Indian Take-Away II: Walk like a Bengali*

Not all who are wandering are lost. But many are. I myself have been a little lost trying to come to terms with the idea of a Bengali who walks (Yours Truly), because in general, well, Bengalis don’t walk. My father always mobilised Huxley, who was famously dismissive of the English practice of nature rambling. And my maternal uncle who spent the better part of his adult life in Oxford amongst English saunterers regarded my love of walking as a westernised affectation.

In the Kolkata, the capital of the Indian province West Bengal, where I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, no one walked unless they had to. Beggars, mostly women and children, as I recall, once walked door to door but that ended with the city growing upwards into multi-storied apartment blocks. Now even beggars gathered in street corners and rushed from one car window to the next. Beharis and Oriyas walked. Mostly disparaged by Bengalis, they were the displaced populations, mostly men, from neighbouring provinces – pushed out of their villages occasionally by dreams of a better life, but mostly by corruption, industrialisation, and other mismanaged disasters. The upper-caste Oriyas cooked in the genteel households and worked in the gardens of the city’s tiny wealthy population. The low-caste Beharis pulled rikshaws which ferried us to and from school; they swept the streets and cleaned toilets, but were rarely allowed into Bengali kitchens. The ‘darwan’, the neighbourhood guard, walked through the night banging his stick on the street lamp-posts round and round the narrow suburban streets, where we lived. They were outsiders too – probably Biharis I imagined, having rarely actually seen one let alone spoken to one. Good girls didn’t walk the streets at that hour of the night. Mostly you walked because you had no choice and if you walked for a living, you probably were not a Bengali.

In Tagore’s songs which are part of Bengali cultural DNA, any reference to walking, that I can recall, is tragic.

‘Why did I not moisten with my tears every grain of parched dust!

Who knew you would arrive, my beloved as though uninvited.

You have crossed the desert without a tree to shade –

Your suffering on the road is my cursed fate.’

Tagore in translation often sounds silly. English unsettles the mellifluous Bangla and metaphorical dimensions of Tagore’s lyrics. But it is in part the magic of Tagore’s language that renders the road so distressingly uninviting. In an oeuvre so large as Tagore’s there are exceptions of course. Famously exhorting Gandhi on to the ‘salt march’ (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_March) Tagore wrote ‘if no one responds to your call, then walk on alone’. But mostly walking is a pain metaphor in the songs most commonly sung.

Left-leaning modern lyrics added to the litany of walking woes by drawing on the life of the working-walking poor, most famously the smash hit of the 1960s, Runner. This protest song harked back several centuries to a Mughal postal system, predating the railways which the British rulers introduced. The ‘runners’ were men in a relay system to deliver mail from city to city. I never questioned why a song of class protest had to draw on an outdated bit of exploitation, when there was plenty of contemporary evidence all around me. I was mesmerised when Hemanta Mukherjee’s divine voice rang out with the tears of the Runner’s beloved ‘nursing her lonely bed, through sleepless nights’. But something of the joy of running pulsated through the rhythm of the song. In my mind’s eye he was a lean dark figure with rippling legs cutting through the forest’s night air. But I just could not imagine him as a Bengali.

In the 1990s another significant Bengali pop-song reinforced the deadly dangers of walking, Suman Chatterjee’s gut-wrenching rendering of ‘The Walking Song of Sanjeeb Purohit’. Suman was a sort of Pete Seeger of 1990s Kolkata, his lyrics embedded in the structures of contemporary life of the city. Suman often referred to real events that provided the material for his ballads. ‘The walking Song’ starts with the singer-songwriter speaking as he strums his guitar: ‘This event was published in a Kolkata newspaper. In 1991. That year, in Orissa, for a job in the Forestry department, young men and women sat a written test…. Those that got through were then to go on to a test of physical stamina. In the Sambalpur area, in mid-summer, the young men and women were asked to walk non-stop for 25 kilometres. At high noon. Many fell over early in the walk. One man did not. His name was Sanjeeb Purohit. He walked the whole distance. He crossed the whole 25 kilometres. Then he fell. Dead.’ Suman welded together the familiar desperation of the young urban Bengalis’ search for a white-collar job, their fear of physical labour and the very real oppressive heat of the mid-day sun (‘which has dried the songs in the throats of birds’ croaks the singer) to produce walking as a form of torture. Every word, line and strain wields ‘the flaming whip of the sun’, dragging the hapless Sanjeeb towards a burning, aching, suffocating death through the trial by fire towards inevitable failure. The song ends: ‘Sanjeeb will never have to walk any street again/ Nor will he ever ever want for work again.’

Like the ‘Runner’, Sanjeeb was clearly not a Bengali. Anti-pedestrianist Bengali popular culture found its martyrs where it could.

But Bengalis did walk in their thousands in 1971, when the Pakistani army launched a ruthless attack against unarmed civilians in the eastern half of their own nation, mostly populated by Bengali-speaking Muslims. Up to three million might have died, several hundred thousand were raped. Eventually a new nation called Bangladesh was born. But in the nine months that the genocide raged, ten million Bengalis staggered across the 4000 km border between India and what was then East Pakistan – mostly into the frontier towns on the outskirts of Kolkata. Images of line upon line of dispossessed men, women and children, dragging frail bodies on bare-feet, filled the media. They say it was the largest single displacement of people since the Second World War. For once, Bengalis had walked, and in record-breaking numbers.

The majority of those navigating long distances on foot are still the wretched of the earth: Rohingyas walking into Bangladesh, migrants from war-ravaged Middle East crossing the Balkans on foot, desperately seeking a place to call home. In a world where so many must walk for so long under such duress, it is a rare privilege to have never walked in despair and so to be able to recognise walking as a right and pleasure rather than punishment, to walk when and where you want, to strike out on your own. Such a privilege, it is almost a miracle!

——

*The idea of Bengaliness is a little complicated, as there is a whole nation called Bangladesh. But the cultural centre for defining what Bengali means has historically been Kolkata, the capital of the Indian province of West Bengal. There is a whole world of books and debates about this. Start with wiki <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Bengal>.

10 thoughts on “Indian Take-Away II: Walk like a Bengali*

    1. Thanks for reading. Marathons, like Everest climbing is always for the exceptional. And of course there are many exceptions to the common rules. I was writing about the norm, I guess 🙂

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