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     Volume 4 Issue 5 | July 23, 2004 |

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"A Tale of Two Bengals"

Manisha Gangopadhyay

Although the world has a lot to learn about Bangladesh, within Bangladesh, the sense of identity is strong. In Kolkata, that distinction is not so clear.

When I first heard the account of one Bangladeshi's (Jamal phupa) experience in Kolkata, I was outraged. "They don't even speak Bangla there. They're all Hindi-speaking." I wondered, has this person ever ventured out of the hi-fi shopping area of Park Street? My trips to see uncles and aunts in Behala and the villages of Sonarpur have shown me otherwise. Most of my relatives cannot speak Hindi, though they understand it from years of watching Hindi films. But Jamal phupa had a point; Kolkata culture is infused with foreign influences.

A friend of mine told me that Bangladesh suffers from an identity crisis. "We don't know whether we are Muslim or Bangali, secular or non-secular; most of our history comes from a time when we were part of another country. We don't know what we are." From my experiences over the past year in Bangladesh, I have found a very different reality. Many people are very aware of their identity as both Muslim and Bangali, secular and not secular.

But in Kolkata, which has large percentages of distinct cultural groups from other parts of India, one cannot be both a Marwari and Chinese, Christian and Hindu, South Indian and North Indian, unless of mixed parentage. Depending on which market one goes to, one can be addressed in Hindi, English, Bangla or Chinese. Bangali culture is affected by a sense of being one of many that make a whole. Bangla pride takes a backseat to Indian pride.

Kolkata society is infiltrated with the flashy culture of MTV and Hollywood inspired Hindi-films. With the burgeoning of mega-shopping malls, gyms, coffee shops and other hot spots, people within the city, rich and poor, old-school and urbane, have been experiencing more exposure to each other. Ostentatious, wealthy urban youth driving down Elgin Road, their thundering base pumping out of their car sound systems and strutting their stuff at the Forum and Salt Lakes's new City Centre, often overshadow more traditional aspects of the city.

Maybe it's just me, but it's a stark contrast to Dhaka, where the elite and world-travellers of the city commute incognito in posh cars, their social lives neatly walled off from the public eye by security gates and tinted SUV windows. The Western influences are there, but within the city, exposure to one another is limited.

Kolkata is part of a country where English is one of the official languages. Go beyond College Street and you will find your average bookstore houses more books in English than Bangla. Whenever I am at a loss for the right word, I fall back on English, a luxury not available to me in Bangladesh -- upolobdhi, not realisation, shongkha, not number (or nombor), shongjog, not connection. "Dhukhitho, ei muhurthe, mobile shongjog dheya shombhob hochhena." Although, I have been to Cal several times since my childhood, my Bangla has not improved as much as it has over my short stay in Bangladesh.

And influences go in both directions. A non-Bangali living beyond the outskirts of Kolkata will not get by on Hindi only, as they do in Kolkata. While I was in Kolkata I tutored a Marwari student who came from a town not far from Shantiniketan. Not to reinforce the stereotype, but yes, his family ran a business. And fortunately for me, although he had no interest in pursuing studies in Bengali, his Bangla was perfect.

There are many examples of non-Bangalis embracing Bangali culture. One of the preeminent exponents of Bangla culture, vocalist Mohan Singh, based in Shantiniketan, is a shining example. Originally from Punjab, he studied music at Shantiniketan, married a Bangali and has made Poshchim Banga his home for more than 30 years. While Indian culture is layered over Bangali culture in West Bengal, it would be incorrect to assume it has taken its place.

Misconceptions between the two Bengals go both ways. A Bangladeshi visiting Kolkata for the first time had an interesting experience. After befriending a stranger at a café he was asked, "Do they all speak Urdu in Bangladesh?" It made him want to spew venom.

Beyond the borders of South Asia, on a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Dhaka, where 90 percent of the passengers are usually Bangali, one will find the safety instructions given in English and Hindi. I have travelled this particular route and noticed a passenger sitting next to me make a polite suggestion to one of the stewards to rectify the mistake. The rest of the world has much to learn about the land of rivers. But as is clear from the reaction of the Bangladeshi in Kolkata and the one on the plane, Bangladesh has one unifying medium of communication and that is Bangla. If the flight had been from Singapore to Kolkata, the safety instructions would have been perfectly acceptable.



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