-books — Book I titled “Utshō”: Genesis and More”; Book II: “Shōbbhōtā. Oshōbbhōtā”: Culture Chronicles; and Book III: “Ōgni Jūg”: Age of Fire. And within this triad, he explores the vast array of Bengaliness, traits, obsessions, characteristics, and the wonderfully perennial oxymoron of a split personality. So there is talk of the deification of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore; obsession with Mā or the mother figure (cleverly called “Oedipus Hex”); food (“Khāi-khāi”), travel (“Sinikbewty”, literally an ironic play on “scenic beauty”), and the pull-and-tug between the idea of the native, the diaspora (“probāshi”) and the foreign (“bideshi”).

Howrah Bridge from Mullik Ghat, Kolkata
Howrah Bridge from Mullik Ghat, Kolkata ( Hindustan Times Media )

In the book, delicious work-play punctuates the everyday Bengali words and phrases, eg, “chōtōlōk” / “bhadrōlōk”. If we were to literally translate “chōtōlōk”, it would mean ‘small people’, but it might also allude to the lower class or used as a mild swear word. “Bhadrōlōk” translates to “gentleman”, but it can hint to an old-fashioned clichéd version of babudom. The Bengalis carefully balances the Hindu-Mussulman binary, judiciously exploring the various facets and local lores of both communities. The historical origin of Bengalis/Bengal is very well explicated, as are indeed the futuristic aspects.

My only complaint with this otherwise excellent book is with Chakravarti’s choice of some quotations from other writers/sources. I find the author often falling prey to quotes from the obscure works of celebrity writers, as against more pertinent works of perhaps lesser-known writers, to illustrate or highlight some of the points he is making about the community at large.

Sudeep Chakravarti
Sudeep Chakravarti ( Sumangali Bhaduri )

The Bengalis is actually a thinly veiled history book — constructed and presented in an episodic, fast-paced, novelistic mode. Issues of the past, present and future, contemporary politics and culture, societal mores and more, are all discussed in a way that does not seem academic on the surface. And yet, all the facts are well grounded in deep research. The scholarship is worn lightly on the author’s shoulders, which is a remarkable feat.

The book ends on a positive and secular note — quoting the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam and citing Tagore; culturally knitting together the artificially fractured land of the two Bengals — India’s West Bengal and Bangladesh. ‘Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.’ Chakravarti level-headedly writes that the “Bengalis claim the original was by Tagore, in Bānglā. The Chinese claim he was inspired by an ancient saying of theirs. But why should anyone fight over beauty?”

A busy street in China Town, Kolkata.
A busy street in China Town, Kolkata. ( Madhu Kapparath )

Apart from this book, there are very few non-fiction books by contemporary Indian authors that I have read in one extended sitting and enjoyed so thoroughly. They are (for very diverse reasons): Vikram Seth’s On Heaven Lake and Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, both of which I read a long while ago; but more recently, Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, and Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness (or Inglorious Empire in its British avatar).

Read more: How Partition Could Never Take Away a Bengali’s Food

The Bengalis goes beyond the obvious terrains of Kolkata and Dhaka, West Bengal and Bangladesh to address other areas of “Banglasphere” in Assam, Tripura and the “bideshi” diaspora, for instance. It is a must-read both for Bengalis and “not”-Bengalis alike, for that matter anyone who is interested in one of the largest linguistic groups (“after Han Chinese and the Arabs”) in the world. Finally, an accessible, grown-up book about the wider Bengali community has been written. The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community is by far the best non-fiction book from India I have read this year.

* * *

Sudeep Sen’s latest books are: EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House) and Fractals: New & Selected Poems 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions).

First Published: Oct 27, 2017 21:14 IST