The Cultural Instincts of Traditionally Conformist Bongs


These musings have been triggered by a couple of incidents, quite unconnected.
The first of these was a post on Facebook stating that the mainline Bengali daily of Kolkata, Ananda Bazar Patrika, in a news item about two Bengali gentlemen who had succeeded in scaling the Mt. Everest peak, mentioned that they were aided by two other local 'Bengalis', to wit the Sherpas who assisted them in this feat.

The second of these was a message forwarded by a friend which mentioned that Bengalis were neglecting their language among other significant aspects of their culture. Implicit in that statement was the widely held belief among Bengali 'bhadraloks' that the language and the culture is decidedly superior to the many others found within India. This belief is often extended to encompass the superiority of the Bong cuisine over all other forms and varieties found across the various Indian states.

At the risk of inviting the wrath of many Bongs the world over, I would opine that the typical Bong's proclivity for living in a mythical and surrealistically romanticized past, desperately clutching the cultural shroud of 'Bonkim - Sharat - Robi Thakur - Shotyojit Ray' in an attempt to carve out a distinct identity is indicative of the typical Bong's cultural insecurity, lack of adaptability and stunted liberalism. It is somewhat akin to Bollywood depicting villages in India which are like the ultimate word in terms of harmony, natural beauty, saintly residents and buxom beauties. The reality, alas, is rather removed from that idyllic picture postcard scenario.

The world that one encounters in most established, old time Kolkata clubs and the often archaic, flowery and stylized 'Babu English' contained in most English school textbooks which is still spoken and written by the typical Bong 'bhadralok', bear further testament to this propensity for a cultural throwback to the 'golden days of yore' and possibly the days of the Raj. The condescension shown towards anyone who professes apathy or ignorance about some of these quintessential Bong cultural milestones borders on haughty snobbery. The object of such condescension is eventually dismissed in countless parlour gossips as a boorish arriviste.

The British would be utterly bemused and bewildered by what most Bongs and even many Indians consider to be the essence of British culture and language, having moved on and largely buried these characteristics decades back.

Education is another area which has steadily gone downhill for Bongs. In the distant past, Calcutta University was recognized as one of the premier institutes in the country. No longer is this the case. The percentage of Bongs from W. Bengal and Kolkata who have been getting into premier professional education institutes like the IITs and Medical colleges like AIIMS & CMC Vellore has been a steadily declining curve over the years.

In an increasingly globalized world where change is about the only constant, the insularity of the typical Bong and the concomitant lack of adaptability and learning, handicaps the typical Bong linguistically, socially and even culturally. The typical Bong is neither proficient or fluent in either English or Hindi. In a world where many successful people are multilingual, this often impacts the employability of the typical Bong adversely. It also hinders the potential for mobility within India and overseas.

A section of the younger lot of Bongs, tired of this cultural stereotyping, have formed boy bands and are eminently more familiar with the history and albums of Michael Jackson than those of Atulprasad for example. Many of them speak a colloquial Bengali which draws on Hindi and even English words and phrases heavily. This has led to some others decrying what they perceive as the inexorable move to 'corrupt' the language.

Many Bongs residing and working outside the city of Kolkata and the state, continue to imagine Kolkata as a mythical, idealized place that they secretly yearn to go back to. So caught up are they in their fanciful imagination that they refuse to recognize or even acknowledge the fact that the Kolkata they used to live in has undergone significant changes, in many instances for the worst, during the period that they have been away. People who have build up such a fanciful mental imagery, often as a form of escapism, salivate for example at the thought of the quality and variety of fishes available in Kolkata, refusing to realize or even acknowledge the fact that the bulk of Kolkata's fish supplies presently come from outside the state, from places as far as Gujarat.

I know of several instances where this mythical, idealized image of what life in Kolkata would be like prompted individuals to move back to the city after an interval of many years. I also happen to know that in some instances, when confronted with the reality of day-to-day living, some of these individuals realized over a period of time that relocation was a bad idea in the first place and moved out again after a stay of a few years, vowing never to return again for good.

This isn't a fashionable rant about Kolkata and the typical local resident of that metropolis, though, heaven forbid, there is a fair bit to rant about. Rather, consider this a humble attempt to take away those coloured glasses from those who may still be wearing it and viewing Kolkata and the average Kolkata based Bong through those glasses. The reality, like most realities, is considerably less glitzy and somewhat depressive on occasions.

Does that open a Pandora's box? I guess it does and the assorted contents contained within would now have the culture vultures angrily circling overhead, eager to slam the lid back on the little skeletons visible within. Bring on the howitzers if you so wish, training the heavy artillery on the message rather than on the messenger.

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