Surely, it isn’t just the ongoing elections that have catapulted Bengal to the forefront of the national consciousness.
That Bengal has long exercised a fascination for the collective Indian imagination is evident from several popular perceptions about the state that have found their way into literature and from there into everyday usage.
In Urdu, especially in its poetry, there are numerous references to the magic of ‘Bangaal’, ‘Bangaal ka jaadu’, the fabled beauty of the women of Bangaal and their glorious long hair, ‘zulf-e-Bangaal’ or ‘gesu-e-Bangaal ‘that is almost a metaphor for the typical Indian notion of beauty. Equally, there are references to the songs of Bengal – of Nazrul, Tagore and the nameless wandering Baul singers – from whom the Urdu poets claim they have learnt the warp and weft of weaving a poem.
Mirza Ghalib’s Calcutta Chronicles
Mirza Ghalib, who set out on a journey from his home in Delhi to Calcutta, then the imperial capital, in an attempt to have his pension restored, documented his experiences in letters to friends back home. While the pension was not restored, the four years that he took to travel to Calcutta and return to Delhi (November 1825-November 1829), were full of adventures and insights.
Ghalib reached Calcutta in February 1927, a little over a year after leaving Delhi. Raja Sohan Lal helped him find comfortable living quarters in Mirza Ali Saudagar’s ‘haveli’ in Simla Bazar at a rent of Rs 10 a month.
In the year-and-a-half that he lived in Calcutta, much of his time was taken up in meeting the colonial officials, attending ‘mushairas’, and taking in the sights and sounds of a city so different from his Dilli.
Ghalib was entranced by the printing press which was already quite popular and would come to Delhi only several years later. While in Calcutta, Ghalib also benefitted from the translations of English classics being made freely and cheaply available through the recently established Fort William College. Being a port, a bigger city than Delhi and also the seat of the Empire, here Ghalib also had the occasion to observe several new innovations such as the wireless and the steam engine, each of which would leave a lasting impression upon him.
In a letter, Ghalib went into raptures over the wines available in Calcutta, as well as the many succulent fruits, the lush greenery of the city, and the charms of the Bengali women.
The mangoes of Bengal made an especial impression on the mango-loving poet; not all the fruits of ‘jannat’, he claimed, could erase the scent and flavour of the mangoes of Calcutta.
And for Calcutta itself:, this is what he has to say:
Kalkatte ka jo zikr kiya tu ne ham-nashin
Ik tiir mere siine men maara ki haae haaie
When you mention Calcutta, my friend, it is as though
You pierce my breast with an arrow making me cry out
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Longing for Lucknow
Not everyone was similarly enthused by this imperial city built beside the mighty Hooghly. Living in exile in straitened circumstances in Matiaburj, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah missed his beloved home in distant Lucknow beside the Gomti:
Yahi tashvish shab-o-roz hai Bangale mein
Lucknow phir kabhi dikhlaie muqaddar mera
Day and night, my only anxiety in Bengal is
Will my destiny show me Lucknow ever again
Bengal: A Mythical, Fabled Land
Other poets too, many who had possibly never visited Bengal, have written about Bengal as a mythical, fabled land. Khan Janbaz declares:
Jii kartaa hai unn ko tirii tasviir dikhaa duun
Jo puuchhte ha.n mujh se ki Bangaal mein kyaa hai
I feel like showing your picture to those
Who ask me what is so special about Bengal
The Famous Tresses of Bengal’s Women
Alluding to the famous tresses of the women of Bengal Delhi-based Shuja Khawar writes:
Aaj merii arz par zulfein agar kholegaa woh
Kal hasad kii aag mein jal jaaegaa Bangaal bhar
If today she uncoils her hair upon my request
All of Bengal will be consumed in the fire of envy tomorrow
And here’s more on the fabled hair in this sher by Syed Ahmad Shameem:
Misl-e-ḳhushbu-e-saba phaili hui hai har taraf
Gesu-e-Bangaal ki ḳhushbu hamaare shahr mein
Like a sweetly scented breeze that blows all about
The fragrance of the hair of Bengal blows in my city
The Hunger That Once Haunted Bengal
However, there are numerous references, also, to the hunger that once stalked the land during the periodic, often man-made famines, especially the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 which shook the entire nation. The most famous of these is Wamiq Jaunpuri’s ‘Bhooka Hai Bangal’ that became a rallying cry for the travelling drama groups of the newly created IPTA.
Set to a rousing beat, it was carried to the nooks and crannies of undivided India as a song of solidarity and support with the people of Bengal:
Pyari-mata chinta mat kar hum hain aane vaale
Kundan-ras kheton men teri gode basane vaale
Beloved Mother, don’t worry for we are coming
We shall pour gold in your fields and fill your lap with plenty
Extending similar support in a poem entitled Qahat-e Bangaal, Jigar Moradabadi writes of the awakening that he sees in Bengal, ‘bedaari-e ehsaas’, that comes to a people who have long chafed under injustice and oppression:
Bangal ki main sham-o-sahar dekh raha huun
Har chand ki huun duur magar dekh raha huun
I am watching the day and night unfurl in Bengal
Even though I am far away from it, I am seeing it
Hailing from Kakori, Furqat Kakorvi writes with immense empathy for the plight of “his Bengal” as he alludes to the dance of death in the wake of the famine in Bangal ki Raqqassa (The Dancer of Bengal):
Nachiye nachiye paael ke baġhair
Jjism uryan hi rahe
Shoala-afshan hi rahe
Bhuuk aur maut ka raqs
Mere Bangaal ka raqs
Dance, dance without an anklet
While the bodies are naked
And the flames are dispersed
The dance of hunger and death
The dance of my Bengal
The Calcutta Chromosome
There is also Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘Bangaal’ which talks of this land of plenty that has known such horrific wants because of the rapacity of its rulers. Sahir talks of the peasants in the fields and the workers in the factories, the glittering new roads and fertile lands and referring to the role played by Bengalis in the national freedom struggle and the natural propensity of the people of Bengal towards ehtejaj (protest), goes on to ask:
Chaman ko is liye maali ne ḳhuun se sincha tha
Ki uss ki apni nigahein bahaar ko tarsein
Was it for this day the gardener had watered the garden with his blood
That his own eyes should yearn for spring
And for Kalkatta (Calcutta and now Kolkata), the word ‘ehtejaj’ crops up again and again as in this sher by Ambar Shameem:
Khvab aansu ehtajaji zindagi
Puchhiye mat shahr-e-Kalkatta hai kya
Dreams, tears and a life of protest
Don’t ask what is the city of Kolkata
While there is a great deal of poetry in Urdu on Bengali icons as diverse as M N Roy, C R Das, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and Qazi Nazrul Islam, Hurmat-ul-Ikram sums up the city’s joi de vivre in his lyrical ode to Calcutta:
Bujhte huwe shararon ko jisne jaga diya
Phir eik baar dil ko dhadakna sikha diya
It taught the dying sparks to wake again
It taught the heart to beat once again
Here’s hoping, come 2 May, Bengal will teach the heart to beat again and bring back to life the dying sparks and will, once again, show the way in Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s memorable words: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”
(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)