My Bengal-Calcutta

durga puja
Durga Puja for the Goddess and her kids

I have never lived in Bengal. I grew up in Bombay. My mother grew up in Nagpur. Only my dad and his family were from Calcutta. My parents moved to Bombay in the 70s.

Panthera_tigris_tigrisBut I am a Bengali first and then an Indian.  To slightly militant levels. I identify completely with the Royal Bengal Tiger, as most Bengali women are referred to as.

The comedian Russel Peters has said “Indian parents are not afraid of killing their children” in a sketch about Indian disciplining styles. Topping that list is the Bengali mother.

Bad grades, backchat or wasting food would result in a mother-daughter chase. I would often use my father as a shield as my machete wielding mother raged against a defiant daughter.

Machete wielding Ninja mother would then share her tribulations with the other Bengali mothers who would nod in disapproval and then yell at their kids just for the heck of it.

Just so they didn’t even think of behaving like me.

Being Bengali was of great importance in our household, instilled more by my Nagpur born mother than my Calcuttan father. Bengali literature, music, poems even Children’s alphabet books were common place in our home

I was made to watch Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali at age 5 !

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Fell in love with that film, much to the relief of my parents. I would not be sullied by the North Indian Bollywood Cinema, yet, they thought.

After that Satyajit Ray became a regular feature in our house.

30 years later Pather Panchali was the FIRST Indian Film my Husband saw at the IFC Mall in Hong Kong. 10 pm show first row  ! He fell in love, much to my delight.

But inspite of this my Calcutta grandparents bemoaned the fact we weren’t Bengali enough. This is because we were being educated in Bombay and didn’t know how to read and write Bengali, They expected letters written to them in Bengali.

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So in preschool like handwriting we wrote letters to them every Bengali New Year (lunar calender) and over Durga Puja.

Aaah Durga Puja my FAVOURITEST festival ever ! Durga Puja is a 5 days eating drinking celebration for the Goddess.

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Its bigger than Christmas. If you ever had the misfortune of asking me “You are Indian so Diwali is your biggest festival” you would get a very curt answer: ” No I am Bengali and Durga Puja is our biggest festival”.

For my British husband, ofcourse The Curry is the national dish….and the quitessential Indian. But I have rewired his brain. The curry is not your national dish, darling, ‘masoor Dal (red lentils), slice of kafir lime, steamed rice and fried aubergines(brinjals) are !

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Bengal is the home of so many greats but currently lies in an advanced state of disrepair. I wont try and articulate it but rather refer to Amit Chaudhuri’s book CALCUTTA, TWO YEARS IN THE CITY to give you a current snapshot of the place and its spirit.

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My memory of Calcutta is winter vacations with grandparents and paternal cousins. The train coming into the Howrah Bridge station

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Eating hard rock candy sticks we called ‘Calcutta Candies’ at New Market. They were like the English one but more translucent

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Strolling along the Victoria Memorial and eating Jhaal (spicy) Muri (puffed rice)

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Jhaal Muri is a Calcutta special. Main ingredients other than the puffed rice are chopped green chillies, peanuts and RAW mustard oil.

I am not going to add a picture of the Jhaal muri because on camera it comes off looking like the BOMBAY special the BhelPuri or Mahrashtrian special the MISAL.

Jhaal Muri has far fewer ingredients than the Bhel or the Misal and the Raw Mustard oil adds the vaa vaa voom.

Drinking tea in environmentally friendly earthen tea cups and thinking why doesn’t the world adopt this ?!!??

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I could go and on but this post has to end , sometime. But I can not end this post without a nod to one of my favourite authors, Jhumpa Lahiri, and  her books.

The Namesake, The Unaccustomed Earth, The Intrepretor of Maladies.

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Her Bengal, her sketches and her memories are mine. I read her books and I have nothing to add.

I can close my eyes and simply….remember.

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