Book Review: The Bengalis by Sudeep Chakravarti

Book Name: The Bengalis: A Portrait Of A Community

Author: Sudeep Chakravarti

Publisher: Aleph

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Blurb: The Bengalis are the third largest ethno-linguistic group in the world, after the Han Chinese and the Arabs. A quarter of a billion strong and growing, the community has produced three Nobel laureates, world-class scientists, legendary political leaders and revolutionaries, iconic movie stars and directors and an unending stream of writers, philosophers, painters, poets and musicians of the first rank. But, bald facts aside, just who are the Bengalis? What is the community all about, stereotypically and beyond stereotype? In order to find the answers to these and related questions, the author (a Bengali born and steeped in his own culture but objective enough to give us a balanced reckoning of his fellows) delves deep into the culture, literature, history and social mores of the Bengalis. He writes with acuity about the many strengths of the community but does not flinch from showing us its weaknesses and tormented history. He points out that Bengalis are among the most civilized and intellectually refined people on earth but have also been responsible for genocide and racism of the worst kind. Their cuisine is justly celebrated but few remember the cause and effect of millions of Bengalis dying of famine. Renowned for their liberal attitudes, they are also capable of virulent religious fundamentalism. Argumentative and meditative, pompous and grounded, hypocritical and wise, flippant and deep… Bengalis are all this and much, much more. With erudition, wit and empathy, this book manages to capture their very essence. Unarguably, it is the definitive portrait of one of the world’s most vibrant and distinctive communities.

Review: The Bengalis is a definitive book on the Bengali community. Sudeep has carried out extensive research for this masterpiece- it is no easy feat to put together an entire community within a book’s pages but he does it with a lot of finesse.

Bengal has had a rich history and has had one great personality in each field- Rabindranath Tagore in literature, a revolutionary in Subhash Chandra Bose, social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and many others. A community with such a diverse and vibrant history needed a book and Sudeep has documented it diligently. He begins with the genesis and documents it in detail. His easy and layman’s language is a delight to read as the book doesn’t come across as simply a boring piece of history but more of an anecdote- like listening to a Grandpa during bedtime.

He discusses religion through his own highly personalized account.

“It seemed to me so strange, how a man so liberal in his outlook and in the manner he had attempted to provide my sister and I every opportunity to fly and open our eyes and minds and hearts to the world, could in a heartbeat seem to be so determinedly against a religion.”

The Bengalis are known for their love for travel and so obviously it gets a discussion in the book. No book on Bengalis can be complete without a discussion on literature either. He also discusses contemporary issues such as the present economic scenario of Bengal.

This book is not meant as a history lesson nor is it a scholar’s study which is perhaps why this book is so endearing. The personalized anecdotal account is what makes this such a lovely book. A must read! If you are a Bengali you will learn more about your culture and if not then this is the best book to learn about this community.

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