Walking for a thousand years…

I hopped out of the E Line train I had boarded in midtown Manhattan. Stepping out of the Jackson Heights Subway Station in Queens I was transfixed. It was as if I made the trip across thousands to miles to Sealdah Station in Kolkata. I was in the community of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in New York City known as Little India – the narrow strip of packed shops on 74th and 73rd streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues.

Like many men and women of my generation, I left India and crossed the kalapaani on a jumbo jet with only two pieces of baggage (not exceeding 60 kilograms). Over the years, like a long-separated acquaintance, India moved on while I spent my days in self-imposed exile. The television channels rotated. The names of the cricket-players and film-stars changed. Salaries and the prices of commodities rose. Cousins grew up, married, and had children. Relatives tied through invisible bonds passed away while I adamantly refused to acknowledge their passing until the sheer physical emptiness on short trips to the birthland caused a sudden aching release of emotions.

But I felt like a forgotten guest in my own birthland too. No one in my former college knew I had walked down the corridors with the wanton arrogance that befitted youth. When I tried to order in Bangla at a posh Kolkata restaurant, I was replied to in English by the waiter, who was also a Bengali. When I persisted in responding in the language of the non-convent educated second-class citizenry, I was ignored. Had it always been this way?

I changed too, but avoided looking into the mirror.

In America, I found new friends many who shared the experience of the Great Voyage. While in graduate school, on Friday nights, I’d laugh myself silly watching ludicrous Hindi films with Indian and American friends wolfing down carryout from a Bangladeshi-run Indian Chinese restaurant. We would eat the Chicken Manchurian with  Pakistani basmati rice boiled in a cheap rice-cooker.

But I still longed for a home.

On 74th Street, I walked past 22-carat gold jewelers, music stores blaring songs in Hindi, aunties selling calling cards in dingy kiosks, and large grocery stores smelling of cardamom and garam masala.

I walked down 37th and crossed into 73rd Street, the Bangladeshi corner of the neighborhood. The shops all had signs in Bangla, my native language. I entered a bookstore and glanced at a couple of festive editions of literary magazines shipped in from Kolkata for Durga Puja and from Dhaka for Eid. I chatted with the owner about the recent writings of Sunil Gangopadhyay, a Bengali Indian writer and Humayun Ahmed, a Bengali Bangladeshi writer.

After buying a few books which had crossed the oceans in a similar journey to mine, I stepped outside. On the pavement, I saw a rickshaw painted with the bright art so common across so many of our birthlands. It could have been a rickshaw that I had sat on while going to school in my own hometown in India.

By now I was hungry, so I stepped into a crowded Bangladeshi restaurant on 73rd. A chirpy woman greeted me in a Dhakai Bangla accent. I sat down at a table and ordered a number of unknown Bangladeshi dishes most of which were not common in the part of West Bengal I hail from. One was a ilish polao a fragrant pilaf made with hilsa – the fish that Bengalis from both countries swear by. I had never heard of this particular dish, but as I sat at the table and ate, I relished every morsel. It was foreign to me, but not entirely unfamiliar.

A number of Bangladeshis sat at the next table and smiled at me and I smiled back. Perhaps, at some point in the past, in an undivided India the lives of our ancestors had intersected as ours briefly did through pure accident now. But over sixty years our divergent political, religious, and social legacies were at conflict with some of our culinary, linguistic, and geographic commonalities so that invisible walls separated our tables.

The threats of cross-border militancy, illegal immigration, water disputes, and cultural hegemony that divide our countries of origin are not irrelevant. But the cruelest joke is that they result from a border which was created artificially. If only our countries had been on separate islands!

But I didn’t want to think about that then. As I walked down 73rd Street, I thought I finally understood what Jibanananda Das meant in his poem Banalata Sen about walking the earth for a thousand years.

Not having a home doesn’t have to be a curse.

I suddenly felt buoyant…

Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where. And we don’t know where

…the only living boy in New York.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


How to pronounce Hindu Bengali names

“Hi, can I speak to an Arabian?”

“Excuse me?”

“Hi, I’m trying to reach an Arabian.”

“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I am an Indian.”

“No, I mean is this the phone of Mr. An-arabian er… I’m not even going to try to pronounce your last name.”

“Ah, if you’re looking for Anirban, then yes. This is Anirban speaking.”

“Hi, I’m Betty calling about an exciting offer for a Visa credit card that will let you transfer balances from high-interest rate accounts.”

“Uhm about the offer. Well, you may very well be batty, but I’ll still decline. I already have more credit cards than I know what to do with.”


Sigh! I guess if this call had originated from a call-center in India, it probably would have been worse. Of course, I’d be able to tell from the fake accent. On the bright side that would have provided me an opportunity to immediately launch an insult-laden tirade in Hindi.

