How I Learnt (some) Bengali

I had no choice but to learn Bengali. I grew up in a suburb of Jamshedpur- Sonari West- where nearly 85% of our neighbors on our street were Bengalis. So I grew up listening to the language, from the domestic help to the shopkeepers, street vendors and all the odd-job men. Despite Jamshedpur being in Bihar then (Jharkhand came into being decades later) we, the Hindi/ Bhojpuri speaking family were considered a bit of a curiosity in the area! The neighboring Jetha Moshai, Kaku, Pishi, Boudi and everyone else would speak to us in Bengali assuming that we were all fluent in the language. Thinking back now, I suspect, despite knowing that we were not fluent in the language they would speak to us in their language anyway. The best concession they would make is the addition of some token Hindi to their Bangla. Like: “Ai chheley, tum amaar janno bazaar sey dim kinega?” (will you buy some eggs from the market for me?). “Nishchoi, Jetha Moshai”. (of course, Uncle).


So, did I have a choice but not to learn the basics of Bangla?


Not that I minded learning the language. In fact, I took it rather seriously and decided to learn how to read and write in Bengali as well. I obtained for myself the basic kindergarten equivalent text book and practiced writing the rounded, sensuously shaped characters. I would also occasionally borrow from our neighbours a kiddies magazine called “Shuktara” and would read up the comic strip “Handa Bhonda” is nothing else. Does the magazine (and the strip) still exist?


Sometimes my Hindi upbringing would get the better of me and I would read Bengali the Hindi way! One example which I still remember was the name of a house close to ours. It was called “Usha Tara”, and I would read it as “Ddesha Tara”, the “oo” in Bengali having a close resemblance to the Hindi D! Also the complicated “juktakshars” (conjugated alphabet) spook me even now despite my valiant attempts to master them!


There were opportunities to read Bengali aplenty. Starting from the political graffiti on the walls of the houses (Kangres ke bhot din– vote for Congress), to the shop signages (Joi Ma Tara Stationery Shop), to the wedding reception (bou bhaat) cards which would be received pretty frequently. One quaint line which found an invariable mention in these cards I still remember is “potrer dwaara trutir marjjina koriben”. Sometimes even the annaprashan (mukhey bhaat) cards would find their way to our household. I remember a mukhey bhaat invite from a neighbour which was actually a B&W picture of the poor cereal-starved kid with his face smeared in kajol. And the bold headline, which was actually an invite from the kid, saying, “Ami bhaat khabo”.


Talking about Bengali wedding receptions, these were something I looked forward to. The reason: the gorgeous food. Right from the slice of lemon (lemu) to the loochi, thick and sweetish chholar daal, maachh (fish) and mangsho (mutton). Climaxing with mishti doi and rosogollas. That was the era prior to the perfunctory buffets now so much in vogue. One actually sat down on sheet metal chairs while the food was served on leaf plates (pattals) hot from the kitchen. One would enter pandal and signages saying amish and niramish would welcome you. I would naturally head to the amish (non-vegetarian) section salivating at the thought of the heavenly mutton cooked in mustard oil!


Living where we were it was but natural that we would whole-heartedly participate in the Durga Puja celebrations. The excitement of waking up pre-dawn on the Mahalaya day and listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s sonorous Chandi Path crackling through our Murphy radio set. The joy of buying new clothes, one set for each of the three main days of the Puja (that was also the annual shopping for clothes for us). Going around the Pujo pandals with friends. The gorgeous Khichudi Moha Prosad served for lunch (you had to buy “tokens” in advance for these). The booming dhaak and the evening arati dance competitions. And then came Bijoya (Dashmi) when we would visit our Bengali neighbours, touch the elders’ feet (the elders between themselves would do kola-koli) and have lots of mehidanaa and sondesh. And yes, ghugni too along with some loochi)!


And the jatras! For those uninitiated, Jatra is an open-air theater derived from folk traditions. It does not employ any props and relies solely on melodramatic story lines enacted even more melodramatically. Actors enter the stage through the audience seated all around the stage. The musicians sit around the periphery of the stage albeit at a level below the stage playing loud music, tabla, harmonium etc; the music reaching a crescendo when some heightened action happened on the stage. Jatra, in short, was theatre at its most theatrical. And I would love it. The anticipation would start building up well before the Pujas with cycle rikshwas going around the locality announcing the name, date and the timing of the Jatra which climaxed into the final reminder on the day of the Jatra. “Bhulben na bodhu gon, aaj rat, dash ghatikay…..” etc. etc. The Jatra would be held in an enclosure next to the Puja pandal and we would go there equipped with a sweater or a shawl in case it got chilly late in the night. I have spent many a Puja weeping along with the plight the tragic hero would get into and the woes of the wronged heroine. Sapan Kumar and Sapna Kumari were a popular pair those days!


