Apart from native residents of Bengal and non-resident Bengalis, almost anyone who has lived for some time in a Bengali-speaking town or village is likely to have heard the phrase ‘bheto Bangali’. Used to describe the typical Bengali replete with all their quintessential ‘Bong’ traits, the phrase is derived from ‘bhat’, the Bengali word for ‘boiled rice’, which has been an inalienable part of the staple diet of the ethnic Bengali household of the fertile Gangetic plains since time immemorial.
A one-word translation for ‘bheto‘ may be an exercise in futility; phrases like ‘rice-influenced’ or ‘rice-oriented’ do serve as literal translations while not quite bringing out the rich and diverse connotations of this one-word nomenclature used to describe the typical Bengali mentality, one that transcends diet and encompasses multiple aspects of life. It would be more worthwhile, instead, to force Oxford’s hand in realising a fresh entry in the OED, quite in line with bandobast, jugad et al!
The bheto mentality indicates a strong affinity towards boiled rice, one that borders on romanticism and which in turn extends to characteristics like genteel, culture-loving mellowness, often coupled with a resistance to change. As the Editor-in-Chief of this portal aptly put it:
A bheto Bangali would cherish his machher jhol bhat (boiled white rice with fish curry) — mangsho-bhat (rice with mutton curry) on Sundays — as well as the afternoon siesta that follows. Songs of Rabindranath Tagore or Rabindrasangeet would be a staple part of their entertainment, although reading Rabindranath has in truth become increasingly less frequent over the decades. An aversion to hard physical labour and martial activities or training is taken both as a direct consequence and manifestation of the bheto mentality. It is generally assumed that a person accustomed to a rice-based diet would be physically mellow and keen to compromise. One may find a parallel with the infamous cholchhe cholbe or chalta hai attitude in this.
Interestingly, the term was coined by Bengalis themselves and is not exactly a pejorative one, let alone a racial slur. Bengalis often use it to bait each other for being too typical, leisure-loving or simply too lazy. However, people outside Bengal and others do not use it as an insult for Bengalis, simply because they are not properly acquainted with the term. In any case, any attempt at stereotyping the Bengali as a mellow culture-loving weakling would be logically a non-starter, given the exceptionally heroic history of Bengal and Bengalis down the centuries. Starting with the Pala Empire in the Late Classical period and right up to the death-defying heroics of the fierce revolutionaries in the colonial period when Bengal was at the forefront of the struggle for freedom from the British, it is not the typical bheto Bangali that one encounters.
This begs the question: Why do we have the term at all?
A brief examination of circumstances, at least those in recent history, offers a possible explanation. The genesis of this term is anyway pretty recent when compared with a cumulative Bengali history of more than 1,200 years. One wonders: Was it possibly to separate the mellower bhadralok middle and upper-middle-class from the fierce rebels in their own midst? The advent of the Bengali bhadralok coincided with the colonial period. Although the death-defying revolutionaries of Agnijug or the ‘Age of Fire’ often came from their own midst, the more traditional members of this class; qualified, educated and economically stable and whose immediate purpose would have been served better by collaborating with rather than rebelling against their colonial masters; have been numerically more prolific than those fierce rebels, who were quite often outcasts in their own families and social milieu.
Aurobindo and Barin Ghosh, Bagha Jatin, Surya Sen, Khudiram Bose or Jatin Das would never be dubbed bheto Bangali by the wildest stretch of the imagination. Nor would Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the mammoth of a social reformer and educator, or the fiery iconoclast Narendranath Dutta, before his reinvention as the saffron revolutionary, Swami Vivekananda. In literature, none would dream of applying the term to Sabyasachi Mallick of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Pather Dabi (The Right of Way). Even someone like Sachis Mallick of Rabindranath’s Chaturanga (Four Chapters), a literary character on a much lower pedestal than the exemplary Sabyasachi in terms of heroism, was anything but a bheto Bangali. In the character construction, Tagore’s deliberate segregation of Sachis and his iconoclast jyathamoshai (father’s elder brother) Jagmohan from the former’s hypochondriac, superstitious, steeped-in-rituals father Harimohan is pretty obvious. And the list goes one.
If anything, the copious instances from real life and literature indicate that we can safely conjecture the origins of the term bheto Bangali as a deliberate attempt to separate the likes of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rashbehari Bose from the standard Bengali gentry and the moderates among the politicians, as well as from their peers and family in everyday life.
Thus spake the Bengali bhadralok in unison to the rebel in their midst, “You carry on, sir. It is too radical an idea or too arduous a quest for bheto Bangali like us.”