Srashta Chowdhury is a complete Bangali from the foothills, existing in between the mountains and the plains cradled by the mighty Himalayas. She expresses emotions and ideas in a language foreign to her mother tongue, but she can write you stories in Bangla too. She should prefer ‘Boroli’ maach from the Tista but her all-time favourite is ‘Ilish’. She is a foodie which you will understand while reading her story. She like any other Bangali can talk endlessly about food and places. On the contrary, she has her own experiences of how Bangalis’ are same and yet not the same. In her own words “the ‘Insider’ in you suddenly becomes the ‘Outsider’, even within your own culture”.
Standing in front of the mirror I cannot even identify to which race I belong, leave alone my caste and class. My gendered identity as a woman, has been ascribed since birth according to societal norms and the obvious assignation of certain biological conditions. My parents, relatives and I speak বাংলা (bangla) at home. The food that I eat at home is বাঙালি খাওয়ার (bangali khawar). It includes macher jhol (in between fish soup and fish curry), dal (lentil soup), bhaat (steamed rice), shaagbhaja (any vegetable leaf available in the market can be turned into a shaag bhaja, and I need one whole story dedicated only to 'shaag' ) and shutki maach (dry fish). These are just general, average components of an everyday meal in a Bengali household. The cooking of other lip-smacking dishes depends on how the ‘chef’ of the house is feeling on that particular day. This is how I am as a ‘বাঙালি’ (bangali) and an apparent ‘insider’ in my own culture. However, I cannot overlook a conscious shaping of my identity while advancing in age and intellect according to the specifics of place. Despite being from ‘West Bengal’, my experiences of being a বাঙালি (bangali) is atypical of a ‘বাঙালি’ (bangali) in the big city of Kolkata. I am aware it sounds strange and unsettling, yet these experiences have compelled me to question whether I was even an ‘Insider’ to my own culture in the first place.
I am from the small city of Siliguri, nestled in the eastern Himalayan foothills to the north of West Bengal. It continues to remain as a transit town since its initial days. On account of its geographical location, the city is home to people of different cultural backgrounds, without a bias of who should be an ‘Insider’ or an ‘Outsider’. All of us existed and coexisted together within the same space. Hence, I never questioned where I exactly belonged. Eating Piro Aludam and Sel Roti (both Nepali delicacies) was as ‘বাঙালি’(bangali) to me as মাছ ভাত/machh bhaat (fish and rice) and कचौरी/kachauri (a savory snack) could be passed off as a desi sattu pie (like Lotte Choco pie). However, the insight to my ‘বাঙালিয়ানা’ (‘bangaliyana’) changed when I stepped into a big city of Kolkata for pursuing my graduation. This may seem strange, but yes, this is how things are – at times, the ‘Insider’ in you suddenly becomes the ‘Outsider’, even within your own culture.
In Kolkata, fitting in with the Bengali Community of the city was the relatively bigger deal than taking admission in yet another convent educational institute. My first mark as an ‘Outsider’ was my dialect, which placed me on the ওপার গঙ্গা (opar ganga) and not the এপার গঙ্গা (epar ganga), like the rest of the ‘big’ city. I realized this because no matter how refined my Bengali was people asked “নর্থ বেঙ্গল থেকে?”(You are from North Bengal?).They claimed to understand this from the sudden slip from ‘আসছি/ashchi’ (I am Coming) to ‘আসতেছি/ashtechi’ in a sentence, even though ashchi or ashtechi both seemed correct to me. Similarly, the case with ‘পঞ্চান্ন/Ponchanno’ and ‘পোচপান্ন/Pochpanno’ both mean fifty-five in Bangali. Some never failed to pass an uneasy glance when they heard me talking to a friend over the phone ‘তুই কি আসতেছিস? / tui ki ashtechish?’ rather than ‘তুই কি আসছিস? /tui ki ashchish?. Many of these minute yet distinct differences made me think - “Am I বাঙালি (bangali) enough to be a কলকাতার বাঙালি (kolkata bangali)?”
My luck in being and making friends with Kolkata bangalis was like studying Physics - a subject which I am yet to understand till date. It is not that I did not have any Bangali friends, but I found my ‘happier hours’ with a Gujarati, an Anglo-Indian and a Bangali, whose বাংলা (bangla) was always all over the place. The two or three Bangali friends I had was by the virtue of the other three. I found solace with these three people who like me did not fit into stereotypical moulds of their own cultural communities in the big city. Our varied cultures were reminiscent of the space of my hometown, where ‘different’ existed and co-existed, without a look or a question. I enjoyed being introduced to other cultures-the Gujarati friend introduced me to the Gujarati cuisine which came with a must item ‘খেজুর/Khejur’(no Khejur is not anything Gujrati it is just the Bangla version of dates), my Anglo-Indian friend to sausages and more of sausages. My ‘all over the place’, Bangali best friend, speaking half Hindi and half Bengali, to explain her point of view, introduced to me ‘চিরে আর গুরো দুধ/Chire r Guro dudh’(Flattened rice/ Beaten Rice with powdered milk). These people were complete madness in a place where I was trying to fit in with my small city ‘বাঙালিয়ানা’(‘bangaliyana’). While one managed to speak and understand Bangali, the other two understood the bare minimum. I found it humorous how they interpreted certain Bangali terms with their knowledge of English, free of any judgement.