My knowledge of Bangla (if I may call my frugal repertoire Bangla words “knowledge”) these days surfaces at some very unexpected places. Like the time when I had an animated chat with the owner of an “Indian” restaurant in North Holland. (“Indian” is a descriptor of convenience for restaurants serving South Asian cuisine outside India. These are typically run by Pakistanis and mostly by Bangaldeshis.) After more than a week hearing Dutch, it was such joy to be able to speak with someone in a language so familiar. Besides, of course, the joy of eating roti and sabzi and daal.


I will end this piece with a little story about how my knowledge of Bangla earned me an eternally grateful acquaintance. Many years ago, when I was first began living in Bangalore in the early period of my career, I would visit the panwallah next to where I stayed to get my day’s quota of cigarettes. One morning, I saw from afar a gentleman in an animated discussion with my friend, the panwallah. Obviously the customer was not able to get his point across much to the chagrin of the pan-wallah who had many other customers to attend to. When I reached close I realized that the customer was a Bengali -a tourist from Kolkata. He was gesticulating wildly and nearly shouting, “Mouri hai? Mouri hai? Sheer desperation then, “Mouri, MOURI!” The poor panwallah had no clue what Mouri was. I decided to intervene and clarified that the out-of-towner was asking for some saunf, as simple as that!


I still remember the joy on the customers face on getting his request across! And the hug he nearly gave me for saving the day for him!


15 Responses to How I Learnt (some) Bengali

  1. Amit Kumar Das says:

    This piece made me really nostalgic, also added a pinch of guilt to the existing kitty..though I am a bong ( probashi) you have better knopwledge of Bangla than me..this has inspired me to get into some more details of Bangla langauage..Infact the description of Jatra has pushed me down into the memory lane,..I have seen only one Jatra in my life time that too in jethu lives in Tatanagar..he used to work in NML and we used to visit Tatanagar every year till 1989..

    Good one, Santosh..

  2. Srila Chatterjee says:

    Ojhaaaaaaaaaa! You must thank your lucky stars every morning that you had some bengali blood gifted to you by association!!! I don’t know whether I am a staunch Bengali but I definitely am a blue blooded Calcuttan and will be till the day I die!! And from what has transpired in the last many years, its pretty obvious that there is no collection of people more into each other, more clannish and more joyous than those who gre up together in that BEST of all cities – even if we all ran away to all corners of the globe!! I finally have a cook who does good bangla ranna so I am in blissful heaven quite frequently… Come by the next time you are around…

    Much love – Srila

  3. Rajarshi Bhattacharya says:

    Another masterpiece from your illustrious repertoire… Being a bengali myself (quite purebred – since I was born and brought up in Kolkata) I reckon not many of our clan would be so intrigued to critically probe the nuances of our mother tongue in such finer levels… I like your observatory and reflective mind, which all your readers will appreciate… I am impressed by your spontaneous writing style with dollops of nostalgia and refreshing memoirs. Wonderful but lucid depiction of small trivias which I’m sure many of us (who have grown up from a middle-class background) will be able to connect with our childhoods…. Great writing Santosh !

  4. mou chatterjee says:

    I really awe you for you deep knowledge. I have always loved reading your creations mainly for two reasons. First one that i can connect with what you write. I am not a kind of a person who reads a lot but especially this one and few others which you had forwarded in the past helps me re-live the days of my childhood which i had spent in bihar. I remember every winter after Kalipuja the jatras used to start and i had to accompany my parents willingly or unwillingly because there was nobody to take care of me at home. later on i started liking it mainly because my father used to buy me those black lozenges made from kala namak and imli i suppose. I always used to insisit my mother to buy those 10 -50 paisa worth program leaflet which had the details of the scenes and that used to help me keep the count as to how much time more i have to sit on those wooden chairs. By the time i started watching Jatras way back in 1984-1994 jatras had revamped their look. Due to the decreasing interest of people in jatras (around 1990), the organisers started bringing tollywood actor and actresses. I remember those shows used to run house full. My father was a very active member of “subash club” and they used to organise Jatras in our locality.
    As chirkunda was a very small town then, there were no hotels at all. it was our house were all the lead actors and actresses used to stay and we used to take lot of pride in that. Actors like Agitesh, Partha have stayed in our grandpa’s house.

    Coming back to the resaons, the second one is rather selfish and its that your writing helps me tremendously in building up my engish vocabulary
    Looking forward to read many more…

  5. rahul ramasubramanian says:

    ojha sir…
    as usual… another masterpiece in a long line of them i must say… and the annual cloths shopping during puja… i thought over time it has become a tatanagar tradition rather than a only Bengali one… and s far as the jatras go.. i think the latest additions during our times ( at least in sonari /ramnagar area) was the presence of some actress from bengali cinema..i remember rupa ganguli coming at least twice….
    great piece of writing..keep it up

  6. This is a wonderful article and I must say each and very Jamshedpurian must read it. It not only talks about a earlier South Bihar state converted to Jharkhand State where each and every citizen of this city held and still holds pride being associated with this first steel city of India. This city has always had a blend of rich cultural mix where be it a bengali or a non bengali every one mixed around with each others culture deeply.

