Understanding Bengali culture: Be indirect, expect indirectness

Here’s a scenario . . . Pretend that someone asks you to a dinner party on Saturday night. You check your calendar and see that you have a prior engagement (lets just say that you have tickets to a football game.) The reasonable thing to do would be to contact the host, thank them for their invite, politely decline and say you had previous plans and are sorry that you won’t be able to make it. This way you are being honest and respecting the host and saving them from making an extra plate of food for you. Right? WRONG! In Bengali culture, it is considered impolite to matter-of-factly turn down an invitation (even if you really ARE unavailable.) So what do Bengalis usually say when put in this situation? They say, “I’ll try” (Ami cheshta korbo) or “I’ll see” (Ami dekhi) even if they are sure there is no way in hell that they are going to make that invitation.

It blew my mind in one of our pre-marital counseling sessions last year when our therapist told us to tell the other person what we want. What do I want? It’s that simple? Really? But that’s so . . . . direct! Until I started living with J (who is as direct as an algorithm), I didn’t realize how much I’ve internalized indirectness. Roundabout, circuitous speech is a quintessential trait of Bengalis and I find it really really difficult to be direct. But I’m working on it! The comedian Vidur Kapur does a hilarious bit on why Indians can’t be direct.

I remember when I was a teenager my parents were having guests over for dinner, and while they were running around upstairs getting ready, I was sent downstairs to entertain these people who I didn’t know. Like a good Bengali girl, I requested them to sit down and asked them if they would like some tea. Following protocol (which I was unaware of at the time), the guests all declined and being an ABCD, I took their words at face value and sat down with them relieved of my tea-making duties.

My uncle pulled me aside in the kitchen and started speaking in melodramatic whispers,

UNCLE: What are you doing? You can’t just ask people you don’t know if they want tea . . . they are gonna say no!

ME: But maybe they really don’t want tea.

UNCLE: Are you kidding me!? They are Bengali! Their blood is made of tea!

ME: So what am I supposed to say?

UNCLE: You say, ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’ (Ami chaa boshai)

I wished they would have just told me what they wanted. I dream of one day when Bengalis would learn from Occupy Wall Street protesters and upon entering someone’s home chant, “What do we want / Tea! / When do we want it? / Now”

And then the host would respond (in chant), “How do you want it?” to which the guest can reply, “Cream and Sugar” or “E-QUAL!” (if you are diabetic). See how time-saving and efficient that was?

Here’s another scenario . . . . You get to someone’s house after a long journey and they offer you food (you have been driving for 3 hours and are starving). “Would you like some rice and lentils?” they ask. You’re probably thinking, “Hells yeah!”, right? WRONG! Even if you are dying of hunger, the norm in Bengali culture is to passively decline the first offer. Since Bengalis are used to expecting indirectness and the no-means-yes mentality, they will probably ask you two or three more times in various ways telemarketer-style and on the third time you can say, “well if you insist, sure I’ll try some of what you have.”

So since we are talking about eating in a Bengali household, I’m going to go on a tangent for a second. Eating at a Bengali household is all about stamina . . . like running a marathon or taking a long standardized test. If you go too crazy in the beginning, you are gonna crash. The host will constantly monitor your plate and, even if you ate an entire Thanksgiving turkey, will remark “You didn’t eat ANYTHING!” (Tumi kichu khownee!) They might tell you to “feel at home” and “not be so shy”, its all part of the Bengali song and dance routine of never stating exactly what you need and want. Since they themselves are indirect, they expect everyone else to be as indirect and passive as them and don’t take words at face value ever. Also, unless its buffet-style, don’t serve yourself, let the host serve you. They want to be able to serve you . . . . because they will assume you are too shy and reserved to serve yourself and need the encouragement. So in short, allow yourself for multiple servings and pace yourself because you’ll be encouraged to eat more (Pet bhorey khow). In fact, khow is a word you should familiarize yourself with, because you’ll be hearing it as often as hello. “Khow khow khow khow!” It rhymes with “chow chow chow chow”, and has the same meaning.