Sunday, June 19, 2011

The All Bengali Crime Detectives by Suparna Chatterjee

Two Thumbs Up!

I have been reading about this book in the blogosphere and even discovered that the author had a book reading @ Crossword - which I missed due to prior commitments. So, when I finally managed to go to Crossword (quite by chance) - I started looking for a copy... and found it too. I read the back cover and then began flipping through the pages. On page 11 itself I came across "Roko, hum idhar girega." This is classic Hingali - meaning that the said person wants to get off/get down at that particular spot/place. (Note: I opted for 'Hingali' instead of 'Bendi' for obvious reasons *wink*)

Needless to say I was hooked!

ABCD is not just a detective novel or crime fiction. It gives you a glimpse of the celebrated 'City of Joy' - Calcutta or rather a word picture of the sights and scenes of Kolkata, and Bengali culture - that is guaranteed to make a smile appear on your lips. And I mean no disrespect. Even if you haven't visited Kolkata, this book will transport you there.

You get to read about the 'paaras' (much more than what is usually meant to be a middle class neighbourhood or locality), the euphoria and intense rivalry brought about by 'Durga Pujo' (which coincides with 'Dussehra' in the North and 'Dassara' in the South of the Vindhyas.) Infact, the unabashed one-upmanship and brinkmanship displayed during the pujo would even make the fifty-year "Cold War" appear very thanda! Added to this are the subplots that involve finding a perfect match for a "wheatish-complexioned girl" and a one-sided love story. And of course the sacred ritual of going to the 'bajar' (bazaar or market, Bengalis usually refer to this as: "marketing korte jachchi") to buy vegetables and fish - Ilish maach (Hilsa), chingri maach (prawns), etc - with the 'bajarer tholi' (the nylon shopping bag) in hand. This bag is exclusively used for this very purpose and it is the unavoidable 'duty' of the man of the house to go to the bajar whenever required. And somehow Sundays are considered to be the best and most appropriate days to be spent in the bajar, tholi in hand, haggling over maach (fish), begetables (vegetables) and kochi panthar mangsho (mutton culled from a young goat). The whole experience is nothing like you would have seen/read/come across anywhere else, I tell you!

Now, here is the crime bit: In a middle-class Calcutta neighbourhood, the lives of four recently retired men take an unexpected turn when they stumble upon a crime and become detectives.

The crime in question is the sudden disappearance (rather robbery) of a rare diamond - the size of a full-grown grape - and supposedly belonging to the Maharani (Queen) of Garhwal... from right under the noses of retired Joj Saheb Akhil Banerjee, Bibhuti Bose, Chandan Mukherjee and Debdas Guha Roy aka 'Chaar Padabi' or 'the four surnames'. In short: ABCD.

Why 'Chaar Padabi'? Well 'padabi' (or podobi) in Bangla means 'surname'. And Deb, Das, Guha and Roy are all independent or distinct Bengali surnames!

The crime does get solved eventually. But the build up to the solution is great fun... and includes the delightful anecdote about the Bhim Nag created 'ledikeni' - an ubiquitous round dark sweet - deep-fried balls of semolina, milk, khoya and sugar syrup stuffed with saffron and elaichi (cardamom) and fried in ghee to attain a rich brown colour. It is partially like a pantua and partially like a langcha (a specialty from Shaktigarh in the Bardhaman/Burdwan District of West Bengal) but very different in taste from them. This is quite apt 'coz no account of 'Bangaliana' (Bengali food culture) is complete without 'Bangalir Roshobodh' (the legendary sweet tooth of the Bengalis.)

Therefore, it's no wonder that the Bengalis have also come up with the delicately named "
lobongo lotika" and the "mishti shingara" - small samosas filled with sweetened reduced milk that go straight from the wok into a syrup wash. The limitless possibilities that the samosa offers - the opportunities to play with tastes and textures; size and seasonings, fragrances and fillings - has inspired cooks down the ages. And the results are fascinating, often surprising, but always tasty. But none could think of the "mishti shingara" - the sweet singara - before the bhojon roshik Bangali, who is willing to undertake an epicurean voyage anytime. Bite into the Bengali shingara and the light puff pastry melts away to release the flavours of subtly seasoned potatoes or cauliflower teamed with green peas or groundnuts. Ah bliss!

But I digress.

ABCD is the debut novel of author Suparna Chatterjee, a Bengali, currently staying in Bengaluru and she is undoubtedly thrilled with the reader response. "I'm indebted to Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Satyajit Ray. They planted in me a burning desire to become a sleuth, but I followed their path and did the next best thing!" she says.

There is no doubt about that. Yours truly for one could detect the unmistakable flavour of the Feluda novels by the versatile genius Satyajit Ray in this book. The demeanour and methods adapted by Akhil Banerjee is reminiscent of the supersleuth Feluda (perhaps unknown to the author herself). You can even detect a whiff of Lalmohan Babu aka Jatayu in one of the characters. I will not tell you which one, you tell me.

One is also reminded of Potla, Habul and gang - the popular bunch of good-for-nothings from Bengali literature - who are known for their many escapades - especially while organising Saraswati Pujo - when in reality they have bid goodbye forever to the Goddess of Learning - from their hearts and minds. Yet their enthusiasm is undiminished and so is their diligence and they manage to pull off the pujo (on a grand scale of course) despite empty coffers and very little time at hand. All due to Potla's patent ingenuity.

