Monday, August 21, 2006

The Bong immigrant

Disclaimer: This post does not intend to offend anyone. All characters are a figment of my imagination with some help from SC. Any stereotyping is purely intentional but does not aim to cause any offense to anyone.

There is a strange social heirarchy among people here in the US depending on their immigration status. And nowhere is it more apparent than in a large social gathering of desis. Take for example the community Durga Pujo. If you've ever been to a Pujo in the US you will know what I am talking about. The first few words coming out of the mouth of any Bong at a Pujo is a dead giveaway as to which strata of the heirarchy he belongs to.

The largest number of any single category comprises the naturalized citizens. The immigrants of the 60s and 70s, primarily engineers , some doctors and a few others who had the dream and the money to make it to the US during that period. They are the easiest to spot. They are usually in their ethnic best, beautiful fanned out dhuti, gold rolex peeking from under the sleeve of the giley kora punjabi, everything that spells out the success story spanning the last three or four decades. The women are equally adorned in the most gorgeous of sarees, the brightly colored silks, the Bomkais, the Balucharis, the Valkalams, complete with tons of gold jewelry that would put any bride to shame. They are usually the ones who are running the show, the people you turn to for help and advise regarding everything, from which car needs to be sent to bring the priest over, to where the spare vessels are, and where one can find aamer pallab. They are the ones who will call everyone bhai or bon and one always refers to as dada or didi, no matter how old they may appear to be. They are the eternal Santosh-da, Malabika-di, Shyamal-da and Konika-dis of the Bong community settled in the US. When they sit down together to talk about things you hear them discussing on whether to invest in a second home, or whether they should finally have the pool in the backyard and whether it is worth holding on to the ancestral home in Mallick-bajaar or to give in to the demands of the promoter who wants to build a huge apartment complex.

The second category of people you see are the ones who are waiting to gain the "settled" status. They are the working force, the ones on a working visa, the H1B. They are much younger than the previous lot, resplendant in their Pujo attire. Their punjabis are usually a little longer than the previous generation and reach down below the knees almost obscuring the fine craftmanship of the dhuti from Kolkata (usually of the colored silk category). And they always have a long uttariya (stole) round their necks. They usually cluster in groups to discuss about the current situation of the Government, the Dow Jones index, the housing market, investing and most importantly the green card status.

Then you have the other side of the work force, the research scientists, the exchange scholars, the ones on a J1 visa. Considering Bongs are prone to giving in to higher education and acquiring degrees, every gathering has their share of postdoctoral fellows. The ones that are in the US on a short term proposition. Although some of them plan on eventually returning to India, most would like to spend a few working years in the US earning enough money to get their savings account going strong and generating a few papers in international journals before they ultimately go back home. They can often be seen sporting a long kurta (courtesy Fabindia) over a pair of jeans with white Nike sneakers begging for attention. Their conversation generally revolves around visa issues, getting waivers from the India Government, the H1B cap, and funding problems with diminishing research grants.

And then you have the students. The ones on the F1 visa. The lowest rung on the social ladder. The ones that will arrive in groups. In second hand Nissans and Toyotas. Carloads of eager, bright eyed kids, bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, with unwashed hair and bleary eyed from too much Bacardi and beer the previous night. The ones that everyone bullies around. To help with decorating. Running errands. Poribeshon. The ones who will sport a volunteer badge to get free admission. The ones who will stand in line twice to get two helpings of food. And the ones who will be seen at the entrance flashing their student ids.
"Dada student achhi. Discount deben?" *

Yeah, the all too familiar social scene at my local Pujo. And its almost here. I can almost feel it. The Pujo-Pujo gondho (smell) as the quintessential Bengali will tell you. When the sky is all blue and the air is crisp and there's a slight nip in the air at dawn. I can barely wait.

* I'm a student. Do I get a discount?

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Anonymous bongopondit said...

Great observations as usual !

Is this is to be continued with stuff on the 'cultural' programmes in the evening ? :-)

12:14 PM  
Blogger Grafxgurl said...

yes ive noticed those groups as well... we have something similar in India too.

do you notice that in other indian get togethers?!?! or where you see other indians?

erm.. hmm.. i dont see myself fitting into any of the categories.. mind you i wasnt in Canada and the US for very long.. but.. i guess while i was there.. id say i was in the Adult Alternative group.. lol hahahhahaha.... my group of friends and i were a category on our own!!! we werent the discount type.. even though i was on a student then a work permit.

wonder where ill fit in when i finally settle down in the good ol West.!!