When not in college and back where I stayed, I mostly connected with people from various districts of ‘North Bengal’. The rest were not quite eager or indulged in conversations which I never understood. I found it quite amusing to see how people of the big city would run for momos priced at 30 rupees for 5 pieces. The comical part of this was that these roadside momos never tasted as heavenly as the ones I grew up eating for a meagre of 5 rupees. Remember the previously mentioned कचौरी /Kachauri, that the Bangali in me knew as the only thing existing snack by that name? Kolkata too placed before me her version of ‘কচুরি/kochuri’ which were stuffed লুচি/luchis (a deep fried flat bread made of flour) or so I thought (most of the time I wondered how people eat luchi and alur torkari for breakfast). However, the ‘কচুরি/kochuri’ in my city has a very fancy name club kachauri, a big hit which is available only on Sunday mornings. Also, the madness over ‘চা/ cha’ (Tea) in the big city was something that attracted me the most. My association with tea is mostly visiting Tea Gardens for picnics, passing by them while commuting to the outskirts or when there would be a herd of elephants within their vicinity. My small city Siliguri, is more about tea growers than tea drinkers, and our ‘চায়ের দোকান/chayer dokan’ (tea shop) does not have the pomp and show to attract people all day long, like in the big city of Kolkata.
Eventually the realization dawned on me. I realized that I am a বাঙালি (bangali) who has absorbed traits of other cultures in my small transit city of Siliguri, which made me appear different to people of my own culture in the big city of Kolkata. I never found joy in the momos of the big city unlike the bangalis there, I never passed glances at people who did not bear similar racial features and I knew more about tea gardens than being a ‘চা প্রেমি/cha premi’ (tea lover). The big city introduced me to the emotion of East Bengal and Mohunbagan and in the backdrop the 'undifferentiable difference' between ‘ঘটি/ghoti’ (Bengalese who have always been in West Bengal pre and post partition) and ‘বাঙাল/bangal’ (the immigrants from East Bengal during partition). An interesting conversation caught my attention one day where two women were talking about ‘মাছ/mach’ being used during ‘লক্ষী পূজা/lokkhi puja’ in the ‘বাঙাল/bangal’ household. As their conversation continued it seemed that ‘ঘটি/ghoti’s refrained from offering fish to Goddess Lokkhi unlike the ‘বাঙাল/bangal’ community. Both of them seemed to be adamant to prove they did not have any members from the ‘বাঙাল/bangal’ community in their house and were thus ‘pure’ ‘ঘটি/ghoti’ members. My distant memory of having a ‘বাঙাল/bangal’ ancestry till date could not even trace if we have ever offered fish to Goddess Lokkhi. Though some of my friends have this practice at home, I never bothered to know if they were ‘ঘটি/ghoti’ or ‘বাঙাল/bangal’, however the big city bangalis do take some prejudice in this duality within the Bangali Community very seriously. I have had other encounters of this Ghoti and Bangal debate as most of it is about the style of cooking their food, and food in any form is what I love. Oh! There are also some ‘Bati’s’ who have association with both of the two. The term is quite questionable and funny but this is what I have heard the Bangalis’ use.
These instances may seem trivial but they are drops which make up the ocean of my experiences in relation to being a Bangali. Further, they also sharpen my sense of region and place. To the world I am a Bangali by culture, but my geographical mind tells me I am a Bangali closer to the mountains than to the banks of the mighty Ganga and I am a Bangali nearer to the tropical deciduous forest at the foothills of the Himalayas than the mangrove forest within the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta. For three years I have constantly tried to mark my coordinates somewhere in between my small city ‘‘বাঙালিয়ানা’(‘bangaliyana’) and the ethos of the Bangalis who live in the big city, be it through my connection with food, my dialect, or even trying to be friends with them. In these three years I have noticed that people tend to forget that rivers which carry boats in the plains are connected to their origin in the mountain. In other words, they tend to forget connections and in doing so made me feel like an ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ in my own space.
P.S. I am still contemplating.
Srashta is a Research Scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of North Bengal. She is presently pursuing her PhD from the same department. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org