Even something as innocuous as Saraswati Pujo can lead to intense competition. Just watch the superb Soumitra Chatterjee-Aparna Sen starrer "Basanto Bilap" - to get the drift. This movie had great casting and superlative performances even by the members of the supporting cast with such stalwarts as Robi Ghosh, Chinmoy Roy, Anup Kumar and Shyam Laha making their presence felt. So much so that it is difficult to imagine that they were not the main actors/stars. Ah... the good old days! It is a small wonder then that old is gold. I wish to see the satraps of Bollywood remake some of the gems of Bengali cinema - without diluting the essence of the story - so that they get a larger viewership and movie buffs can enjoy some quality cinema and entertainment instead of the tacky fare dished out inspite of several crores wasted on them. E.g., The delightful "Chupke Chupke" starring Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Sharmila Tagore was a remake of the Uttam Kumar-Madhabi Mukherjee starrer "Chhadobeshi", and the equally enjoyable Sanjeev Kumar-Moushumi Chatterjee starrer "Angoor" was a remake of yet another Bengali classic - the Uttam Kumar-Sabitri Chattopadhyay-Bhanu Bandopadhyay starrer "Bhranti Bilash". I hear SRK is re-remaking "Angoor". Lets see.

Even the Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed Rajesh Khanna-Jaya Bhaduri starrer "Bawarchi" (1972) was inspired by the Tapan Sinha helmed "Golpo Holeo Shotti" (1966) with Robi Ghosh, Bhanu Bandopadhyay, Chaya Debi and other powerhouse actors in the cast. Needless to say, the original was cinematically far superior. This Tapan Sinha classic is a mind-blowing classic - a non-convoluted drama with a special message. It is sparkling, real, a slice of life and is in black and white, a tint that makes old films even more enjoyable.

But I digress again.

In ABCD we have the usual bunch of para bratulas - Partho, Somen, Poltu, Bhombol, Bappa and Jishu - headed by the able Biplabda. Biplabda reminds us of the great Bengali author Narayan Gangopadhyay's creation Tenida of "Charmurti", Potoldanga and "de la grandi mephistopheles, yak yak!" fame. But I have a feeling that the intense rivalry over Durga Pujo is not settled yet, and the one-sided love story is inconclusive too. Therefore, I am waiting for the sequel to "The All Bengali Crime Detectives". Eagerly. [Note on Charmurti: Tenida and gang, the others being: Kyabla, Pyalaram and Habul.]

BTW Bengalis have a patented word for 'para bratulas' - the unmatched "Rockbaj". It is not to be confused with the macho 'Rocky'. Bujhechen? And the unfriendly neighbourhood bully is the "parar mastan".

If I were to elucidate about Durga Pujo and what it means to Bengalis - "Probashi Bangali(s)" [Bengalis who stay a few grass fields away from Bengal; may be in Delhi, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Orissa, Assam or thousands of miles away in New York, Tokyo, London and Berlin], "Bangal(s)" [Bengali folks whose ancestors trace back to East Bengal, present Bangladesh], "Ghoti(s)" [Bengali folks who are originally from West Bengal] and "Bagh(s)" [offspring from mixed marriages between "Bangals" and "Ghotis" - conveniently derived from the "Ba" of "Bangal" and "Gh" of "Ghoti"] - this post will become a mile long, if not longer.

In every middle class locality (paara) a "Pujo Committee" would swing into action every year, sometimes the choice of office bearers would become so politicized that one almost felt that soon the RAF or the elite Black Cat Commandos may have to be called in - to restore peace among the community members. The fierce parental rivalry regarding the children selected for solo performances or lead roles were an unfailing annual event too. Ma Durga and her four offspring could bring out the worst in some and unmask many too, or so it seemed. I remember how the neighbourhood aunties (paarar Kakima[s], Mashima[s], Pishima[s] and Jyethima[s]) waddled about and strutted around like proud ducks and penguins and flashed menacing looks at competitors who till then were probably their offspring's best friends. Tension reigned supreme and everyone's BP climbed Mt. Everest. In retrospect, these incidents of intense rivalry and competition seemed amusing and juvenile. And rightly so!

However, in ABCD you do get a quick yet informative glimpse about how Durga Pujo came about. And till date I have not come across a more clearer definition of the Bengali term "Adda" - which is a way of life in Bengal and for the Bangalis - of all hues, shades and tints of colour, wherever they are. Bengalis have a fondness for debates and can indulge in conversations for hours. "Adda" is usually summarily translated/dismissed as "gossip" and not given its due courtesy/importance. This is sacrilege. Bengalis have an entirely different term for "gossip" which is "PNPC" - meaning "Poro Ninda Poro Chorcha". And "Adda" and "PNPC" cannot intermingle - there are clear lines and sessions for both.

Read ABCD to get a feel of the multi layered three-letter Bangla word - iye. It is short but not simple... filled with meanings, inner meanings, subtleties, possibilities, flavour and spice... and not always all things nice.

