The Clash of Cultures: As seen through an “Outsider” Bengali”s Eyes

Posted on October 12, 2010 in Culture-Vulture

By Siddhartha Roy:

India never fails to surprise. Undoubtedly, volumes have been written proclaiming the diversity that underscores the country and how cultures, languages and traditions intermingle to create something which perhaps can never be understood but lived and savoured.

When the society is seeing a rush towards urban lifestyle and indigenous populations are moving across the country and abroad, it is obvious that people get cut off (to some extent) from their roots. And their progeny are a cultural mish-mash of who their parents are, where they currently live and what they watch/hear/learn. It is an interesting clash to behold and also a quest for identity among the young folk.

If you ask me where am I from, I have to think. My father has a clear cut answer: He is an Indian. Not me. Sure, I am Indian. But my quest for identity (on the level of my origin and not my inner self) doesn’t stop there. I am a Bengali whose family roots lie in Bangladesh. My grandmother (both of them actually) moved to India after we gained Independence in 1947 and the present Bangladesh was then East Pakistan. I was born in Karnal, Haryana when my father was pursuing his Doctorate at NDRI Karnal. My native place where most of my family resides is Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. And I have been brought up in (and around) Palanpur, Gujarat where I have spent 20 of my 21 years of life (well, 22. I turn 22 this 17th of October).

So, Where am I from? Answering ‘An Indian’ sounds like a safe bet. But, frankly, am I from Bengal? A Bengali? Because that’s where my family tree points to and, well, everyone does speak Bengali at home (lately I have ‘finally’ begun to get a hang of the script). But I have lived in Gujarat most of my life. I speak and gossip in the language like a native. When I was asked the question in my first few days of college in different lectures, I answered ‘Varanasi’ to one faculty, ‘Palanpur’ to another and even considered telling them ‘Kolkata’. Frankly, I still don’t have an answer. The best I have come up with is ‘Am a Bengali brought up in Gujarat’. Do you buy it? I don’t.

It’s the festive season these days. The nation (and those spread around the globe) is currently entering an exciting phase this time of the year. It’s Durga Pujo (that’s how it is pronounced in Bengali). It’s also Navratri. Oh wait! There is a third name which is the most popular: Dussehra.

Festivals are the perfect occasion to break out of the rut and experience this bursting cultural banquet of India spread out in all its glory. And it is also a chance to try and make sense of this cultural chaos.

Look at me. Because of my ‘background’, I have tasted different flavours over the years for the same celebrations. I have always looked forward to seeing the mammoth Ravana effigy being burned every year when I was little with thousands of devotees screaming while I had my eyes on the Helium filled balloons being sold on the sidelines. I remember being hesitant at dancing on Garba nights because I thought I didn’t dance well or that I was chubby. I remember walking through the streets of Varanasi with pujo pandals adorning every corner of the city and countless people singing and rejoicing as if a collective soul was filling up everyone.

And as I have grown, I have learned to look for places or people or celebrations to know a bit more about all these different forms of culture which have contributed into creating me. Because as I have grown up and made my way into college, I have danced to the tunes of the best Navratri tunes at my college Navratri fest with the fervour and zeal of a local. Decked in a Bengali sherwani and dancing to Gujarat’s throbbing ‘Shanedo’ tunes with friends and also gaining a few compliments on the way — it’s been fun.

I have learned to look for Pujo pandals in Ahmedabad — where I did my Engineering — and have a day or two here with my family eating the Pujo proshaad (Prasad) which includes khichudi, tetul er chaatni (tamarind chutney), and paayesh (bengali kheer). I have looked for evenings where I have eaten Bengali delicious sweetmeats, non-vegan delicacies and street food made especially by cooks and chefs from West Bengal who arrive every year to celebrate Durga Pujo with the Bengalis in Gujarat here.

And I have also dared to take the burning coconut husks that is taken in small earthen pots (called ‘dhonuchi’) and danced to the beat of the dhaak (a type of dhol played especially during Pujos). The dance which is called ‘Dhonuchi Naach’ (for the non-bengalis, the scene in Parineeta where Sanjay Dutt dances in front of the deity holding dhonuchis in both hands can be the reminder) till I had to stop because the smoke had watered my eyes beyond measure.

I surely want to see the ‘Rama Leela’ being enacted like it is in most parts of Northern India and see what makes that an intrinsic, intriguing and exciting part of Dussehra. And while I colour myself in all these different traditions of celebration, I think the concept of ‘me’ still grows filling me with a culture sans borders and tags to create an even better amalgamated culture which I can pass on to others.

It’s an experience that lasts for a lifetime. And also passed on to every life you touch. This ‘new’ culture is a challenge. But it is also gratifying. Because it’s through experiences like these that you realize: Your sense of identity doesn’t stop at your idea of culture. It transcends that.