San Francisco. April 20, 2002. Sometime around 2 pm. I'm carrying a sign saying "South Asians against War and Racism," marching with a contingent of progressive South Asian Americans. Signs carried by groups around us namecheck Afghanistan, Vieques, the Philippines, US civil rights, American budgetary priorities, racial profiling -- but above all, Palestine and American complicity with Israeli Occupation. Jewish groups are particularly vocal; "not in our name," their signs proclaim. We float along in the proverbial sea of humanity, flooding the streets of the city. There are thirty-five thousand of us, I'm later told, marching against war and racism. All I know is that this is the biggest demonstration I've ever been to.
We sing and chant as we march. Songs and slogans slip in and out, as those with voices not yet hoarse lead new chants, some memorized, others impromptu. I'm walking near two other folks with roots in Bengal -- one a Punjabi from Calcutta, another a Bangladeshi from Dhaka. A friend starts up new chants ("Bush, Sharon, what do you say? how many kids did you kill today?" is a favorite); I joke that she should be yelling "cholbe na" (Bengali for "won't do" or "cannot continue"), the standard chant tagline associated with left Bengali street protests.
We march several more blocks, and encounter silence in our part of the crowd. We look around, smile, yell "Occupation cholbe na"; others join in. We sound off for a glorious minute or so, before joining in with chants coming from other parts of the crowd. I'm glowing, having a Bengali-American afterschool special moment.
The American Bengali culture I grew up with didn't have a lot of room for yelling leftist slogans, be they in Bengali or English. "Authentic" culture consisted of things like the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, North Indian classical music, the films of Satyajit Ray, classical Indian dance forms, and the holidays celebrated by urban Hindu Calcuttans. The rich Bengali tradition of internationalist politics and left, radical, and socialist agitation was left behind. The community may have considered it embarrassing; it was certainly not a productive cultural outlet for a community of immigrant engineers, doctors, and academics trying to push their Americanized kids into the professions.
It's possible that members of our immigrant community subscribed to these attitudes before they migrated. Our families, often upper-class or upwardly mobile, likely considered political involvement déclassé, in one of the most class-stratified regions on the planet, and dangerous, in a society where an interest in politics can bring one in contact with thuggery, shady organizations, and police brutality. My (middle- to upper-class) grandparents would be disappointed (and perhaps a bit scared) to hear that their grandson was yelling the same slogans that the poor good-for-nothings with nothing to lose yell on their own city streets.
Why did I find myself yelling "cholbe na"? Because I felt racialized in the wake of the American response to 9/11, targeted by institutionalized and mainstream racism because of the way I look; making use of culturally specific tools to express my dissent was a way to deal with that racialization. Because it made me feel authentic; I was acting out part of the script for how a Bengali protester should behave (even though I'd never seen "cholbe na" in use myself, only heard about it from friends and family, read about it in books). Because it helped me to justify my message; evoking the internationalist post-Independence Bengali protest culture allowed me to add further weight, further legitimacy, to my beliefs (in much the same way that yelling "Bush, Sharon, what do you say? how many kids did you kill today?" might tap into 70s anti-war movements). But more than anything else, because it made me feel good; during an unplanned minute or two over the course of a long day, I found myself enjoying playing with borders and identities -- even though I understand that neither hybridity nor multiculturalism is inherently radical or transformative (see John Hutnyk, Critique of Exotica).
I've been discussing my use of "cholbe na", but not the protest idiom itself. Unsurprisingly, it has its own complications. I'm ignoring several issues of additional interest: the troubled violent legacy of the revolutionary Naxalite guerrillas in Bengal, who used the "cholbe na" idiom to attack what they saw as the degraded institutions of civil society; the idea that "cholbe na" culture has led to the cultural and economic stagnation of Bengal; and the fact that West Bengal's elected Communist government can and does make use of "cholbe na" style political agitation as an instrument of state power. These factors help bring out some of the complexities of what the phrase connotes -- it can't be glossed as the war cry of romanticized Bengali leftists whose ideas snugly align with ours, a South Asian Che Guevara t-shirt to be worn and discarded as pleased.
To what extent is my use of "cholbe na" reasonable? I see at least three areas of concern: context, authenticity, and privilege.
Context is a major issue. "Cholbe na" is a loaded phrase; as originally used, it has specific implications with regard to particular political positions, organizations, and struggles. It's very easy to decontextualize and dumb things down for the sake of political expediency. Ward Connerly's use of Martin Luther King quotes to justify ending affirmative action in California is an extreme case of this phenomenon; turning Che Guevara into a generic icon without meaning is a more everyday result. I'm concerned about this problem, but based on what I know, am reasonably confident that the way I'm using the phrase (in solidarity with Palestinian victims of the Occupation) is very closely aligned with the interests of the internationalist Bengali left groups who made use of it. I'm hoping that the use is true to the spirit of those who gave it meaning.
I'm of two minds about the role of cultural authenticity. I find compelling Vijay Prashad's critique of authenticity-talk (coupled with an emphasis on strategic cultural exchange via "polyculturalism", in Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting), but I'm not convinced that dropping it altogether is reasonable. In the context of "cholbe na," the issues are pretty clear. Since I have no first-hand experience with folks using the "cholbe na" idiom (or with those who have done so in the past), my use is highly conscious and scripted; I'm appropriating freely from Bengali culture, hoping to legitimate my claims to Bengali identity. One possible response to this is to claim that I should have a natural right to borrow from Bengali culture -- that ends the discussion immediately. Another tactic would be to denounce authenticity as a trap, standing in the way of creative cultural reuse and recontextualization. One might also challenge Bengali identity as a category, arguing that it's complex, loose, fluid, imagined -- and that claiming authenticity is an unreasonable attempt at imposing an artificial fixity upon it. Unfortunately, I'm not very convinced by any of these arguments.
The most clear-cut problems I can see with my use of "cholbe na" revolve around issues of privilege. My position as an upper middle class American makes it easy for me to use the phrase without dealing with all the social and political consequences that those who engaged in "cholbe na" protest culture had to deal with. I won't have to face police brutality, or be expelled from 'decent' society the way many have. My use of "cholbe na" is a kind of slumming, and I have no good response to that.
In spite off some of the problems I raise, I still find myself provisionally satisfied with my use of "cholbe na." I'm convinced that decrying the Israeli Occupation of Palestine is very closely aligned with the views of those who put meaning into the phrase. Other uses might not be so closely related. I'd have a problem yelling "US drug policy cholbe na" or "SUVs cholbe na" -- the merits of the causes aside -- due to the disconnect with the interests of the specific Bengali left/radical/socialist groups who gave the words their resonance. I'd also feel better about making further use of the phrase if it were coupled with learning more about its original users. I suppose it's ultimately a matter of attitude; disrespectful appropriation cholbe na.
John Hutnyk, Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry, 2000
Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, 2002
Thanks to Mini Kahlon for strong lungs, and Indraneel Sircar for helpful feedback.