    Talking about what Santosh has written, even now children brough about in places like Sakchi, Sonary, Kadma and other places have had this “Bengali way of life” embedded in them. Still in the Sarbajanin Puja of Circuit House Area, there is this “Parar Natok” ( Drama played by local boys and girls) is an exciting thing to watch. People from all castes ( even Muslims & Christians) would be decked up in their best suit waiting to be noticed

    …… It is really nostalgic when one writes about the City which gave us everything

  7. Om Prakash Choudhary says:

    Santosh, Another great piece! Having read some of your pieces, I think, your observation, flow and choice of words to create the exact situation in readers’ mind somehow connect with them in a very natural and simple way. It feels as if a childhood friend has narrated a story which both of us have lived in past.

    Brilliant, Keep it up Santosh!

    – OP

  8. shumone chatterjee says:

    Ojhada, poray bohut bhalo laglo…ami Jamshedpurey du bochor katiyechi but those were such wonderful years….every moment is still etched in some corner of the heart and mind and keeps popping up every once in a while. The rest of my childhood being spent in Kolkata denied me the pleasures of life of a probashi bangali. Now I stay in Bangalore to fulfill my professional responsibilites. These stints in Jamshedpur and Bangalore have convinced me that one has to necessarily live in a city outside of Bengal preferreably in a Bengalee colony to truly understand the Bangalee mon and praan. Kolkata has lost its Bangalitywo as a metropolitan city usually does trying to be something to everybody. Life in probash is far more true with every Bangali wanting to remind oneself of the roots and never allowing anyone else (especially the local community) to forget that one is a Bangali. Our ability to offer a special dialect to every language and to practise this special dialect with confidence and social abandon is truly remarkable. We have made Engleesh our bhery own language, and Banglindi was made popular by our dadus and didas much before the Indipop artistes created Hinglish. Its perhaps time that Bangalees got respected for their wanderlust and unbridled comfort with any state and any community – starting from Patna, Ranchi, Jamshedpur to Lucknow, Kanpur and Allahabad and with a vibrant left turn to Pune and then finally ending up at the new Ladakh – Bengaluru…interesting that there is a Bengal locked in Bengaluru as well…Keep it flowing Santoshda…poray bohut bhalo laglo….in my grand-mom’s words, goper phank diyey muchki muchki hastan hain?

  9. Ranjit Kumar Saha says:

    Santosh Ojha,
    Tomar bojha-sojha
    Akebare thik;
    Bara manabik.

  10. santoshojha says:

    Sorry all, been travelling for the last 2 weeks virtually non-stop to respond to you lovely comments. Thanks a lot to each one of you for your encouraging comments. Here are my individual responses.

    Amit: I consider myself as a bit of a “probashi” myself having stayed away from Jamshedpur for the last 30 years or so!! I am glad that this piece reminded you of you chhuti in Jamshedpur.

    Srila: Chattooooo! I am truly blessed thanks to the associative Bangla blood. And you friendship as well! Will most certainly look you up when I am in Bombay next for the Bangal ranna if not anything else! Hopefully it would be your cook who will do the ranna!!!

    Rajarshi: Thanks a lot. I am glad you have liked my earlier pieces.

    Mou: Liked your description of your own jatra experiences. And I will most certainly steal your kala namak/ imli bit for a subsequent piece of mine! OK?

    Rahul: Thanks. We never had the pleasure of R Ganguly, but we still enjoyed the jatras. Hope to catch up soon.

    Indranil: Jamshedpur is a great place indeed and we are all proud of the place. “Parar natok” were lovely. I have seen so many version of “Tasher Desh” thanks to them!

    OP: Thanks to your constant encouragement. All the time. I am happy that you find my narratives interesting.

    Shumone: Loved the piece on Bengali “mon and praan”. I agree whole-heartedly. I too am a resident of the “new Ladakh”, Bangalore! Re. your deeda’s quote, I too have a well-manifested “gope”! Will respond to your other comment on my blog nomenclature separately. Thanks for the suggestions.

    Ranjit Saha:

    Ranjit Saha,
    Kya likha aapne, aha!
    I am glad

  11. Anik says:

    Ojha sir,

    pore khubi valo laglo..i am a bangladeshi…bangla is our life…Bangladesh a akbar ghure jan…dekhben akhankar protiti nodite vorer aloi hasimukhe bangla okhhor gulo vese berai..

  12. Roli says:

    I enjoyed this piece as much as i do other writings of yours.Though i would like to visit Kolkata someday- for selfish reasons- Jewelry SHOPPING!
    I have fwded this article to another friend of mine at AA- JV- Jataveda Dasgupta- Kolkata’s her ex-home and her parents still reside in Kolkata.
    She might leave a comment on this blog, when she gets a chance.

  13. Arindam says:

    A real masterpiece no doubt. I really wonder how long you could take to recollect your memory and pen down this blog to describe in such an interesting manner.
    The way you have painted the minute details to make it a live show..really commendable. Keep it up.

  14. Aruna says:

    Never saw this piece earlier….bahut mazaa aay padhkar!!!

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