Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Being A Bengali

Last Monday, three things happened to me that made me ponder on my being a Bengali -- if that at all I can claim to be one, that is.

Many of you must have seen, or heard about, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand, in which the mortality of a cancer patient is immortalised by Rajesh Khanna. Next to Khanna's performance, the most outstanding feature of the film is its music: composer Salil Choudhury was still on a creative high and he gave songs like Kahin door jab din dhal jaye, Maine tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne, and Zindagi kaisi hai paheli.

Kahin door jab din dhal jaye, like most Salil Choudhury's numbers, has a Bengali version. (Some of them have a Malayalam version as well). The Bengali version, Amaye Proshno Kore Neel Dhrubo Taara, has been sung by Hemant Kumar.

Monday morning, while ritually digging into music on the internet, I found a clip in which Salilda speaks at a function and goes on to sing the same song! For the devotee of modern Bengali music, the clip contains the voice of God. I downloaded it without wasting a second (I've attached it in the end).

Then in the evening, I went to my favourite pub. On one of its walls is a rack displaying some coffee-table books, which I never bothered to look at carefully because I never got to sit near that rack. That evening I did, and I noticed, right on top of the pile, a book titled Satyajit Ray at 70. It was basically a compilation of black and white pictures of Ray captured in different moods and a collection of tributes paid to the director by various people associated with or influenced by him, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. (Ray died soon after). I got a call and that's when I realised that I had already finished a bottle of beer and without even speaking a word to my wife, who was silently nursing her cocktail.

The caller was a friend from Calcutta. I said, "Hello, hello", but no response. When I listened carefully, I heard, in the background, Usha Uthup in full flow, singing R.D. Burman's favourite Puja number, Tumi koto je doore. Pancham has used the same tune in Saagar, at the moment when Rishi Kapoor watches Dimple bathe in the sea, and also for a song in an album being produced by Gulshan Kumar. Gulshan Kumar, a former juice-seller, scrapped the album idea but retained that song, Aaja Meri Jaan, for a movie with the same name which starred his brother. S.P. Balasubrahmaniyam, or SPB, has narrated very often how we was nervous to sing Aaja Meri Jaan but Pancham insisted, "You bloody fellow, that is why I called you all the way from Madras."

The friend came on line only after Usha Uthup had finished the song, and asked: "Shunley?" -- did you hear? God bless her! That's what friends are for: to remember you just at the right time.

Sitting now, in front of the computer, and drinking the only brand of whisky that the neghbourhood booze shop had to offer, and relistening to Salilda's voice, I wonder: why was I not born in Kolkata instead of Kanpur?

In Kolkata, I could have had had a glimpse -- at some time or the other -- of either Salil Choudhury, Satyajit Ray or even R.D. Burman when he came to the city to record the Puja songs. That is besides the pleasure of living in the same city whose streets they walked.

Today, in Chennai, I live on the same street as Salilda's erstwhile guitarist and a musical genius in his own right -- the great Illayaraja. I adore Illayaraja's songs, and am proud that I am his neighbour, but still, why not Kolkata?

I also wonder: who am I? A Bengali who has grown up in Uttar Pradesh? Or a UP-wallah whose mother-tongue is Bengali? Or a Bengali-speaking North Indian who now lives in Madras and loves, apart from RD and Kishore, the Tamil songs of the 1980's?

I have no ready answers. All I know is that my roots lie somewhere in Bengal -- and calm lies in tracing them -- may not be in the physical sense, but at least in seeking to know what Bengal Bengalis are all about. It is like Tamilians in the US watching a Rajnikant film, or being more finicky about rituals than Tamil Nadu Tamils.

As a child, I grew up in the Hindi heartland, with Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor as my chief idols. And the songs then were invariably the products of just two men: Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. Yet, when there would be a powercut, my father would tell stories written by Bengali writers or sing Bengali songs. The songs didn't make much sense then, but then, when you listen to something when you are eight or nine, it remains with you forever.

At the time, my Bengali was hardly any good, in spite of my father's short-lived effort to teach me how to read and write the language. After a point, he must have thought: "How is it going to matter whether he can read or write Bengali. He is going to live in UP, after all." For my mother, my proficiency in my mother-tongue was hardly a matter of concern. She always dreamt of me as an Army officer or an engineer or a doctor, who could be speaking even Swahili. She hated poets and writers: she thought them to be sissies.

