A Quarter Renaissance
Outlook|August 24, 2020
Even with its self-deprecating tropes, the acme of ‘the modern Indian’—as seen by the Bengali in the mirror—was built around exclusions of ‘non-Bengalis’ and other marginalised groups
Samantak Das

TO be Bengali is to thrive in contradiction, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than now, when, on the one hand, we celebrate an Indian winner of the Economics Nobel, whilst, on the other, being delu­ged with stories and images of migrant workers trying, and sometimes failing, to return home from across India in the wake of an appallingly planned lockdown. About a decade­ and­a­half ago, I was on a family vacation in Goa, enjoying a local beer in a beach shack, when I went into the kitchen to ask for another plate of fried fish from the extremely polite and helpful young men with whom I’d been conversing in bro­ ken Hindi, and walked straight into a conversation in Bangla. I’m not sure who was more surprised when I addressed them in the same language—them or me—but once it was estab­lished that I was one of ‘them’ the service became even friend­ lier and invitations were extended to take our meals with our fellow Bengalis. This has happened to me a few times when travelling: the sudden giveaway expression, phrase, or mis­ pronounced (Hindi or English) word leading to mutual recog­nition, followed almost inevitably by invitations to share food or drink. We Bengalis bond like no other when we’re out of our own language­zones—Bengal, Bangladesh, Tripura, or the Bengali­speaking parts of Assam. At home it’s a different story.

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