Brit Influences Linger on in Bengali Psyche


Anglo-Bengali camaraderie may be traced back to 1690 when Job  Charnock, a senior official of the erstwhile East India Company, shifted his operations to Sutanati, an obscure village inhabited by local merchants who had dealings with the company. Gradually he  got the area merged with  two other villages, Gobindopur and Kalighat, thus laying (although this is highly disputed) the foundation of  the  sprawling  and bustling metropolis known  today as Kolkata (earlier Calcutta). It reposed in full glory as the capital of  British India until it yielded place to New Delhi in 1911.

Charnock went to his grave in due time, but the cultural Carrefour he created persisted beyond four centuries and is palpable even today.

Looking around  a typical  urban  upper class Bengali home you will find vestiges of British lifestyle: Bookcases and shelves lining  the walls, a study desk-chair ensemble by the  window overlooking a garden or street as the case may be. The piano — an integral part  of  Continental culture — has been  replaced by the ubiquitous harmonium, a gift of the Raj  era. By and large quintessential Bengali girls are still trained (at home) in the Victorian  style  – needlework, painting, recitation, vocal or instrumental music lessons et al . These elements linger, the winds of modernization notwithstanding.

Onward to dietary habits. For breakfast the Bengali babu still prefers toasted slices with butter or jam, a fruit (banana/apple/orange) washed down with steaming cups of Darjeeling or Assam Tea. Indeed, we Bengalis owe a lot to the colonial rulers for ushering Tea into our land from China and elsewhere. Nor can one overlook other breakfast items like boiled or poached eggs and maamlet (corrupted from omelette).

Bengalis still sip their Tea using cups & saucers, munching on biscuits, cookies and crackers. Far removed from spicy, crunchy savouries served  in other parts of the country. Bengalis have a penchant for snacks most of which trace their origin to British cuisine. For instance, the  globally renowned English staple fish and chips got diluted into fish fry minus the chips. This is a sine qua non for all social gatherings even today. Up to today, highly popular snacks (a.k.a street food) of the Bengalis encompass sandwiches, rolls Dimer Devil (scotched eggs), Breast (braised) chicken and Chop–Katlet (chops, cutlets  made of  egg/veggies/ fowl/meat). The British connection is as clear as daylight!

Come winter and Xmas season you will find Kolkata folks busy in baking or buying cakes , pastries and diverse gateaux from  renowned bakeries and cake shops (Flurry’s being one) in and around town. Christmas season is also time for picnics and excursions – a practice which the natives borrowed  from the Colonials.

The vestiges of the Raj are discernible in the metropolis even after nearly eight decades of independence. Colonial edifices with shuttered doors and windows, brick red-pink-green-yellow colour schemes, lofty ceilings, arched doorways, front doors opening onto pavements (all in older parts of town) are unmistakable. Four poster beds and solid looking dressing tables still enjoy pride of place, within.      

On the roads, the mustard yellow taxi cabs remind people of a bygone era. In old eateries, restaurants and sweet shops you  might spot vintage wall clocks with Roman digits and pendulums to boot. Although they disappeared from other cities e.g Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata tenaciously clings to its tram cars, renovating and upgrading rather than junking them altogether.   

British influence is amply evident in Bengali  lexicon too. Nobody remembers how and when the respectful form of address ma’am got transformed into mem saheb. Likewise,  ‘Lord’ (viceroy/governor general) transmogrified into Laat Saheb. Incidentally saheb denotes worthy, honourable in Persian – the official language prior to the advent of Europeans in India. School masters became master moshai. (Moshai is equivalent to the French Monsieur.) Judges (joj saheb) were legal professionals. However, the Bar-at-Law brigade were called Joj-Barristers. Then  you have an interesting array of words depicting harmonious coexistence of English and Bangla –  doll putul, boot-jutow for instance. In common parlance Bengalis say hebby (corrupted form of heavy) to denote anything awesome. And yes, people still turn to “cinema” for wholesome entertainment. A familiar swear word happens to be Maaireee, derived  from Marry / By Mary   prevalent in the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare used it profusely in his works.   

It is remarkable as to how Bengalis generously borrowed from English language, where the naming of their daughters was concerned. From pre-independence era through to present times, Bengali households are teeming with Lilly, Polly, Molly, Dolly, Emily and what have you! On a personal note, an aunt of mine, very beautiful to look at, was christened Helen by her doting parents!

Bengalis outsmart their fellow countrymen in terms of their passion for cricket and football, both legacies of the British. It is not unusual for them to bunk classes and even work when sporting season is on. Fashion, style related vocabulary still has strong presence in people’s minds. You must realize that vanity bag is a precursor of the handbag, ‘bob’ cut is synonymous with short hairstyles, while snow-cream-powder is ladies’ cosmetics. Like it or not, undeniably Bengalis had the longest and most intensive interactions with the Britons. The diehard desi brigade might shout themselves hoarse but the influence of Angrez  is here to stay…