I wouldn't deliberate much on Rabindrasangeet - the songs of the great poet laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. The magical mystique of beautiful words powerfully strung together and resonating with mellifluous music is known as Rabindrasangeet. The bard's rich, diverse and vast literary oeuvre is virtually unmatched in the world. He was also a painter and a composer par excellence.

I have already elucidated a little about Bengali names and its socio-cultural significance. Do read up: Bhaalo Naam vs Daak Naam: What's in a name? (
Part-I) and Bhaalo Naam vs Daak Naam: What's in a name? (Part-II).

My rating: The fresh and limpid writing style interspersed with humour and interesting tidbits of information is a readers delight. It pulls you into the narrative and keeps you engrossed throughout. Simple effective storytelling at its best!

The production quality of the book is pretty good while the book jacket cover is nicely done. It's colourful and instantly catches the eye.

I am going with a 4/5 for Suparna Chatterjee's debut novel... and awaiting her next book with high expectations - hopefully a sequel to ABCD.

Details of the book: The All Bengali Crime Detectives/ Author: Suparna Chatterjee/ Publisher: Rupa & Co./ Publishing date: January 1, 2011/ Language: English/ ISBN-10: 8129117827/ ISBN-13: 9788129117823, 978-8129117823/ Bookbinding: Paperback/ Price: Rs. 150 (Rs.90 on Flipkart)/ No. of pages: 192.

Photograph: The book jacket cover of "The All Bengali Crime Detectives". Picture courtesy: link.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bhaalo Naam vs Daak Naam: What's in a name? (Part-II)

You can read the 1st part: HERE.

Amusing it might be, but the fact remains that even the most aristocratic and influential Bengali bhadro mohila (lady) and bhadrolok (gentleman) alike would have an equally embarrassing daak naam at home. All the elders in the family apart from friends and neighbours would insist on addressing them by it... throughout their lives, irrespective of the time and place and the positions they may hold. In the Bengali movie 'Mouchak' the matinee idol of Bengali cinema Uttam Kumar had 'Kanchu' (a 'contrite face' as in 'mukhta kanchu-machu kora', like a puppy which has just chewed through your Mac cable) as his dak naam while the then upcoming actor Ranjit Mullick was called 'Pocha' (stale).

Outside of Kolkata, it is exceedingly difficult to explain why your mother or your pesky 'choto bone' or 'choto bhai' (younger sister or brother), 'Borda', 'Mejda', 'Shejda', 'Chhorda' or 'Bordi', 'Mejdi', 'Shejdi', 'Chhordi' (an assortment of older brothers and sisters) and even cousin [jyatuto/ khudtuto/ mamato/ pistuto - Dada(s), Bhai(s), Didi(s) and Bone(s)/ meaning: elder or younger brothers and sisters related from one's maternal or paternal side] is calling you Bumba, Jhontu or Piklu instead of Anirban, Tonmoy or Deeptesh. Or Tuku, Jhimli or Kutu instead of Deboleena, Mrinalini or Shayantanee. I personally knew a pair of sisters with the daak naam Kutu-Tuku.

For Bongo tonoy(s) and Bongo tonoya(s)/ lolona(s) nothing can be a bigger source of embarassment (or occasionally, pride) than the daak naam their parents have bestowed on them. There are instances where babies were named 'Teko' (baldy), 'Boka' (foolish), 'Kyabla' (unsmart), 'Hyabla' (foolish, dumb), 'Kaltu', 'Keltu' ('dark complexioned' in an unflattering manner) and 'Hego' (crappy, as in someone who is forever engaged in doing the 'big job') - ostensibly to protect them from the evil eye. Even 'Hippo' - for a particularly bonny baby. Male babies born in 1986 were nicknamed 'Zico' in the euphoria of the 1986 FIFA world cup. Later, babies received names like 'Zizou' and 'Ronaldo'. Much pride. This year many Messis, Robbens and Tevezes will be born in Kolkata. Some may be called 'DaVinci', 'Rafa' or 'Saina' as well.

Continuing with football and footballers - the Bengalis have truely heeded the great poet laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's exhortion "Dur-ke korile nikot, bondhu, porke korile, bhai". [tr: I bought him closer, who was at a distance; I made him my brother, who was an alien to me.] In short: Make others your own.

So, the Nigerian Footballer and ace Striker Cheema Okeri - who dominated the Calcutta soccer scene with his lethal goal scoring ability and played for the East Bengal Football Club (patronized by the "Bangals") from 1987 to 1990 - is just 'Cheemada' ("da" as in "Dada" or elder brother in Bangla) to "Bangals" and "Ghotis" alike.

