Kolkata or Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, was once considered the British Empire’s second city and officially served as the capital of British India till 1911. The capital was shifted to Delhi afterwards, largely because of its strategic location.
The state itself was much bigger and more diverse before being split into two — a new country and a smaller Indian state — by the partition of India. This is how modern-day Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and West Bengal came into being. Dhaka and Calcutta are their respective capital cities.
To understand Bengal better, it is essential to be aware of these facts:
> The region of Bengal is historically coveted for its geographical position and natural resources. Many Indian empires such as the Pallavas, Cholas, Mauryas, Guptas and the Mughals conquered this land. Each shaping the cultural identity of the region.
> It is by far the most ecologically diverse region in India. With the Himalayas to the North and Ganges-Brahmaputra delta at the South (the largest and most fertile river basin in the world), add to that a 950-km coastline, the largest bay in the world, numerous alluvial-rich rivers and a generous amount of annual rainfall — Bengal was irresistible to foreign invasion. Which is something this region got quite used to. The English succeeded, so did the French. Alexander the Great tried. Invasion led to a whirlwind of intellectual and cultural exchange.
Now, how would you describe a deeply cultural person, living among natural abundance, with a consistent influx of radical ideas?
Articulate? Artistic? Avant Garde? Lazy?
A truly eclectic mix of people forms this most dynamic ethnic community.
Bengalis are known to be rather enigmatic. Some might even say they’re a bit of a paradox. This becomes evident when one visits Calcutta.
Mumbai is known for its pace, New Delhi for its ruthlessness, and Bangalore for discipline.
Calcutta, however, is laid back. Speed, ruthlessness, discipline, aren’t words you would typically associate with this city. This is why Dominique Lapierre fondly called it the “City of Joy”. Happiness is found in the little things. This is why I believe this city has the tastiest food in the country. Calcuttans are very passionate about eating (khaabar). And enthusiastically come up with reasons and occasions to eat.
Bengali food reflects a generous combination of passion and elegance. To say the least, it is complex yet deviously subtle, making it very hard to master. The soil and water here taste earthier and mysteriously enhance the flavour. Flavour, along with love, care and passion, touches the soul. There are dishes representing every occasion, even for walking down the street. Bengali food is minimalist. Very few principal ingredients are used in various combinations. To break it down, here are some reasons why Bengali cuisine is so different: –
> Mustard is used abundantly. Mustard oil, mustard paste and seeds are used to give this cuisine its characteristic pungent quality.
> The addition of sugar or jaggery brings balance. Just like Thai food.
> Fresh green chillies are preferred over dried red chilly powder. The climate is perfect for the heat of green chillies.
> Some north Indian and south Indian aspects are borrowed, from rich onion or tomato-based gravies to elegant coconut-based ones. Yogurt is also used.
> Rice is the staple accompaniment. Bengalis love rice. It is grown and consumed in abundance all over the state.
> Luchi, kachoris and radhaballabi are much-loved, deep-fried breads. These are delicious and are usually eaten between meals. Mind you, a Bengali loves eating between meals. Jhal muri, with puffed rice, chili, mustard oil, onion and boiled potato cubes, is a healthier option.
It is very hard to find a vegetarian Bengali. They’re generally known to love their meats. These are cooked in mustard oil-based curries called jhol (sauce/gravy). Kosha mangsho, a favourite mutton curry dish, features prominently in many Sunday lunches.
But there is one universal favourite.
A Bengali’s fondness for fish is legendary. Gifts of the rivers and seas, eating and cooking fish comes naturally to the people of Bengal. Fish and rice are staples because they are available aplenty, fresh and cheap.
For the most part, freshwater fish is preferred over sea fish. The difference is that, unlike sea fish, freshwater fish are smaller, oilier, and taste sweeter. They have no saline aftertaste.
Fish is prized here. It is every Bengali’s pride. Rohu, katla, bhetki (Indian barramundi), sole, parshe, tilapia are some varieties eaten on a regular basis. Crab and freshwater prawns also feature. The pièce de résistance is the elusive and expensive Hilsa, the most valued shard variety in the world. It tastes a lot like Alaskan Salmon. However, eating it is an art. Getting past the little bones takes skill and practice.
Freshwater fish contain Omega-3, a natural oil, which is very good for the heart. The British Journal Of Nutrition also suggests that eating oil-rich freshwater fish actually has the possibility of making one smarter. Hmm.
Maybe this is why their favourite pass time is adda, over cha and biscuits (and a cigarette). Unlike “bakchodi“, a term I use as I’m from Delhi, adda involves application of the mind. Whatever the topic, a passionate debate ensues (Bakchodi on the other hand is mindless jibber jabber, though topics can be over “simulating”, it involves little or no debate, usually aggressive). Compare the two and most Bengalis get mortally offended. I should know. Yes, a Bengali takes pride in adda; it’s their way of exchanging opinions and ideas. It leads to higher thinking and widening of perspectives (usually, bakchodi has the opposite effect). Adda embodies creative passive aggression.
When the peace-loving Bengali puts his mind to something and fights for a cause, it usually manifests in ways better and faster than others. Ruthlessness, discipline and pace usually follow.
An idea becomes a physical manifestation.
The means of getting there is anything but conventional. This quality sets Bengalis apart from the rest of the country. They are drawn towards philosophy, art, politics, theology and typically ‘cerebral’ subjects. They love challenges. Material wealth is never an incentive but in most cases, it comes effortlessly. Calcutta reflects this. It is the City of Contradictions.
Calcutta also loves revolution. It’s in the blood. You’d be hard pressed to find a native without personality.
Ever wondered how these people are so laid back, yet they are the ones who actually end up making a difference?
Here’s something to ponder over. What do the following people have in common?
“Netaji” Subhash Chandra Bose (Revolutionary and Founder, Indian National Army)
Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature)
Swami Vivekananda (Spiritual leader & Yogi)
Satyajit Ray (Only Indian director/film personality to receive an Oscar)
Satyendra Nath Bose (Scientist and co-discoverer of the Bose-Einsten condensate, or the Boson Particle)
Sourav Ganguly (Former captain, Indian cricket team)
Laxmi Mittal, R.P Goenka, GD Birla (Marwari business tycoons), Gaggan Anand (Chef, #1 restaurant in Asia), Amartya Sen (Nobel laureate, Economics), Pranab Mukherji (Current President, India), Kishore Kumar (Singer), and all the others of their ilk you can think of.
No, they’re not all “technically” Bengali. Nor do they all love eating fish. But they are all from Calcutta. This city has character and it’s very hard not to embrace it. The people of this city lead with all guns blazing, they scale heights few can reach. Sometimes, their presence is all it takes. They fight to win. Losing isn’t an option.
This feisty drive is also a double-edged sword. Sometimes, they fight for the wrong reasons.
The Calcutta of today is a result of a turbulent past. Oppressive ideals, bias, violence and intellectual brain drain has crippled the state’s economy and industry. But the people haven’t given up and some still fight for a better future. Historically, Bengal has always been a catalyst for change. Just like how my favorite Bengali chef, Gaggan da, has done with Indian food. It is evident that in today’s world, Evolution equals Revolution.
Shonar Bangla. Soil as fertile and bountiful as the minds of the people that live on it. Whenever a person from Bengal finds the will and cause to fight, he does. He believes he has the Midas touch. In most cases, whatever he puts his mind to turns into gold. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
All the required ingredients are present.
“What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”
– Gopal Krishna Gokhale.