Thursday, October 09, 2008

Community and culture in foreign land

The Bong connection

Coffee Break / Kanchan Gupta

Do join us for the annual monsoon lunch which we are hosting this year. There will be khichudi, beguni and ileesh maachh bhaja," Mrs Banerjee was insistent with her invitation as I got out of the car, a Saab fitted with a fabulous music system from whose unseen speakers Hemanta Mukherjee's digitised voice wafted out, warm and mellifluous, untouched by the icicle-forming chill of the airconditioner on full blast. Even at this late hour, almost close to midnight, the heat outside was blistering.Summer in this part of the US can be as bad as what we have to suffer in the dust bowl of India, also known as the National Capital Region. It had been a hot and humid day and I had sweated profusely, walking from one building to another in the sprawling university campus. I had looked forward to an easy, boozy evening of casual banter and Tex-Mex grill at the house of a professor of cinema (why can't we have film appreciation as a full course in our colleges and universities?), a laidback, now approaching middleage, child of the Sixties with vivid memories of Woodstock, who was hosting a reception for me to meet Indian American members of the faculty. Nearly all of them turned out to be Bengalis, barring a professor of mathematics whose father had fled to the US when Brahmins were banished from Tamil Nadu.The evening was boozy and the grill was wonderful though I thought the 'hot' sauce was a bit of a scam, but there was little casual banter. The faculty members were serious and ponderous, more so the ex-Jadavpur University lot which was given to both hectoring and lecturing me, their poor upcountry cousin who was visiting America courtesy a State Department grant. Among them was Prof Banerjee who taught some exotic course related to particle physics. From Garfa Main Road to this university town, he had travelled a long distance, moving up from the crowded footboards of the ramshackle double-decker buses plying on the 8B route to a cool, silver blue Saab. Mrs Banerjee, who too had travelled a long distance from Bagha Jatin and no longer needed the comfort of the 'Ladies Seat' on the 8B bus, the only seat with its dark green rexine intact, on hearing that I had been away from home -- and Bengali food -- for more than a month, promptly invited me to her annual monsoon lunch on Saturday, which was two days later.Prof Banerjee took a paper napkin, scribbled the address of their house, and offered to drive me back to the hotel where I was staying and I accepted his offer graciously, doing a quick calculation of the dollars I would save in taxi fare. The grant was not meagre, but it was inelastic. The previous week I had been rather reckless in celebrating my being made a 'Citizen of the State of Arkansas' by Governor Bill Clinton. When I mentioned that occasion to President Bill Clinton during a 'line-up' at the White House, his smile broadened into a grin although I am sure nothing registered on his mind.But let's return to Mrs Banerjee and her lunch. I wasn't quite prepared for something so theatrical. The curtains of their cavernous drawing room and sprawling dining space had been tightly drawn to recreate the dark and gloomy days of monsoon in West Bengal. The place was teeming with expatriate Bengalis, the men dressed in kurta-pajama -- some of them were wearing neatly pleated dhuti -- and the women were clad in heavy brocade and Banarasi saris. There were two incongruities: The ubiquitous can of Budweiser beer (everybody seemed to be holding one), the abiding symbol of American 'taste', and me dressed in T-shirt and khakis (everybody stared at me as if I were an intruder at a secret society's ritual ceremony, an alien amid the natives). The bouquet of expensive perfumes and after-shave lotions mixed with the smell of khichudi (bubbling in a pot), begun bhaja (sputtering in a pan) and ileesh maachh (sizzling in another pan) in the open kitchen off the dining space to swamp the absence of the more-alluring -- some would say seductive -- aroma of Joba Kusum hair oil, Kanta scent and Cuticura talcum powder associated with such a gathering back home.As high noon turned into afternoon and the women exchanged gossip or sang along, often gratingly, out of tune and scale, with the Rabindrasangeet playing in the background while the men got sozzled on Budweiser beer -- of which there seemed to be an unending supply -- Mrs Banerjee announced lunch was ready. It was a hearty feast washed down with more Budweiser. The women compared the merits of 'eggplant' available at one supermarket with those at another. I gingerly poked at the extra large piece of 'ileesh maachh' which Mrs Banerjee had selected for me from the platterful of fried fish. It tasted like ileesh but wasn't quite the same. And how did she manage to find ileesh at the local supermarket? "That's shad you are eating," Prof Banerjee's colleague in the department helpfully informed me, "In America, we use this as a substitute for ileesh."Later that evening, back in my room at the hotel, I marvelled at the enduring -- and, despite its comic elements -- and endearing effort by a group of Bengalis, far away from their land of birth and origin, to cling on to an idiom which for them was central to their cultural identity. The annual monsoon lunch in a place where it does not rain and from where their children cannot even begin to imagine the incessant downpour that drenches Kolkata every year helps them retain their 'Bong' connection, an idea so frivolously trivialised by Anjan Dutta in his film, The Bong Connection.The sense of alienation that immigrants feel in a foreign land, which Manju Kapur has sought to capture in her latest novel, The Immigrant, through the tragic yet elevating story of Nina and Ananda, the constant conflict between your own culture and that of your adopted country, remarkably crafted into everyday stories about first and second generation immigrants by Jhumpa Lahiri in Unaccustomed Earth, the wistful longing that underlines desire and its suppression of which Bharati Mukherjee has written with great effect, are something which we who have refused to move and migrate can never really either appreciate or understand. Yet, migration blues and cultural disinheritance do not come attached with trans-national or trans-continental journeys alone. We who have migrated from one State to another, looking for jobs and a better life, opportunities denied to us in our 'home State', are not really strangers to such emotional conflict. In our own way we try to cling on to our separate identities, stressing on that which makes us different from those around us.

The Pioneer [AGENDA ] Sunday, September 7, 2008

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