Immigrant Bengalis

A Bengali Party
Basab Dasgupta

Reena told me on Friday that the Banerjees had just called and invited us for dinner on Saturday.  I liked the Banerjees – Ashok and Geetaand their two adorable children – a boy and a girl, both well-behaved and as cute as little ones could be.  We had been to their house many times on various occasions as well as non-occasions and we had also reciprocated by inviting them.  Our Bengali social circle in Indianapolis had grown considerably from the time we moved into town several years earlier and our weekends were always busy with Bengali parties at someone’s house or some activities like picnic in a park.

“Who else is coming?” I inquired.  It was one thing to hang out just with Ashokda and Geeta boudi, but I needed to psych myself up if it was going to be a big gathering.  It seemed that there was a sub-group even within our small Bengali society that I felt more comfortable with than others.  Reena went through the list of invitees to the extent she knew: “the Lahiris, the Goswamis, the Rays , the Basus and I think the Bagchis as well”.  My reactions were mixed; on one hand, I liked the fact that the Lahiris, the Goswamis and the Basus would be there because they belonged to my preferred sub-group, but I was bothered by the fact that we were invited on Friday – just a day before the party – when it was clearly a large enough party requiring some advance planning.

I said “I think we are the substitutes.  We did not make the original guest list and someone, probably the Guptas, cancelled at the last moment and hence we were called to fill the void.”  Reena smiled at my consciousness about my place in the society; she said “I don’t care.  I am just glad that we have something to do over the weekend and I won’t have to cook”.  I was not sure about the cooking part.  Even though Reena never used to cook before our marriage, she really became very good in preparing a variety of dishes – not just Indian food, but American, Chinese and Mexican as well.  I said, “I would have preferred your cooking over Geeta boudi’s”, both to express my true feeling as well as to flatter my loving wife.  Reena chimed along, “I agree; it seems that no one ever taught boudi how to cook.  It is also predictable what dishes she would make.”

Reena had developed this theory that whenever Geeta boudi threw a party, her menu items were dictated by what was on sale that week at Kroger.  If chicken was on sale, then the main entre would be some chicken dish; it would be fish if Tilapia was on sale.  Her theory had already been verified on a number of previous occasions.  I did not ask Reena what was on sale this week because I wanted to have, at least, an element of surprise.  “What time?” I asked.  “She has told everyone to come at seven”, Reena replied.  “Ok, that means eight o’clock because the Bengalis never come to a party on time and are typically half an hour to an hour late”, I thought.

There is a story about a new Bengali gentleman, coming to Chicago from India, who was invited to a Bengali party at seven in the evening – his very first such party in US.  Being punctual in nature and eager to show his formal side in this United States of America, he knocked on the door of the host, right on time at seven o’clock.  He caught the hosts completely off-guard; the wife was just getting into the bathroom for a shower before getting dressed and the husband was vacuuming the carpet.

We showed up around quarter to eight at the Banerjees’ house on Saturday.  I was relieved to see that there were some other cars in front of the house already so that we would not be the first ones.  It was always a dilemma what to bring with us.  I wisely delegated that task completely to Reena; she managed to bring a small but nice looking floral arrangement.  Others probably brought some dish to complement Geeta boudi’s offering, but as Reena said, she saw this as an opportunity not to cook.

“Come in, come in”, Ashokda was very cordial as usual.  Reena automatically proceeded towards the kitchen where the ladies had already started to gather.  I looked around the living room to see who was there among the men and who sat where.  This separation of men and women was part of the ritual in a Bengali gathering.  I managed to sit next to Kumar Lahiri.  I always enjoyed talking to him and especially liked his sense of humor.  “What can I offer to drink?” Ashokda asked me: “I have red wine, white wine, beer and scotch”.  I settled for some scotch with seven-up.

