What is it about us that makes most of us unable to think in anything other than stereotypes? As a culture, we are happiest and most comfortable when talking – and thinking – in stereotypes received from community, parents, media, and so many other sources. Sindhis are miserly, Gujratis are happy go lucky and business minded, Marwaris are unscrupulous, Bengalis are intelligent and arty, south Indians are studious and nerdy, Punjabis are dense – there’s so many of these blanket generalizations floating around in our psyches that I sometimes wonder how we keep them straight.
Like all generalizations, these are good for pigeon-holeing and dismissing people, and helps each community feel better about itself at the cost of all the others. How many times have I heard “eww how do you eat those animals!” or “oh khottas(usually people from UP, Bihar, etc) eat horse food….all this chana and things.” However, it does nothing whatsoever in helping to interact with individual members of any given community. I know plenty of really dumb and totally aesthetically impaired Bengalis, just as I know plenty of intelligent Punjabis and fun loving people from so-called “south India” (a massive and problematic generalization in itself. WAKE UP PEOPLE there are FOUR, count it FOUR, separate states down there!)
The all pervasive nature of these stereotypes extends equally to food as well. The minute I identify myself as a Bengali (albeit an non Bengal one), the assumptions click into place. So, I must love fish, and sweets. I MUST perpetually subsist on a diet of JHOL and JHAL, and - in a nod to the nawabi tradition – love biryani. In reality, only one of these generalizations is true, and that’s more of a personal choice issue than whatever BENGALI genes I possess, if they even exist. I like fish yes. Love it. BUT – horror of horrors – I prefer sea fish which is a total anathema to Bengalis. Bongs eat fresh water fish … most of which I cannot stand!
As for sweets … I can sum up my attitude to the world famous Bengali mithais in one word – YUCK! I detest them, yes, even including the rasogolla that bongs are assumed to consume by the kilo. The worst form of torture for me is visiting kollkata relatives who insist on serving up five or six different kinds of MISHTI, and insist that you eat them! I would rather be slow roasted over a coal fire than have to send even one down my gullet. But, it’s a massive surprise to all … bongs and non bongs alike… don’t like mishit! What kind of a bong are your? Um….. the thinking, I can make up my own mind about what I like and not blindly eat whatever is culturally prescribed kind????
Similarly for biryani. NO I DO NOT like the damn thing overmuch. Once a year or so… especially the much milder lucknowi kind of biryani … ok…I can enjoy it. But unlike most Bengalis I know, it is NOT my first choice when eating out, especially not all the time! And NO I don’t order a curry with it. Biryani is supposed to be eaten with its own rassa or a raita. If you order curry or chaap or whatever, what’s the point of ordering a spiced rice? Why not just order white rice since you are going to overpower it with the curry anyway! Also, my daily diet is definitely not the traditionally recommended dosage of jhol. In fact, I am not even all that fond of the jhol.
Home food, on a day to day basis could be anything from chholey to sambhar, kaali daal to ilish bhapa, pasta to soup and noodles, and anything else that springs to mind. Combinations are unusual too, with sambhar rice being followed by a bong fish curry or chholey being preceded by shukto, and we LOVE it that way! Having lived in so many places, and enjoyed such varied cuisine from around the world, I see absolutely no need to have the same boring menu for 30 years at a time! I would go out of my mind if I had to eat the traditional bong spread everyday for even a month. And this works all around. I have Gujrati friends (supposed to be vegetarian by stereotype) who love fish, I have Punjabi friends who practically live on pasta and pizza punctuated by the odd tandoori chicken, and I have Bengali friends who most frequently eat dosais and appams, at home and out.
So, why are we still thinking in these boxes? While they might vaguely apply to interior areas and rural settings where traditional ways of life still continue and the community and surroundings exert a much greater influence, they hardly seem to have anything to do with the modern, urban, middle class, educated, travelled Indian. Or is it just my clique? Looking around, I also see many of my peers stuck in the OLD ways, not by choice, but by inertia. “This is how it is” carries the newest generation into the same – often unhealthy – lifestyles, until they arrive at their own old ages (or until the older generation dies, which is usually when these people have access to real decision making power), at which point it is too late to change things, and they are set in the ways which are perpetuated.
Hmmm, how insular human beings are!