Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bengali Brahmin

I am one, and so is my dad. What's so special about them anyways?
While I was in India I never realized their speciality. Maybe I didn't ponder over it.
It came to my attention in a strange way.

I was at lunch with my colleagues from work. One of my American team mates saw me sitting down with a aromatic chicken dish. He stared at me hard, gauging me and my food choice. Minutes of mental calculations later, he opened his mouth with a grin.

"You must be a non-higher class Indian!", he said confidently.
"Excuse me?" I asked indignant. My Brahmin blood pressure started rising.
"You are eating chicken. I know all higher class Indian dudes are veggies. You are not. I have even spotted you with sushi rolls. So I did some smart deductions and placed you in the appropriate Indian class structure!" He seemed rather pleased with himself for his sleuth prowess.
I had to correct this American dude. An education and an enlightenment was in need.

I began my discourse, much on the same lines as the first Brahmin pundit might have started off teaching a bunch of no-good disciples in his Gurukul. There were no gigantic banyan trees shadowing us but it was no less profound.

A commonly held belief among people I encountered here was that Indians are vegetarians. How Indians survived on no meat diet was a point of curiosity. Obviously when asked the Indians replied stating religion and higher caste. Brahmins all over India are strict vegetarians. (Some younger generation ones might not be practicing it.) However that is not true for my dear old Bongland.

In Kolkata every Brahmin kid grows up on "machher jhol" and "bhaat", the traditional rice and fish curry. We are famous for our "eeesh!" (popularized by Aishwarya in Devdas), our "feeeesh" and our beloved "eeleesh"!(Hilsa or Salmon)
Chicken is the first runner-up. We love them too. Every Sunday my mother used to prepare the awesome aromatic chicken curry in our ancient Prestige Pressure Cooker.

Perhaps she had received it as one of her wedding gifts. Giving Pressure Cookers as wedding gift item was extremely popular in my part of the country. A couple who forgot to mention “no gifts” in the wedding invite ended up with atleast a dozen 12 liter cookers. Left in this predicament with scanty kitchen space, the couples had to resort to re-cycling. Going green has always been an Indian initiative, albeit unrecognized. They re-gifted the pressure cookers to other unsuspecting couples. Care had to be taken to ensure the exact same model wasn’t given back. A cautious shuffling ensued.
People soon got wind of this pressure cooker musical chair. They re-invented the gift. Pressure cookers appeared as gift items – with a minor change. Names of the newlyweds and the gift-ers were deeply engraved in metal! Aha! No more cookers coming back now! This had a bi-directional impact.
My parents were stuck with the ancient cooker and couples about to wed ensured they wrote “NO GIFTS (especially cookers!)”

Fish, chicken and rice being the staple diet of every Brahmin kid and elderly person, there is little room to practice vegetarianism. Some Bengali Brahmins refused to give up though. The love of fish superseded the love for chicken. They became neo-veggies. They ate fish and called themselves Vegetarians. That only served to befuddle the other Brahmins from other states of India when they invited or got invited over to dinner parties by these neo-veggies. These new age Bengali Brahmins have also got a word for themselves – peskiterians.

I wonder what started the first Brahmin off on the path of chicken and fish in Kolkata. Common sense dictates availability of food choices over religious practices. The first Brahmin sat wondering at his options by the Bay of Bengal.
“Was it better to eat the delectable yellow mustard curry of this soft boned Salmon or was it better to never think of them while others devoured them around me?” Of course it was tough not to think of them. They were prancing everywhere – from the oceans, to the fishing nets, to the harbor, to the stinky markets to the dinner plates! It would be hard to live in denial, hence acceptance set in. Brahmins in Bengal started off on fish. Chicken followed in soon after.

Fish is considered auspicious in Bengal. My grandmother used to call upon the goddess Durga in her own way – “dugga dugga” and added “doi mach” (yogurt fish) along with it whenever we left home on a journey. The combination of yogurt and fish is not a dish. It is a combination of two auspicious items taken in one breath. To make it doubly good and really auspicious!

Fish shows up in weddings as well. Huge sized fish are exchanged between the groom and the bride. These are decorated with sandalwood, red netted veil and sometimes even ornamented. They symbolize a “fresh” beginning to a new life. Care is taken to buy the biggest catch of the day, early in the morning the “totto” (gift sets) are sent off to the groom’s side.

All these illustrations later, I asked my colleague,
“I am of the highest caste (not that it matters) with a fish- and-chicken diet. Did you get it?”
He looked at me confused.
“Fine so you aren’t a practicing Brahmin, that’s all. I get it!”

I gave up. For a moment I sensed the frustration the Brahmin Guru might have felt when elaborate examples failed to penetrate the thick head of one of his students. At least he had the luxury of “beth” (long stick) to spank his point in. I had to content myself with a sigh and an extra large spoonful of chicken breast.


Anonymous said...

Nice post ..bongs tumhe un-bong ker denge !!