In the good old days, in the interiors (of Bengal) names like Taempa, Boncha (means 'flat' as in a 'flat nose'), Pocha (meaning stale), Panchu (a crooked face, resembling the number 5 in Bangla - 'Bangla-r paanch'), Ponchu, Bhuto (alluding to a ghost), Hulo (a tom-cat is called 'hulo bedal' or plain 'hulo' in Bengal), Pyancha (meaning 'one who looks or behaves like an owl'), Khandu and Khanda (slang for a thick nose, as in 'khanda naak' and a sound thrashing as in 'khendiye biday koro') - for boys and Khendi (feminine version of 'Khanda'), Penchi (feminine of 'Pyancha'), Taempi (feminine of 'Taempa'), Bunchi (feminine of 'Boncha'), Khanto (meaning 'stop') - for girls were the norm. And girls thought nothing about having Bhalo Naam(s) like: Annakali and Rokkhekali while boys were lovingly called Bhuthnath and Pyancharam. These names would even become the identity of their parents, especially their mothers. Khandu's mother would be referred to by all and sundry as "Khandu-r Ma" while Hulo's mother will automatically become "Hulo-r Ma". And a couple would refer to or address each other by the same names quite comfortably, e.g., "Hulo-r Ma" and "Hulo-r Baba". It probably hasn't changed much. [Note: the other names are untranslatable.]

Now, the daak naam is the new bhaalo naam. E.g., Tupur and Tapur Chatterjee, the well-known twins from Bengal who are also famous models. Btw tapur-tupur denotes the sound of trickling raindrops - as in "brishti pode tapur-tupur, naday elo baan". (Tr: the pitter-patter of raindrops brings the river into flood) [Note: To read the full lyrics and listen to the song: click on this link.]

Common names like: Indranil, Debojit, Subhashish, Debashish, Anirban and Dipankar can be found in every class, every office - practically everywhere. Almost every Debashish will have a brother named Subhashish and vice versa. Similarly all Dipankar(s) will have Subhankar(s); all Debojit(s) will have Subhojit(s); all Debojyoti(s) will have Shubhojyoti(s); every Alok would have an Ashok and every Amol will have a Kamal for a brother. This was and is the norm. Similarly for the female of the Bengali species: Sudeshna, Debjani, Debarati, Gargi, Sonali, Mousumi, Moumita, Ananya, Lopamudra and Moonmoon are found in abundance - there is a very rich harvest of these names, so to speak.

Traditionally Bengalis would take great pride in naming their offspring with obscure, complicated, long and difficult names. Pundorikakkho, Pradyumno, Bibhutibhushan, Kshiteesh Chandro, Rudraneel, Arghyakamal, Archisman, Hara Shankar, Heramba Chandro, Arko Prabha, Bodhisattva - for boys and Indrayani, Haimabati, Anuranjini, Kuasha Kona, Konkaboti, Tilottama, Bhobotarini, Bhubanmohini, Mrinalini, Durgesh Nandini, Kapala Kundala - names which sounded like characters from the mythology and epic tales... and perhaps should have been allowed to remain there. They were difficult to spell and quite impossible to pronounce for everyone else... including the bearer of these names - especially when he or she was little. Poor things, how they would struggle with an uncooperative tongue! Talk about non-cooperation movement of a different kind!

Imagine being burdened with a bhalo naam like Kshiteesh Chandro Pakrashi, Pundorikakkho Purokayashtho or Raj Lokkhi Patitundi!

Thankfully, the culture of having the choicest tongue twisters for a name is gradually fading and minimalist contemporary names with lesser syllables are in vogue now. The "aantel" (intellectual) Bangalis have finally realized that their world is much larger than Kolkata and/or West Bengal... and therefore to make a 'name' for themselves, they have to opt for modern and user friendly ones. However, these modern names invite trouble of a different kind. A boy named '
Sampan' (a small flat-bottomed Chinese skiff propelled by oars or a scull), which was meant to be 'artistic and romantic', may find that it has been conveniently changed to 'Sampanna' meaning 'affluent' - by sundry folks without so much as a by your leave. 'Arijit' (vanquisher of foes) miraculously metamorphoses into 'Harijeet' or the Punjabi sounding 'Harjeet' (must put this down to an overabundance of 'democracy'!) while 'Tibro' (meaning 'fast and furious') is compelled to go through various permutations and combinations, like: Tibr, Tibre, Tivra and eventually settle for 'Teev'. And the classic 'Kokonad' ('red lotus' in Sanskrit) is reduced to Koke, Koko and even Kokonut. All in the name of convenience! Just like 2-minute Maggi noodles.

Therefore, Satya Sundar Bose becomes Sata Bose. Sabyasachi Sen is Saby Sen, Rananjay Sarkar is Ronny Sarkar, Padmalochan Karmakar is Paddy Kar, Sushmita Sen is Sush, Suchismita is Suchi, Ipshita is Ips, Suchorita is Sucho, Vatsayan or Srivatsa is Vats, Shyam Sundar is Sam or Sammy, Lopamudra is Lops, and so on and so forth.

Very few people know that the matinee idol of Bengal - 'Mahanayak' Uttam Kumar - was born as Arun Kumar Chatterjee, while the ethereal screen goddess of Bengal - Suchitra Sen - was actually Roma Dasgupta. The legendary actress, who has for over three decades been living in Garbosque seclusion, was "Krishna". Yes, that was her daak naam. The screen legend even refused to come out of her seclusion and accept the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke Award in August 2006 - presented by the president of India.

