Failings of a Bengali Man

by Amitava Sen

A Bengali friend asked rhetorically “Why do you think quite a few, a significant proportion at that, of our daughters are marrying outside the Bengali community and indeed majority of them preferring white Americans?” He thought he had an answer too, “They have concluded, observing their Bengali fathers I think that the Bengali men are opinionated, argumentative, obstinate, dominating and positively not romantic.”
Well that may be a strong sweeping statement, not based on any poll data or census study; but searching for causality, it is possibly safe bet to make an intuitive conjecture on the subject. I could see through the point my friend was trying to make. Our children have the luxury of wider perspective and many options, as opposed to the situation in our left behind homeland. And they do compare and choose. As such the women in general have a proclivity to make comparisons when judging their own state of affairs; children normally become the favorite targets: they are often told that the kids of their mothers’ friends are better achievers. And what may remain unspoken and is not far from their minds is that the husbands too leave much to be desired in the way they come out to be.
What is true for our daughters could be true for our wives too, but unfortunately for them the die is cast. They do not have much choices left. Other consideration for leaving the older group out in my discussion is that after four decades of life together a different dynamics come to play, acceptance looks like the order of the day. Besides, narcissism and sense of women power are not the same today as they used to be in seventies. Tolerance, acceptance and accommodation were a part of life then. And after all, here we are discussing our daughters born and brought up in USA and their generation from India in an attempt to understand why even the younger “Bengali” men may have come up short in their eyes and the conclusion that the Bengali men have had no change. Unfortunately, most of our native sons are victims of this generalized branding of Bengali men.
The older ones (by that I mean the early immigrant wives), those had been married before their husbands immigrated, went through a different genre of match making. Predominant considerations were economic, cultural, academic and social status, a negotiated or a courtship (love) marriage regardless. In any event, husband’s location in America was not an overriding factor. The picture changed in 90’s when the flood gate of H1B visas opened. The immigrant young men sensed their power and their value enhancement in the matrimonial market back home. It was their opportunity to marry up. And they did marry up much beyond what they would expect, if their prospective wives did not have the lure of moving to America. I will not sit in judgment on their decision; it is for them to determine whether they have won out or lost.
While it is true that girls are not marrying anyone from their fathers’ generation, as they look at the younger bunch from India they are still not hugely impressed and reassured. My friend (the same one, when asked whether I can identify him for this article, declined) continued, “Have you noticed how even the younger Bengali men who came to this country in nineties and later, behave in events like Pujas or in a dinner party? They promptly discard their wives at the door and dash to where other men are.” I agreed, that is not a normal way of socializing for a young couple in this country. Our children (who are born and raised here) will stay with their spouses and in the company of each other. But I question, who discards whom. May also be true that the wife does not like her husband enough to be seen with. For those who married up, it is their turn now, to be looked down upon.

Let’s face it!  All Bengali men are really not Uttam Kumar both in looks or from the point of view of romantic disposition. They are sartorially challenged (indeed very poorly attired) and they do not take care of their protruding bellies as much as they are expected by their women. The complaint by the Bengali women in general that they are not appreciated by their husbands for their good looks and other virtues as often as expected does not help either. Despite all the claims of gender equality, it is not surprising that these young women congregate in a dinner party or other events, only with other women. Don’t blame them. That is where they are complimented profusely for their sarees, dresses and their looks. Of course between them the appreciation is mutual, it is promptly returned. That’s Freudian way of making up what is otherwise missing at home.

Speaking of romantic content of the relationship: In ancient society and traditionally even to this day, man has been the hunter gatherer. In addition to the need for feeding the family, hunting (or acquiring wealth) is a symbol and a demonstration of power, specially to keep the woman at awe and admiring. Through the ages the traditional power equation has changed, now a woman wants to be admired too by her counterpart. She wants open proclamation of admiration and wants to be told how much the man loves her, not to speak of presents and flowers on birthdays. An occasional candle light dinner at home is desired. But regrettably, the romantic expression of a Bengali man is limited to listening to Rabindrasangeet and watching an old Suchitra-Uttam movie in company with his wife. That is not considered adequate by our native daughters.
I wondered if there is a way of validating my observation. I thought of someone who could be a reliably good single source of survey. Someone I have known since she was born after her father immigrated about the same time I did. She (Name withheld for the sake of her privacy) is a professor, teaching Contemporary Sociology in a mid-western university. I called her and presented her with the question my friend posed. There was a long silence at the end of the line and then she spoke “My father is the greatest dad in the whole world and it still holds true.” That I had to agree with, because I was a witness to her growing up, her extraordinary accomplishment and the love and support she got form her father, a Bengali friend of mine. “When I was growing up” she continued “I always wanted to marry some one in my father’s image and I did as you know, Kaku.” She married a Bengali immigrant colleague in the same university and divorced after eighteen months.
“Would you mind if I ask what happened?” She put me at ease as she replied that I was completely within my rights to ask her this question. “When we begun our life together I started to have a lurking feelings that culturally we were not compatible. Apparently, we were equal and had equal rights. I do not know whether he was obstinate, opinionated, argumentative and all that like your friend said the Bengali men are but he definitely behaved like he was more equal than I was.” Was that all the reasons for leaving him? There were other issues; “You know Kaku, sociologically speaking a couple can not live all by themselves, they have to live in a community. After I got married my social life went in to a dump; he made sure that our social mixing is all with the Bengali friends; that’s not my ilk. And you know how you raised your daughters Kaku? To have a mind of their own and have something to talk about beyond the saree they are going to wear at the next meet!”
I had the last question. How about her father, was he arrogant, obstinate, opinionated and all that? “Could be” she said “Well, probably, but don’t forget both my parents are the products of same environment and what I remember, my mother did not complain.”
There was a pause, when I thought I heard a brief sigh and then she said, “But we do.”

