Paisa Proselytization

He is dressed like Crocodile Dundee sans massive knife. He sees us maneuvering into the just vacated table in front of the Starbucks at the crowded food court.

"Punjabi?" he asks.

"Pardon?" I ask trying to be polite while nudging Virj into a chair and, at the same time, whipping out some wipes to clean the spilled Panda Express noodles from the previous occupants.

"What do you speak? Punjabi or Filipino?"

I can imagine us being mistaken for the former. If you tie Virj's hair with a handkerchief, he can easily pass for a Sikh boy. The latter however leaves me flabbergasted. How on earth do we remotely look Pinoy?

"No," I say. "We speak Bengali."

"Hold on, I think I might have that in my belt."

He fishes around in his pockets and pulls out a couple of shiny disks.

"Here, have these."

Before I can say anything more, he puts them on the table and is heading towards a Latin couple. Virj scoops up three of the coins, leaving one for me:

Proselytization by Way Of Bengali Coin in CA

"How will you spend your eternal life?"

Because he's gone, I can't tell him the irony in all of this. In the middle of a suburban California strip mall, a stranger has given me a couple of Bengali inscribed coins on Poila Baishaki.

That's the Bengali New Year.

Shubho nobo borsho (an auspicious New Year) to you too!

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- April 15, 2012 9:53 PM // Bangla , Bay Area


Think of an Indian chaiwalla and the following images come to mind:


In an interesting twist, a cousin of Shari's, Neil Sanyal, decided to upmarket the idea and open his own version in tony Hampstead, London. I found mentions of it in a bunch of places including The Telegraph in Kolkata:

BREWING MAGIC: Chaiwalla, the teashop

Tea, anyone?

A challenge to the Starbucks coffee culture has been mounted in Hampstead in north London by Neil Sanyal, who was born in Britain and educated at St Paul’s School but whose parents and grandparents come from Calcutta.

In March this year he set up Chaiwalla, a teashop which has just been named runner-up by Time Out London in its “Best Tea Room” competition.

Neil, who is 19, has sought to create the atmosphere of adda in Calcutta. “When walking into Chaiwalla it is like stepping straight into a part of Calcutta from the bustling streets of Hampstead Village.”

Whilst searching for ideas in India to bring back to London, he was drawn to the chai drinking culture in Calcutta. “Here, many millions of people drank chai, purchased from road-side chaiwallas, in disposable clay cups that are smashed after use. My idea was to create an Indian alternative to the western coffee shop, as well as importing hand-made clay cups from West Bengal.”

Ah yes, those clay cups. Where would desi tea be without them? Here's how they're made:

Here's what some final versions look like:

And here's how they're recycled:

This is the UK version:

Neil's brainchild has a website and offers much more than just masala tea. You can find free wifi, sisa, an extensive breakfast and lunch menu (including biriyani), kulfi, desi sweets and fruit smoothies. Oh yeah, love the external setup as well:

Though I don't drink tea very much myself (or coffee for that matter), I find the whole endeavor extremely interesting starting from the way we heard about it. We first got word about Chaiwalla from internal family sources and not in a particularly effusive way either. As in what's the son of bhadralok (Bengali term for middle class gentlemen) doing opening a tea store? Shouldn't he be slogging his butt off in engineering or medicine or something?

This is something I've heard throughout my life - if you walk the chosen path of computers and doctorhood and engineering, the Goddess Laxmi will shower her largesse upon you. You'll get all that and a 500SEL Benz. However, woe betide you if you stray. The Lord Vishnu himself cannot save you from the Bengali middle class "chee chee" styled derision. Sometimes I wonder how we produce any artists or entrepreneurs at all. So, it's great to see someone bucking the trend and going their own way. Looking forward to Chaiwalla going international and opening a branch in San Francisco, preferably next to the Bollyhood Cafe in the Mission district. It's only fitting. Bangla represent!

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- November 2, 2008 3:14 PM // Bangla , Diaspora , Food

Banalata Sen

Here's an appraisal by author Amit Chaudhuri of poet Jibananda Das and his seminal Banalata Sen, one of the most famous poems in Bengali literature. The article includes two different translations of the opening stanza:

For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,
From waters round Ceylon in dead of night to Malayan seas.
Much have I wandered. I was there in the gray world of Asoka
And Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness to the city of Vidharbha.
I am a weary heart surrounded by life’s frothy ocean.
To me she gave me a moment’s peace -- Banalata Sen from Natore.


