Whenever I’m stressed out for any reason, I break out into Bengali adhunik songs (contemporary Bengali songs) under my breath, in a manner known to Bengalis as “Goon gooniyey gawa”, humming.
When singing, many Bengalis will hum parts of the song without breaking rhythm, in a low murmur. Bengali nostrils will flare and if they’re sure no one’s around, like in the shower, the words will spill out like magma through the crack between two tectonic plates.
Every Bengali male above the age of ten, hums. Loudly enough to reach every corner of a 1000 square foot apartment. If he has a ear for music and happens to be melodious, the others at home will let the sound of the humming ebb and flow over them like tides on a shore and get on with whatever they’re doing. If he isn’t and he’s tiny, he’s likely to get beaten up. Like yours truly.
Bengali females, they hum too. However, they normally defer to the males. For example if my father happened to be humming, my mother would appreciatively tap her feet or nod, in rhythm with my father’s humming and wait till he finished. And if she were the one who had started first and my father suddenly got it in his head that he was going ta hum, he’d just break into one, his deeper tone overriding my mother’s fainter lilt. The moment my father started off, my mother would fall silent and start that tap/nod routine to please my father. It always was a patriarchal society.
Likewise, among siblings, the gender hierarchy was enforced. The Taliban ruled at my home before they moved to Jalalabad, oh yeah. Sisters deferred to brothers, younger to older. And among brothers, either the older or the tougher would prevail.
These protocols, however, did not apply to bathrooms. Bathrooms were the demilitarized zones. The duty-free ports. No one could trump you there. Like if you happened to be a girl and the youngest in the family, the only place you could let out a hum was inside the bathroom. Consequently young Bengali girls were known to spend extended periods of their day in that section of the house.
Adolescent young Bengali boys too hummed in the shower. Again, like yours truly. They in fact definitely hummed in the shower, perhaps a bit longer than the girls. Masturbation takes time when you’re twelve. So did they with me. Thoughts of the model in a Bombay Dyeing towel jostled for space with cricket and Gary Sobers.
And this is pretty much the story in every Bengali household on this planet. If you find a Bengali family that doesn’t hum, you can be certain they are working for a foreign intelligence agency, even the babies. Oh yeah, trust me. I happened to read about this in an MI6 manual on Wikileaks once.
You can also gauge the mood a guy is in, from his humming. For example, if I wanted some extra pocket money and my father was humming ‘Ami jharer kache rekhe gelam amar thikana’ (I leave my address to the typhoon), I’d reschedule submission of my application for funds.
My mother once wanted father to drive us to Digha on holiday. My father broke into –
‘Poth harabo, bolei ebar, pothay nemechi….Shoja pother dhandhay ami, anek dhendhechi’.
(I have started on my way, knowing I’ll be lead astray….The straight path has always been a riddle, to me)
My mother changed her mind. She took us to the corner store for alu kabli instead.
Humming, in fact, can tell you about what’s going on in the whole household. If it’s loud but orderly, i.e.: one at a time, the family is probably outgoing and disciplined, the Dad probably a major general, the girls are probably major and easy to befriend. If the humming is soft and audible only when you stop and eavesdrop by the bedroom windows, the kids are probably asleep and uncle Madhusudan is waiting in bed for aunt Lajyabati. If the humming sounds like a free for all, loud and raucous, frequencies buffeting each other, something that has a red shift, the family is dysfunctional and the Dad is probably henpecked.
Hum therapy is big in Kolkata. I know this shrink there who has both, a couch and a shower inside his consulting chambers. He psychoanalyzes hums. I’ve got to see the guy on my next trip. Can’t seem to be able to stop humming,’ Pagla, monta re tui bandh’ (nutcase, reign in your thoughts).