She also hated people who drank: only on one occasion did my father taste alcohol. I remember that evening clearly -- it was my seventh birthday. Our neighbours -- a retired Air Force officer and his wife -- had been invited over for dinner, and when they walked in, I noticed the old man hiding a parcel behind him. I was certain it was a gift for me, and even more certain when he beckoned me with his finger, as if about to tell me a secret. But all he told me was: "Ask your mother to send two glasses." Next thing I know is my mother admonishing father for having touched the forbidden liquid, and father sticking a finger into his throat to puke out the only drink he had had. Today, the same woman has a man for a son who is an aspiring writer and an amateur poet and a professional drinker.

Coming back to being a Bengali. Well, Hindi was the language I could speak with maximum ease then. Not even English, even though I could write in English well enough to get good marks. Interaction with fellow Bengalis was hardly of any help: I ran the risk of pronouncing 'roshogolla' as 'rosogolla', unmindful that the 'sh' sound is so sacred to the blue-blooded Bengali. Dropping the 'sh' sound accords you the status of an infidel, and there are many infidels around outside Bengal, especially the progenies of people who had settled decades ago. It was 'shomoy' (time) and not 'somoy'; 'shaanti' (peace) and not 'saanti'.

Kishore Kumar came to my rescue. He is one singer who sings with great clarity, be it in Hindi or Bengali. With his songs, you don't have to wonder: "Er, what did he say just now?" His pronunciation is "sposhto" (very clear), as opposed to "sposto". So I began to purify my Bengali by listening to his Rabindra Sangeet. It is a different matter that Kishore Kumar sang Rabindra Sangeet by following the Devnagiri -- that is Hindi -- script. The beauty of the Devnagiri script is that it can instantly make you sound like a sophisticated Frenchman or a Bengali bhadralok.

And bhadralok I had wanted to be. The knowledge of pure Hindi helped too: most words, especially the difficult ones, are of Sanskrit origin. If you know how to pronounce them in Hindi, uttering or understanding them in Bengali is not difficult at all. Soon, I was more Bong than many other Bongs in Kanpur. My father, meanwhile, was attending Hindi classes in his office: it was part of the Central government's drive to promote the national language.

By the time I reached college, we had begun subscribing to only Hindi newspapers; and when I joined a journalism course, my parents hoped I could find a job with one of the local Hindi papers in case I failed to become an 'English' journalist.

Once in Delhi, I met the blue-blooded Bengalis, including my firend-cum-philosopher-cum-guide called Sanjay (originally named as Sanjoy), who took over from where Kishore Kumar had left me. Wine and women were our common interests, and to pursue those interests under his tutelage, I had to learn to think and talk in pure Bengali. Not that he did not know English, but it would have sounded strange if two Bong men did not speak their mother-tongue.

Courtesy him, I got to know the bad words in Bengali first, and then the songs. Many of the songs, it turned out, were the ones that my father sang during the power cuts. I set about collecting them -- not only to affirm my being a Bengali but also to please my father by taking him down memory lane. Father was pleased no doubt, but certainly not excited: he had already been there and done that and was now reconciled to life without those songs. For me, however, listening to those songs not only certified me as being a true Bengali but also helped me reclaim my childhood.

Today, I am proud to be a Bengali, but more proud that I am a Bengali raised in Uttar Pradesh. I have the best of both worlds. On one hand, I gorge upon the songs composed by Salil Choudhury and sung by Hemant Kumar. On the other, I am able to devour the lyrics of Sahir and Majrooh and Gulzar.

The Bengali connection seems to be helpful in the South too. For a long time I took offence to the fact that I was being compared, in the looks department, to South Indian, especially Malayalam, heroes such as Mohan Lal and Jayaram. More than a compliment, the comparision meant I was as fat as them. Or was it my moustache? Anyway, I discovered it helps to be a Bengali while at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala a couple of years ago. The resident priest, presuming that I was a Malayali, spoke to me in Malayalam. When I told him I did not understand the language, he asked, in English: "So what's your mother-tongue?" When I said it was Bengali, he replied: "Ah, same thing!"

Amay Proshno Kore....


Zeppelin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zeppelin said...

