New Year Double Issue

In Search of the True Bengali

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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The persistence of an identity dispute

THE LATE NIRAD C Chaudhuri personalised for me the ties that have always tortuously linked the peoples of East and West Bengal, Bangal and Ghoti as they are called. Those ties are mirrored in the complex relationship between India and Bangladesh highlighted by the grandest ever Vijay Divas, ‘victory day’, that Bangladeshis led by Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan recently celebrated in Calcutta, and speculation about a visit by their Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Mamata Banerjee’s coyness over the Teesta river may also owe something to Bangal-Ghoti tension.

In his last book, Thy Hand Great Anarch, Chaudhuri described walking in Calcutta with the novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, whose Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) Satyajit Ray adapted into the immortal Apu Trilogy films, when communal rioting suddenly erupted. Bandyopadhyay assured him there was no cause for alarm since he was there. But when Chaudhuri looked round, the novelist had fled the scene in terror. Recalling an acquaintance who lived nearby, Chaudhuri went to his flat to borrow a stout lathi. Probably amused at the prospect of the frail and diminutive Chaudhuri brandishing a lathi through a riotous mob, the acquaintance said he would escort him to safety. Which he did, undaunted by the violence. When Thy Hand Great Anarch came out in 1990, the no-longer unknown Indian wrote me a long letter in his crabbed handwriting—he never touched a typewriter—explaining that the man who accompanied him through the riot was my father, an unreconstructed Bangal. Being also proudly Bangal, Chaudhuri contrasted my father’s courage and courtesy with the cowardly Bandyopadhyay, a Ghoti.

The origin of the two terms is lost in the mists of obscurity. Bangal may be an imperious appropriation of the Bengali identity. A Bangal is convinced he alone is a full-blooded Bengali. But Ghoti? The word means a jug or, more precisely, lota in Hindi. But why should natives of West Bengal, of Calcutta in particular, be Ghotis? One theory traces it to a Rarhi Brahmin sect called Bandyaghoti, Ghoti for short. Another is that the Bandyaghotis took a ghoti of sacred Ganga water with their Shaligram, the fossilised shell used as an iconic symbol of the God Vishnu, to eastern Bengal. The version a chauvinistic Bangal friend solemnly told me when I was a child was that when the East Bengal football team’s sturdy Bangal lads trounced Mohun Bagan’s effete Ghoti players, the latter crept cravenly to the former’s tent at night and stole the prize cup, which he called ‘ghoti’.

Fanciful that tale might be, but it does acknowledge the robust identity-based competition between the two teams. Bengal’s obsession with the game recalls Stafford Heginbotham, chairman of England’s Bradford City football club, saying, “Football is the opera of the people”. Acting on that cue, Rudraprasad Sengupta, the gifted Calcutta theatre director and actor with family roots in East Bengal, deftly adapted Peter Terson’s play, Zigger Zagger, to the Bengali stage. Instead of portraying soccer hooligans and their pursuit of drink, sex and trouble, Rudraprasad’s group Nandikar dramatised the game’s magic hold on adolescent minds in Football which still enthrals packed houses. The play centred on East Bengal which enjoys a somewhat more rumbustious reputation than Mohun Bagan. But the legendary goalie, Goshto Pal, frozen in stone on Calcutta Maidan, recalls a heady July afternoon in the high noon of empire when barefoot Bengali lads in Mohun Bagan colours humbled booted soldiers of Britain’s East Yorks regiment.

It was a resounding political triumph. As the victory procession stomped through the streets of India’s then capital city, fans urged the players to storm Fort William, citadel of the British Raj. Football nationalism is universal, and England- Scotland matches still resonate to the vibrant notes of Flower of Scotland, celebrating the 14th century Scottish victory over England at Bannockburn. Another Calcutta player, Bhaichung Bhutia, demonstrated by playing for Bury FC in England that the game’s free-for-all knows no borders. So did Mohun Bagan’s Okori Cheema. Far from being Ghoti or even Bengali, Cheema was Nigerian. Visiting Dhaka, I was proudly shown the original home of another well-known Calcutta football club, Wari.

The Bangal-Ghoti divide is essentially a Hindu syndrome. It follows that Bangals are migrants in Calcutta who regard themselves— and are regarded by others—as aliens. In his political days Pranab Mukherjee, although himself Ghoti, wrote an evocatively detailed note on New Delhi’s persistent discrimination against Bangal refugees. No such divisive memories stirred last week’s nostalgia. Even Bangals and Ghotis buried the hatchet as Calcutta savoured Vijay Divas with pleasure, pride and, admittedly, some pain. Pleasure because the celebrations commemorated the release of millions of Bengalis—then called East Pakistanis—from 24 years of Pakistan’s oppressive and exploitative rule. Few countries have suffered a more traumatic birth or had to endure such a horrendous baptism in blood. Pride is inevitable since the task of feeding, housing and clothing nine million destitute Bangladesh refugees meant Bengal also shared in the triumphant misery of the embryonic country’s birth pangs. Nor can Calcutta forget that although the Pakistani commander Lieutenant General AAK Niazi surrendered to the Sikh Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora on December 16th, 1971, everyone agrees the true architect of that victory was a valiant native-born son of Calcutta, Lieutenant General JFR Jacob, then a major general and Eastern Command’s chief of staff. Jacob’s lineage was Baghdadi Jewish but Calcutta’s cosmopolitan ethos claimed him as its own. I treasure a Tibetan snowlion seal he once gave me.