For thousands of years Earth’s path has been my path. I have passed
at dark of night the sea of Ceylon and the ocean of Malay;
the ashen worlds of Bimbisara and Asoka I’ve encompassed,
and Vidarbha town’s dark distance, in life’s far ocean-foam-play…
and a touch of peace came to me once, the tiredest of men --
there and gone, the gift to me of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

They're both wonderful but I think I lean towards the first version. It seems more accessible in its uncomplicated spareness and more in keeping with the intent of the original. That's a personal opinion of course. Regardless, the poem was written 75 years ago yet it still has the power to send chills down the spine.

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- June 29, 2008 9:55 PM // Bangla

Ciabatta Malpoa

What do you do you if you have a bunch of Ciabatta bread from Costco lying at the bottom of the refrigerator occupying valuable space? Sadly, I am the only one who took a liking to this product in its original state and I vastly overestimated my appetite for it. Luckily, my mother-in-law devised a plan: convert it to a Bengali sweet called malpoa. The results were delightful and I asked her for the recipe.

It's quite simple:

  • soak bread in milk to soften
  • fry in vegetable oil for crispness
  • dip in sugar syrup - but not too much, just enough for the sugar to seep in
  • set aside to cool

Ciabatta Malpoa

Apparently, a variant of this recipe is also known as Bombay Toast.

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- March 8, 2008 7:28 PM // Bangla , Food

Rabi-babu and China

Here I was trying to read up on modern Chinese history and I stumbled on this snippet. File this in the I-had-no-idea category - from The Columbia Guide To Modern Chinese History comes this:

The New Culture Movement

The milieu of intellectual quest was stimulated during these years by lecture tours of foreigners of various intellectual persuasion ... The visit of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore of India, in 1924 touched off a heated debate over Tagore's message extolling Asian cultures and warning about the importation of too much Western civilization ...

The man got around, didn't he?

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- December 14, 2007 9:31 PM // Bangla

Introducing Our Son

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

So, here he is. But before I introduce you to him, I wanted to tell you about our first challenge of parenthood - finding a name for our son. Here, I am reminded of Alex Haley's Roots. After his son is born, Omoro faces a challenge:

By ancient custom, for the next seven days, there was but a single task with which Omoro would seriously occupy himself: the selection of a name for his firstborn son. It would have to be a name rich with history and with promise, for the people of his tribe - the Mandinkas - believed that a child would develop seven of the characteristics of whomever or whatever he was named for.

Okay, it's not like we locked ourself up in a room for seven days and refused to emerge until we'd come up with some earthshaking moniker for our kid. But it would have been nice had we the luxury of doing so. A name is serious business - this is something the fellow is saddled with for life. Unless he changes it himself or goes into show business or something - but even then, there is the realization, often painfully acquired in grade school, that the name you were given is a lemon. What parent would want his kids to go through that gauntlet? School is cruel enough as it is! Consequently, in the nine months prior, whatever leisure time we had was spent poring over books of names, Bengali dictionaries and the web, in search of a moniker. Our criteria was as follows:

  1. Has to be short, snappy and sweet.
  2. Has to mean something, preferably in Sanskrit i.e. no nonsensical terms
  3. Can't have side-effects in English. No offense to Dixits or Dikshits, but I am not going anywhere near there if I can help it.
  4. Has to be somewhat unique

Choosing a unique name in a country of a billion people is hard. Forget Rama, Bhima, Shyama and Jadu, the law of probability dictates that whatever you come up with something remotely unusual, it's been taken. A friend asked recently:

What's the Bengali tradition for middle names? Gujaratis give father's first name as a middle name (even women have to take their husband's first name!). Talk about a patriarchical society.

I really couldn't think of any Bengali naming traditions per se other than the preference for fancy names. Remember I was telling you about my futile search? In many cases, the interesting twists or variations on names were taken by Chatterjees/Banerjees etc. Good for them! But it didn't make our task easier.

