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The dinner Bong

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By Are you a Bengali, or a Bong? Take the test MALINI BANERJEE AND DIYA KOHLI
  • Published 28.10.07

Even Durga puja is being described as a Bong festival. The Bong is everywhere. He is being sighted in large numbers in London, New York, Dubai, Mumbai, online — as also in his home state. He is in print, in television, in literature, in films.

How has the Bangali morphed into the Bong? Is the Bong an evolved Bangali? Or is he merely one of his manifestations? Is he male, female or a culture-vulture? Does he exist, or is a mere perception? Where does he live? What does he eat? Is it right to think there is one Bong, when it is obvious that there are many Bengalis?

But first, who or what is a Bong?

Most agree that the word Bong marks the coming of age of the global, cosmopolitan Bengali. Something beyond the familiar, familial — chha-posha —Bengali. He doesn’t have jolkhabar — he has “breakfast”, “lunch” or “dinner”. He goes jogging in the morning and drinks a little in the evening. He has chicken, which is no longer murgir mangsho. He is likely to be an MBA or an IT pro. He drives a Santro. Which he wants to upgrade next year into a Honda City. How is he different from a cosmopolitan Punjabi? He knows the nuances of Bengali culture —which is Bangla bands.

He is also rather self-conscious and quite often proud to be known as a Bong. For now a Bong is no longer an offensive parochial label — though the intelligent Bong is careful to refer to himself with a hint of irony or humour. Says Anjan Dutt, director of the film The Bong Connection (picture in box): “We used the word Bong because it sounded more interesting than ‘The Bengali connection’. It’s a term we use in jest like Yank, Jap or Panju. When we use these words we identify certain quirks and attributes of a person from a particular region.” He adds: “I think Bengalis have the ability to laugh at themselves and are okay with calling themselves Bongs.”

But the chief quirk that the principal characters in The Bong Connection displayed was flitting between the two worlds of Calcutta and the US . If they had all lived in Calcutta, would they be called Bongs? At first glance, there’s something decidedly non-resident about the Bong. He is liberated from the narrow confines of Bengal, physically, or virtually.

In exile

“I would like to believe that a Bong (though I have never been too enamoured of the word) is a ‘globalised Bangali’,” observes Arnab Ray, who blogs as the Great Bong. “If there is something that universally characterised Bangalis, it was their reluctance to leave Bongobhumi. However, from the mid-80s the flight of capital from the state forced Bengalis out,” he says. “The so-called ‘Bong’ identity has emerged, which, while retaining its Bengal focus (characterised sometimes by a blind idolising of Sourav Ganguly), has hopefully learnt to integrate itself better into cosmopolitan environments and embraced the more conventional pursuits of happiness (as opposed to the ‘Dada aamra goreeb kenona amra culture kori’),” the Great Bong continues.

A civil servant who blogs as J Alfred Prufrock under the head Sadoldbong says: “The Bong is the Bangali in exile. When the individual is with his own kind, he is Bangali and not Bong. I was the only Bengali among my batch of 108 IAS trainees and was referred to as Bong. Even the guy at the eatery outside the academy called me that.” He adds: “Tags like Gujju, Punju, Tentul were fairly common. They were never insulting.” For Sadoldbong, the potential Bong is not only the dude seen at Someplace Else. The young man from Beleghata who has to visit the fish market is as much a Bong as the young man from south Calcutta who sports a tattoo. “Both would be Bong if placed in a call centre in Gurgaon,” he says.

The divide

Every Bengali of a certain class (he must be “educated” and preferably English-speaking), therefore, can become a Bong. But a large part of the divide between the Bong and Bengali seems to be in the realm of perception. As Bongs continue to do what Bangalis did. “The Bong isn’t the evolved Bangali, simply because the Bangali hasn’t evolved. Despite living abroad and chasing the IT dream, he is still the home bird who loves his maachh, Uttam-Suchitra films and believes that he is intellectual. My film was a comical take on the Bengali,” says Dutt.