“So, Kumar, it looks like you have completely forgotten us!  Executive men like you must be very busy with your heavy responsibilities” I initiated the conversation with Kumar with a friendly sarcasm.  He was recently promoted to be the manager of a small engineering group at work.  I really had no interest to know what he was doing professionally; I was merely trying to get a funny response from him.  He responded in his usual cheerful way, “You don’t need to remind me of my stress at job.  I bet I have aged three years in last three months; “managing” really means man aging”.

Mr. Gopal Basu sat across from us.  He appeared to be very distraught about the maintenance of his lawn; dandelions were sprouting all over and he felt that he was losing control.  Subhas Goswami was giving him all kinds of advice from using the proper fertilizer with weed killer to hiring a professional lawn maintenance company.  They later engaged in a discussion about the stock market; in particular, the merits of buying Google versus Apple stock.  Mr. Basu was again lamenting; this time because he lost quite a bit of money by holding on to the Apple shares he had.  At some point Gautam Ray entered the room and immediately wanted to discuss how the Indianapolis Colts would play in the next football season even though it was months away.  Gautam was a medical doctor and was probably more into physical fitness, healthy eating, etc. than anybody else in the room.  He said, in an almost unilateral way, that he was looking forward to another season with the new Colts’ quarterback.

“So, do you think that this Obama-care would do anyone any good?” I said in a loud voice with an attempt to take over the podium.  I knew that, unlike me, the Bengali community was overwhelmingly pro-Obama and I wanted to liven up the party by introducing some controversy.  I got some passionate lectures about helping mankind, especially the poor and the helpless and class warfare.  Of course, I did not believe in their ideological talks, but I must confess that I did not know if the Bengalis supported Obama because they identified with his skin color or they joined the rank of “have-nots” because they lacked the ambition and confidence to prosper in their professions or businesses, a la the Republicans.  I then tried to lighten the mood of the party by referring to an episode of the “Seinfeld” show.  I said, “I guess I am like Jerry Seinfeld who enjoyed traveling in first class sitting next to a beautiful model but shoved his friend Elaine to a middle seat between two obese men in the economy class”.  It was clear that, while most people had watched the show or some of its numerous reruns, no one was an avid fan like me.  My attempted humor went largely unappreciated, except for Mrs. Bagchi, who said, “Oh, I love SeinFIELD”.  I would have probably talked to her about it had she not mispronounced the name!

I was curious at one point to see what was going on in women’s circle; so I took a detour through kitchen on my way to the bathroom.  There was a dazzling display of saris there, both in terms of color and style, not to mention the material.  Mitra, Gautam’s wife, had just returned from an extended visit to India.  Women were poring over her sari which was reportedly the latest and greatest among the styles in Calcutta.  Mitra was never hesitant to show off her doctor husband’s  money.  Mrs. Goswami was talking to Mrs. Basu in one corner in a somewhat whispering voice.  I overheard Mrs. Basu saying, “Oh, we loved the house.  It was perfect – four bedrooms with three bathrooms on an acre lot, but the area is not good”.  “You mean too many black people?” Mrs. Goswami exclaimed with a rather innocent surprise.  I moved on and pretended that I had not heard the comment.  I always felt that the Bengalis are a very racist group.  They refer to other Indians as “non-bengalis”.  They can compete with the Japanese in this regard, who call all non-Japanese by the name “Gaijin”.

All the kids were playing in the “den” area next to the kitchen and were fed pizza and hotdog.  They were playing video games and watching cartoons.  They were managed well and kept under control by Susmita, daughter of Mr. Goswami and another teenage girl whom I did not recognize.  Susmita just graduated from high school as a valedictorian.  She wanted to be a medical doctor and was bound for Yale where she wanted to study biology.

