Think of the Bengali kathak, the storyteller – at once an orator, a singer of some capacity, an actor, and a man of wit and some learning. William Ward, the Baptist missionary, described in detail the kathakata sessions that he witnessed first-hand in his forays among the Bengali populace in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The kathak told stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, from the puranas, to a discerning audience whose lack of formal education did not prevent them from posing philosophical problems before the kathak, who then had to elaborate upon them.

Think of the Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Bag of Tales) – a compilation of anonymous folk tales put together by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar – Bengali children grow up with, or the storytellers of modern Bengali literature, the Ghanadas and the Tenidas and the Tarini khuros. Think of the venerated Bengali adda, and the countless yarns spun in the course of a single evening. The Bengali nostalgia for rainy evenings, and bhooter golpo (ghost stories) sessions over cups of tea and alur chop (aloo pakodas that Bengalis will swear are superior to other, not-Bengali pakodas). This is a community that takes pride in its ability to tell stories.

In The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, Sudeep Chakravarti boldly sets out to tell the story of a storytelling people. A daunting task, even for a storyteller as adept as Chakravarti is. He doffs his hat at the very onset to predecessors such as Ramesh Chandra Majumdar and Sir Jadunath Sarkar (remembered, among other things, for the magisterial History of Bengal in two volumes) and clarifies, as though to ward off critics, “This is a personalised, often anecdotal journey about being Bengali that attempts to embrace history, politics, conflict, culture, and aspects of our homeland in the western and eastern part of Bengal…” And true to his promise, that is what The Bengalis remains, from start to finish – intensely personal, conversational in tone, and peppered with anecdotes drawn from Chakrabarti’s life.

The result is sprawling, at times meandering – but then, which Bengali storyteller worth his salt does not meander? which epic does not come equipped with digressions? – and always engaging.

Divided in unity

Chakravarti is preoccupied with what he calls the Banglasphere, that is to say, the universe of Bengali-speaking people tied together by a common language, cuisine, and shared cultural ethos. The Bengalis, therefore, touches upon the milestones of Bengal Renaissance-football-Naxalbari-adda-CPI(M) and so on with breezy familiarity. In what is truly a refreshing take, Chakravarti’s Banglasphere is not confined within the expected geographical space of the two Bengals or even the Bengali diaspora abroad, but one that accommodates the worlds of the Bengali-speakers of Tripura and Assam, long-neglected in mainstream Bengali discourse.

Chakravarti’s Bengali-ness, after all, is the inclusive, cosmopolitan Bengali-ness of Tagore (he firmly refuses to call people who are not Bengali “non-Bengali”, the one-size-fits-all Bengali word for “others”), one that has sharp words in store for the existing fractions and divisions, and a vision for a future of less strife and “Bengalis killing Bengalis”. His writing is at its sharpest in these sections as he deftly explores the bhasha andolan (language movement) in Assam and the fragile equations between the dominant Bengali population and the adivasi population in Tripura.

Equally sharp is Chakravarti’s understanding of the Hindu-Muslim rift in Bengali culture and politics. He recounts the history of the still-gaping wound that was the Partition with a clinical eye, sparing no one as he lays bare what was one of the bloodiest episodes in Bengal’s history. Bangladesh – the promise it holds for the Banglasphere as a nation of Bengali-speakers, as well as its slide into authoritarian violence in its handling of the aspirations of the indigenous population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the rise of fundamentalist violence in the name of Islam – finds a prominent place in Chakravarti’s book.

There is a hauntingly personal element to this, as he recounts the experiences of his family in the days leading up to the Mukti Juddho (the Liberation War of Bangladesh), or of his father’s horror and heartbreak that makes way for bone-deep distrust. The tale of the Bengal famine of 1943 is accompanied by that of the narrator’s mother’s childhood trauma, and concluded with a brief incident drawn from his own life, wherein he had reacted abruptly to the slur, “Bhookha Bangali”:

“Would it have helped had I told him that, not many years before this encounter, my colleague, a fellow senior editor at a magazine where I worked at the time in New Delhi, turned to me during a fortnightly editorial meeting, at which the fate of the country, if not the world, was decided, and loudly exclaimed, ‘Bhookha Bangali’ when I took a second biscuit from a plate that was passed around. At another time, during a similar meeting when he was at the receiving end of an argument, he opted for a scorched-logic tactic reserved for Bengali colleagues: ‘What would you know about Bengali politics?’ he exclaimed, as most others in the room had the grace to look discomfited. ‘You’re a refugee.’”

Some wounds run deep. Any Bengali reader would know.

Absences and presences

On a canvas as sprawling as that of The Bengalis, there are bound to be omissions, and despite Chakravarti’s best efforts, there are parts where the reader is left craving for more, such as the fantastic chapter on Gandhi’s last stand at Noakhali, or the disappointingly brief sections on the politics of West Bengal following the heady days of the Naxalbari movement. Similarly disappointing is the absence of Bengali women at large from Chakravarti’s narrative, despite brief episodes that feature the narrator’s mother or her younger sister. The author’s attempt to address the remarkable period in Bengal’s history that would lead to the establishment of schools for women, or the rise of Mamata Banerjee in Bengali politics, remains sketchy at best, as though women worth telling stories about are mere blips in the long duration of the history of Bengali people. One gets the feeling that the author is in a rush to encompass as much as possible within the frame of his book, even as the story of his people takes him from one improbable turn to another, from one thrilling juncture in Bengali history to the next at breakneck pace.

It is perhaps impossible to tell the whole story – if there is such a thing, at all – of a people as long-winded as the Bengalis, but Sudeep Chakravarti makes a valiant effort at telling his story. In the process, he manages the remarkable feat of offering fresh insights on a subject matter told and retold countless times over the years (for which Bengali can resist an attempt to talk about their own people?), while making his world accessible for his not-Bengali readers. At the end of four hundred odd pages, one is left longing to hear more from Chakravarti’s affable, at times self-effacing narrator – not to mention a craving for the Bengali food that occupies so much of his book.

The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, Sudeep Chakravarti, Aleph Book Company.

Swati Moitra has taught at universities of Delhi and Calcutta.