In desperation, we considered an approach that seems to be common in the US - creative misspelling. Consider Andruw instead Andrew or Jhonny instead of Johnny. Taken in the desi context, how about Deepakk or Rraja? Okay, I am kidding. But it did seem attractive for all of 3 milliseconds! Our friends, Devora and Manish, took note of our state and even included a "Name The Baby Contest" in Shari's baby shower festivities. Notable entries included:

  • Rishesh
  • McSoam
  • Ghanashyam

Good for laughts, yes, although the first one was pretty good. However, this did spark our thinking and three days before he was born, we finally settled on a name. Shari had liked Vir (hero/warrior) for a while and it and its variation, Veer, had seemed relatively uncommon. Still, I thought a variation on the sound itself could yield something interesting. My contribution was a single letter: "j". "Virj" is Sanskrit for the quality of bravery and strength. The sound itself seems to resonate. And web searches show it to be relatively rare. Now, if everyone would only pronounce it properly :-)

So, there you have it. Hopefully, this is something our son will keep. We can but hope. I'll conclude with some lyrics from Jim Croce from his song, "I got a name":

Like the pine trees lining the winding road,

I've got a name, I've got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad,
I've got a name, I've got a name

And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I'm living the dream that he kept hid.

Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won't pass me by.

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- December 3, 2007 12:46 PM // Bangla , Diaspora , Virj

Bush Baby

From The Telegraph UK comes this snapshot of US President George W Bush holding a baby in Trinwillershagen, Germany.

There's a saying in Bengali: "chere deye maa, kende bachi." This can roughly be translated to "please let me go, I'm in tears, I'll do anything to get out of here." Seems appropriate on so many levels, doesn't it?

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- July 16, 2006 8:47 PM // Bangla , Politics

Margaret Jenkins @ YBCA

Here are some pictures from yesterday's final performance of Slipping Glimpse from the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. This was a collaboration with the Kolkata based Tanushree Shankar Dance Company. Following an initial meet at Kochi last year where:

Many hours were spent trying to communicate concepts as well as steps. We were privileged to learn from Padma and the Indian dancers about their respective forms. We talked about making work, the nature of audience, the definitions and varieties of modern dance and the space that both our arts embrace. Western dance, more often than not, takes over space, moves through and around it: The more we have, the more pleasure abounds. The classical Indian forms look for center within and on the stage. Little space is needed to give voice to that art.

We spent most of our days creating the 13-minute work for our performances. Our goal was to explore how to share our vocabularies with an eye to the evening-length work premiering at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in May. The Indian dancers will travel to the United States to be part of this larger dance.

Subsequent choreography involved the exchange of video materials and DVDs across India and the USA between the troupes prior to the dancers once again uniting for the actual performances. Talk about globalization in action :-) Demand was unexpectedly high with nearly all the performances getting sold out. The images are from the 10 minute prologue of the show:

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- May 28, 2006 10:12 AM // Bangla , Bay Area , Dance

India At The Oscars

My memories of India at the Oscars can be divided into three vignettes, all seen on TV. The first is that of the Lagaan crew gamely clapping when No Man's Land won the Best Foreign Film award in 2002. The second is the director of Little Terrorist, Ashvin Kumar, bowing his head in prayer, moments before the 2005 winner for Best Live Action short was announced. And no, Little Terrorist didn't win either. The third, and the most poignant, is that of Satyajit Ray receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. A pyrrhic victory since it was handed to him when he, literally, was on his deathbed.

The Chronicle describes it through the eyes of UC Santa Cruz history professor, Dilip Basu, who was charged with delivering the award to Ray in Kolkata:

Though a proud day, the journey was also bittersweet: Ray, his body ravaged by heart attacks, lay on his deathbed in a Calcutta hospital.

"When I saw his condition, I couldn't say a word," Basu said recently in his deep, patient voice and lilting accent. "He looked like a skeleton of himself. I had tears in my eyes."
With Basu's hands supporting Ray's, too weak to hold the Oscar, the trembling filmmaker delivered his acceptance into the video camera. Ray talked of his long love affair with American cinema and the opus-length fan letters written to stars and directors like Billy Wilder, Deanna Durbin and Ginger Rogers.

I've tried to find the full text of Ray's acceptance speech but was unable to locate it online. Regardless, it was a very moving moment to say the least. Here was a colossus slowly reducing to rubble right in front of us. Within months he had passed on. The only consolation out of all of this is at least he lived long enough to receive the award in person, a fitting testimony to an extraordinary life and career.

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- March 14, 2006 9:09 PM // Bangla , Film

Diaspora Director Roundup

Ever wonder what our favorite diaspora directors upto these days? Never fear, here's a summary:

  • Mira Nair has bought the rights to Munnabhai MBBS with the intent of remaking it into English as Gangster, MD. According to Rediff, this is actually not the first remake for Munnabhai MBBS:
    The film went on to become such a big hit that it inspired Kamal Haasan to remake it in Tamil (called Vasoolraja MBBS), and Mira Nair to buy the rights of the film. She hopes to remake it in English as Gangster MD, and cast Chris Tucker in the lead.
    IMDB classifies Gangster, MD as being in production currently.
    Thanks to Amar Parikh for the tip.