1:28 PM  
Blogger Seashells said...

ROTFL... The way you come up with these topics to write about, i can tell you have great social observation skills.

I'm not a "Bong" but i've been one among the "lowest rung" hehehehe... Have very close friends who i call dada n bhabhi and they'd drag me around to all these Pujos which for me meant lots of amusement and good food... hehehe

But here's the interesting part... One of these times, we organized a Puja primarily just the Bong junta from the univ... and the social heirarchy there was... Post doc's n PhD students who've been around for a while 'n the guys who have cars to move around > Masters students with RAs n schols etc > Other students with jobs > fresh-off-the-boaters... and this was VERY VERY apparent...

1:51 PM  
Blogger karmic_jay said...

Funny post. Never been to any of these events Bengali or non-Bengali. I guess that makes me "non categorizable" or "adult-alt" as grafxgurl says.
I just don't see myself fitting in anywhere although I have been here for ages now.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Anyesha said...

Gosh woman! we sure have some telepathy going. I was just thinking about the Pujo Pujo gondho and stuff this morning on my way to work. We still refuse to give chanda for the pujo's around here and just hop from one to another (in a big gang) till some Konika Di takes pity and feeds us...and some of us are already working and can well afford the money. Settling down at one Pujo seems so boring, no? Besides everyone seems so grown up at these meets that the Boy and I kind of just stand around and smile (our Bangla gives away our so called probasi origins!!)

2:53 PM  
Blogger Kausum said...

I dont see myself fit any of the 2 categories. Although, I see how the categories are formed. Most often than not, people ask me as if they are explaining stuff to an ABCD.

I protest against attributing our bleary eyes to alcohol, most prolly we are stressed due to ur research, tests and assignments for which we have a nite out. Do remember pujo is generally during mid-term season.

I havent asked for discounts, however I will admit one of the motivations to go to SSVT is good food for cheap. Afterall who doesnt like that!

5:06 PM  
Blogger Shankari said...

Great narration. I see this in most places , tho I have not been to a Bengali gathering.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Jinguchakka said...

That was good. But pray tell me why the disclaimer. Give it what you feel and take whatever comes head on.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Dadoji said...

Great observation.

I noticed this when I was in KY. It wasn't a bong gathering but a desi gathering. The good thing I liked there was that students were not charged anything. What made me sad was that bachelors were not accepted easily. Everyone went ballistic over Little Devil and we generally had fun but there was a certain arms-length feel to the whole thing. And yes, we were the least ethnically dressed people and our topics were nothing in common with most others.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Ron said...

Pujo pujo gondho...mmmmm. Some of the stuff you've written is easy to identify with even if you are a probashi bangali within India. The social hierarchy is somewhat similar. Do tell about the cultural activities in the evening? Lemme see if there are any similarities there as well :)

1:29 AM  
Blogger Aparna said...

Wow, that was so nicely put...informative. I had attended just one pujo when I was there, and yeah, you are abng on point there :)

1:41 AM  
Blogger eXPerience called L!FE said...

Was the Disclaimer used to stay away from the commotion "Going home" created? Nice post.

2:25 AM  
Anonymous Just Mohit said...

Grand! You brought back my beloved Kolkatta to me, even though you were describing the Western Pujo!
Oh, btw, nice to know that the permalinks work now, but but but but...what happened to the driving post???

2:48 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis said...

didbhai, tomar lekhar haath-ta din-ke-din better hochhe :)

u know, this is not just a phenomenon with Bongs in the US but will ALL probaashi bongs.
the situation is no different in Bombay, for example.

and it's always great to see how category 2 tries to outdo/outsmart category 1, no?

3:05 AM  
Blogger Chilla-Bong said...

Wonderful observations.The social heirarchy is manifested in the same way in B'bay and B'lore (Delhi as usual being the capital city is an exception) pujos as well although the accessories such as Rolex is replaced by suitable Indian counterparts.Surprisingly the UK pujos still maintain the ghorowa environment.Must be something to do with the damned British weather.
ps: Although repitation to Bonadadas comment but let me also join in applauding your writing style.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Ghetufool said...