Samyamoy Bandopadhyay won't ring a bell with anyone unless they are told that it was the bhaalo naam of the peerless Bhanu Bandopadhyay aka Bhanu Banerjee - the grand old man of Bangla comedy. The man was unputdownable in plays conducted over the radio and brilliant in creating satirical jokes with a political tinge. Similarly, veteran actor and current 'Feluda' - Sabyasachi Chakraborty - is "Benu(da)" while the versatile actor, funny man and 'Tenida' - Chinmoy Roy - is "Chinuda". The suffix "da" (short for "Dada") means elder brother in Bengali, not the lumpen elements of aamchi Mumbai, mind you! The talented Robi Ghosh and sometime 'Jatayu' was actually Robi Ghosh Dastidar and the equally talented, popular actor-comedian and yet another 'Jatayu' - Anup Kumar - was born as Satyen Das.

But nobody would like to be named as 'Nondo Ghosh', 'Gouri Sen' and 'Khagen' in Bengal. 'Coz it is "Joto dosh Nondo Ghosh" [tr: Nondo Ghosh is the universal scapegoat]. Unexplainable, but I guess 'Nondo Ghosh' here represents the nameless, faceless and powerless 'aam aadmi' aka 'mango man' who is to be blamed whenever something goes wrong. Or who has to shell out higher taxes every year for the government (consisting of numerous 'humble servants' of the aam-aadmi) - to announce 'free' mid day meal schemes, 'free' rice distribution ceremonies and sundry other sops to fleece the same aam-aadmi.

Even our Income Tax guys don't like to tax their brawn and brains... after the 'taxing' job they do.

And it is "Lage taka debe
Gouri Sen" [tr: When money is needed Gouri Sen would provide]. 'Gouri Sen' here is a rich male businessman from 18th century Bengal. Now-a-days it is the hapless 'aam-aadmi'. No prizes for guessing!

As for 'Khagen', it is: "Mere baaper naam Khagen kore debo!" [tr: Will beat you so hard that your dad would be renamed as Khagen]. I have no clue about the story behind this idiom, hence fail to understand the significance of the name 'Khagen' here. However the only positive is that son's of real Khagens don't have to worry too much. I knew of a Khagen and his son had no worries of any physical harm whatsoever.

Bengali names are extremely gender sensitive - male and female names are different, irrespective of their meaning and are generally differentiated while spelling and pronouncing them. For the uninitiated, Sudipto (M) and Sudipta (F) have a world of difference, ditto Aparajito (M) and Aparajita (F). Some names might be treated as feminine in other parts of the country, but Bengalis follow strict traditional naming patterns/customs. Thus, 'Suman' (meaning 'flower' and usually a girl's name in the North of the Vindhyas) is a masculine name among Bengalis (Sumon) with Sumana/Sumona being its feminine form! A Bengali girl will never be called 'Kamal' (meaning 'lotus') but 'Kamala' (meaning 'orange hued') with an additional 'a' in the end. I don't blame Indians from other states... who fail to capture the subtle difference in the pronunciation of Rajarshi (M) and Rajyashri (F) and equate it with Rajarshree or Rajshree (F) instead. It is unfair but unavoidable.

So, next time someone says - what's in a name? A lot actually, if you are a Bengali!

Talking of Bengalis and unusual names, I came across this bit. Let me share it here. Someone's father was named "Gandhi Sircar" by his grandfather (not sure whether it was his maternal grandpa aka 'Dadu' or the paternal one i.e., 'Thakurda') in the frenzy of nationalism - post our independence in order to honour the Father of the nation, of course. So this gentleman - "Gandhi Sircar" - grew up to be a "man with no name" (much like his silver screen idol Clint Eastwood in his westerns) and had 2 "surnames" (podobis) instead!! This led to rather amusing situations including 2 hotel rooms being booked for him - one for Mr. Gandhi and the other for Mr. Sircar! Howzzat!


Photograph: The renowned Bengali poet, novelist and short story writer Premendra Mitra's creation - the inimitable 'Ghanada' [also 'Ghonada']. Picture courtesy: facebook.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bhaalo Naam vs Daak Naam: What's in a name? (Part-I)

A Bengali has two names: bhaalo naam (good name or formal name) and daak naam (pet name or nick name). Those who have read or watched Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" should be familiar with this concept. Whenever a Bengali baby is born, s/he is not immediately bestowed with a bhaalo naam. The search for a bhaalo naam is a ritual in itself. It is deliberated upon by all and sundry with generous contributions from the innumerable uncle-aunties (Kaku-Kakimas, Jyethu-Jyethimas, Meshomoshai-Mashimas, Pishomoshai-Pishimas), grand parents (Dadu-Didimas, Thakurda-Thakumas), neighbours (pada-protibeshis), office colleagues (sohokormis) and friends (bondhu-bandhab). Even the maid (kajer-lok, the male of the species is ingeniously called 'combined hand'), friend's neighbours, colleague's friends, neighbour's colleagues and finally the family Gurudeb - the great and revered 'Baba' or 'Swamiji'. Till such time a suitable bhaalo naam is collated, analyzed and agreed upon... the Bengali baby is addressed by his/her numerous daak naam, which are quite phenomenal, so to speak.