  • As for Gurinder Chadha, Guardian Film reports:
    It looks as if there may be extra time for Bend it Like Beckham. The Sun reports that Gurinder Chadha, who directed the British footballing hit, is making a sequel to the 2003 film. Apparently she also has signed up the film's stars, Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, to reprise their roles.
    Bride & Prejudice was nowhere near as big as Bend It Like Beckham, Miramax's marketing efforts notwithstanding. Remember Aishwarya Rai's "most beautiful woman in the world" USA tour earlier this year? Perhaps this Ms. Chadha's insurance in case any of her intervening projects don't work out.

  • After opening the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, Deepa Mehta's Water has been released in Canada. Eye weekly writes:
    Water marks a return to relevance for Deepa Mehta after the twin disappointments of Bollywood/Hollywood and Republic of Love.
    Don't know about the US release date. Meanwhile, looks like the plagiarism case filed against Mehta may be coming to a settlement:
    Famed Bengali litterateur and former Mayor of Kolkata, Sunil Gangopadhyay, was irked a few years ago when a journalist, Anuradha Dutta, pointed out the almost word-for-word resemblance between his classic novel, Sei Somoy, and an upcoming film. ...
    Crossover filmmaker Deepa Mehta, predictably with much fanfare, had announced a film called Water in the year 2000, and Datta was aghast at the script's resemblance to Gangopadhyay's book and its English version, Those Days.
    In March 2000, the incensed journalist filed a case against Mehta, the self-alleged writer of the film, on behalf of Gangopadhyay, publisher Badal Basu and translator Aruna Chakravarthy. The claim was a simple case of utter and blatant plagiarisation. ...
    Finally, things seem to be coming to a close now as Mehta informed the Delhi High Court on November 8 that she is "willing to settle" the case. The writer, who has not been directly involved in legal proceedings, is merely relieved. Speaking to us over the phone from Kolkata, Gangopadhyay said, "Though I was not too involved in the legal wrangle, and did not keep a tab on the case's progress, I am relieved to know that Mehta wants to settle it amicably."
    Sei Somoy (Those Days) is a landmark book in modern Bengali literature - I'll be curious to find out how closely the film tracks the book.

  • Finally, the teaser trailer to M. Night Shymalan's latest, The Lady In The Water is out. You can find it here. Thanks to Aintitcool for the pointer.
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- November 25, 2005 1:18 PM // Bangla , Bollywood , Diaspora , Film

Shubho Bijoya

Happy Durga Puja to all! In case you were wondering what's that all about, Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director of the Hindusthan Times has a famous piece entitled What 'Pujo' means to a Bengali. An excerpt:

It's like Christmas, they told me. Imagine Christmas in New York: Puja means that to a Bengali. Others found more home-grown parallels. It's like Diwali in North India, they said. You know, the shopping, the parties, the festivities and all that stuff.

Actually, of course, it was nothing like Christmas; and certainly nothing like Diwali in North India.

Nothing, in fact, can prepare you for the magic of Puja in Calcutta.

To understand what it means, you have to be here.

As the years went on and as I went from Puja to Puja, I tried to work out why nobody could explain to outsiders what it was that made Puja so special. Why was that I failed as completely as everybody else in communicating the essence of Puja? Why did all the time-honoured comparisons not really ring true; with Dushera, Diwali, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and God alone knows what else?

The answer, I suspect - and after all these years, it is still a suspicion, I have no solutions - is that you can't understand Puja unless you understand Calcutta and unless you understand Bengalis.

Of course, none of this really explains what Durga Puja is about. There's a very funny flash animation that explains it more. Click on the image to view. In addition, there's more stuff available here. Thanks to Anindya Basu for the original link, BTW!

Coming back to Vir Sanghvi's statement on understanding Bengalis and Calcutta, he has another great article on this very subject. Naturally, I can't resist quoting:

Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and (unless of course, you are speaking to Bal Thackeray) he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously. Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc. And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.

But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about is recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's more, no Bengali minds you saying that. Rather, he is proud of the fact. Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter contempt for mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their own way). Calcutta embodies the Bengali love of culture; the triumph ofintellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human existence.

