Sunday, August 10, 2008

Existential crisis of Bengali Babus in North America

By Biplab Pal

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass

-Hollow Men, T.S .Elliot


For those who have been to Laguna Nigel’s Kali temple, Prufullada (real name withheld) is a ubiquitous face. In his late fifties, he still looks pretty young. Although, I have been living in Orange County for last three years, I never visited the Temple . Couple of weeks back, I drove there for a melodious evening of Shyama Sangeet.

-You must be new to this area.

I heard an amiable voice.

- I am Prafullad Sarkar. And you?

- Amio Bangali. Bolun. Ami Biplab

(Am also Bengali, ya tell me, I am Biplab).

- Tai vabchilam. Katodin halo Americai ?

(I was thinking the same. For how long you are here in America?)

I have perfected this trail of conversation. He wanted to claim his superiority by virtue of his arrival date in America . Immigrant population of any ethnicity follows this hierarchy-first come first seniority basis status in the community. That’s why any senior person you would meet will kick off by reminding his seniority. A very linear story.

- Cha bachar

( Six years)

- Bah. Amar kuri bachar haye gelo. Software ye naki? Ekhanei permanent thakcho? (I am here for twenty years. Are you in software? Will you be staying here permanently? )

- Na software noi. Dwitio prashno tar uttar to jani na dada

(Not in software, but I don’t know the answer of the last question)

- Family niye thaka hoi ?

(Do you stay with family?)

- Ha, kintu sobai pujote Kolkatai

(Yes, I do. But they are in Calcutta now. Puja time.)

- Kolkatar pujo katodin dekhi ni

(For how long I have not seen Pujas in Calcutta )

Then he introduced me to his teenage daughters Tanisha and Rina. They greeted by saying "Hi Uncle". Yes, anybody in America with an Indian accent is uncle to second generation Indians. We are uncle by association of accent-eternal guilt, perennial fate of being born in another land.

We exchanged a few trifles. Prafullada is a Shivpur BE college alumni, who settled here as an Engineer during ‘80s. We promised we would meet again.

But that didn’t happen. He handed over his phone number to me. Since he is a senior, I was supposed to call. My wife does not like to be in touch with senior Bengali families. She thinks their wives are worst than torturous and slightly better than mother-in-laws. True, Bengali wives of America , even in their fifties put up a heavy make up. Quite unusual by Bengali modesty standard. But hay we are in America . Gotta understand most of them are working women. In America , you must look younger. Either by make up or by exercise. Bengali diet is not too healthy. So veil of make-up is the only way out..

-You go and meet with those old witches, I can’t. Their make-up, hoity-toity attitude towards new comers like me is simply unbearable! They pretend to be helpful but in reality that was a gesticulation for superiority. They like to advice on everything-starting from butts and boobs to what I am supposed to feed to my kids. You can’t even talk about any singer. They would rather boost how close she was to him! Bunch of morons.

I thought my wife is over reacting. Some of the Boudis are quite accommodating and helpful to new generation. It is always true, immigrants are so busy in managing their lives, earning a little more by working a little extra, they do not have time to groom themselves to the latest cultural fad and greatest literal output. This is true all across the board. Amidst the assiduous schedule, their cultural mind does stretch beyond a few movies. A weekend meet (Dawat for Bangaldeshi and Nemanttana for Bengalis of Indian origin) among the families serves as the only refreshing recreation in the absence of close friend circles.

What’s about the identity then?

What nonsense, I am talking about! Just think. I am into office, working as a middle class hardworking American. I am 100% American in the office including my lunch. I step out; drive back home and then I become a dad. Dad of an American. Given the cultural difference between these kids and the dads, it is not the same dad-son chemistry we have enjoyed in our teens. There was depth of criticality and appreciation which is obviously missing here. So I am a half dad and a half Bong.

What’s about my Bengali identity?

The hardest part. When I go out and meet new people in the job, I hear the phrase-Are you an Indian? Yes, sir. That’s about being an Indian. My colleagues are such a bosom friends and cohorts, my ethnic identity already desiccated into cosmopolitan American whirlwind.

And of course, I have a Bengali wife, few Bengali friends, a Bengali TV channel and once a year Durga Puja. Thanks to my wife, I still enjoy some of the ethnic Bengali dishes. And thanks to Internet, I am connected to my motherland. Yes BS from Ananda Bazar, I am relying on-what else to do. But that’s all about it

Death of a Bengali inside the Babus is not as painful as the death of a feudal lord inside. Adjustment from feudalism to capitalism. In our homeland, most of us were somebody. We were made to feel somebody-either by virtue of good academic career or by the respect from commoners who can not afford two squares meal a day. What ever it is, we were identifiable somebody-either as a secretary of student organization or as a good student.

In America , we, the Babus are nobody. Very few make it to the top management –because success as a manager needs cultural assimilation with its own accent. Mathematical skill is not much of a help to ride in the ladder. Bengali immigrants of post IT era are still better off-at least they are the proud Indians who have a Bangalore in their pocket. Old Bengalis of 60’s, 70’s and 80’s suffer from a chronic inferiority complex. Despite their talents, they never made it to the cream of the American Corporate except with a few notable exceptions. Blame it to discrimination, but one can clearly see its lasting effect on their lives.

After IT revolution, Indians made it to the top of the American society-as venture capitalists, managers, scientists and doctors. So young Babus like us have very little corpus to complain-no room to blame discrimination for our flop career. But for the senior Babus, it is still a big sore. Chronic discriminations they have faced in their days when Indians were not that of a recognized face, still make them depressed. At least when asked about my education, I can proudly say I am IITian. I don’t need any American stamp what so ever, to prove myself further. Surely that was not the case in the seventies and eighties. Hard works of our seniors established the Indian brand-name. Beyond doubts, we are the beneficiary of their hard work.

But then comes the worst part. In America , we can exist in a real or virtual ghetto in our cultural life. We were, somewhat, forced to. I don’t know of many first generation Bengalis or Indians, who would be comfortable with American night life. First, scary discrimination from the blonds in the night clubs. To those bimbos, our physique and look is slightly better than that of a monkey. An au fait revenge on the behalf of womanhood for au courant racist Babus who have very little appreciation for swarthy Bengali brides back home. Second, many do not like acid rocks. Immature death of eardrum smoothened by RabindraSangeet and chocolate melodies.

I have a lot of good American friends but in general they are not very sociable outside office relation-specially in comparison to the Europeans. I have lived with American families twice as a paying guest. They do not socialize copiously even with other Americans in comparison to what we Bengalis like to do. In the matter of social skills, Americans in the mid-west are better off than those from the coast. Mid-westerners are better cultured than coastal people, specially the yahoos of west coast. Europeans are somewhat like Bengalis-they love adda as much as we like it. That’s why I have more European friends than Americans.

But what ever it is-the fact remains the same. We need Bengali friend circles, Hilsa and a Durga puja to keep alive. Hilsa Vape is still substitutable by smoked Salmon. But Bengalis friends and Durga puja are indispensable.

Hence comes the reality. And a bitter truth. Every senior Babu wants to rein his control over Puja committee. Just to save himself from a losing identity of nobody. I saw the same among Bangladeshi community. In their case, identity crisis metamorphosed into a meaningless Awami League versus BNP tug of war in a foreign soil. Jahed Ahamed may not appreciate it. But I have full sympathy for those people who are struggling, fighting, throwing extravagant parties to be a leader in the community-striving to be somebody from the eternal hollow of nobody.

Allusive pursuit of existence in a meaningless ruckus.

Well, that’s what the life is all about! Isn’t it?

Anaheim 10/26/06