‘Written for Koushik. ‘
‘Step aside lota,’ someone grabbed me by my shoulders and pushed me away from the matador. ‘It’s our vehicle,’ the man roared chewing paan flushing the humid air with his foul smell. I moved away, my eyes set upon my torn chappal. The bleeding had stopped and an unknown pain ripped open my heart. Which was more painful, my wounded toe or the epithet, ‘lota’?
‘Satyam, come with us,’ Montuda dragged me by my arm. Baffled, I threw a skeptical glance at him.
‘But you are macha toh and the van is full of…’
‘Ufff, stop brooding,’ he said patting my back. ‘Here let me help you. Oh hya, your jethi is making lau chingri tomorrow. Come over.’
The delectable lau chingri tarnished the bitter feelings of the evening. Feud in derby match is a not a rare sight, so is the ghoti-bangal rivalry. Hearing stories of partition from my grandparents and parents, we have been always made to believe how we have been living like refugees here in India. However, my situation of refugee never matched with the ones we read in history books or heard in stories except for the fact that often our rivals use it to belittle us. Montuda and a few other ghotis were different. I have seen them breaking out of the imposed rivalry and we have bonded over lau-chingri, the ghoti delicacy.
‘How many times have I told you not to go to the derby?’ ma screamed at me as I limped towards my room.
‘It’s my last,’ shrugged, ‘anyway, I will be leaving this country soon.’
I slammed the door to avoid unnecessary derision. Ma was telling baba how horrible these machas are. I often find it strange, this obsession about a land where our ancestors belonged to. My mother has never been to Bangladesh. Neither have I. Then why are we missing that land? How can you miss a place where you have never been to? How can you live like a refugee where you can get all the necessities and live in abundance?
I grabbed a shingara from my kid-brother’s plate. Munching on the fired outer layer, it dawned upon me how much I would be missing Keshtoda’s shingara. It seemed to be more real to me than the utopia. I have felt its crunchy coat, I have grown used to it — that perfect pinch of salt, that extra spice and the juicy stuffed potatoes inside. Smacking my lips, I took another one.
‘Help me draw the Indian subcontinent’—my kid brother handed me over the white chart paper. ‘This eastern part is so confusing,’ he whined. ‘So many boundaries. I wish the British had not divided the country. It’s a pain to draw all these.’
The words scattered like the remnants of a long-forgotten rain in a desert of fruitless hatred, lifeless belongingness and above all, obsession over a country where we need a visa and a passport to go. ‘It’s our land,’ they say. The hopelessness drew the starch of confusion I have been living with for years, since childhood.
As the charcoal made marks of the boundaries, the feud flashed upon my eyes. I knew who started it. It was not the machas, but rather some belligerent East Bengal fans, cashing upon their status of ‘refugee’.
Mom’s moping and father’s searing remarks left me perplexed after dinner. The cultural shock I had to adhere to since my childhood was now taking a new turn. My visa says I am an Indian, and I hail from West Bengal. By birth, I am a Bangal.
They all addressed us as Indians on the day of our orientation and when I retired to my room in our small apartment of Atlanta, Ankur asked, ‘Mind if I make lau chingri today? I kind of miss my home. I can cook something else for you if you…’
‘Lau chingri?’ I jumped off my sleeping bag, ‘I love lau chingri. Please do. What makes you think I would not?’
‘You’re a Bangal. Hence…’
‘I think foodie is a better word for me. I have some ghoti friends back at home. I would never say no their invitation for lunch or dinner for this particular dish.’
‘That’s nice. In fact, I love the way you cook ilish. Unfortunately the prices are too much here.’
‘How about we save up for it and make it next month?’ My words scorned me: counting every cent to buy an ilish. I remember how baba would get it often, especially during monsoon.
‘Padmar ilish, it’s so fresh,’ he would gloat. ‘My father used to say we had a huge pond where they would cultivate ilish. Sadly, here we are dependent on the local bazaar.’
The dry dead face of the frozen ilish we spotted the other day at the grocery store seemed to have more value. It was $30 after all.
‘One dollar per day and we will get it,’ Ankur broke my silence. ‘Three of us will share.’
‘Amago bashaye za ilis asto,’ Probir’s voice interrupted our conversation.
Probir’s presence has always made me feel awkward. His Bangladeshi origin, his Bangladeshi citizenship, his stories about the place where he has been born and brought up piqued me. I would draw similarities with the stories I heard. But today, somewhere we are on the same boat.
‘Want to try lau chingri, Probir?’ Ankur asked.
‘Khaitei pari. Dekhi kemon banayeso,’ Probir grinned.
Even in this state of abject poverty we faced as grad students in USA, we smiled, we laughed, reminiscing about our lands, our countries.
‘The student’s center is giving free pizza tomorrow,’ Probir informed.
‘I love the pizza they serve,’ Ankur chuckled.
Who’s a refugee, I wonder. Perhaps just a state of mind!!
Lota: A slang referring to the people of East Bengal ( before partition of India).
Macha: A slang referring to the people of West Bengal ( before partition of India).
Ghoti: People belonging to West Bengal (before partition of India).
Bangal : People belonging to East Bengal (before partition of India).
Lau chingri : A preparation of bottle gourd and shrimp which is considered to be a delicacy of the ghoti.
Ilish: Bangla word for the fish , hilsa, considered to be a delicacy of the Bangal.