Hear, hear! Why else would I slave over this site when I could be (theoretically) figuring out newer ways of making money in Silicon Valley? Sanghvi continues:

That's why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal; go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught beer; Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul: come to Calcutta.

Having highlighted all these good words, I should add I did find the city had changed in my last visit. But that's for a future entry.

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- October 13, 2005 12:06 PM // Bangla

Man Of The Heart

We first met Drama Professor Sudipto Chatterjee when he conducted a drama workshop under ENAD's aegis about two years ago. It was an exhilarating experience and, needless to say, we were looking forward to his latest performance, Man of the Heart, on the UC Berkeley campus.

This was a one man show on the life and times of Lalon Fakir, a 19th century Bengali mystic and folk singer. Such minstrels, or Bauls as they are known, have played an integral role in Bengali folkore:

Bauls (Bangla: বাউল) are a group of mystic minstrels from the Bengal region, now divided into Bangladesh and West Bengal. Bauls are a part of the culture of rural Bengal. They are thought to have been influenced greatly by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas. Bauls travel in search of the internal ideal, Maner Manush (Man of the Heart). The origin of the word is debated. However, it is widely agreed that is comes either from Sanskrit batul, meaning divinely inspired insanity or byakul, meaning fervently eager.

The music of the Bauls, bAul saMgeet refers to a particular type of folk song of sung by Bauls. It carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song mediated by many thousand miles of cultural intermixing, exemplified by the songs of Kabir, for instance.

Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the bAul for his boshTomi or lifemate. With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends religion, and some of the most famous baul composers, such as Lalon Fakir have been of muslim birth.

The actual show itself was a blend of monologues, live singing and dancing, pre-recorded songs and sounds, video clips and projected slides. Nothing if not ambitious! However, while the technical production values were impeccable and Prof. Chatterjee a real live dynamo onstage, the show could have benefitted from a real narrative spine. There were many tantalizing nuggets buried in the material bespeaking the importance of Lalon in 19th century colonial India. For example, while the British were busy creating a buffer class of brown sahibs to better administer the sub-continent, bauls such as Lalon played a big role in resisting these divide and conquer tactics. I thought it was great for the production to contextualize Lalon's importance thus but I didn't really get a clearer picture as to how he really accomplished this. Instead, the bulk of the presentation was on how Lalon deliberately shrouded his origins in riddles and how, scholars on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide, went to great lengths to claim him as one of their own. Interesting stuff but I would have preferred to get an idea of why was gathering proof of this type so important. Perhaps an Indian audience would be better placed to understand the significance of this quest but, most probably, not an international one. Similarly, towards the end, we learned of some of the practices Lalon (and his female spiritual companion) perfected after years of sadhana. These techniques, which seemed to have tantric roots, were left unexplored after being hinted at.

Clearly, Sudipto Chatterjee and director Suman Mukherjee hold Lalon very close to their hearts - in the post-show Q&A, both spoke of discovering their mutual interest while roommates in NYC in the early '90s. Given what we witnessed was an edited version of a full length script, which reportedly ran to a couple of hours, its turgidity was understandable - as a matter of fact, the whole event was advertised as a work-in-progress workshop. Hence, I would expect the whole thing to take better dramatic shape with more performances. Nevertheless, there were many things to enjoy and learn here. As mentioned before, Sudipto held the audience's attention easily and, in addition to his other skills, possesses a fine singing voice. Of late, I've been noticing the technique of an actor or dancer using one's own robes to intercept the images from a projector - this distortion technique was used pretty effectively in the production. The musical accompaniment, lighting and sets were also good - mention must be made of ENAD-ites Sambit Basu and Bodhi Das who helped out so capably.

I have mixed feelings as to Baul music itself - in some sense, it is similar to the blues, and hence can be an acquired taste. Too much of it can end up sounding the same. Plus, Baul music has been all the rage in Kolkata of late and many Bengali rock bands (yes, they exist) have actually jumped on the bandwagon. So there's a bit of an overkill involved. It might be blasphemous to admit, but I actually prefer the hybridized version as practiced by bands like Bhoomi. But the standout in this genre is the drum'n'bass/baul fusion of UK based State of Bengal and Purna Das Baul's collaboration Tana tani. Anyway, overall, the show contains much to ponder over and our best wishes to Prof. Chatterjee and Suman Mukherjee in actualizing a dynamite final version.

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- October 9, 2005 4:49 PM // Bangla , Bay Area , Theater