Ghosh da, wonderful post! the way that you said about Kishore's Rabindra Sangeet is exactly the opposite of how I feel about Udit Narayan singing Tamizh songs. :)

and Ilayaraja being the guitarist for Salil Choudhury (sorry if I spelt it wrong :D) is a sweet surprise! never knew that till now..

another point of "arrey wah" kinda surprise is that whats "sposhto" in bengali is "spashtam" in tamizh. :)

and I have the dad-music thing common with ya in that, my dad's been the biggest source of ghazal influence on me.. Talat Mahmood, Ghulam Ali, Pankaj Udhas are our favourites! :)

and as always, most of your posts have been way out of league for me to comment anything decent at all...just to say that I am a regular yaathri in the Ganga Mail.. :)

P.S. sorry about the spam :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Bishwanath, I dutifully note the 'sh' in your name and appreciate the fact that your parents did the right thing while spelling you out :-)

Your post triggered memories, as a Bengali born and brought up in Bihar and a current resident of Bangalore, our journeys have been remarkably similar. While being a state closer (eastwards in Bihar) did help in stronget ties with the 'home' state, I do share many of the sentiments you express.

I cannot better your description,
you are after all a 'successfull' English journalist and I'm just a lowly techie as Bangalore newspapers love to describe us.
What is inescapable in your writing, to me, was the deep, almost umbilical attachment to things Bengali. Though, to be frank, the authentic Kolkata Bengali is not a species I still manage to digest very well, I too have this thing about Bengali music, literature, movies and drama. I'd always wondered if this was something my staunch Bengali parents inculcated in me or is it something genetic

Reading through Jhumpa Lahiri's interview recently I was struck by her statement that she inherited a sense perpetual exile because/from her parents, the movies "Namesake" and "Bong Connection" I believe explore similar themes. Its kind of reassuring now, this Bhojpuri speaking Bong bridging two rather disparate cultures attributes it all to his genes.

Keep posting and let's meet up for a drink if you ever visit Bangalore.

Anonymous said...

Oh! this is too good. Very well written Bishu. Enjoyed every word and the felt like I lived the years from 9 upwards with you. That's the magic of your writing! I am a non-resident tamilian and feel the same way about my mother tongue.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful song...thanks for sharing it with us.

Swahilya Shambhavi said...

Bishwanath! A very expressive post, which I had no mind to not finish reading it as I usually do with long posts! Thank you for informing us about the Bengali....and I can't but feel the closeness with it to Sanskrit - the language that unifies Bengal and Tamil Nadu, Malayalam and Kashmiri!

Anonymous said...

wonderful post

Anonymous said...

what a combo! u think in hindi, write in english and add a dash of bengali flavour to your art....what else can readers ask for??

was almost tempted to write my name but guess that'll have to wait..

Anonymous said...

an ardent KS fan I see the something common between his and ur writing style.

about Kanpur...I don't think u watch Indian Idol on Sony.but there is a kanpurite (ankita ) doing very well there.


Unknown said...

hey.. happened to drop by. This wonderful dichotomy exists with most indians whose parents have settled in places other than their native place.
I was always considered a pariah to the Tamizh language by my chennai-residing cousins and even now, my husband insists that what I pass off as tamizh is nothing short of scarilege. :D

Maddy said...

hi ghosh...that was simply fantastic - listening to salilda. while I can say i have listened to many of his songs, i have not heard his voice in ages, though i could only just about understand some words. being a mallu, i could've said yah - the same thing -

but in my mind one of his best numbers are o nodire, ekti kotayi...from siddharta..

p.s yup - u could pass as arjun the tamil star though - definitely not mohanlal or jayram!!!

Anonymous said...

interesting to see you line up sahir in the same sentence as gulzar and majrooh :)
i feel the RD and KK combination though great, unfairly popular ...
- another half bangli born and brought up in the north

Kalyan said...

Sure that was a nostalgia trip. I was born and brought up Bihar (then it became Jharkhand), then moved to Uttaranchal (IIT Roorkee) for undergrad studies, live in NCR for a year and now in Bangalore. I was proficient in Baanglaa since err... forever. But sure I missed the absolute 'sh' culture. There were so many 'ss' around.

I am writing a post on some other aspects of 'Being Bong' on my blog. Keep tab.


Anonymous said...

Well Put, Herr Ghosh. I raise my glass to you.

yassa said...

Hello.This post was really interesting, especially since I was browsing for thoughts on this issue last Saturday.