Generally, Bengali boys are 'Babu' or 'Khoka' (small boy) and Bengali girls 'Khuki' (small girl) or 'Budi' (old woman) to their parents... with even Babloo, Babai, Tutun, Toton, Piku, Gogol, Bumba, Papai, Tatai, Chotku, Joy, Jeet, Tata (with a soft 't'), Gogol, Pintu, Montu, Raja (for boys) and Mumpi, Shona, Moni, Mona, Mimi, Titir, Tuktuk, Tultul, Bulbul, Tustushi, Jhumpa, Tumpa, Reena, Rinku (for girls) making it to the popularity list. Even Tinku... not to be confused with Tinku Jiya!

Now, daak naam(s) are more character oriented and heavily dipped in love, affection, and creativity. Therefore they generally do not have any bearing with the bhaalo naam whatsoever. It is also important to understand that the number of pet names a Bengali baby has, is directly proportional to the number of relatives and neighbours his/her family is blessed with or are in good terms with. So a Bengali boy can be 'Babu' or 'Babushona' to his mom (Ma), 'Babai' to his dad (Baba or Bapi), 'Dadubhai' to his grand dad (maternal: Dadu and paternal: Thakurda) and grand mom (maternal: Dida, Didima, Didu or Dimma and paternal: Thakuma or Thamma) but can be called 'Papa' or 'Papu' by his friends, 'Gola', 'Gablu' or 'Motu' by his cousins and 'Tendulkar' by his cricket crazy neighbour. Errr... on second thoughts may be 'Zico' or 'Pele' or even 'Garincha' and 'Kaka'.

Read the friendly discussion on football in ABCD (debutant author Suparna Chatterjee's novel "The All Bengali Crime Detectives") - you'll know how much clued into football an average Bengali is (was?) - even though there were/are hardly any grounds or place to play the beautiful game in Kolkata! There was a time when a game of football between Mohun Bagan (supported by the "Ghotis") and East Bengal (supported by the "Bangals") would bring the whole city to a standstill. Roads would be deserted while offices would register thin attendance... people having somehow succumbed to all sorts of diseases on that very day. Just watch the grand old man of Bangla comedy Bhanu Bandopadhyay's - "Personal Assistant" - where his friend (played by the superb yet ever neglected actor Tarun Kumar) comes up with 'half-cholera' as an excuse for Bhanu's absence from work! But hospitals and nursing homes would strangely not be flooded with patients; rather they too would wear a deserted look... with the doctors and other medical staff having summarily done the Houdini act.

[Note: Ghotis: Bengali folks who are originally from West Bengal. Bangals: Bengali folks whose ancestors trace back to East Bengal, present Bangladesh.]

The prices of Chingri maach (prawns, especially 'golda chingri' or tiger prawns and not 'kucho chingri' or shrimps) and Ilish maach (hilsa) would fluctuate according to the fortunes of the two clubs in question. The "Ghotis" patronized the chingri maach and were reassured of their true blue, unadulterated "Ghotiness" only by it, while the "Bangals" attained nirvana courtesy the Ilish maach. And till date only the "Bangals" know how to negotiate their way through this tasty minefield of fish thorns... and they continue to guard this fish version of the Holy Grail like secret quite zealously. Either way, the fishermen and the fishmongers made merry whatever the outcome on the field. And the price of these fishes pole-vaulted to unimaginable heights, courtesy the humble football. 'Capitalism' in all its glory. No?

I would recommend connoisseurs of good cinema to watch the Uttam Kumar-Sabitri Chattopadhyay-Jaya Bhaduri-Jahar Roy starrer "
Dhonni Meye". It is a laugh riot. Those who do not understand Bangla can watch this classic with English subtitles. Some of the punch and flavour may be lost or diluted... but that's inevitable. Just like the delectable rosogollar payesh and the rasmalai - but both are yummy in their own right. Right?

Not to forget the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen-Bhanu Bandopadhyay-Chobi Biswas classic "Ora Thake Odhare". Even "Mohun Baganer Meye" (tr: Daughter of Mohun Bagan) is not to be missed. "East Bengal-er Chele" (tr: Son of East Bengal) tanked... which goes on to prove that content is King. However, it did not affect the price of the much sought after Ilish maach one teeny-weeny bit though and the "Bangals" continued to savour Ilish maach-bhath/ Bhapa Ilish ar Jhar Jhare Sada bhaat/ Doi Shorshe Ilish/ Ilish mach-er Matha/ Ilish mach-er Dim Bhaja, et al without a care in the world. Wonder why the keuketa (who's who) of Bangla cinema decided to stop making such great films and opted to become the cheap cousin of Bollywood instead. What a pity.

However, I read that off late some amends are being made and the recent "Bangal Ghoti Phataphati" with a stellar cast comprising of current heartthrobs Jishu Sengupta and Koel Mullick, the Bengali theater and cinema legend Manoj Mitra, veteran actor and funny man Chinmoy Roy, Kanchan Mullick, the versatile Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Sabitri Chattopadhyay, Madhabi Mukherjee, Subhasish Mukhopadhyay, Biplab Chattopadhyay, Rita Koyral, among others is pretty decent.

But I digress.

More often than not these pet names or nicknames can and have outshined the Bhalo Naam... forever.

Without them, Gauranga Chakraborty and Alokesh Lahiri would never have become Mithun(da) and Bappi(da) respectively. And Mahakshay Chakraborty too wouldn't have been 'famous' as Mimoh Chakraborty. What? Does Abhas Kumar Ganguly, Prabodh Chandra Dey or Nilanjana Lahiri ring any bell unless I tell you that those are the bhalo naam(s) of Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey and Jhumpa Lahiri respectively?