Anonymous said...

Nice post ..!!

GRD said...

As usual, i love ur posts... :)

Enakshi said...

I love reading you...Good to see that you kept the Bengali Brahmin flag flying high in phoren parts :))

Unknown said...

Nice really nice....

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay said...

Nice post ! I could completely relate to what you had said :)
I've answered this question at least a zillion times in India (outside WB) as well as abroad ...

In fact at one time I was so irritated that I wrote a couple of posts on food habits of Brahmins - one for Bengali Brahmins ( and for non-Bengali Brahmins (

Once again, your post makes for a very humorous and interesting read!

paganpixie said...

Seriously... stop with the "caste talks" already....Was really hoping that with our generation it shall fade away and FOR GOOD...but I see that it is very much alive in people like you.. so much for your "high caste brahmin blood" and the Americans of all the people even knowing about a prevalent caste system in India..Sorry to burst your bubble...just becuase ur one of the countless.. Banhejees, Chatterjees, Bhattacharjees or Gagulees... HARDLY matters...ur just another Indian or Bong and dats it... trash this silly feeling of "Brahmin-ness" it has never done anyone any good :)

Lopa Misra said...

Nice post...

Thamim said...

This is a beautiful post. I've been here and read this before and parts of it found its way into one of my recent posts. I thought I should come back and give you the credits :)
If you wanna read what I wrote, do check out the post 'A la Carte' in my blog. Thanks and best wishes.

Sai Nellore said...

I am a Telugu brahmin (no meat, fish or egg). I always found it amusing that a brahmin could eat non-veg food. I am now more clear as to how Bengali brahmins ended up as non-vegetarians. But can someone answer this question: If food habits are the same between brahmins and non-brahmins in Bengal, what exactly *differentiates* the sects? Why can't a brahmin marry into a non-brahmin Bengali family? Are there any specific rituals that only Bengali brahmins follow? I am curious to know.

Darsan said...


Anonymous said...

It's not just Bengali Brahmins who are non-vegetarian. Konkani Brahmins (Padukone, Dixit, Shenoy etc.), Kashmiri Brahmins (Kichlu, Bagchu, Sapru, Sharma, Nehru, etc.), Assamese Brahmins (Goswami, Sarma, Bhattacharjee, etc.), Oriya Brahmins (Mishra, Panda, Satpathy, Panigrahi, etc.) and Garhwali-Kumaoni Brahmins (Bahuguna, Saniyal, Uniyal, Nautiyal, Joshi etc.) are the other non-veg Brahmin groups in India.

This harks back not only to the availability of food locally in the places inhabited by these groups but also to other social factors. Remember, traditionally and scripturally, Brahmins are actually supposed to be pure non-veg. In fact, in Vedic times, eating beef was the sole prerogative of the Brahmins.

In the case of Bengali Brahmins, non-vegetarianism is the result of both food availability and orthodoxy. Bengali Brahmins have traditionally been ultra-orthodox before the advent of the Bengal Renaissance and then communism. They were brought into Bengal from mainly Kannauj as exemplars of Vedic piety and so carried over Vedic upper caste non-vegetarianism into Bengal. As the priestly class, in ancient India Brahmins who performed the Gomedh and Ashwamedh Yagnas (which involved the ritual sacrifice of the cow and the horse respectively) were ritually obliged to partake of the beef and horse meat that came out of the sacrifice. Also, it was considered very bad form if a cow was not slaughtered in honour of the guest when renowned pundits visited each other all the way up to the reign of Ashoka, when the first threat emerged to Brahminism in the form of state-sponsored Buddhism. Brahminical non-vegetarianism revived somewhat under the Guptas in the Golden Age, but was by then too anti-norm to exist outside of sacrificial rituals.

Vegetarianism, then, was a later-day adaptation of Indian Brahmins and was mainly taken up in those areas where Brahminism was under threat from either other religions (first Buddhism and Jainism and then, mainly, Islam) or from within the Hindu fold. Notice how none of the non-veg Brahmin groups I mention above faced either an external religious or internal Hindu threat. Bengali Brahmins were always left untouched no matter who ruled Bengal; Islam came relatively peacefully to Kashmir; neither Islam nor any other religion ever had any impact on Hindus in the Konkan area of old; ditto for ancient Odisha, Assam and Garhwal-Kumaon; and in all of these areas Brahmins never faced any organised opposition from indigenous tribes such as the Tamil and Malayali Brahmins faced in what is now Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These groups, therefore, did not need to modify their behaviour in any way to present a picture of greater piety and social acceptance. Other modifications took place: Nepali Brahmins are otherwise vegetarian but eat the sacrificial goat and cattle that are slaughtered in ceremonies and Pujas.

So whenever anyone in or outside of India questions my dietary habits I launch into this historical litany. If it does not educate the questioner, it at least shuts him up in perpetuity.

Finally, lovely blog post. Very enjoyable read!