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Book Excerpt: From Sudeep Chakravarti’s ‘The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community’

By Sudeep Chakravarti

There is a deep-rooted religious schism that has permeated Bengali history for over a hundred years, which only the most liberal in Banglasphere have ever been able to overcome.

Hindu and Mussulman. They could almost be two different species.

In my family—my mother’s family, mostly temperate and multi-religious but blunt—it came down to two Bānglā alphabets, pronounced maw and haw, Bānglā equivalent for m and h. That was the code to discreetly describe if someone was a Mussulman or Hindu. The maw would be dismissed by the haw, except those relatives who were and are maw. In that case it would be justified by a simple ‘Tōrā bād’—you folks are excluded.

I’ve seen liberal Mussulmans in Bangladesh and West Bengal, for all their talk of togetherness of language and culture, and secular ideals that are apparently ingrained in Bengali culture, in particular rural Bengali culture, appear terribly hurt that they have been traditionally, historically, looked down upon by the Bengali Hindu. They were even upset every so often by writers like the great Saratchandra Chattopadhyay—not Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who was proudly a Hindu and whose seminal works like Ānōndō Moth came to be a beacon for both Bengali Hindu resurgence and Indian nationalism—who is largely seen as an emancipator of women, a celebrated voice for the poor and oppressed, his works transformed to instant classics.

‘How could Saratchandra write such a thing?’ a liberal, and elderly, society lady in Dhaka once complained to me. She meant the four-part novel Srikāntō. Within the first few pages there is a description, a recollection of an evening in a village where Srikāntō meets Indrōnāth; where Indrōnāth saves Srikāntō.

‘Iskulér māthé Bāngāli ō Mushōlmān chhātrōdér football match. Shōndhyā hoy-hoy. Mognō hōiyā dékhitéchhi…’ It was nearly evening. There was a football match on in the school grounds between Bengali and Mussulman students. I watched, transfixed…

And soon, in the same paragraph, a fight breaks out, the playing field empties but Srikāntō is confused, rooted to the spot, unable to escape, surrounded by several Mussulman boys: ‘…pānch-shātjon Mushōlman-chhōkrā tokhōn āmār chāridiké byuhō rochōnā kōriāchhé…’

***

…Religion, as a matter of intense dislike, or as a matter of victimhood, came to me in a manner I least expected—from my father. He waited until I was at university, for me a time of runaway existentialist angst and rebelliousness and for him a time when he felt comfortable enough to speak of an uncomfortable legacy. It seemed to me so strange, how a man so liberal in his outlook and in the manner he had attempted to provide my sister and I every opportunity to fly and open our eyes and minds and hearts to the world, could in a heartbeat seem to be so determinedly against a religion. Thinking about it some years later, when I emerged from a fog of self-pity and consequent anger, Father’s behaviour appeared as logical as it was disturbing, but more of this a little later.

Religion is manifold in a family such as ours. As a young boy I did not pay much attention to matters of religion. People worshipped different gods, and I went to see these different gods and ways of worship, including what was traditionally ours—a Bengali-Hindu-Brahmin family of a certain socio-economic standing…

…At thirteen, I declined the thread ceremony, passing up formal ordination as a Brahmin, citing historical and ongoing wrongs in which I saw Brahmins as having greatly exploited other castes, and offered up as example, greedy, loud-mouthed priests I saw presiding at numerous religious ceremonies for family and elsewhere. These aggressive, money-minded middlemen for the gods had existed in almost every temple of note we visited in eastern India—Bengal, Odisha and Bihar—where peace for my grandfather’s soul was aggressively brokered at Vishnupad Mandir in Gaya, the pindō-dān at a nearby spot by the dry riverbed of the Falgu River, considered to be among the most auspicious ways for a soul to quickly, seamlessly reach heaven. After all, Lord Ram of legend had done so here for his father Doshōroth, and it did seem relatively cleaner, filth and all, than attempting it by the much filthier ghats of the Hooghly in Kolkata. Mother sulked for some weeks and wondered who had filled my head with dangerous thoughts. Father, a formally ordained Brahmin who delighted in a plump beef steak at Calcutta’s better restaurants—Mother forbade such profanity at home—had merely smiled. (He hosted my first adventure in eating beef steak at Mocambo, a Kolkata institution, in the early 1970s; it was a Chateaubriand, done well. I burnt my tongue in my eagerness to eat this forbidden food. Mother thought it was divine retribution.)…

…Visiting the pandāls during Durga Pujō was more cultural sightseeing than worship. I attempted dhunuchi-nāch a couple of times at a pandāl near the home of an uncle. It’s the propitiating dance to Durga usually with two earthen bowls of kindling and incense—as a pre-teen I was permitted the risk-diminished use of one. I lost myself in the mesmeric rhythm of dhāk and by the equally mesmeric swaying of dhāki, the players. Perhaps as I only carried with me curiosity, not faith, the spirit of Ma Durga did not visit my being. She was always impressive though, and even quirky at times, as in 1972, when I saw a face of Durga transposed with the likeness of Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time. She had earned that honour for her part in defeating Pakistan’s army during the Bangladesh war the previous year. The ōshur—demon—at her feet was the likeness of a dying Pakistani soldier with a spear through his chest; he managed to look awestruck.

