| Problems of definition
A character in Titash Ekti Nodir Naam is possessed by the ghost of Mahesh Bardhan of “Gutaura”, the colloquial for Gautampara — Utpal Dutt’s ancestral village and mine — two miles out of Brahmanbaria. He was much in my mind this past week as I walked with the ghosts of other Bardhans, as well as of pioneers from the old Tipperah, Sylhet, Mymensingh, Chittagong and Dacca districts, when the clans mustered by the Straits of Malacca for the Malaysian Bengalee Association’s annual jamboree.
The devout had imported a priest from Calcutta to worship Kali all through the night. Others argued spiritedly for four hours at the MBA’s 50th annual general meeting. But beyond such absorptions, this annual gathering in Port Dickson was yet another affirmation of tribal loyalty by a small community that, according to the academic, Dipika Mukherjee, who has married into it, “is still searching for an individual identity in the larger Malaysian context”.
Perhaps the overarching framework does present a challenge since the Malaysian prime minister’s Diwali message bemoaned the weakening of inter-racial ties. But the unaffectedly friendly people who made me so welcome betrayed few traces of the complexes that mark Indian life elsewhere. Exiles are frequently fanatically patriotic, but Dilip Kumar Dutt, a Malaysian-born veteran, laughed off an Indian’s theory that nearby Seremban town was really “Sri Ram Bon”. The fancy reminded me of another uninformed Hindu fantasy that the sea by which we had gathered was the Straits of Mleccha.
I pondered, too, the difference between Malaysian and Singaporean Bengalis, the former generally much more in harmony with themselves and their surroundings. Dissonance in the Singapore community is probably explained by imported West Bengal wives from a simpler social level that the men have left behind. Most of the Port Dickson women had been born and brought up in the same milieu as their spouses and strode two worlds with casual confidence. So much so that I failed to recognize in the bou’s bejewelled disguise one evening the woman in a trouser suit with whom I had chatted on the beach that morning. Anyone can change attire; here, style and idiom had undergone total transformation without the least trace of self-consciousness or even, perhaps, awareness.
Nor are Malaysian Bengalis crippled by that sense of insecurity that underlies the bristling bombast of so many non-resident Indians in America. Speech highlights the contrast. A contrived and uneven coating of American sits uneasily on the NRI’s heavily Bengali English. But though Malaysian Bengalis still preserve the “Bangal” tones of East Bengal, they slip smoothly into a fluent idiomatic English that once prompted an Australian to remark that he did not think he would live to hear an Indian speak with a Chinese accent. It is not so much Chinese as Singaporean and Malaysian with overtones of the colourful regional dialect called Singlish.
Yet, southeast Asian Bengalis also face a problem of definition, as I discovered when Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper illustrated a report of a clash in London’s East End between Cockneys and Bengalis (actually Bangladeshis) with the sketch of a bearded and turbanned Sikh. When a reader pro tested, the Tamil Singaporean sub-editor declared artlessly, “I did not know that Sikhs aren’t Bengalis.”
Some attribute confusion to immigrants setting sail from Calcutta. Others say that since Singapore was governed from Calcutta, all Indians other than Tamils were lumped with the capital. Whatever the reason, the MBA has not simplified problems. Every AGM, and this was no exception, grapples with the question of whether its keyword should be spelt with two e’s or an i. The Young Turks urge every AGM, as they did this time too, not to restrict full member- ship to only Hindu Bengali Malaysian citizens.
Defending orthodoxy’s last stand, Dilip Kumar Bardhan, president for the 14th (though not consecutive) term, insisted that it was in the fitness of things that his own son-in-law, a Chinese from Vietnam with American citizenship, should not be entitled to full membership. No one murmured that strict application of patriarchal laws would strip Nomita Balasingham, the vice-president, of her Bengali label.
But the argument rumbles on from year to year, pushed by young Bengali males with spouses from other communities. And that is a healthy sign, for it would have been so much simpler for these well-placed families to turn their backs on the MBA’s puja, amateur dramatics and general provincialism to seek new cosmopolitan roots.
People migrate to bett- er themselves, and there is no reason, beyond the call of cultural loyalty, for third generation immigrants to stand by an institution that commemorates the early concentration of Bengalis in the sultanate of Negri Sembilan — darul khusus, the happy state, as it calls itself. Seremban is the capital. Bengalis found supervisory jobs on the rubber plantations there. They celebrated Durga puja in Seremban in 1928 but turned to Kali from 1939 because Diwali was a public holiday. They also exchanged the Seremban club house for the bigger property in Port Dickson where we gathered.
Thereby hangs another tale that highlights everything that is regarded as typical of the Bengali condition everywhere, especially in Calcutta. Port Dickson is now a shabby mofussil (ulu in Malay) town that has abandoned aspirations of blossoming into a smart resort. Appropriately enough, Bengal House, the MBA’s sprawling wooden bungalow set in more than three acres of scrub and bush, was built in the heyday of the rubber raj by a tuan called Gray. Appropriately, too, it’s in a tumbledown condition.
The MBA has been discussing developing the neglected estate for 35 — “Forty-five”, muttered Dutt beside me — years without making any headway. Another committee has been set up now to explore prospects. Gujaratis and Punjabis would probably have made a fortune from it by now, but MBA members are all the more lovable for focussing instead on the homely conviviality of children’s song and dance that might have been in Kasba but for the heavy Malayan night outside, or a walkathon on the beach when a sprightly 59-year-old muscled into the over-60’s group and walked off with a prize. A marathon AGM might also be Bengali, but the utter absence of acrimony was not.
Numbers are a moot point. The MBA has about 150 members. Most estimates suggest 70 Malaysian families or around 400 people. The figure of 2,000 mentioned in one report is regarded as wildly optimistic.
The bonds among them go back to Sarojini Bardhan, a doctor who arrived in the Straits Settlements in 1908 and whose samadhi can still be seen in Malacca. Lee Kuan Yew, who takes great pride in Chinese networking (guanxi), would be green with envy at the web of connections that Bardhan and his three wives left behind.
The name has intrigued me ever since childhood when I first saw the gaunt ruins of Bardhan Bari, Gautampara’s only pukka house, with cows tethered to its pillars. It was already dilapidated when my mother went to the village as a bride. Knowing nothing about the family, I wove romantic tales in my imagination until I bumped into Dilip Bardhan at a wedding in Singapore some years ago. It still did not explain why the property was abandoned, but at least it established that the Bardhans were flesh and blood. There are even Bardhan trophies for football and golf.
Bengal House represents the sweat of these and other pioneers who each contributed half a month’s wages. It should not be allowed to crumble into another Bardhan Bari. But at what cost can it be saved' Efficiency is needed but not efficiency that ousts last week’s happy disarray. Malaysia will probably see to that. It is a nation on the march but a march that always finds time for a chat and a snooze. The Bengali genius has been transplanted in congenial soil.