But others feel it’s the duty of the Bongs to fight the spectre of the old Bengali stereotype. “Whether the Bengali has evolved is an interesting question, since by asking it we’re somehow accepting that there is only one Bengali, the one created largely by the impressions of other Indians — over-intellectual, monkey-cap wearing, gossip-loving, lazy, Rabindrasangeet-spouting, fish-eating, pretentious, loud, inward-looking and fairly all-round obnoxious,” says New Delhi-based writer Samit Basu. “What today’s Bongs have to do all over India — and all over the world — is to come to terms with this reputation (for women there’s also the pressure of being cast as large-eyed curvaceous nymphomaniacs to deal with) and move beyond it. This is tough, because like all generalisations, it’s largely based on observation,” says Basu. So where does Bangali end and Bong begin? It’s difficult to say; they share a lot, but the Bong took off at some point from the Bengali to land into the 21st Century.

Home-grown variety

And belying expectations that the Bong lives elsewhere, his tribe is proliferating in the home state too. Blame it again on globalisation. Says fashion designer Sahana Dutt, 25: “I guess I’d be classified as Bong. My Bangla is completely adulterated with English and it’s not because I speak that way consciously. It just happens that some English words are easier to recall than Bangla. The Bong is the person who has a Tagore poem written on his kurta and sports it with his Levi’s jeans and Reebok sandals.” The generation comprises people who might do their daily riyaaz and yet groove to Nelly Furtado. Take their maacher jhol as seriously as their pizza. And live in Calcutta, while ready to settle anywhere.

Says Ritoban Das, who plays for Cassini’s Division, a western rock band: “I am a drummer by profession and while I have grown up listening to Rabindrasangeet and Nazrulgeeti, I don’t really know much about them. I’m generally in jeans and T-shirts but for Pujo and weddings I wear a dhoti too. I love Bengali food. I love mangsho bhaat and don’t quite like pizza.” He adds that biryani is a Bangali khaabar now.

No tag

For some the tag is still an insult. Says Sadoldbong: “If it is just used as a statement of identity I don’t have a problem with it. But if it has a pejorative connotation, and you say something like a fish-eating Bong, then I will find it insulting.” Some feel it’s irrelevant. Architect Rahul Sen feels with globalisation such narrow categories have been decimated “and it doesn’t really matter if you are Bengali, Bong or not. I look at myself as a citizen of the world.” That could be a very Bong sentiment, too, but we are being parochial, sorry. Much depends on the context. “Whether I’m a Bong or Bangali depends on the context. Globalisation has brought things to such a stead that there is no difference between say a Bong/Bangali IT professional and a Gujarati in the same profession,” feels Ritoban. Fish-eating and ‘padhaku’ come equally free with the Bong tag.

For some, the Bong is the brave new Bengali. “The Bengali is someone who is so overwhelmed by what has happened in the past that he doesn’t want to move a finger now, lest he spoil something or do something wrong. The Bong is a breed borne out of Budhhadeb Bhattacharjee’s new Bengal that wants to be seen as changing, absorbing and evolving. It takes more courage to be a Bong than a Bangali, because the Bong is looking to question and break from the shackles of history,” says Rahul. The jury is still out on whether new Bengal is better than old Bengal, though.

Origin of the Species

• Writer Nabarun Bhattacharya, creator of Fatarus, says: “I think the word started in IIT and such institutes. Maybe the word was meant to tease. Bengalis tend to be chauvinist and it’s possible these students got tagged as Bongs. I stand for the Bangali. Ei Bong concept ta kei ami attack korte cheyechhi. There are enough youths who read Bengali literature and watch Bengali cinema and they don’t want to be tagged Bongs. Why the Bong exists is intriguing.”

• Lexicographer Ashoke Mukhopadhyay believes the term has NRI roots. “Bong is a distortion of Bengali. The word probably originated five to seven years ago. It has a slightly pejorative tone. It’s similar to calling Bengalis ‘Bongali Babu’.”

• Sociologist Prasanta Roy says he heard of the word in the early 90s from his students who had gone to New Delhi for higher studies. “The term conveys hostility, prejudice, and political and intellectual dislike. It describes the Bengali who is hybrid, educated, middle-class and represents all that is Bengali outside the city.”