Q: What was the idea that led you to focus on the ethnocultural diaspora in The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community?
Chakravarti: That is one aspect of it. The book has multiple chapters. I am just choosing to focus on the diaspora in that particular chapter, not the entirety of it.
Q: There is a particular comment in the book that has landed on the internet, where you call the Bengalis “mongrels”. Do you think you are being misquoted on it?
Chakravarti: I don’t know if I am being misquoted on it, but as I have said, I believe that the Bengalis are not a race. The Bengalis are a people. We are a mongrel people. Mongrel is sometimes made to appear like a derogatory thing, but a “mongrel” is basically a mixture. So, it is not like, I mean mongrel in a ‘neri-kutta’ kind of a thing (laughs)! If you look at the Bengali, we have Mongoloid features, we have Negroid features, we have so-called Aryan features, we have Central Indian features, we have Australasian features. Our hair’s straight, our hair’s crinkly, our faces are brown, oblong, our noses are aquiline, and we are by definition mixture, since the earliest times. So, there is no Bengali race. It is very clever. People have come into Bengal, and the Bengal has absorbed them, and we have become Bengalis as an admixture of people. It is proven genealogically, proven through DNA, it is proven through history, it is proven ethnographically, it’s proven. If people are misquoting me, I don’t know how that is going around, but I have said outright, that we are a mongrel people. Now, where people might be getting upset, and which is why I have used the term “mongrel” deliberately, is to prick on the Bengali arrogance of superiority, that the present day Bengali has. I have said this in the chapter “The Immaculate Misconception”, that the Bengali woke up one day, and said, “Oh! We are the perfect person. We are the perfect species. The perfect people.” It is not so. There is a proto-Bengali, there is an early Bengali, there is a latter Bengali, there is a present day Bengali. So, the growth of any people is an evolution. Biologically, ethnically, culturally, linguistically, in every way possible. So, I used it quite deliberately, to bring the arrogance of the Bengali, by a few notches. And it has upset a few people. I am glad it has. That was the exact point.
Q: Would you like to agree to the fact that the Bengalis preserve their ideas of the past and their nostalgia, and lets their associations to people and places of the past guide their idea of the future?
Chakravarti: I would think it does, and I am very happy about it. There is a notion that Bengalis live too far and too much in the past. I don’t think it is bad to be aware of your past. I think it is a good thing that we know what we love. We love our language, we paid a blood price for it. I am very happy and proud to be of our culture. But, we must recognize that culture as it stands today. The modern Bengali culture. Actually, three hundred years old, not that old; only when the Fort William was set up. It is really good to be aware of your past. But be aware of all your past. Once you are aware of where you come from, I am good with everything. It is a good thing to be aware of your history and roots. Wonderful to respect Rabindranath, Bankimchandra. You also respect Nazrul equally. You respect all the non-Bengali Hindu stalwarts who are part of our cultures equally. But again, it is not good to be blinded by your past. You move forward with your culture and history.
Q: One last thing. Would you just say that this Bengali who likes their Rabindranath and Nazrul is very different from the Bengali who likes their Beatles and Pink Floyd?
Chakravarti: No, I don’t think so! Maybe, at one level, yes. But again, I have known more people who love both. I myself have grown up listening to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, jazz, blues, you name it. I have also grown up reading Satyajit Ray’s books, watching his films, being made aware of my cultural and historical path; my language, my authors, Bankim Rachanaboli, Sarat Rachanabali is what I grew up with. At one level, there is the Bengali, and then there is the Occidental Bengali. But also, there is a large number of urban Bengalis who continue to live in both worlds, to a large extent, which is brilliant, and I am very happy about that. That is the way it should be.
Interviewed by Anurag Mazumder