Old-time Calcuttans, especially displaced ones like myself who still prefer to call Kolkata by its more anglicized name, find the City of Joy way more cosmopolitan than it was a decade ago. Scattered across the rapidly expanding city are miniaturized versions of Big Ben, Christ the Redeemer, Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum and its own rendition of a wax museum. Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan has been seen promoting Bengal tourism as its brand ambassador—riding a Kolkata tram, humming a Rabindra sangeet. International visitors, earlier a rarity, are now a dime a dozen.
It’s also a city coming to terms with the rapid influx of migrants from all over India; its carefully-preserved silos are being broken; comfort zones are being stepped out of.
Kolkata millennials have grown up, and evolved, in this state of churn. They acknowledge that the Bengali bhodrolok (somehow the English “gentleman” cannot pack the same punch), hallmarked by genteelness and a type of non-intimidating intellectual arrogance, remains a byword for the city’s ethos.But word on the street is being a bhodrolok does not cut much ice by way of practical functionality.
I am sitting with 26-year-old Rwitoban Deb, a political consultant and a former journalist. We are in a restaurant on Park Street, right next door to Flurys, where yesteryear’s bhodroloks nibbled on chicken patties and drank copious quantities of Darjeeling tea.
“The bhodrolok is being reinvented,” says Deb. “Consequently, we are being reinvented.” From time to time, he refers to “we, the millennials” as Kolkata’s “Netflix generation”. “You see, people my age want to snap out of the perception that Bengalis are laidback, lazy and… well… ineffectual.”
While there’s a certain romantic elegance about being a bhodrolok, the tag is overwhelmingly associated with an image. A bunch of Bengalis gathered in the smoke-filled environs of the casually decrepit College Street Coffee House—not very long ago, the hub of robust discourse—endlessly debating Tagore, films, welfare economics and the collapse of communism.
Intellectually stimulating, yes, but ultimately unproductive. “We live in result-oriented times,” says Deb. “How does a ‘typical’ slow-paced, argumentative bhodrolok quantify the bottom line?”
The change sweeping Kolkata, he adds, has been a good thing. “Bengalis are trying to redefine and reclaim their identity and culture, things they were taking granted, with a twist. We are moving on. Our bhodrolok ethos will remain with us—it just needs to evolve,” he says.
“Yes, true, things are in a flux, we have to change with the times, but our basics, the value system, will always be in place, despite the reinvention,” says 27-year-old Suranjana Ray, who’s starred in popular Bengali serials like Rajjotok and Chhoto Bou. True to form, she gets quite dramatic. “Bengali-ness, for me, is like a piece of exquisite jewellery, a valuable artefact, an heirloom, that’s passed on from generation to generation, a legacy if you will.”
How is the Bengali value system different from the rest? “It’s as simple as having initiative,” says Ray. “The average parent goes out of her/his way to instil ‘Bengali-ness’ in their child, wherever in the world they may be—learning to sing Rabindra sangeet, for instance, even if you don’t have a particularly good singing voice.”
In the line of fire
Ritwika Basu, 26, who’s pursuing a PhD in psychology, agrees. Her interview had to be worked around her Rabindra sangeet class timings. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything.” The Bengali reinvention, she says, can easily be mistaken as a classic deflection. “What comes through to me is how we, members of the millennial generation, are in the line of fire.”
They are being blamed for “forgetting Bengali culture just because Kolkata has, on the face of it, changed so much”. Assumption: she is young, therefore rootless and disconnected. “Far from it,” she asserts. “Bengali-ness—or call it the bhodrolok ecosystem—is too ingrained in us.”
As is mostly the case, popular culture has been a notable matrix. In reel, Uttam Kumar—carrying off both dhoti-kurta and tux with an equal measure of flair—and Soumitra Chatterjee as Felu-da (the iconic Bengali detective created by Satyajit Ray) equalled the alpha version of the bhodrolok culture in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. That notion of living in the past stuck like glue, feels Deb. “And that was the problem: we were drawing from a template created by nostalgia.” Nothing wrong with nostalgia but when one begins to build a belief system around it, it becomes an anachronism.
But there are “small gestures” establishing millennial links to the Kolkata chromosome. Many of them make it a point to have their wedding ceremony in Kolkata.
“It’s become a trend,” says Ray. “They don’t have to do it, but they want to. Somehow it’s really important that their identity shines through via a typical Bengali wedding, complete with quaint rituals, authentic food and classic attire, and most of them marry non-Bengalis, non-Indians.”
Hanging out with family elders is Basu’s favourite pastime, her way of carrying on the bhodrolok legacy. “I really enjoy it. There’s so much to learn and carry forward. It’s from them that I’ve learnt my core values that define ‘Bengali-ness’ for me: to be open-minded and accepting. They have a modernity that eludes the youth, who may be more exuberant but not necessarily in step. It’s time to bust the myth that the older lot make you look backwards.”
In his own way, Deb tries to keep his language alive. He reads a Bengali newspaper in the morning. It’s a conscious dose of sustenance to his roots, even though he realizes that Bengali, as a language, has been steadily losing its currency.
“Everything is need-based these days: if I make an effort to do something, it’s usually because there’s a benefit attached to it. But Kolkata’s Netflix millennials going that extra mile to resuscitate their language, knowing they probably won’t be able to cash in on this proves a Bengali revival [identity plus language]is on its way.”
Food, he adds, is another great leveller. Ray takes that forward: “I like having luchi-torkari [Bengali-style pooris and potato curry] on Sunday mornings. The gastronomic pride she feels as a Bengali is akin to a signature seasoning. “Yeah, right, I know it’s childish to gloat over identity at the breakfast table—but, what to do, we are like that only.”