“Ora aar Amra”: A Perception of Muslim Culture in the Bengali Middle Class ‘Bhadralok’ Household
By Arpita Saha
This article is not essentially an academic work; it is an assemblage of personal recollections from the boulevard of my childhood memories. It is an attempt to capture the perception of the urban Bengali Hindu middle class towards the ‘Bengali’ speaking Muslims of Kolkata. I have tried to outline the plight of the urban, ‘Bengali’ speaking Muslims as well as the ‘so-called lower castes’, who have been subjected to social shame and marginalization which at times has either been subtle or overt, depending on the social milieu they were a part of.
I was born in a quintessential Bengali middle class household of central Kolkata in Market Street, which is close to New Market and is still considered to be the heart of the city. All I remember of my ancestral house is a dilapidated structure with walls peeling off, dark dingy rooms, and my staunch widowed grandmother. Ours was a ‘Hindu pocket’ amidst the several bustling Muslim mohallahs.
Food was the first and the only passage through which I jostled with a ‘culture’ other than my own. Just like all other Bengalis, I too was more than contented with my share of three square meals, which mostly comprised of shukto, daal, chorchori, machher jhol and chatni. And the evenings were reserved for muri-telebhaja, muri-singara. I almost had a gastronomic orgasm when I first ate a spoonful of firni, which I thought was similar to payesh, served only at special occasions such as jonmodin (birthdays). I was a plump child who ate as if there was no tomorrow and my grandmother would always complain that I ate too much.
My first date with biryani was in Mughal Darbar, a tiny eatery in Mirza Ghalib Street. The idea of mutton, rice, egg, and the legendary aloo, all cooked into one dish was quite appealing to me and in no time I polished off my plate with several helpings of chicken chaap and mutton tikia. Unlike the usual Bengali mothers, my mother never fretted about what exactly I was putting into my mouth, as she had very little time left to herself after performing her regular household chores in a thriving joint family.
Even though I was living in this Hindu ghetto, I had the privilege of playing with the children of other communities owing to the neighbourhood. We had Sindhis, Nepalis, Muslims, Biharis, Anglo-Indians and our afternoons were filled with lukochuri, kumir-danga and kanamachhi. As a result of my exposure to this cosmopolitan crowd, I picked up Hindi at a tender age and could speak quite fluently. Even though I was admitted to a nearby English medium school, much to my parents’ concern, I could not speak English till the fourth standard. I could never distinguish a Romana Ali, Reshma Khatun or Aktari Begum from a Dabbo or a Pinky. To me, they were all my friends whose families were similar to ours.
Akram Kaku, my uncle’s childhood friend, was my other experience of a different culture. Akram Ali, to us, Akram Kaku frequented our house and I have fond memories of him breaking bread with us. He often treated us with gajarer halwa and shemoier payesh during Eid. My grandmother, an otherwise pious Hindu lady who at times even refused to let onions and garlic cross her kitchen threshold, treated him as one of her own.
She had a deep seated resentment regarding Bengal’s partition and spoke with a burning anger whenever anybody talked about this exodus, and would describe how they were driven out by their neighbours. On the other hand, Akram Ali seemed to be the Achilles’ heel, her sole weakness, who reminded her of her fond memories in Dhaka. This is probably because she could relate to a Bengali speaking Muslim individual, who reminded her of her life in Dhaka.
I could sense a storm brewing in the neighborhood post Babri Masjid demolition. Our afternoon games were suspended, schools were given over, a curfew was declared in the so-called ’sensitive’ areas such as ours. We would eye our neighbours with as much suspicion as they were suspecting us of conspiring against them. Much to my grandmothers’ dismay, another exodus seemed to be inevitable. But fortunately, or unfortunately, she was no longer alive to witness the tragic outcome. Till this day I carry the scars of the riots that I had to bear witness to. Every morning we would go up to the terrace and could see the smoke rising from the burnt debris in the neighbouring mohallahs. The nights were even more treacherous, the men and women of our house took turns to sleep protecting the rest of the family from an enemy they do not know of. Moreover, Akram Kaku’s surprise visits had abruptly stopped. The ripples of Babri Masjid demolition had affected me so much that, for days, I could not sleep and would break into a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Even though my wound has eventually healed, the scar remains. As a child, I had no idea who was wronged or what exactly are the repercussions or political implications of such action or inaction. But all I know and care about is, a part of my childhood memory, my childhood friends were taken away from me. Just like many other families, we too had relocated fearing another ‘communal disharmony’ in the future.
The feeling of ora aar amra (them and us) became even more pronounced post Godhra riots. We have been taught to fear each other’s community, to distrust each other, to compartmentalize each other’s culture as assimilation is not encouraged anymore. We harbor this animosity against no other community but the one, the Muslims. I fail to understand the reason and I am baffled by the notion of ora or them. Keeping in mind the growing milieu of religious intolerance and hatred, I would appreciate my grandmother’s actions now. Even though she was an illiterate, she was much ahead of her times.