As a folksy mother goddess Durga has few equals—she is a stupendous eastern Indian phenomenon, and for the Bengali a point of abiding love, devotion and annual worship that is the excuse for the grandest festivities. New clothes for those who can afford these, feasts, folk theatre, cultural functions—our world revolves around Ma Durga for close to a week. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that, for so many worshippers and revellers, there is even an emotional void when we let her go, floating her likeness in clay in countless rivers, streams and ponds.

My parents would take my sister and me to St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata. We often went there for the stained glass and the peace Mother seemed to derive from the great vault-like space. Alongside absorbing regular recitation and explanation of the Mohābhārōt and Rāmāyon by Grandmother Nirupama, my father’s mother, I had before the age of ten my personal copy of the Bible for children, a large-print, dramatically illustrated chatty retelling that the publishers, Hamlyn seemed to specialize in, with Abraham, Moses and Jesus all seemingly manicured and in impeccable robes. For the voice of god, Mother directed us to the voiceover of god in The Ten Commandments, a syrupy movie which we saw as a family during a re-run at Metro, at the time a thriving art deco cinema on Chowringhee. Mother was infatuated with the character of Moses, especially in the Egyptian prince episodes played by Charlton Heston. (So we went to see a re-run of Ben-Hur too, which highlighted a dashing Heston besides the agony of Christ.)

The Quran—Kōrān to us—was a more complicated exercise, as conservative Islam largely frowns on folksy interpretation, sometimes even in the accessible manner as preached by Sufis and many pirs, even though several such saints themselves were greatly revered.

Even as children we knew this. On my way to boarding school in Ajmer, a city with the grave and shrine to the Sufi philosopher-saint Moinuddin Chishti, among the holiest places for Muslims in the subcontinent, my father had laughed delightedly when a caretaker of the shrine pulled out a dusty ledger with my grandfather and father’s name and address in it—the old joint-family home in north Kolkata. Father and I were replicating a journey he had undertaken with his father several decades earlier. We discovered a similar ancestral imprint at the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi.

I expressed surprise then, but do so no longer. My grandfather Debiprasad, or Kānu-babu as he was better known, was a patron of the shrine of Lālōn Shah, the legendary Sufi, and Baul composer-singer who is part of the folk pantheon of both Bengals. The shrine to Lālōn—it is almost always ‘Lālōn’, the first-name familiarity both a charming affectation and proof of his vast popularity—is in Kushtia, a short walk from Mohini Mills, the family textiles concern that for several decades sustained this still low-key town in western Bangladesh, not far from the border with India. Kānu-babu built a proper road from town to Lālōn’s resting place, provided electricity drawn from the mills’ supply, and renovated the shrine. This is still part of local lore.

***

Islam was always close to home, literally so. I have first cousins who are Mussulmans. Two of my mother’s sisters married Mussulman gentlemen, converted to Islam at the time of marriage, and chose to stay in Dhaka. As Hindu and Mussulman, we were literally blood brothers and sisters. As a child I knew the mannerisms, some portions of the religion, particular foods that differed from the way they were prepared in Hindu households, particular linguistic usage that favoured Urdu and Arabic root words. When I wanted water I asked for jol. My cousins asked for pāni. My aunt was māshi, their aunt was khālā.

In 1992, when I spent several days during curfew in the Old City of Delhi to write about the experience from the perspective of Mussulman citizens barricaded behind ancient walls, as the destruction of the Babri mosque by politically energized Hindu fundamentalists in the central Indian town of Ayodhya triggered riots in several places across India, I had to assume a Mussulman identity. It was for my own safety, my hosts told me. In the supercharged atmosphere of the time even the credentials of being an editor with one of India’s largest media organizations wouldn’t be enough. So to explain the colour of my skin, features and Bānglā-accented Hindi, for several days I assumed the identity of a Mussulman from Bangladesh—Azam Khan.

Azam Khan is the name of my cousin Bāpi, the son of my mother’s younger sister. He lives in his family’s old farmhouse in Savar, a once-pristine northern suburb of Dhaka, now a rage of traffic and a hub of Bangladesh’s flourishing garments export business.

***

The last realization of the region’s wilful depravity over matters of religion would come years after the end of my childhood.

Father and I were alone at home in Kolkata during one of my infrequent visits from university in Delhi. We weren’t talking much those days but through the awkward dynamic of emotionally estranged people living in the same house, one day we found ourselves together in the living room.

‘Please try to keep a request of mine,’ said the man who had never asked anything of me. I nodded. He patted my arm, and switched to English. ‘Promise me you will never marry a Mushōlmān. Whatever else you do is fine, but that would be too much. Promise me.’

I did not make that promise, but the reason for his request, an accumulation of hurt and disappointment that had gradually turned to great dislike was now plain to see.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Remembering Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in Bicentenary Year (1817-2017)’, edited by Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

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