My latest visit to Kolkata also gave me time and company to appreciate some of the Bongs I know and material to fill at least one page with good things about them. I will start right away:
The best things I like about them is what that guy Arnab writes in his blog http://greatbong.net/ - “Bengalis, even more than macher jhol and Ganguly, love the ideal of the dispossessed, the simple and the honest fighting against the big bad wolves.” I agree and love Bengalis for it. Not only do they love the fight of the underdog, in them there is, as if almost, a competition to be the smaller one, to attain the greatness in being small, smaller, smallest. Although the practice and that kind of idealism is way dated in these bigger-phone, bigger-car, bigger-TV, bigger-Bibi days, I must admit, as an outsider, it suddenly inflates your sense of self without having to blow hot air for it when you are in Kolkata. In this land of smallness, even my barely hundred cm self feels big. Everyone around me is so humble that something like my rudely asking someone to move their ass so I can sit in comfort in a bar can be looked as a heroic act. It pleases my ego immensely. For nothing gives me more pleasure than to be rude to people. And no where else in the world, I get a chance to be so rude to people and not be spitted back on my face. In Delhi this could result in my being shot by some big shot’s gun of a son. But in Kolkata, I am admired as a spirited woman.
Also I must admit, deep in my heart I am a die hard romantic and I like seeing suffering sad people. Only problem with a whole lot of suffering people is that often they do get angry when the suffering gets too much. This however does not happen often and you really have to push the peace loving Bengalis too far to raise their fury. For example I have not seen any Bengali ever protesting against the very convoluted bureaucratic systems that have evolved everywhere in Kolkata over CPM rule of nearly a century. If you want to go to a restaurant, there is quite a possibility that you will not get lunch 5 minutes after 3 pm. Rules are rules and you have to eat your lunch between 1 to 3 even you have just reached the city after travelling for many hours in delayed (by blockage called Abarodh or workers' strikes) public transport. The union goes to its after noon nap at 3 and if you die hungry who cares? After all there are millions who go hungry in this world everyday. Fair.
In most public places, including the metro railway, the theatres and the Victoria Memorial and the Museum, the process of entering them is more complicated than a getting a passport done in India. These buildings, which were designed with many doors and gates for easy accessibility to a large number of people that are expected to visit them, keep most of the doors locked. The remaining ones have strange rules like, you can go only down after 12 pm and come only up after 2 am and vice versa. Bongs are a very old civilisation and like any evolved organisms their systems of operation have become complicated over time. As a friend said, 'even the cirss-crossed police check points are so complicated in Kolkata, that if you enter one in Tollygunj, chances are , you will find yourself coming out of Kankurgachi'.
This creates one of the favourite Bong social rituals of queuing up. I am not complaining about this. I much prefer queuing up like decent people (and the Bongs are a fine lot if I have not said it before) than the absolutely irritating habit other Indians have of going straight to the beginning of a queue, upon assumption that other people are standing there to attain nirvana or something. What I am getting at is that however, I have never seen a single Bengali complain about these complex bureaucratic procedures. Why in a restaurant do you have to first speak to the doorman, who will then go and talk to the headwaiter, who will then instruct the waiter to go and talk to someone you cannot see inside the kitchen and only then you are allowed to sit down or wait outside in the heat? Why can't they open few more gates at the airport so that the lines are not long and move fast? No, Bengalis do not ask such questions. They accept what is given by the system as good law abiding citizens. I once heard Amrtya Sen talk about this in appreciation to some effect. But that does not mean they are a timid lot. I have seen the wrath of the underdogs more than once in my life. Why, this time when I was at the film festival, one of the theatres had a bad projector. Naturally, the lot, which had queued up long hours before that to get a sit, ran their unexercised self to breathlessness in getting a good seat and reserving a few for their friends, was not pleased with this. And when for the second time the focus went out of it, there was such passionate screams of 'PHOCAS! PHOCAS!' that I for once thought we were inside that other movie 2012, than watching a French semi-porn. I have similarly seen the underdogs losing it collectively while reprimanding someone for breaking a queue, burning buses which have run over pedestrians and beating up thieves and eve teasers. Good stuff.
The other thing, I like Bengalis for, is their sense of culture. Oh, it is so heartening to see them singing Rabindra Sangeet or 60's rock year after year. No modern influence has been able to influence Bengalis love for traditional Rabindra Sangeet and rock music. I mean, 19 year old kids still play Beetles and Led Zep, can you beat it? I feel positively rootless when I am in Kolkata what with my recently acquired taste for electronica and fused music. In cinema too who can beat the Bengalis’ love for European retro and Meghe Dhaka Tara? Not me. I loved that semi French porn. Well, I better not be talking too much about culture here, least I give away my absolute lack of it. I have been already busted once in Guwahati for apa-sanskriti. I do not want to be beaten up by angry underdogs in Kolkata next time.
The next thing I love about Bongs, is their love for love. These non-believing communists might not be so much for love of God, but for love of romance and love of lust, they will surely bring a few more Nobel prizes to the jati (Nation). Prem , as they call it, is the essence of the Bengalis' existence. Towards their mothers in extended childhood and towards Aparna Sen and Uttam Kumar in late adolescence (I do not know many Bengalis who are old) their romanticism stays with them through their thicks and thins. And proven their fondness for melancholia, (also known as Dukkho-Bilasita in Bengali. They actually have a name for it!) it is mostly thins.
Their lives might be ridden with struggles of justice for the underdog, but the never-say-die Bengalis keep the lamp of love (Premer Bati) alight through load-sheddings and delays of metro trains due to suicides everyday. The very sophisticated, well established and wide spread Bengali pornography industry (also known as Bot-tolar Boi and I hear it is dying out though) is a proof of this. Given their love for romance and the kind of endurances Bengalis go through for it, they will give the Italians a run for one more Nobel prize - for being best lovers. If there is a definition of a perfect lover in the world, every Bengali strives to fit it to the T. Men by being dominated by the women and women by keeping their necks at a painfully attractive slant and batting eyelashes frequently. They love to suffer and they suffer for love.
The last thing that I have to mention (of course I could go on with a long list of things to love about Bengalis. But I am afraid I might start eulogizing just like them) is their love for adda. Idle chit-chat, meaningless conversations, baseless arguments, call what you want it, but there is nothing like a good Bengali adda to make you develop strange ideas about yourself and spread vicious rumours about your friends. Adda is also the best place and the way to insult your closest friends everyday, to take out all that pent up emotions from the unbearable humidity of Kolkata. The same Bengali masochism, that makes the Bengalis strive to be the deprived. makes the addas some of the most creative spaces in the world. This I have to give to Bengalis, although they can be boringly constant with some things like their love for old films, music and politics (read CPM-Mamata), they are fabulously innovative with their insults. Day after day, they meet the same friends and have the serious arguments over the same shit – Mamata-CPM, cricket, muri and chanachur or telebhaja, but they will consistently find original ways to abuse each other. I might as well confess here, the overflowing sarcasm, unscientific convictions and the over-riding exaggeration that this tribute to Bengalis is based on, I got it from the millions of addas I have participated in, with my Bengali friends. For this I will remain eternally grateful them.