8:30 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ bongopondit :)) let's see if I get around to it. You know about Jotin da who insists on inauguarting the cultural program with a few Rabindrasangeets, every year and refuses to leave the stage even after being booed!
@ grafxgurl well I'm not sure where i fit in either :)) This was plain stereotyping on my part.
@ seashells its kinda hard to miss right? I've been through a lot of these categories and can identify with most of them.
@ karmic_jay well exceptions prove the rule :)
@ anyesha "Besides everyone seems so grown up at these meets " yeah totally agree on that. I always feel pretty left out and unsure of what to do. How many Pujos are there in the DC area? I just learnt about Sanskriti. There's more I believe.
@ kausum like I said not everyone can be categorized. I'm just making general observations. And the bleary eyed bit, let's not get into that :))
BTW what is SSVT?
@ shankari thanks!
@ jinguchakka disclaimer: I really don't want people jumping my throat saying how different they are and how they have so and so visa but don't fit into the category that I describe. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. But this was not meant to offend anyone. Really.
@ dadoji well bachelors usually end up at these social gatherings for the food. They are perpetually eating out and miss home food. Unless there are also good looking eligible girls around. Then they come for that :)
@ ron will try and get around to it at some point.
@ aparna thanks :)
@ shashaank why else :))
@ just mohit thank you. I did do a Pujo post on Kolkata last year and probably will do more as the time draws closer and I get more and more homesick.
@ bonatellis oshonkhyo dhonyobad! category 1 ke outdo/ outsmart kora charti khani kotha noy :)
@ chillabong thank you very much. Pujo in the US may be ghorowa too, depending on the size and scale. Smaller Pujos have the ghorowa feel. Until the competition for being in charge and getting to be the president/ treasurer/ secretary gets in the way of goodwill and then you start seeing each group trying to outdo the other and prove that they are more capable.
@ ghetufool thank you!

9:23 AM  
Blogger Kele Panchu said...

Very well written. Even after graduating, I still go with the F-1 students' gang. Sad thing is I don't get a discount anymore :(

10:13 AM  
Blogger Anyesha said...

In answer to your question about DP's in this area...there are a bunch apart from Sanskriti...which is basically full of the Konika Di types (to use your definitions). Then there is Prantik full of type 2 folks and the Ramakrishna Mission pujo (very nice, my personal favourite), then one in the Columbia area and a couple in the NOVA region. Ki pujo hopping korbe naki?

10:34 AM  
Blogger Terri said...

I agree with some of the others: no disclaimers necessary! It's good to rile once in a while.

BTW, can people who are not particularly religious and whose knowledge of Bengali culture is somewhat limited to Rani Mukherjee and rosogullas attend these pujos? I'm presuming the food served is heavenly.

12:26 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ kele panchu may be you can use your old id. I still have mine.
@ anyesha Pujo hopping....reminds me of Kolkata and pandal hopping. Dekhi...if we can rally around some friends or something. Our social circle is extremely limited (read non existent)! but thanks for the info.
@ terri absolutely. Pujo is hardly about being religious. It is more about nostalgia and social get together and cultural stuff than anything else. Anyone is welcome. Food cannot say is the best. Every Pujo in Chicago ended in some batch of food getting spolit and causing food poisoning and finger pointing. And the excuse was on a large scale it is hard to have any kind of quality control. But people still eat and enjoy. And yes for the price (around 50 dollars) you get a dinner on friday, lunch and dinner on saturday and then lunch again on sunday. which is a lot!

1:02 PM  
Blogger it wasn't me! said...

I think this applies to almost every ethnic Indian group in the US. For gujjus for instance, replace DP with say Garba or Janmashtmi and replace the PhDs and post-docs with Motel-owners, and the students with Motel-owners relatives who now manage the motel for them.

2:37 PM  
Blogger qsg said...

Very funny...and very well put! :) Applies to all desi communities - take it from me! :)

10:20 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

nice post. makes me glad i've managed to avoid these gatherings for all these years -- it's just like i'd imagined! i'd asked a distant relative i'd met in my first year in the us about whether there are any puojs around, and his response, "na, baba, ashombhobh. parlei avoid kori." had told me everything i needed to know. i'm glad to live with the memories of my childhood pujos!

10:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I like living here is I never have to face this social hierarchy bullshit - I'm from a relatively upper middle class family, but most of my friends are wealthy people (and not that it ever mattered to me or to them either) - I never have to face this kind of thing here, probably because I go less to 'desi' crowded places and if I do go, i ignore most people

Here people don't care what car I drive, how much I earn or even if I am alive - i actually like it this way

thanks for checking in on me - Missed reading you, I'm going to post again on monday and ask you 'how was your weekend' :))))


11:47 PM  
Blogger Brazen Head said...

I totally recognized the stereotypes even though I would have segmented it a little better. Remember, a lot of the guys who showed up in the 80s are already in the first category.