11 thoughts on “Failings of a Bengali Man

  1. Our daughters who are brought up here do not necessarily distinguish between Bengali and non-Bengali Indian men or men of Indian origin. They do understand the distinction between an Indian man brought up in India (“fresh off the boat” as they say) and one born and brought up here of Indian parents. It is but natural that they are drawn more towards men who are American (either brown or white). The title of your article claims a certain self-examination as a Bengali man. I realized there was more commentary on why the Bengali man is who he is because of his wife. The Bengali woman comes across as vain, eager to brush off her husband at social gatherings in favor of the society of her friends who will feed her vanity with compliments. While most humans are vain and crave positive feedback, I think the Bengali woman is also a complex, multi-faceted human who has opened herself to the opportunities this land has given her to develop her professional skills and interests beyond sartorial concerns. What your article does not touch on is how our daughters born and raised here observe relationships between their parents and cringe when they see the traditional approach being taken by the father towards their mother. In a traditional Bengali marriage the first casualty is romance and “madhurjya” in relationships. How many times does a husband in such a marriage praise an “action” (not the clothes or her looks) taken by his wife? How many times does he remind her that she is valued in his eyes? Our girls are watching for these signs and are dis-heartened when they fail to see it. Their mothers’ resigned acceptance of a stable married life despite the lack of such “madhurjya” is not enough for the daughters. They are looking for something more. Enter the American suitor flush with a wide-eyed admiration and appreciation of this unique American girl with the “labonnya” of a Bengali woman. The combination is a heady mixture not to be denied.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments too and the angle you brought up (though I didn’t feel as if the Bengali women came across as vain in author’s writing). Interestingly, just y’day I was telling a friend that in my views, men learn from their fathers on how to treat their wives, seeing how their fathers treated their mothers. I often thank my father-in-law (who unfortunately I never got to meet…he had passed away before I got married) for treating my mother-in-law like a queen. My half-Bengali, full-Indian husband is indeed the wind beneath my full-Bengali wings.

  2. I normally shy away participating openly in a blog but I felt I needed to add few lines just to make all sides fair and square at least in my eye! It is a very important topic, especially being a Bengali immigrant man and a father myself.
    Someone wrote : ” In a traditional Bengali marriage the first casualty is romance and “madhurjya” in relationships. How many times does a husband in such a marriage praise an “action” (not the clothes or her looks) taken by his wife? How many times does he remind her that she is valued in his eyes?”
    There is definitely a lot of truth in it but it takes two to tango! Often blame is one sided. Expectation is always from one side. In western marriage, wives also have to work harder many ways to keep their marriage. I never heard any wives of my Bengali friends praising their husbands and often complaining how other husbands take better care of their wives. How often a Bengali wife makes a special treat for her husband alone or give a hug or kiss in the morning when he leaves for work or comes home tired! I must say that both spouses have to share the blame for lack of romance in our lives. You have to love to be loved! A woman can change a man if she wants to. A happy man will make his woman happy; if nothing else for his own interest.
    The expectation seems to be often one-sided. I have same argument with my wife often. We always look outside and find it greener. As I am getting older, I have learnt to love and appreciate what I have. Try not to balance the equation for every little thing I do. It is me who can change the world around me and sooner I find both of us start appreciating each other.
    It is interesting to find in Mr. Sen’s Story that she admired her Bengali father but came far short when looking at her Bengali husband. There is something to think about for us as Bengali men. May be I work harder as a father than as a husband. The bondage between father and daughter is biological and hence instinctively selfless. As husband and wife we need to make effort to reach each other to love and respect and be little less selfish. It is security in our marriage that is also a reason for both of us being lazy and not making effort to please each other.
    As next generation of our children grow up, they will learn best and worst of both cultures and be a better lover and a responsible parent, boy or a girl . The playing field would then be leveled.

    • Neither I am an immigrant nor I want to settle outside India; I just land up this page accidentally and feel interested to add something. I was neither a typical Kolkatan. I was born in a remote village; studied in Kolkata and traveled Chennai, Delhi and now settled in Bangalore. What I feel the relationship between husband and wife is divine; because there is no biological linkage between two human beings though they become a single soul to create a new human being. It is not about Bengali or white americans; it’s the way how you look this relationship. For me it’s divine. I have a pure rural background as opposed to my wife’s fully convent educated urban lifestyle. But I never stick to so called conservative lifestyle; may be my learnings in Ramakrishna Mission,NDP was a reason. Whatsoever, initially we also fought a lot, quarrel but never ever disrespect each other. We know it’s static; the love we have for each other is eternal. I was married for just over 3 years; very novice. The most interesting thing we both do not required any friends to socialize; we both can enjoy each other companion without bothering outside social life.

