I am happy that Pranab Mukherjee will soon become the President of India. I am happy not because he is also a Bengali. My views are not so parochial. There is another reason.
I grew up in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh where there are not many Bengalis.
At school, being the only Bengali in the class, I would often become the butt of Bengali jokes.
I clearly remember that when I was in class two, some classmates on seeing me would start reciting a limerick in a singsong way – Bangali babu, sadi machchhi khabu, latrine jabu, kabhi na abu. (The Bengali eats rotten fish; upsets his stomach and spends time forever in the latrine.)
I would become depressed. I would be ashamed of being a Bengali. My depression would turn into agony when on returning home from school my mother would serve fish curry and rice for lunch.
I would protest and tell her the reason. She would say, ‘Do not worry. The fish that I have prepared is fresh. You should not bother about what others say.’
I was the target of Bengali jokes even in higher classes.
‘Do you know the Bengalis are the most coward people on this earth?’ a classmate once said.
‘How can you say that?’
He started telling a joke.
A quintessential Bengali would often brag about his bravery. His Sikh friend once asked him, ‘Can I place the barrel of a gun across your shoulder and fire?’ The Bengali was dead scared but it was the question of Bengali pride. He agreed.
The Bengali’s legs started shaking as he felt the barrel of the gun on his shoulder. His koortah became wet with his perspiration when he heard the bullet being loaded.
The gun was fired and to the Bengali’s astonishment, he did not faint.
‘You are really brave,’ said the Sikh, ‘but you need to change your koortah. It has become wet.’
Panting, the Bengali replied, ‘Sardar Ji, I need to change my dhoti too.’
I can’t reason why there are so many jokes in which a Bengali is either handling a gun or going for hunting.
A few months back, a friend sent me a poem, which he claimed had been written by a Bengali teacher around 100 years back. Here’s the poem –
Through the jongole I am went
On shooting Tiger I am bent
Boshtaard Tiger has eaten wife
No doubt I will avenge poor darling's life
Too much quiet, snakes and leeches
But I not fear these sons of beeches
Hearing loud noise I am jumping with start
But noise is coming from my damn fool heart
Taking care not to be fright
I am clutching rifle tight with eye to sight
Should Tiger come I will shoot and fall him down
Then like hero return to native town
Then through trees I am espying one cave
I am telling self - 'Bannerjee be brave'
I am now proceeding with too much care
From far I smell this Tiger's lair
My leg shaking, sweat coming, I start pray
I think I will shoot Tiger some other day
Turning round I am going to flee
But Tiger giving bloody roar spotting Bengalee
He bounding from cave like footballer Pele
I run shouting 'Kali Ma tumi kothay gele'
Through the jongole I am running
With Tiger on my tail closer coming
I am a telling that never in life
I will risk again for my damn wife!!!!
After some time, the friend coolly said, ‘I hope I have not offended you.’
‘Not at all,’ I replied.
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Ululating by Bengali women is another thing that for I have often been mocked at.
It is something very strange for the non-Bengalis who never have had Bengali friends.
Bengali women are always ready to ululate. No religious ceremony of the Bengalis is complete without ululation.
The long Bengali wedding ceremony is interspersed with ululations.
Bengali women ululate during During Puja. Ululating competitions are held for women during the Puja.
One day an acquaintance asked me, ‘Do Bengalis also ululate when somebody in their home is dead?’
Another asked, ‘Black magic is quite common in Bengal. Is ululating a part of black magic?’
I would feel like piercing my eardrums when my mother every day would ululate while doing puja.
One day I asked her, ‘Can’t you do away with your ululations?’
‘Are you mad?’ she said with surprise.
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When I was in college, a Punjabi female friend asked, ‘Why do Bengalis make balls of rice while eating?’
I had never heard about balls of rice. I cocked my ears and asked, ‘Balls of rice?’
‘Bengalis while eating do not simply mix rice and dal or curry. They keep on rolling the rice on the palm with their fingers till they have a ball. The balls are so perfect that you can pop them into your month; like peanuts,’ she said and giggled.
‘How do Punjabis eat rice?’ I asked.
‘Punjabis do not make balls,’ she said.
I said, ‘Today you are my friend, tomorrow you may become my girlfriend and day after tomorrow my wife. Then you also will be making balls with rice and popping them into your mouth.’
‘That will never happen.’
‘What will never happen – you becoming my wife or you not making balls of rice?’ I asked.
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I have mentioned in an earlier post that while living in Bhopal, I would spend my afternoons at the Indian Coffee House with journalists.
One day, an elderly journalist, with an impish smile asked, ‘Why are Bengalis called Bhookha Bengalis (starving Bengalis)?’
‘Do I look like a starving Bengali from any angle?’ I said.
He continued smiling and said, ‘But why are Bengalis called so?’
‘I have no idea. May be due to the famine in Bengal,’
‘You are a Bengali and you must try to find out,’ he said.
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I am happy that Pranab Da will soon occupy Rashtrapi Bhawan.
Now if a friend says that Bengalis are coward, I will reply, ‘Have some sense, man. Do you think a coward can be the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces?’
If a friend asks me if why Bengali women ululate, I will say, ‘May be, they follow the family members of our president.’
If somebody asks why Bengalis are called Bhookha Bengalis, my answer will be, ‘Our president is Bengali. Why do not you send a mail to him and ask him?’