Friday, April 2, 2010

Bhaddoloker Cheley

Bhaddoloker Chheley

(the way it was in the 70s and 80s)

“Bhaddoloker Chheley”. There are passport phrases in almost all languages. An implicative comment, it is a shorthand that categorizes an entire lifestyle, not much different from a file type tag. Such phrases offer a passport to the holder, to certain entitlements, or lack thereof.

Bhaddoloker Chheley in Bengali means son of a gentleman (more properly Bhadrolok), a refrain heard repeatedly in Bengal. A son of a gentleman, by implication, is a gentleman. He is to be held as opposite to the lesser used, but oft implied, “Chotolok’er Cheley” (son of a small man), he is the one who will cross a puddle astride a rickshaw, the one who could make a social call in the evening, his folded cuffs exposing the HMT wristwatch with its oversize steel band hanging loose from his wrists, tackling twin rossogollas on his plate. He is to be trusted with a certain modicum of behavior, admitted into your house, an entrenched participant in a rigorous economic class structure. He may or may not have money—this was not important. He needed to have an education but was not required to be an intellectual—for there is another word for that –“Buddhijeebi” (crafted in pompous self definition, literally, as one who lives exploiting his brains).

Things would be particularly tragic if a Bhaddoloker Cheley went astray. Someone might say, “he was a gangster, a Bhaddoloker Cheley, turned into a gangster after falling in with foul company, and then got shot and killed—how tragic”. It would have been understandable, if the young man had projectiled out of the slums to this violent fate. But the thought of a refined bhadralok family, their neat life sliced apart by this wayward irregularity, was a cause for concern, a warning to other bhadraloks to keep their feet at bay from the incoming surf.

The bhadralok family did not admit to physical work (at least in the 70s and 80s). There was child labor for that, in the form of household help (today, though I understand that thankfully many of these children instead go to school). The gentleman might be an engineer, but a loose switch in his living room called for the electrician. And if the electrician was a dhoti clad bhadralok, then his presence warranted a few minutes in the living room, with tea and a couple of rossogollas.

Machismo has never been the bhadralok’s forte. Mock threats abound—“had you not been there to restrain me, I would have broken him into two”--but rarely culminate into action. “Seven millions sons, oh devoted Mother, you have made into Bengalis, not men. “--Rabindranath Tagore is quoted as saying in a book by Sikata Banerjee. Tagore, the poet of Bengal, did much to define this band of brotherhood. The bhadralok’s daughter, waiting in the wings for marriage, would have been a practitioner of his songs every Sunday morning. Seated on her bed, she would flay alive the gentle beauty of the poet’s work--heaving bosom in mournful, pendulous consonance above the swaying leather bellows of the harmonium.

Machismo aside, the Bhaddoloker Cheley, at some point in his life, has tried bodybuilding. This typically involved lathering himself up in mustard oil and spending a couple of weeks waving godas (heavy cast iron clubs), dressed in small shorts in the neighborhood “gym”—a simple construction typically next to a small park (I will bet that this practice, in the described form, is probably no more). Some of these kids would continue working out, developing bulging biceps and pecs and at this point they would cease to be bhadraloks. Bodybuilders had a peculiar set of norms. They would eat lots of ghee (clarified butter) and chickpeas. Raw eggs worked their way in after the movie Rocky was released in the late seventies. The iron that the weights were made of was sacrosanct. You could not contact it with your feet—this was a mark of disrespect—“lohay pa ditey nei”! If your feet touched them, you folded your hands and touched your forehead seeking forgiveness. Consequently, most Bengali bodybuilders ended up with spindly legs.

Emerging from their roots in the landed gentry and professional classes of the 19th. Century, who both aided and opposed the British, the ultimate bhadralok of the 1950’s was personified by characters such as the writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Strong willed, opinionated, fluent in the literature of both Bengal and England, he dedicated his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian”, in a quizzical act:“
“To the memory of the British Empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
"Civis Britannicus sum"
Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.

Taken in the context of the early 1950s, written by a man born in the late nineteenth century, the phrasing is understandable. Reading the book, one marvels at the extent of information available to the author in his developmental years. Most Bhadraloks in the decades following independence while not quite Nirad Babu clones, nonetheless retained an inherited set of values, albeit convoluted somewhat from what is reflected in Chaudhuri’s writings. The bhadralok was by and large an upright pillar of society, though not totally immune from an occasional trip to Kalighat (not for the right reasons) or some occasional graft during the time of the pujas. But their core set of values wove together in many instances a home environment where their children, wanting in many needs yet never lacking for books, had the opportunity to study and be mentored, and have equal access to knowledge comparable to almost anyone else in the world.

The bhadralok’s romantic sense of absolute expectation and its unfulfillment distinguished him. I have seen a gentleman walk into a test match and walk away just 10 minutes into the game, because he came to see the opening batsman Gavaskar play, and left after that wicket fell. According to him there was nobody else worth seeing and by departing, he made his point. And this is a constant theme, this separation on his own terms, figuratively or otherwise. “Class’ey keu uttar janto na, ami daralam, uttor ta diye beriye choley gelam class thekey”, said my chemistry teacher to me years ago, reminiscing his own days as a student—“nobody could answer the question, I simply stood up, gave the answer, and walked out of the class”— his departure was his exclamation point, signaling that he had nothing more to give, or take. V. S. Naipaul, in “A Million Mutinies Now”, describes the Presidency College physics professor Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, who did not do physics anymore because the problems that interested him, he did not possess the skills to solve, and the problems that he could tackle, did not interest him. Not letting his own limitations sully his high standards, he elevated himself out of this dilemma by quitting active research.

No description of a Bengali bhadralok is complete without a description of his organic urge to cross the mythical river. “Bolo Radhey, Brojosundari, par koro, par koro”—“Hey Radha (paramour of the god Krishna, and a general mythological figure), beauty of the forests, get me across (the river).” The theme is an important one, intended to bring about an equiibrium in the tired soul. Carried across the river he jettisons his weariness and his angst into the murky waters of the Ganga or Padma bringing closure onto himself at the opposing bank, into the comforting arms of “the mother”.

Much has obviously changed since those years. The internet has no doubt had a profound effect on the bhadralok. A few years back a modern “Bhoddoloker Cheley” sat next to me on an AI flight back to Calcutta. He was a freshman at MIT, returning home for the vacations. I mentioned to him how I, as a grad student in the US, had been excited on my first trip back to India some twenty years back and we talked about staying so far away from home. He looked at me as one might at an older practitioner of a trade. “I have heard that in those days you guys wrote like, letters and stuff?”.he asked.


  1. This was a very interesting and well written piece, enjoyed it a lot! Especially the closing punch line....

  2. Amazing to read - educational and oh, so funny, in so many ways. I'll have to read it a few times to fully appreciate it! :-)

  3. particularly liked the observation of spindle-legged bangali mollobeers. The image of our much-beloved 'Bantul, the Great' comes to mind.
    There was this hilarious, albeit dated, piece called, 'babu' by Bankim Chandra C. we had to read as a part of our school curriculum, that had rung a similar note once..