Culture is a word most treasured by Bengalis. Pronounced “kalchaar”, it conjures up multiple images in the Bong mind, of harmonium-handling humans swaying their heads in musical cadence to the rhythm of Rabindrasangeet, of the tremulous vocal-chord shaking of a Shombhu-Mitra-style elocution, of post-modern art drawn by a bearded once-Communist, of abstruse verse about a burning tree standing against a bare sky, of the screening of a Gautam Ghose or a Rituparno or a Satyajit Ray, or even the poetic stylings of Didi, though most who consider that high art are now all Trinamool MPs. Away from the homeland, in imperialistic capitalist America, it is this culture that the Bengali immigrant misses the most. Of course they go back sometimes to this mythical “Bongoland” , for a month or so, but the entire time is taken up by going to State Bank of India renewing lockers, or fighting with real estate brokers and cousins out to grab you off your ancestral house, or visiting homes of relatives you increasingly care less for, leaving precious little for a concert or a play or a Charminar or an evening discussing the difference between Derrida, Neruda, Prabir-da and Florida.
The North American Bengali Conference, henceforth referred to as NABC understands this. Which is why every year they bring to the North American Bengalis a veritable cornucopia of culture, flying in top artists from the homeland, both Bengal and Bangladesh, for a carnival of color, chilli chicken and chaa.
Now I have been in America for nearly fifteen years now, and despite the “Greatbong” in my name, I had never been to a NABC. I have often been asked, “Why haven’t you?” in the same tone that people query a forty-year old single man on why he isn’t married yet.
One reason for that, and old readers of my blog will know this, is that I am more attracted to bad-culture or apasanskriti than anything else and NABC, I feared, would be for me what a walk in the daylight is for a vampire.
I am not exaggerating my insecurities. Being called out for cultural “bellelepana” is what truly taps into the primal fear of a Bengali, way more than “season change” or “industrial stagnation” or “flight of skilled jobs”.
Plus, I am just not the social type. While I can converse for hours on “issues”, be it politics or literature or films, I really struggle at small-talk, which is why I have always kept a distance from local Maryland Bengali and Indian associations, preferring to spend my evenings writing, watching useless Youtube videos, and trolling random people on the Internet.
Don’t get me wrong. I have been fascinated by NABC for years and it has been on my “Shall do this one day” list, like running a half-marathon, but truth be told, I have never really seriously planned for it.
All this changed when the kind folks at Du-kool, the bilingual magazine published in the US that I write for, decided to have me on literary panels at this year’s event at Houston.
Not that I was not a bit scared of how I would do when I landed at the Hobby airport.
My sense of fear was not calmed by this elderly couple I met at the baggage carousel. On learning that I had flown in with them on the same flight from Baltimore, the lady looked at me suspiciously, “You say you are Bengali but I have never seen you at Prantik”. She was right. Prantik is one of the big Bengali associations in the Greater DC area, and me never having gone to their events had evidently put my Bengali-ness in doubt.
Was I Bengali any more, I wondered, as I got into the taxi? Then what am I? I am not a saheb (what Bengalis call foreigners), I am not a Hindustani (what Bengalis call non-Bengali Indians who are poor), I am not Marawari (what Bengalis call non-Bengali Indians who are rich), and I am not Punjabi (something Bengalis wear). So what am I?
Lost in thought, I slept for a few hours at the hotel and then came down for the opening ceremonies. Thanks to Du-kool, I was given a Platinum badge or Robert Vadra privilege level, which meant I could sit anywhere I wanted in the auditorium. I went and sat in the first row, just behind two lines of red and white sofas, which I rightly assumed were for the really really important people. They were filled soon, with Texas state dignitaries, a few Trinamool MPs (I was tempted to walk over to them and ask if Bangladesh was on the border of Pakistan), and the lead organizers. Just when I was resigning myself to a spate of “Sudhu duto katha bolbo” (“Will say just two words”), the standard prologue for a long speech, my Spidey-sense began to tingle and I looked back to see, sitting in the row behind me, Parambrata and Saswata.
Yes. Parambrata and Saswata.
For those of you who are not Bong (i.e. have a notion of V), Parambrata [he was the cop in Kahaani] is the intellectual icon of the Bengali film world, the man every cultured lady thinks of when they are making love. And Saswata, known worldwide as “Bob Biswas”from Kahaani, is a cerebral celebrity in his own way, though I am not so sure about his dreaminess quotient. Just when I was about to squeal like a teenage girl at a One-Direction concert (because who doesn’t like a close encounter with philm-stars), the two men came and sat right next to me, and I thought for a while of asking them if we could have a selfie, but I thought that would totally ruin the gravitas of sitting in the Platinum seats. So with a “Amra sobai raja amader ei rajar rajjote, noile more Rajar saathe milbo ki sotte” (We are all kings in this kingdom of kings, else how shall we sit with the king?) song on my lips, I focused my attention to the stage, more specifically to the male master of ceremonies.
While appreciating fully his flawless command of the Bengali language, I will accept that it’s not easy to drop words like “beekoshito” and “byaprito”in a spontaneous monologue, which kind of reminded me of my Bengali teachers describing Apu’s flights of fancy, I could not get over that pronunciation. It’s not the first time I had heard this, this rather sing-song way of articulating words (the Bangla word would be “chebano” or biting into your words), sometimes called the Dakkhini (South Calcutta) accent, which supposedly has an association with high culture. For me personally it’s jarring, and only the next day I heard Gautam Ghosh, the noted director speak, using Bengali as perfect but in an unaffected accent, that I seemed to retain some of my sanity, for at least it meant that my “normal” pronunciation was not deprecated now, like a 1990s Java library, by the cultural “kornodhaars” (controllers) of Bangali culture.
Aajkal tags me “Bangla’s star” by association (That’s Parambrata and Sashwata and me)
After the slew of speeches, and a very professionally choreographed program by Tanushree Shankar, I was out into the main area. I had been asked to move one seat after another, by people who wanted to sit next to Parambrata, including a ravishingly beautiful lady who did not know me and so I didnt know her, and was on the verge of dropping off the side on the side of the row, when I decided enough was enough. Not knowing that my platinum badge would give me access to the VIP lounge, I went and stood in the dinner line, thinking I would avoid the rush by getting in early.
I was wrong.
The queue for dinner (I think tickets for general public cost $25) was like a line in front of a ration shop after a 24 hour bandh. It was pandemonium. Did I say line? I meant band. In the spirit of Bong brotherhood, people were standing shoulder to shoulder, aunties built like a Arjun tank elbowing uncles wearing kurtas cut from a trapeze artist’s bustier, some cribbing about the price of the optional dinner ticket (“I told you we should just eat outside at a Subway or something, chicken there and chicken here also”), some ruing the price of saris on sale at the convention center (“It is thrice as expensive as what I would get in Calcutta, just multiply by 50 and…” “Not 50, it’s 60 now”, “Oh my God, it’s even worse than I thought”), some bragging about the selfies they had already taken with Parambrata, some….well trying their best to get ahead in the queue. There were many techniques for line-hopping on view, from the time-honored (finding someone you know standing ahead in the line, yelling loudly so that everyone can hear “Oho Baren-da, haven’t seen you in years”, and then hopping ahead to continue the conversation) to the new-age (an entire family pushing forward through the crowd, their eyes focussed on the chicken manchurian, while shouting ‘My sugar is dropping’) down to the pure Kohli (“Dada, I am not breaking the line. You are”). And it was all very entertaining, and though the dinner was somewhat generic, the fish stood out in its excellence, and that was all really I cared for.