It is a tradition for men to get their food first at Bengali gatherings.  The amount of food, neatly organized on the kitchen counter and part of the dining table, was quite impressive.  It seemed that Geeta boudi compensated for her cooking by the sheer number of items: there were dal, some pakora type fried stuff, sag as well as two kinds of vegetables (one with egg-plant and one with cauliflower), fish along with the grand finale of goat meat curry.  Plenty of dessert dishes were there too – tomato chutney, rice pudding and sandesh with patali gur!  I was the third person in food line and strategically grabbed a chair right at the dining table; this way, I was close to all the food for second helpings and I did not have to worry about spilling any food on the carpet or sofa. Amid the collective words of praise from everyone, such as “Oh my God, when did you get time to cook all these?” and “Everything is so delicious”, I could tell that several women were making mental notes of all the items; I could bet that at the next such party at Mr. Goswami’s house, Mrs. Goswami would prepare more items than Geeta boudi.  It always seemed to me that there was an unspoken contest among all the wives in this regard.

After the usual over-eating, everyone gathered together in the living room – both men and women.  “Who wants tea?” asked Geeta boudi.  Almost all hands went up.  Frankly, this was the time I really enjoyed a cup of tea – after a heavy Indian meal.  Mr. Jayanta Bagchi was the “elder” among us.  He was the last guest to arrive at the party, but wasted no time in bringing up an important subject during this after dinner tea session.  It was the planning for the Durga Puja for this year – which, like the football season, was also many months away.  Mr. Bagchi was the puja leader in Indianapolis and politically savvy.  I started to wonder if this was in fact the hidden agenda of this get together!  The previous two years we had the Durga Puja organized jointly with Louisville, a city about a hundred miles away.  It was logical because both cities had limited number of Bengalis and we could use the synergy by combining our efforts, both financially as well as manpower-wise.  Mr. Bagchi indicated that he would prefer to sever our ties with Louisville this year because Indianapolis now had enough Bengalis to sustain itself.  He reminded everyone the disaster from the previous year when Louisville Bengalis had the responsibility to bring rice for the puja feast and we ran out of rice.  Just imagine: in such a festive occasion of the rice-addicted (“bheto”) Bengalis, we ran out of rice!  The day was saved by some scrambling with minute-made rice and bread as substitutes.

Mr. Bagchi was not going to tolerate another fiasco like that.  In addition, he wanted to jazz up the puja festivities one notch; he suggested that we seriously consider staging a Bengali drama.  A lively group discussion ensued with all kinds of suggestions and a general consensus that it was time for Indianapolis to go alone.  I always thought that Durga puja brought the worst political instincts among Bengalis.  It was the perfect opportunity for the middle-aged Bengali men, who were frustrated by stagnation at work, to exercise some leadership qualities and management skills they never got to apply at work.

All such parties usually ended like falling dominos and this night was no exception.  It was Gautam who said that he needed to go home early because he had an appointment for playing tennis very early next morning.  “We should go too”, was the comment from many others, some accompanied by yawns.  Ashok da and Geeta boudi spent a considerable amount of time at the door saying “good bye” to the guests.  Typically, the Bengali “good bye” would involve repeated saying of the word “achchha” by both sides.

I remember one time we took Debbie, an American friend of Reena who was visiting us, to a Bengali party.  She asked us afterwards, “What does achchha mean?”  I had to think for a while:  “It has several meanings; it could mean ‘well’ or ‘alright’ or ‘yes’ or ‘ok’ or in this case, ‘see you later’.  It can also mean ‘really’ if you put a question mark after it or ‘I see” with an exclamation. If someone says “achchha” to you during good-bye, you have to say “achchha” as well”.

Reena seemed slightly worried in the car on our way back: “You know, Geeta boudi prepared a lot of items tonight.  She offered to give me some left-over food in a doggie bag, but I declined.  Mitra packed a large bag.  I hope that I don’t have to compete with that when my turn comes”.  I was somewhat oblivious to her comments as I was more concerned with my own issues: “Do you have some antacid tablets with you?”

We caught the tail end of “Saturday Night Live” on our TV in the bedroom.  No, there was no love making!  These heavy Bengali meals are definitely not conducive to a romantic intimacy afterwards.  Those antacid tablets worked wonder – I fell asleep quickly.

“Achchha, aaj ekhanei shesh kori?!”

(Posted October 23, 2013)

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