But the biggest difference I think is between those who went to school and then settled into a "greencard lifestyle" (or eventually getting the US passport) and those who came from India directly with an H1 Visa mostly as IT professionals.

In most gatherings, I see the biggest communication gap between these two categories. In many cases, I see the latter group, even after they get their green card or US passport, struggling to really find a more integrated identity.

Good article.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Rohan Kumar said...

I havent been part of the whole Bong Puja thing but they have always seemed to be like really grand affairs with everyone waiting around all year to dress up for it.

P.S. Please take off the disclaimer thing is you can, if anything it will make me feel less guilty abt me being responsible in a lil way for it

10:16 AM  
Blogger Ekta said...

Thats was funny and very good observation must say!
Though have never been to a durga puja must say i actually visualised how it would be in the US thanks to your description!:-)

10:38 PM  
Blogger RajpaL said...

Well..I have noticed the same 'group' formations in my community as well. SO its not just Bongs that do it, I think its Punjabis, Sikhs, etc as well!

12:27 AM  
Blogger Prerona said...

happy pujo :)

5:58 AM  
Blogger Bishu said...

Wonderful categorization.Your post makes me nostalgic for the cotton textured clouds and fields full of kaash-phool.Sometimes some writings unleash the Apu inside you.This one is one of those.

8:05 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ it wasn't me! and qs. gemini well I guess may be the same principles apply to all desis. I happen to have seen the ones in the Bong community up close.
@ tabula rasa yes memories from childhood are enough to sustain a lifetime. Yet sometimes in the yearning we tend to give in and visit these probasi Pujos. And we see and we learn :)
@ true blue guy hey nice seeing you here again. Hope you're doing well. I can see you have been busy. Dp stop by sometimes.
@ brazen head I totally agree with you on that. There's a wide divide between the people who come to the US for education, go to grad school, learn how to live off the meagre wages and the ones who come here mainly for job purposes. Thanks for visiting my blog.
@ rohan you have nothing to feel guilty about here. You know your comments and views are always welcome here and I'm glad you stop by. Honestly I do not like generalizing people, but this was such a tempting topic to write on that I couldn't resist. The disclaimer was put there to some extent to ward off guilty feelings I had after writing the post and to keep someone else from being offended by it.
@ ekta you should actually go to one and see it for yourself. And like rohan mentions these people plan almost an year to deck up for the occasion.
@ rajpal I'm sure every community has its own story to tell. I can only speak for the Bongs.
@ prerona same to you, but ekhono shomoy achhe :)
@ bishu thanks for stopping here. And yes Pujo always is synonymous with "sarater akash" and "kaashphool". I did a post with an almost identical title last year. Thanks and do come back again!

8:49 AM  
Anonymous anand said...

I have been to some durga pujas in India and I completely agree with ur post!
Even in India u can see some of these categories....
and its amazing how much efforts people take to dress up and show off their jewellery for a festival!!
Its funnyy...

11:44 PM  
Blogger ubergeek said...

LOL - I think that this is true of any Indian migrant community anywhere. And you hv got the segmenting just right. I feel like these are actually people I know. And I know ones in all four stratas - and you've sure got them pegged right.

6:12 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ anand you bet!!
@ ubergeek glad to know a lot of people agree on my observations. Thanks!

12:06 PM  
Blogger Point 5 said...

very well observed..i think it holds true for any Indian religious gathering.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Todd said...

Trying to Google "Bong" doesn't exactly come up with the information I was looking for. But now I've got the munchies something fierce. Great post!

6:13 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Never been to a Durga Puja celebration - I avoid very crowded places and religious gatherings like the plague :-) BUT, I did go for a Bong wedding to Calcutta once and, am glad to report, there was none of this hierarchy business there.

Nice post!!

8:23 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ point5 Pujo is less about religion and more about social get together, dressing up, eating out and having fun. But probably it holds true for any Indian get together.
@ mike thanks for stopping by. Bong is short for Bengali and look it up here if you're still interested.
@ ghostoftomjoad now you've got me missing Bong weddings *sob*

9:56 AM  
Blogger Mike Todd said...

Thanks -- and I am still interested! Now I'm slightly less of an ignoramus than I was three minutes ago.

8:08 PM  
Blogger The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

what fun! you have a pujo "atmosphere" there? quite unique, but how nice. am sure it takes care of the yearning for the puja pandals back home...some of it atleast..
nice post!

8:59 AM  

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