Many a time the dak naam has been more popular with famous Bengalis, e.g., renowned footballers Goshtho Pal and Chuni Goswamy are actually Goshtho Bihari Pal and Subimal Goswami respectively. Well known business magnate Swapan Sadhan Bose is Tutu Bose, Pancham(da) is music maestro Rahul Deb Burman, Reena(di) is Aparna Sen, and Manik(da) is the versatile genius Satyajit Ray - whose son, acclaimed film director Sandip Ray is almost always referred to as "Babu(da)".

Even in fiction "Jatayu" (after the mythological bird) is more popular than 'Lalmohan Ganguli' (the best-selling writer of cheap crime thrillers in Satyajit Ray's Feluda novels) while Feluda's 'satellite' Tapesh Ranjan Mitter is better known as "Topshe" (a kind of fish popular in Bengal - Topshe maach.)

Have you ever wondered what would have happened to the following iconic characters without their nicknames/pet names: 'Feluda' (Pradosh Chandro Mitter), 'Ghanada' (Ghanashyam Das), 'Tenida' (Bhojohori Mukherjee), 'Kyabla' (Kushal Mitra), 'Pyalaram' (Kamalesh Banerji) and 'Habul' (Swarnendu Sen)? Even 'Bantulda' and 'Keltuda'? What would have happened to the delightful pairs of 'Handa-Bhonda' and 'Nonte-Phonte' - if they were to be 'blessed' with a bhaalo naam?

The answer would be a collective "Shobbonash" (actual: Shorbonash, meaning 'utter disaster'). So, Thank god for small mercies!

Even 'Dada' has outshone Sourav Ganguly and 'Didi' is more endearing than the quite a mouthful Mamata Banerjee. No?

The intelligent and intellectual (aantel) Bengali is quite aware of current affairs, sports, new discoveries, technological advances and general knowledge… and all of that manifests itself in the names - bhaalo naam and daak naam included. Especially for their beloved offspring and an assortment of equally beloved nephews-nieces (Bhaipo-Bhaijhi[s], Bonpo-Bonjhi[s] and Bhagne-Bhagni[s]). Plus the numerous offspring of para-protibeshis and shohokormis, and friends of neighbours and colleagues. That way an average Bengali is more than charitable, you see. The result: babies and tiny tots answering to names like - Rocket, Biman (aeroplane), Faraday (the famous physicist) and Gama (the famous wrestler - The Great Gama - aka Pehelwan Gama/ Palowan Gama in Bengali). And of course Zico and Pele - after the two Brazilian magicians of the beautiful game.

Here are some of the most common daak naams from an earlier era: Potla, Poltu, Bhombol, Bhomla, Pocha, Panchu, Kanchu, Habul, Ghoton, etc - for boys and Tempi, Puchki, Tuni, Buni, Bunchki, Bunchi - for girls. Times have changed... and now-a-days they mostly sound like they have been imported. Sample this: Sonia, Sania, Rhea, Sana, Zinea - for girls and Mark, Neil, Ian, Ryan, Aryan, Pinto, Rocky, Remo, Vivan, Jason, etc - for boys. I am not sure about the export bit though.

(More later...)

Photograph: The one and only Tenida. Pic. courtesy: facebook.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tête à tête with Charulata.

Those of you who are cinema literate would be familiar with the name - Madhabi Mukherjee. She acted in and as Charulata - in the versatile genius Satyajit Ray's iconic film by the same name... and was once linked with the great Ray himself. A journalist (Shubhobroto Ghosh from The Telegraph, Calcutta, May 11, 2008) visits her home and finds that the former actress hasn't lost her sense of humour or her tart tongue.

I found this piece while trawling the net... and decided to re-post it here. It makes for an interesting read.

Some images defy age spots. One such enduring moment in cinema is that of Charulata, looking at the world outside her window with a pair of opera glasses. Sheathed in light and shadow, the bored young home-maker - Madhabi Mukherjee at her best - smiles as she traces the footsteps of a particularly rotund passerby.

Madhabi Mukherjee is not smiling right now. She is involved in a minor spat with the cleaning lady - though it is the latter, really, who has been holding forth in a shrill soprano. We have reached her middle class home in south Calcutta before time, and the actress is in a nightie. She grabs a housecoat and ushers me into the drawing room once the cleaning lady has departed with her broom and her tirade, and switches off the television.

"Can't watch all this," she says. "You know, every animal has its call - or daak, as we say. When these gyrating boys and girls sing on television, I always think, this is the human being's animal sound."

So what did one expect? That she'd be in a sari worn with the pallu draped in front, and in a blouse with elbow-length sleeves lined with lace, embroidering 'Home Sweet Home' on a framed piece of cloth? That she'd be, à la Greta Garbo, or nearer home, like the elusive Suchitra Sen, isolated from the world outside, cocooned in an unlit home and behind dark glasses?

She is none of that. Madhabi - over whom, legend has it, a top director once left home - is like anybody's aunt, though the eyebrows are still perfectly arched, and the toenails glossy. Her room is nicely messy, with magazines and books strewn over a divan.

