As a reluctant non-vegetarian, I am a blot on the name of Bengalis. The realisation dawns on me, for the umpteenth time, as I approach my third wedding anniversary. Because it all began with my marriage to a girl from Kolkata three years ago. Let me tell you a secret -- a secret that only my wife knows, and through her, every friend of ours who comes visiting: Never in my life I had imagined that I would be marrying a Bengali girl, that too a Kolkata girl.
I always found Bengali women to be very dominating. And my perception is not very far from the truth: just look around and you will know what I mean. Many Bengali households are mini-dictatorships -- a nation of four or six people who are ruled by a once-upon-a-time stunning and sexy female who leads from the front.
A few years ago, in Bhopal, I had lunch at the home of a good friend, a fellow journalist. Being the typically generous UP-wallah, he had ensured that the lunch was a lavish affair. I spent nearly four hours at his place, discussing the state of affairs of journalism and the nation with him and talking to his three children, and then indulging myself in a never-ending lunch, during which I was plied with every possible delicacy that I could imagine. But I could not get to see the woman who was silently cooking and dispatching those delicacies from the kitchen. The children were the couriers.
In a Bengali household, the woman of the house would have taken charge the moment the guest arrived. She would tell the guest, though not in so many words, "Look, I know you are a special guest. That is why I've been slogging since morning to make all these dishes. You better relish it or else..."
It was the "or else" factor that made me apprehensive about Bengali women, not that I knew a whole lot of them. In fact, I had never known any of them. Living in Chennai, one of my secret desires was to marry a Malayali girl, who would wear an off-white saree with a golden border on festivals and who, along with me, would sing, "Mele poomala, thazhe thenala." My fantasy was inspired by this Salil Choudhury-composed song, sung by Yesudas and Salilda's wife, Sabita. Lazing on the bed and smoking a cigarette, I would tell myself: "In this song, the male voice is that of a Malayali and the female voice that of a Bengali. But in real life, in my life, it is going to be the other way round. The male version will be sung by a Bengali and the female version by the Malayali girl of my dreams. Let's wait and see who I meet." And in Chennai, you don't have to wait to meet women from Kerala. For that matter, I was a frequent visitor to Kerala as well.
But then, as you all know, there is something called destiny. I had no clue I would be eventually marrying a girl from Kolkata, just the way she had no clue she would be marrying a pseudo-Bong who had grown up in the Hindi heartland of Kanpur and was now living in Chennai and pining for a princess clad in an off-white saree with golden border. In the end, it turned out to be a white saree with red border!
Somehow, I am glad it ended up that way. I am all for inter-religion and inter-culture marriages. It is heartening to see a man and a woman absorbing each other's traditions as they get older. But sadly, such mutual imbibing of cultures are not very common. Most often, it is one culture that ends up being dominant in a marriage, especially the man's culture, especially if the set-up is a joint family. Moreover, once you have crossed the age of thirty or thirty-five, and if you have been living away from your roots for a long time, you crave to get back there. And one way of getting back there is to marry someone from your culture. The ultimate idea, according to me, is to share the nostalgia. It would have been no fun if I had to explain the importance of Durga Puja, rather the importance of Durga Puja in my life, to a wife who is not a Bengali. The idea is that she too should be able to detect the "pujo-pujo" smell in the evening air the moment October approaches. After the age of thirty-five, when most of your fun-filled and carefree days are over, it is nostalgia that you survive on. Nostalgia becomes the drink which you have every evening with your companion -- a drink you savour after a long day, so much so that you spend the rest of your life looking forward to evenings. In such a situation, if the spouse belongs to a different culture, it becomes as good as having your evening drink in the company of a teetotaller.
Now that may sound as a sweeping statement, but don't read so much into it that you feel compelled to start a debate on inter-culture marriages. For that matter, my wife and I might be belonging to the same culture, but there are occasions when we sip the evening drink of nostalgia with complete disinterest. Such occasions invariably centre around the dining table -- the only place where our respective nostalgias seem to be sprouting from different sources. She, being the refined Bengali, knows about and can cook every possible fish delicacy that Bengal has ever thought of. Not only that: she also knows how to relish them. Me, on the other hand, is like a labourer working in a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh, who is more than happy to get his daily quota of rice and daal and chilli pickle. So on such occasions, while she is the drinker, I am the teetotaller. Though I try to bridge the gap with real alcohol.
Alcohol helps in such situations. As a child, as far as non-vegetarian food goes, I grew up on mutton and a particular variety of fish called rohu (Bengalis call it rui maachh). But I was never, ever fascinated by the idea of eating meat. In fact, I found the whole idea disgusting -- chewing on bones or sucking at them for the marrow. For me, delicacy meant arhar ki daal or dum aloo -- something a blue-blooded Bengali would find outright boring and insulting.
For the sake of my childhood, I don't mind indulging in mutton or rohu fish once in a while, provided they are cooked in a certain way, which my wife takes care of. But even to relish them, I need to fortify myself with alcohol. Alcohol numbs me to the fact that the mutton I am eating now was, till a few hours ago, a lively goat that had no idea that it was going to be slaughtered and its lifeless body cut into pieces. Once I am pleasantly drunk, I become insensitive to such gory details. But even in my most drunken and hungry state, I would never eat anything other than mutton, tandoori chicken or rohu fish. It is a mental block I have. What to do, that's how I am. Given a choice, I would give up the mutton or rohu fish too, had they not been a part of my childhood.
The woman I married exactly three years ago, being the loving and caring wife that she is, understands this very well. So there is never a problem when we are sitting at our own dining table. The problem arises only when we are at the dining table of friends, especially her friends. They move heaven and earth to put together an impressive spread where chicken is the main non-vegetarian dish while all the vegetarian dishes have pieces of fish in it. On one such occasion, at a lunch, I ate only rice and brinjal pakodas (called beguni, in Bengali) and mint chutney. My hosts felt extremely sorry for me, but to tell you the truth, I felt sorry for them: here I was, savouring the sublime combination of rice and beguni and mint chutney, whereas they were grappling with bones.
There is something undeniably charming about vegetarian food, especially Bengali vegetarian food. Bengali vegetarian food, when compared to its counterparts in other states, is refreshingly simple and tasty and -- in many ways -- healthy too. But then, for most Bengalis, vegetarian dishes only serve as appetisers: most people at the dining table don't even acknowledge the effort that goes into making them because in the end, it's the smell of the fish that eventually satiates you.
Now that leads to an identity crisis. Should I feel ashamed that I am a reluctant non-vegetarian Bengali who abhors the idea of eating meat unless he is under the influence of alcohol, or should I feel proud for being a champion of the vegetarian dishes?
When it comes to vegetarian dishes, I must say with a dash of pride that I am a good cook. My specialties include arhar ki daal, sambhar, rasam, dum karela, dahi bhindi, tamatar-dhania ki sabzi and dum aloo. I make excellent egg curry too. Not to mention the Punjabi kadhi that's part of the famed kadhi-chaawal combo. Wonder what kind of a Bengali that makes me. But then, I told you, I am a blot on the name of the community.