A Bengali’s love for phish, phootball, adda and gluttony can only be rivalled by his fear of ‘thanda lege jaabe’ (catching a cold). Researchers in Malda University have come out with findings that suggest that six out of ten Bengalis keep themselves warm by chanting ‘kee sheeth kee sheeth’ (how cold!). The more the number of times they repeat it, the warmer they feel. This is exactly why the Monkey Cap, a Bengali’s armour against winter, covers the entire face and the scalp but keeps the mouth and eyes free from any encumbrances. Of what use are your eyes and mouth if they cannot derive the sensory pleasure of simultaneously seeing fellow sufferers shiver while conveying your own agony!
Bengalis, especially in Kolkata, have a special relationship with winter. The moment the temperature drops down to 25 C, doting moms mummify the apples of their eyes under layers of sweaters and bandor toopis, lest they catch a cold. Which is why Bengali siblings can never get lost at the Kumbh Mela because they are the only ones dressed like eskimos in thermals, sweaters and head gear.
The ‘beta sweater pehno’ mom in the Polo ad was most definitely a Bengali, even if somewhat nasal.
Maybe this explains a Bong’s fascination for the monkey cap that travels with him anywhere he goes, even if it’s a vacation on the seaside! The cap reminds the bhadrolok of his mom! Every time he yearns for his Maa’s warmth, he slips his head inside its womb. Not just the bandor toopi, but also Boroline and Gelusil that symbolise tender motherly love squeezed in a tube or a bottle protecting Bengalis from all ills and germs.
But does a Bong’s morbid fear of the catching the cold hamper him from having phun? No siree! Your childhood isn’t Bengali enough if you don’t have memories of being huddled up in a bus eating cold boiled eggs, with bread butter and a banana, singing Robindro Shongeet only to have mangsho bhaath (mutton curry with rice) at some far off picnic spot. But not before a few rounds of badminton, cricket and some more Robindro Shongeet while the cauldron of freshly made mutton curry bubbles away merrily. By the time the lunch finishes, it’s time for evening tea with some light snacks like shingara (samosa) and a couple of mishtees.
It’s only when everyone complains of acidity is the picnic declared a resounding success. With Gelusil handed around in silent comradeship.
It’s another matter that the monkey cap as an armour is dying a slow death. It’s mostly preferred by the ‘too old to care what others think of them’ and the ‘too young to say no to their adoring mom’. The young and the fashionable prefer just chanting “uff, kee sheeth’. Blame its ugly design, mousy colours that make you look like a chowkidar, negating your chances of ever getting coy glances from a shawl covered Bong bombshell.
After writing this article I have started wondering if I am a true Bong because I have no memories of my mom forcing me to wear The Cap. Maybe I was adopted. I only remember her slathering my face with cold cream and making us have warmed milk with brandy which I had with relish. But I do have vivid memories Bengali tourists shivering violently in their shawls, mufflers (some women furiously knitting some more of these), thermals and chowkidar caps on our annual trips to Shimla and Mussoorie and wondering, if it’s so cold, what the hell are they doing at a hill station? But anyone who knows a Bengali knows that no winter is cold enough to conquer our indefatigable spirit.
As a Bengali born and brought up in Delhi who feels out of place as a Delhiite and as a Probashi who always feels out place in Kolkata, I’m still Bengali enough to dress warm at Delhi parties even as I’m surrounded by women who’d rather die of hypothermia than hide their designer threads beneath layers of woollies. I just make sure no one is within hearing distance when I mutter – “kee sheeth kee sheeth” as I rub my palms furiously.