The lounge is the only give-away that we are in the house of an actress who once ruled Bengali cinema. Awards and mementos line cupboard shelves while the walls display Madhabi in different times. One large painting is an artist's homage to Charulata - it depicts her in a scene from Satyajit Ray's award-winning film.

Forty-five years ago Madhabi first appeared in Ray's Mahanagar. A year later, in 1964, she acted in and as Charulata. For decades, there was speculation about her relationship with Ray, something that Madhabi, now a grandmother, no longer wishes to talk about.

"But let me say one thing. I acted with Satyajit-babu in three films, and Soumitra (Chatterjee) acted in 14 films directed by him. I am surprised that nobody ever said anything about that," she says.

Ray's widow Bijoya Ray's book on her life with the director, released in Calcutta on April 28, mentions without taking names a relationship that Ray had with one of his actresses, and the subsequent trauma that Bijoya went through. Bijoya Ray writes in Amader Katha, earlier serialised in Desh, that she felt let down because she thought the star was not up to the director’s standards.

Madhabi says she hasn't read the book. "What does it say," she asks, sounding both indifferent and curious. And then, after a pause, she says, "I have always believed that if you say something, you must speak out the whole truth. Or else, don't say anything at all."

At 66, Madhabi has oodles of charm, and a funny streak that pops up like a jack in the box. She lugs a packet of Pan Parag - a chewy tobacco - with her and eats some every now and then. "My doctor keeps scolding me. But I tell him that I can list a number of people who didn't drink or smoke but died of cancer."

Madhabi, unlike Sen who has been a recluse for the last many years, has been up and about. In 2001, she came out on the streets after the Trinamul Congress pitted her against chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for the Jadavpur assembly constituency.

Her political journey actually started with a fire at the Star Theatre in Calcutta in the 1990s. Madhabi, a former stage actress, led a campaign to rehabilitate those affected by the fire. She asked Marxist leaders Jyoti Basu and Bhattacharya for help - but it was Calcutta mayor Subrata Mukherjee who finally came to the aid of the artistes. "I had then told Subrata Mukherjee that I would do anything in return."

Mukherjee demanded his pound of flesh three months before the West Bengal election when he asked her to contest against the chief minister. "I counted till three under my breath - and said, Yes!"

She lost the election by 30,000-odd votes but Madhabi has no regrets about not making her mark in politics. "It is not a world that I would like to be in. As an artiste, I want to be in a beautiful world, not in an ugly one."

The actress does have a mild regret, though - and that's for failing to note recent changes in Hindi cinema. In the late sixties, Raj Kapoor wanted her to act in Mera Naam Joker. He waited for six months for her to say yes and then finally approached Simi. Then, some years ago, Pradeep Sarkar offered her a role in Parineeta. Madhabi turned it down, saying that she didn't act in Hindi films.

"In our days, we were rather uppity about Bengali cinema, which was so much more superior to Hindi films. But there has been a change, and one failed to grasp that Bengali cinema had long been overtaken by Hindi films."

When she joined the industry, Madhabi was about eight. Her parents separated as her family moved to Calcutta from Bangladesh. Madhabi - then known as Madhuri - lived with her mother. "Our financial situation was such that I had to work. So I started acting in plays," she says. Her first roles in cinema were in Dui Beyaai and Kankantala Light Railway in 1950. She was given the name Madhabi when she was introduced as a lead actress in Mrinal Sen's Baishey Shravan (1960).

Then one day Ray sent her a message saying he wanted to meet her. Madhabi wasn't sure if he was serious about giving her a role. She went to meet him reluctantly - and only after the crew offered her the taxi fare. "We talked for a while, and then he said, okay we'll get back to you. To me, it sounded suspiciously like what you'd expect the father of a groom to say to the girl's family if he wasn't keen on the match."

But Ray did get in touch - and sent Madhabi a script of Mahanagar. Later, of course, there was Charulata, and then Kapurush in 1965. Ray never worked with her after that.

Madhabi also worked with the other Bengali giant - Ritwik Ghatak - in the 1962 film Subarnarekha. Ghatak went back to her with another script, but - or so goes the story among cinema buffs - Madhabi advised him to cut down on his drinking. A furious Ghatak stormed out of the house, apparently kicking her pet Pomeranian on the way.

"They - Ray and Ghatak - were both immensely talented. But Ghatak lacked temperance, which was really unfortunate," she rues.

In a self-deprecating manner, Madhabi talks about being both busy and lonely. "This is the problem of a mother whose children have grown up," says the actress, who lives in a flat by herself but regularly visits her husband, former actor Nirmal Kumar, who resides elsewhere in the city. She talks about her two daughters and their concern about her rising sugar levels. "I know walking is the best exercise for me, but I am such an 'eminent' person," she says, indicating the quote marks, "that whenever I go for a walk people stop me and say, Please come in and sit!"

But she keeps herself busy, she says. She is on the board of Prasar Bharati, and is planning to direct a film. And then there is a long-forgotten autobiography that she may well take up again.

So what will it be? A story that tells all, or nothing at all? Or were those famous last words?

Picture: Courtesy link.