A Bangal friend told me that when East Bengal’s sturdy Bangal lads trounced Mohun Bagan’s effete Ghoti players, the latter stole the prize cup, which he called ‘ghoti’

A twinge of pain is also inescapable at the erosion of the hope that soared 45 years ago that Bengalis in both halves of what was once a single province might recapture the sense of shared destiny Rabindranath Tagore celebrated in Banglar Mati Banglar jol, denouncing Curzon’s partition of 1905. Liberation initially promised a secular Elysium: I reported in London’s Observer newspaper of June 13th, 1971 that ‘for a time last year (1970), the Hindus still inside East Bengal rallied to the heady promise of an equal life for people of all religions’ offered by Sheikh Hasina’s charismatic father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, revered as Bangabandhu, Friend of Bengal, until extremists butchered him and most of his family and friends five years later. There must already have been disturbing signs of that storm darkening the horizon of Mujib’s inclusive vision for me to add that ‘though Bangladesh may one day emerge, the dormant communal bitterness successfully re-aroused by the Pakistan army and the irrevocable flight of the Hindus will make it a Bangladesh for Muslims only’. My report, ‘FLIGHT OF THE HINDU MILLIONS’, spread across the page, contradicted the official narrative of Bangladesh’s monolithic secular democratic multitude opposing Pakistani Islamists.

Food, dialect and folk traditions highlight the distinctive identities of ‘Epar Bangla’ and ‘Opar Bangla’—Bengal on this side, Bengal on the other—in the words of a popular song. Both are Bangla. Both co-exist in Calcutta, indistinguishable to foreign eyes, subsumed in the great mass of bhadralok, literally ‘gentlefolk’, comprising Brahmins, Baidyas and Kayasthas, the three highest castes. Intense claims about the superiority of hilsa and prawn, ilish and chingri, piscine symbols of the two regions, flavour Bengali cuisine. Bangals celebrate Lakshmi Puja on the fifth day after Durga Puja; Lakshmi Puja is a modest domestic celebration coinciding with Kali Puja for Ghotis. The Bengali writer Narayan Gangopadhyay created a fictional Bangal character Habul. He is a better student than the three Ghoti lads he hangs out with, can box (unusual for a Bengali but not, perhaps, for a Bangal who is stereotypically somewhat rough and ready), and speaks in the uncouth East Bengal dialect. Paradoxically, when a genuine Bangal feels hard done by, his standard protest is, “Do you take me for a Bangal?”

Bangladesh is a painfully divided nation. How divided was brought home to me once in Dhaka’s Intercontinental Hotel. The smart young receptionist who told me my old friend Salauddin Quader Chowdhury—British-trained barrister, businessman, member of parliament and Bangladesh Nationalist Party stalwart— had sent his driver for me added politely Salauddin himself wasn’t welcome there because of his liberation war record. Executed by Sheikh Hasina’s government, Salauddin took to the gallows the conviction that the Awami Leaguers who murdered his father, Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, a Muslim League leader and acting president of Pakistan, in Dhaka Central Jail in 1973, had got him too.

When I first met Sheikh Mujib in an East London flat he placed an arm round my shoulders and asked me to report that he alone was responsible for restoring the banned Rabindrasangeet to East Pakistan radio. The liberation war hadn’t begun— this was in 1968 or 1969—but Mujib and his Awami League were already asserting their Bengali identity. Would race and language triumph over religion, I asked. Mujib recited lyrically— possibly quoting Tagore—that the hand that writes history also erases it.

The hand was that of Cyril Radcliffe, old boy of Haileybury, my son’s school, a barrister who arrived in India on July 8th, 1947, to map the future in five weeks. Radcliffe announced his award on August 17th, burnt his papers, refused his Rs 40,000 fee, and left once and for all. WH Auden, whose brother John was a geologist in Calcutta married to my mother’s oldest friend, Sheila, granddaughter of WC Bonnerjee, commemorated Radcliffe’s labours in the poem Partition:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

He wasn’t. A million Bengalis were shot and knifed instead, and 12 million displaced. Homes were burned and crops destroyed.

Now, hope flickers again. No one expects the heroism that defeated Curzon’s ‘Banga bhanga’ (Break Bengal) mischief. But ‘Gonga dakche ar Podma dakche amader eksathe’ (The Ganga and Padma are calling us to mingle) in the ‘Epar Bangla Opar Bangla’ song stresses the fundamental cultural and emotional harmony that unite Bangal and Ghoti in a single Bengali identity. The ilish and the chingri will swim together on both sides of a soft border as rail and air link Darjeeling, Calcutta, Dhaka and Chittagong in a seamless journey. It’s a hope for the new year.