      Only thing I can say is if you look beyond what you used to see, your life will be always beautiful irrespective you have indian husband or white/black american or european.

  3. Indian and specifically Bengali women have a very high threshold of acceptance and tolerance of what constitutes their attitude towards their husbands and marriage. In fact, that remains the bedrock of the stable marriage that we are so proud of. Particularly, Mr. Rakshit our generation considered the onus to be on women to accept, compromise, and nurture relationships. “Maniye Nao” was the blanket advice given to my generation’s women.
    Since the conversation began with the issue of our daughters marrying outside the community, the focus is on men and father-figures. Conversely, if we were to examine our sons stepping outside the community to marry, we would most certainly focus on mothers’ failures to live up to their sons’ expectations. There is an argument at both ends.
    Please note that this complaint has been examined by all immigrant communities whose children have stepped out of the community to find spouses in the melting pot of America. Each community has to examine its own values, strengths, and priorities to evaluate where it fits in. I am also reminded at this point of our nephew who is married to a lovely Polish girl who has worked so hard to understand and become a part of our Bengali family. She makes “mishti doi”, waits patiently with dinner as we continue our “adda” in Bangla, and shows off her Indian garments to us with pride. I wonder whether her Polish father self-examines himself in a similar vein because his daughter chose to step outside her community in marriage. At our end we couldn’t have asked for anything more from our daughter-in-law. Can we then agree that we need to let our children follow their bliss without blaming ourselves for it?

    • I could not understand why you immigrant american bengali is worried about inter-community marriage as your children born and brought up in a place which is not as u were. This is very rational to them ; and they are not restricted to mixing up only bengalees..(Thank god! atleast they do not become Kupomonduk). If you people are so much worried about this you should not settle in the USA or UK; better return back to Kolkata and arrange bride/groom for for you children. This is typically a hypocrite mentality. Please dont mind of this word. But that is the exactly right word. Most of the immigrants stick to the USA for good career and money; if you want so much bangaliana in ur life please return back to kolkata. If you settle and enjoy life in a place you should adapt a little bit of their lifestyle; otherwise every now and then you will be weeping over everything.

      The problem is when you get used to so good life in the USA in your early age you probably forget that your children is raised in a place where culture and values are different. That is the time you should decide yourself whether return to India or accept the “foreign” lifestyle of your children. Because only when you grow old you will feel alone and want back to your lost life back home.

  4. I’m a Bengali father of a 24-year old daughter who was born and raised in the US. I wouldn’t consider myself a “failure” in instilling an exemplary image of a Bengali debonair groom — that image would likely be modeled after myself, since I neither have the looks of a matinee idol nor do I know of his qualities particularly suited for the role — if she decides to marry outside the Bengali community. To me, such a decision is not rooted in our daughters having “the luxury of wider perspective and many options.” The question to really ask: what is that a Bengali husband brings to the life of my daughter? Does she enjoy the trappings of ‘Bangaliana’ and yearns for the Bengali culture/society? If she does not identify herself as a Bengali except when in her family’s company, then choosing a Bengali husband would not fulfill any of her emotional needs and could even be a burden in some situations.

    I grew up in Kolkata — eating four meals a day, enjoying goat meat curry on Sunday afternoon and listening to Bengali programs on radio (this was before TV came in vogue). In the subsequent decades of separation from that epicenter of Bangaliana, these erstwhile daily activities were resigned to memories. I don’t seem to ‘miss’ them anymore during my occasional trips to the city. Their role in fulfilling my emotional needs has come to a pass.

    So why should I hang my head in “shame” (of failure) if my daughter expresses her own preference in choosing her life partner? She is just trying to continue the way of life she is most habituated with, which may have a little commonality with her parents. In doing so, a “white American” boy is most likely to feature in her conjugal life because of the sheer demography of this country. And what happens if that chosen life partner embraces Bangaliana more than a Bengali boy? (This has actually happened.) Would I still be living with the shame?

  5. From my perspective being in England, and based on my experience, my undergraduate days in British University, I find the article is somewhat bland.
    Incidentally, my marriage was arranged. I married a Bengali girl from traditional family. However, I treated my Bengali wife, as if she was another student friend from a British University, without any hangups. Which is normally found among Bengali girls who come to the UK or USA with a lot of preconceived baggage to join their husbands. Our children, a daughter and a son, now grown up, married to English husband and German wife respectively, are at ease with themselves and in the community where ever they happen to be.

    It appeals to me that most of the Bengali men ( Immigrants – jobseeker in the USA, 22+ ) have very little understanding of the mind set of young people of Europe and USA, and their aspiration and hobbies. This could explain why the daughters and sons born in USA of their diaspora parents find a big social gaps both within their own Bengali community, as well outside their communities.

  6. Interesting also enlightening article. Agree with most of the part. Curious why are the Bengali boys raised here mostly marry Indian girls?

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