I often see people bickering and dispensing hatred against each other’s community on the social media. Surprisingly, some of them are my former colleagues at the television news industry. I do not understand their attitude as they come across as some of the most secular and liberal people I have ever met. I would like to question their outlook here: were they pretending to be secular because of the HR policies and now have turned to the social media to dole out that pent up hatred? ‘Sickulars’ and ‘libtards’ are some of the milder abuses that are being used on social media websites against people who dare to dissent. Post Baduria incident, we are shocked to read some of their regressive comments. They have actually asked some of us to keep off their ‘facebook walls’ as we tried to negate their views, which apparently seemed to be too ‘sickular’ as against their Neanderthal ideas. Not only some of the ‘sickular’ posts were deleted, someone has commented “delete mat kijiye…rahne dijiye…kum se kum identify kar lenegey kaun log hai”. The literal translation of the text would be, “do not delete the posts, let them be, we will identify these people”. The subtext of the text and the social implication of it are alarming. Having a critical bent of mind is not only being frowned upon but the text seemed to be a threat to ‘witch-hunt’ every free thinker. What would happen to a nation if the entire intellectual lead is made to fizzle out into oblivion? If you dare to dissent, you are either branded as a Maobadi or an anti-national.
The recent rise of the ‘Food Nazis’ in the Indian sub-continent is another rumble patch in the path of progressive thinking. As a food loyalist, I still love to explore the nook and corners of Kolkata, from Nizam to Shiraz, from Aminia to Arsalan. But, with the ‘food Nazis’ on the move, I am apprehensive that it will not be permitted in the near future!
As difficult it is to find an accommodation in Kolkata, the ordeals of finding lodging for a Muslim individual or a family in the Hindu locality is much greater. They were and are still advised to look for places in Park Circus, Tangra, Khidderpore and adjacent areas, where the Muslim population is considerably larger. Although we Bengalis are proud of our cultural heritage and often boast of Kolkata being the cultural capital of the nation, we have been pushing certain communities to continue living in the periphery, rather than assimilating them with the mainstream.
The Muslim ‘kajer lok’ or domestic help has long been banned from crossing the threshold of the Hindu household under the pretense that they are not clean enough, both metaphorically and literally. No matter how progressive the ‘Bangali’ culture seems to be, the practice continues to remain. If at all, they are hired after a rigorous interview session which comprises of superficial questions such as “tumi goru khao?”(Do you consume beef?) or “tumi porishkar to?” (Are you clean enough?) I keep wondering how these ideas have been inculcated into our minds and ferried from one generation to the next.
Even though a practicing Hindu, I too had to hear from an upper caste friend that my food habit is profane. He quite unabashedly put forth, “tumi nongra khao” (You eat dirty), because we were discussing the practice of eating dried fish as a delicacy in my house. Belonging to somewhere in the lower middle rung of the stringent caste system, more often than not, I had to convince my peers (owing to my surname) that I belong to the general category and avail no such reservation quota. Every time I had to explain to these condescending people why and how I can belong to the general category as people bearing my surname are either OBCs or SCs. The need for social acceptance by the majority and the aspiration of being ‘mainstreamed’ is so deep-rooted in us that we often do or say things without realizing it. Although, after a point of time, I had to let go and had finally stopped justifying my social status with regards to my caste.
I would like to relate an unfortunate incident here. I was once admonished by a male friend of mine for offering him a singara from a plateful, which I had offered to a group of furniture artisans (read, Muslims) working at his new house. As there was a dearth of utensils, I could not help but serve in one plate. He refused to take that and later justified the act saying that I disrespected him by offering him food on the plate that was actually meant for ‘them’. The behavior of this educated, progressive, apparently liberal urban man reflects the kind of marginalization that is meted out on a daily basis to Muslims.
Another practice terribly jilted me. I came across certain Bengali families from the upper castes and class, who prefer going to upper caste doctors only, thus noticeably avoiding Muslim and low caste medical practitioners, who, they consider, are not deemed fit to treat them. Here, I am talking about the educated, upper class, well to do, urban ‘intelligentsia’, members of the civil society, who boast of their liberal secular outlook.
So, it is not only a community that has been looked down upon over the ages, the plight of the low as well as the lower middle castes continues to remain the same. Although there are several governmental policies that have been implemented and are often talked about, the stigma and the social shame of availing these schemes are never discussed openly. I am sure there are many more like me who would like to speak up, but live in constant fear of being spotted out and tried, thus re-affirming Elisabeth Noelle Neuman’s Spiral of Silence Theory, which states that the fear of individual isolation is so much that we might not voice our opinion. The desire of being accepted in the majoritarian society is so strong that we often ignore the existing social dysfunctions and prefer looking the other way. We can only hope that the Bengali bhadralok will eventually question the existing social norms and stand up for himself in the near future.
Photo: Arpita Saha
Arpita Saha is pursuing Ph.D. at the Centre for Journalism and Mass Communication, Visva- Bharati Santiniketan. The broad area of her research is New Media and Gender. She is a Lecturer at the Xavier School of Communications, Xavier University, Bhubaneswar.
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