Enduring, indolent, insular, outgoing, endearing, adventurous, gypsy-like, nesting, sentimental, adaptive, rebellious, questioning, accepting and infuriating in turn — or all at once.’
This would be an appropriate introduction for Bengalis as mentioned in Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book The Bengalis — A Portrait of a Community, published by Aleph. But the author would like to add a little more: “Garrulous, argumentative, lovers of the arts, lovers of life, lovers of rivers and rain, quick to anger, quick to laughter, lovers of words, lovers of witty comebacks and innuendo, lovers of eccentricity, often pompous, inveterate travellers, fanatical about food... Sometimes I think it would be so very boring to not be Bengali.”
Taking readers to the heart of Bengal and the Bengali people, and their culture, politics and history, Chakravarti keeps you engaged throughout this delightful read, which has some insightful facts as well. Here, he tells us what prompted him to write the book and what makes it so interesting:
What inspired you to write The Bengalis?
I have long wanted to write a book on the social and political aspects of Greater Bengal, including West and East Bengal (now Bangladesh) with a personalised touch. My personal history is rooted in both Bengals, as it were, and such an approach lends a touch of reality and immediacy to seemingly dry history. The Bengalis assumed a more rounded avatar after my discussion with David Davidar of Aleph, whose idea was a fuller portrait of the Bengalis, almost a biography.
Will this book mainly appeal to Bengalis or will others too find it equally interesting?
A biography of a people has a reach far beyond a particular community. As a people who constitute one of the largest ethno-linguistic communities in the world, and with a history and ongoing history as wide and varied as ours, the Bengali people have a connect with much of the Indian sub-continent and a large slice of the world beyond. Moreover, it has to be an interesting story about an interesting people — and we certainly are an interesting people. A community’s biography also has to tell a larger story: about dreams and aspirations, hope, fulfillment, horror or tragedy, of achievements and failures. These are very human connects, and works in a similar way, to say, why we read novels about other people and places. I believe The Bengalis... certainly provides that connect.
Do you think it is a great book to introduce Bengali youngsters to their own culture, tradition and history?
Absolutely. I would recommend it to Bengali or half-Bengali youngsters in all of Banglasphere!
You mention how Bengal came into existence and a lot about the political history of Bengal and Bangladesh. Was the information easily available or did it take long to procure it? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
For me, information has always been a lot more than a Google search algorithm. I look for it in any place I can find it, from the Internet to musty libraries, and by actually meeting and talking to people and visiting places that are relevant to my work. I found excellent historical and other sources, both easily available and not. As to the research and writing, I believe in translating research, interviews, experiences and observations into an engaging son et lumière storytelling. I apply that approach to all my work. The difference with The Bengalis... is that I am involved in the story, as a narrator and occasionally as a participant. But I was determined to maintain a distance, and address thorny issues of history and ethnicity alongside all that is justly celebrated about the Bengalis.
Across the world, the number of displaced communities are growing. How can we cope with the current challenges, how can we make the world more inclusive?
By looking into what we so frequently call our ‘humanity’, by looking at people as people and not as inconvenient numbers or those of inconvenient genders or inconvenient religions. If inclusiveness does not begin at home, how can we expect inclusiveness in the world?
How did you come up with the term Banglasphere?
I was searching for a unifying word for the world of Bengalis. The Bengalis are not only to be found in West Bengal but beyond the present-day need to travel for work to various cities in India and overseas. Bengalis have also lived for several generations in places like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, among other regions. The Cachar region of Assam is majority Bengali, a reality from before Partition when it was a part of Greater Bengal. In Tripura, Bengalis are in a majority. Bangladesh is 90 per cent Bengali. Bengalis have for years lived in large numbers elsewhere in Asia, North America, Europe and Australia. Banglasphere seemed like an appropriate and inclusive word to describe the world of Bengalis, wherever they may be, local or global.
As a community, we are obsessed with sports. But we hardly produce sports stars. Why?
We have always had stars within our own construct in almost every sport, but they have not always made the cut in terms of national and international recognition. It’s not a question of attitude, but also of opportunity. Bengali footballers have for decades been an integral part of national football. Bengali cricketers have been part of India’s national team from the time of India’s Independence. Bengali bodybuilders have won international competitions. A young Bengali gymnast won hearts with her courage and skill at Rio Olympics. As anywhere, sportspersons need encouragement and facilities. If they see prospects and respect, more will follow.
Do you plan to write fiction?
I have published a few short stories for special collections and written two novels. Tin Fish, my first book, was published in 2005. A sequel, The Avenue of Kings, followed in 2010. My third novel, The Baptism of Tony Calangute, will be published by Aleph in May 2018. It’s a dark and lyrical satire set in a dystopian Goa, a place that presumes to call itself paradise.