The next day (Saturday) was my session (or rather the first of the two that I did). So after a lengthy epoch of “saajuguju” (dress-up), I arrived at the convention center, in an ethnic kurta (what Bengalis call Punjabi) and a six-pocket, a slight variation on the uniform of the internationalized Bangali intellectual, which is kurta-jeans. If I was trying for a more provincial look, I would have gone with a dhoti, but I just cannot say the word dhoti without the song “Mirchi re mirchi kamaal kar gayee, dhoti ko phar ke rumaal kar gayee” popping into my head, washing away my train of thought in a jetstream of apasanskriti (bad culture), which we can all agree would have a disastrous fallout in the cultural cleanroom I was walking into. Also I can’t tie a dhoti.
Anyways, as I entered the venue, I saw this sign below. This was intriguing because the words “Jatin Pandit”, “free breakfast”, and “lipid tests” normally don’t go together.
So I trundled off to the exhibition hall, where saris and jewelry were being sold, and though unfortunately the free breakfast had ended, the concert was in full-swing. This was away from the main venue, perhaps because this was too Bollywood for the mainstream. I mean I get it, traditionalist uncles sticking their nose up at Jatin Pandit and saying “This kind of music is not Bengali”, but then I would respond with even “lipid testing is not Bengali”, but that doesn’t mean we should not have it.
There wasn’t a particularly a big crowd around, nothing close to what there should have been for one of the true icons of 90s Hindi films, the stage was nowhere as close to professionally done as the main performance stages (which were magnificent) and there was a laptop-driven slideshow going on behind Jatin Pandit, showing his pictures with Shahrukh Khan and Yash Chopra, almost as if he had to establish his credentials to an audience that might not know how big he was. From time to time, he had to interrupt his performance to point out the blood-giving activities going on the side, with a rejoinder that you don’t need to be fasting to undergo the tests, and somehow seeing one of my idols from so close, someone whose music had carried me through my college days, through love and heartbreak, I got “thoda emotional”, almost emotional enough to get my damn lipid tested, but then I will do anything for love but I won’t do that.
After a lovely lunch of Indian-style Chinese, it was time for my session. I was going to be sharing stage with Harsha Dutta, the editor of Desh. For those of you who do not know, Desh is the Bengali New Yorker, a legendary magazine that has published some of the biggest names in Bengali literature, occupying pride of place on the Bangali coffee table for nearly eight decades in the same way that the Rabindranath picture has occupied its place on the Bangali wall. So, of course, I was slightly (okay more than slightly) intimidated.
His contention was that people no longer want to read Bangla, and authors don’t want to write in Bangla either, because they think they won’t get the audience to be commercially viable and because English is supposedly just more fashionable. My counter-contention was that I didn’t believe that Bengali authors had to necessarily write in Bangla to be considered to be genuinely Bangali. I mean here I am, with the name “Greatbong”, and I write in English, and the reason I do so is simply because I am more comfortable in it. That does not make me any less Bangali or my work any less authentic or my motives any less pure.
Why restrict ourselves to English and Bengali only? Many Bengalis today are writing Java and C in most of their waking hours (and some sleeping too). And who is to say that code is not literature or a genuine Bangali product? Like a good novel or a poem, it communicates ideas and thoughts, between man and machine as well as between man and man (those who maintain code and build on code others have written know what I mean), and there is a notion of “well-written” code versus sloppily-written, just as there is in literature. Maybe, twenty years from now, most Bengalis will be writing stories in Java and while I personally might not consider that to be my definition of bed-time reading, who am I to speak for those that would use this to define their Bangali identity? And yes, people do read less than they used to, but that’s because television and internet provide so much more competition for our spare time, but all that means is that the bar for popularity has been set higher. Today’s children easily digest six-hundred page Harry Potters and go on to remember every page and every character, so it’s not as if reading as an activity is extinct. Which is why perhaps the more appropriate question, I felt, should be “Where is the Bangali Rowling and why isn’t she here yet?” It was all very lively and exciting, and I spent some time answering a very interesting moderator-posed question on why I think Thakumar Jhuli hasn’t become the Bangali Potter, and maybe I will put my thoughts down on this later in another blogpost, or perhaps in another literary panel (yes I am fishing for invitations).
With that session over, I roamed around a bit, from stage to stage, and stayed a while at a place where noted director Gautam Ghosh was holding forth on film, particularly the transition from analog to digital. It was fascinating, not just for what was being said, but how it was being said, for Gautam Ghosh is just the most lovely communicator. Then I was in a session where musician Debojyoti Mishra was on stage talking about music. It was a largely empty hall, with a few disinterested gentlemen furiously texting away on their mobiles, and at least one bringing his child into the hall to calm him down, when suddenly, it happened. Within seconds, from every exit, like ants rushing towards a slowly flowing streak of honey, they poured in, jostling and shoving. A huge elbow hit the side of my head as an auntie sat down right next to me, and without a word of apology for the blow, asked in a loud, angry voice, “Konkana ashe ni?” (Konkona Sen Sharma isnt here?). I picked up a program that had fallen to the floor to find myself in the event where Konkana Sen Sharma would make an appearance, along with Saswata and Parambrata. Aah, I told myself, Paoli Dam is going to be here too, Paoli Dam, famous for her performance in Hate Story. Well, I should have seen this coming, but following Paoli’s Exclusion Principle, she was excluded, which meant that watching people gawking at Konkona quickly become my only source of entertainment.
And boy was that a lot of that. Of course there was a lot of serious discussion on film, like why is Parambrata’s dog called “Appel” (apple)?. One part of my brain was of course dismayed at this gratuitous gushing over celebrities while the other part of my brain ruied the missed opportunity of giving Parambrata and/or Sashwata a copy of my book Yatrik, because I was too worried someone else would be judging me the same way I was judging others. That’s the damn problem in a Banga Sammelan, everyone knows what the other person is thinking. Anyways, there was a lot of noise in this session, and at one point, an uncle enthusiastically clapped to something Konkona had said, and then turned to his wife and said, “God knows what he said, couldn’t hear anything” Then the rude auntie who had hit me on the head, suddenly leaned forward and, perhaps in an attempt to atone for the blow, confided in me “They should have brought Deb. He has such better personality”, at which point I got up and left.
There was one more place I was mildly interested in looking at, the Bengali Matrimony dating event, primarily because I was interested in writing a romance novel, but a rather strict looking lady next to the sign kept repeating “For singles only” mainly to ward off people like me, the kind who should be at the lipid and EKG-testing booth. So I went to the awards ceremony, where there were “Shera Bangali” (Best Bangali) awards and then “Sherar Shera Bangali” (Best Best Bangali Award) which went to Shera sorry Shreya Ghoshal.
The end. The literal bottom of the barrel where all that remains are the broken aloor chop of pleasant memories.
But wait, there was still the Shreya Ghoshal concert. She was late and the lines were huge, and when I found myself in my platinum seats, even they had filled up considerably. Then two dancing ladies and two dancing gentleman ran onto the stage to the tune of “Bang Bang” and I knew I was in for a treat when lady next to me complained about their “uchnigrer moton naach” (grasshopper like dance steps). Then Shreya Ghoshal came out, the backup dancers went in, and the dancing started.
Some people say Bengalis don’t dance. Some people haven’t been to NABC. No sooner does the beat drop, than the boudis and mashimas leave their purses on the chairs and jump up in a spontaneous Midnapore wave, proceeding to thump the floor with forces that would make tectonic plates shift. And just when you think that auntie doing the “Esho ei boishaak esho esho” (Oh summer come hither) dance step to the tune of Chikni Chameli or the mashima pulling herself up in a “Amar ei deho khani tule dhoro” (Lift my body up) dance mudra as Shreya Ghoshal belts out “Barso re megha megha”, there bursts forth, like a sudden shower, an uncle, pot-bellied, hair dyed as black as the ash buds in the front of May, bosom heaving Vidya Balan style to the tune of “Ooh Lala Ooh Lala”, and even though those behind may plead with him to stop for he is blocking their view, he careens on, without a care in the world, caught in the throes of a “tu hai meri fantasy” where he is joined by another force of nature, a gentleman whose dance moves look suspiciously inspired by exercises to relieve arthritis pain in the knees.
And it was somewhere around this time, that I had my mini-epiphany.
It doesn’t matter whether I write novels in Bangla or not, or whether I can tell my Manik from my Sunil, or whether I never win a “Motamuti Bangali” award, or whether I don’t go to Prantik for Durga Pujo and instead stay home to watch Game of Thrones, as I will always remain a Bengali, as authentic as all these people here.
For one simple reason. I consider myself one. For life.
And that’s all that matters.