Bongs will Travel
In domestic tourism, the Bengali was there first, before the Gujarati, the Punjabi, or the Maharashtran.
‘You can’t miss the lively family of grandmother, second cousin and toddler screaming and jumping over the rolling waves at the sea beach. You can spot the group of naturalists in the hills armed with monkey caps, flasks and white keds on the prowl for that rare butterfly. If not that, they will be found, monkey cap still firmly in place, playing gulley cricket in the hotel foyer back at the hill station. You can hear a distinctively cadenced chorus singing songs of nostalgia in the high bugyal meadows, or haggling over the price of a clay Shiva in some temple town by the sea.
The ubiquitous community of Sightseers and holidaymakers can only be Bengali, for as passionate as they are about their homeland, the Bengalis are also keen connoisseurs of the wide world. They are the most mobile of South Asian communities, and the first to take to tourism, a behavior pattern imbibed from the shahibs of the Raj with whom they were in closest proximity. Bongs, as they are endearingly addressed by other Indians, are cultured. And the yen to travel is an aspect of being cultured.
Welcome to the “land of Tagore, Ray and Teresa”, proclaims the hoarding to visitors arriving at the airport at Dum Dum in Calcutta. Indeed, the Bong is equally conversant with Rabindranath´s last poem, Satyajit Ray´s soul-searching films and Mother´s saintliness. But what is interesting is that the Bengali is also as knowledgeable about every nook and corner of the country that is India. At least two breaks a year, one short and the other long, are as essential components of life for the Bengali as fish is to rice in their diet. An extended weekend or the end of the school term, if he has nothing else, the Bengali will slip out of home with the proverbial lota and blanket. There is a world out there to discover.
There are all kinds of Bengali tourists, but essentially three categories, defined by class: the MNC executive and noveau riche, the genteel bhadralog traveller, and the packaged ones. The ´true tourists´ of West Bengal are of this last package-tour kind. Gregarious, genial and generous, they take along their extended family of third-cousins-in-law and even their friends twice removed. They are the government and bank employees, and teachers —who would not be caught dead spending those two vacation breaks a year riding the Calcutta tramway. This category loves to sight-see, and is wont to break into a delirious Tagore song at the sight of ´natural beauty´, or insist on buying a gift for the ´neighbour´ who lives two full blocks down the road. Lyrics are devised for every mood and occasion.
If it is an extended weekend, such as during Easter, you could bet your last paisa that Calcuttans have transported themselves to the calm, shallow sea at Digha, one of the most popular spots in West Bengal. A little further out, Puri in Orissa is another favourite because it doubles up as a beach-cum-pilgrimage destination. Lord Jagannath, in his chariot, does not seem to mind this mix of piety and pleasure. Or the Bengali will have decided to beat the heat and made it up to Darjeeling, Queen of the Hills, to bask in the glory of Kanchenjunga.
The overnight train rides towards any of these favourite destinations do not require elaborate planning. All you need is a pack of playing cards to keep awake through the night in the unreserved train compartment, and piles of puris and aludum from the home kitchen. In fact, she who discovered that the easiest way to a man´s heart is through his stomach must have interacted with a Bengali while coding that insight. The Bong´s obsession with what he consumes is only surpassed by his devotion to discussing food. He lives from one meal to the next, in between relishing every morsel of culinary information — from the size of the cauliflower this season to the price of fish that morning. So vast is the Bengali gourmet´s storehouse of knowledge that he can state with authority upon chewing one mouthful the exact river and part of the river where this Hilsa had its origins.
The passion for food is translated into a fetish, so much so that the most revered position in the package tour is that of cook. He is pampered, cajoled and his every whim taken care of. After all, he who provides the Bengali with mustard fish in remote Rohtang Pass (Himachal Pradesh) or banana flower with grated coconut while on a train in the midnight leg between Lucknow and Delhi, must be well taken care of.
To divert briefly to the upper-most class Bengali travellers, they are the new rich mostly, some of them even dot.com-wallahs. This category sneers at the thought of a package tour. It demands ´readymade´ service, with arrangements for pickup at the airport, transfer to three-star hotels with functioning geyser and cistern, ´good view´, exotic cuisines, et al. The local guide should know the history of the dilapidated monuments so that Choto Baba´s school project will have value-added. He must also be able to take the memsahib shopping for earrings. The aim of this new-breed Bengali traveller is to de-stress, swim in private beaches, and dine in exclusive forts, destinations where plebeians have no hope of treading.
It is actually difficult to call this type of traveller ´Bengali´, given that he represents a generic upwardly-mobile Indian from any corner of the country. The craze of the uppah this year is for the sun-kissed beaches of the Maldives, right across the expanse of the Subcontinent and faraway in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Which brings us to the genteel bhadralog, old money who would prefer to do nothing else but to retreat to a forest bungalow with a Jhumpa Lahiri short story collection in hand.
Beyond the yen and the inquisitiveness, the reason that the Bengali middle class travels so is to be found in in all of three letters, LTA— the Leave Travel Allowance provided generously by the government. Travel agents are known to anguish over the mere thought of that horrendous day when Bengalis may enmasse decide not to avail of the LTA. However, it is unlikely that such a day will arrive, ever.
The LTA supports package tours of two to three weeks, and the Bengalis look for cheap accommodation without frills. The argument is, why pay for a sumptuous room if all you are going to do is to crash after a full day of sightseeing? But what the babu will insist on are clean bathrooms and bed sheets. Lodge-owners from Kalimpong to Mussoorie report being terrorised by Bengalis who shout in one refrain, “Why are you so stingy with the Phenol in the toilet?!”
The package tourist is content, therefore, if his simple demands for a view, food and solace for the soul are taken care of. For the redemption of the souls of the elderly mashimas and pishimas, the tour must touch the sacred ghats of Varanasi or Prayag. This is why the billboards outside both the Varanasi and Allahabad railway stations advertise “Bangaali” dharamshallas, which serve vegetarian.
There is the one additional factor of security, for most Bengalis suffer from eternal anxiety pangs that the coolie will run away with their luggage or that the train will stop unannounced in a dark forest. There is much muttering in the eerily silent railway bogeys when this happens. Being an educated and cultured race, Bengalis have creative imaginations, which come into their own on such occasions. With Kashmir in trouble for more than a decade, Himachal Pradesh has emerged as the all-time favourite of the tourist Bong. “Kullu-Manali-Kangra-Valley!” he will blurt out if you ask him his favourite LTA destination. On the banks of the Beas, Kullu is the base for visits to various holy sites like the famous cave temple of Vaishno Devi and Bijli Mahadev. Manali during the summers is paradise and is close to the snows of Rohtang Pass. Famous for its hot springs and sulphur baths, the Bengalis love the green walks outside the crowded town. Kangra Valley is a recent discovery and Bengalis swear by its ability to refurbish the jaded sensibilities of the Calcutta commuter.
But life on the fast track seems to be catching up even with the committed Bengali package tourist. If the unadulterated love for travel and adventure had not become compromised, how is it then that you will these days find a Bong snoring through the most exciting bus ride along the most beautiful forest? Even five to seven years ago, the cameras would have been clicking, and yells of outright delight renting the air. Yet, if you should encounter a couple camping at 12,000 feet above sea level near the Tibet border for two weeks at a continuous stretch, you can bet a free metro ride in Calcutta that they are Bengalis.