Granted, the spelling isn’t intuitive. Bengalis pronounce Anirban as On-ear-bahn and “Anirban” is neither fully Sanskritized nor Bengalified. But I’m so used to variants that are acceptable that I don’t mind anymore. North Indian friends have called me Aneer-bon. In North America, I’ll take that any day. I’ve been called many other things out here such as Aniraban, which makes me cringe, since I’m not really like the infamous mythical ruler of Lanka (well, there is nothing if there is no hope).

But seriously, how hard is it to pronounce Anirban? No, seriously. Compared to being called an Arabian, I’ll take Awnir-bahn or A-near-ban any day (not that there is anything wrong with being an Arabian if it is by birth or er… choice).

First, our names get mangled. Then to add insult to injury, we find out that there is an NFL team from Cincinnati called the Beng-uhls. For crying out loud, where do you get the gall? It isn’t West Bangle or Royal Ben-gull Tiger. Please, it is Ben-gaul and we are Bengollys or Bengolese (if you need to rhyme it with Congolese).

I’ve heard many horror stories about slaughtered Bengali names. For example, a North American was once visiting the ashram of a sage in West Bengal. The name of the mystic, Swami Nandanananda is a mouthful even by desi standards, but I’d break it down into Nandan and ananda and say it slowly. The North American devotee tried pronouncing it “Nandanandanandanandananda…” and went into an infinite loop. Or so I’ve heard. Don’t quote me.

Okay, I made it up.

Granted that Bengalis with Hindu names have a much easier time fitting in than some of our South Indian compatriots, but I’m still be hard pressed to find a Bengali in North America who hasn’t shortened his “good name” or gone with his nickname like good old Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Is it our fault that our parents put so much effort into finding involved names from obscure Sanskrit texts?

As for me, for now I’m going with Ani.

© Text, 2010-2012

Robin Ghosh and cross-border “infiltration” in South Asia

If you are from India you may have heard of Robin Chattopadhyay and Robin Majumdar, both exceptionally talented contributors to the Golden Age of Bangla Cinema in Kolkata. I’ll wager that very few people in India have heard of a versatile music director by the name of Robin Ghosh.  I was intrigued to find out more about him because I could guess at his Bengali ethnicity from his last name.

Robin Ghosh is the music director who composed the songs for Aina, a 1977 Urdu movie which shattered all records to become the biggest box-office hit in Pakistan. Ghosh also composed the songs in Harano Din which was released in 1961 and was one of the earliest Bangla films made in Pakistan. His style of composition in Harano Din reminded me a lot of music directors across the border who were composing songs for Bangla films in Calcutta. For example, “Ae je nijhum raat” sung by Firdausi Begum in Harano Din reminded me of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s compositions, especially “Ae purnima raat” in Nayika Sangbad (1967) even though both tunes are distinct.

However, I am told that Robin Ghosh is best known in Pakistan for the lilting songs in Aina. The story revolves around the trite  misunderstandings in love that unnecessarily permeate South Asian cinema, but the music is brilliant. Take for example the song Mujhe dil se na bhulana featuring Mehnaaz and Alamgir:

Does it sound familiar? Think twice if it doesn’t, because if you’ve watched Bollywood movies it should.

Exactly! It is the centerpiece of Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s soundtrack for the Bollywood hit Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985) featuring Mithun Chakraborty and Padmini Kohlapure.

Maybe, like me, you were already familiar with Robin Ghosh’s compositions, but you just didn’t know it?

My point is a simple one. Even before My Name is Khan took Pakistan by storm, this sort of cultural “inflitration” had been going on from both sides. Before the age of Himesh and Pritam, before Adnan Sami and Atif Aslam, there were the likes of Nadeem-Shravan who ruled the roost and were particularly fond of Pakistani music.

I take your leave with one of my favorite songs from my childhood and the original which not only has a similar tune, but similar lyrics too! The song Tu meri zindagi hai was a bit hit in Aashiqui, a Bollywood movie featuring the expressionless visages of Rahul Roy and Anu Agarwal. That a romantic movie with a couple from matchmaking hell could do well at the box-office attests to the popularity of  the Nadeem-Shravan soundtrack. Arguably, the movie also launched the careers of singer Kumar Sanu and lyricist Sameer.

Now listen to the Pakistani counterpart by Tasavvur Khanum also called Tu meri zindagi hai.

To be completely fair to Sameer, he didn’t lift the entire lyrics. I actually prefer his version even though bandagi rhymes better with zindagi than aashiqui does. Now Kumar Sanu’s nasal twang… that I could do without.

Let us keep the discussion civil folks.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban