Posted by: Tanmoy Chakrabarti | January 10, 2011

Bengal’s “Healthy” Obsession

We, Bengalis are very obsessive people. We obsess about a variety from food habits, weather, woollen garments, songs, football, tea, hanging photographs of people who are no more and not related to the family, other Bengali personalities, engineering entrance examinations, stadia and many other such things. What we call passion in no time becomes our obsession and slowly we are seen defending ourselves why we are the way we are. Somehow I am sure even though we would not admit it but all of us Bengalis obsess over something or the other without any concrete reason. It is trait which we cannot avoid. One such obsession is our obsession with our health. On a windy day, if you here a woman shouting and fearing that her son may catch cold, more often than not the woman is a Bengali mother. Even though most parts of Bengal by global standards would not be regarded as chilly but you would always find Bengalis well-shielded in a Bengal winter. We just don’t want to catch cold!

There is nothing wrong in keeping ourselves healthy but I have noticed we sometimes try unusual ways and go to unusual lengths. One unusual way that comes to my mind, is going to astrologers to discuss health issues. Definitely the money spent on astrologers is much more than money spent on healthy diet in Bengal. You would find many in Bengal who will say a gemstone would protect them even if they smoke forty cigarettes a day. That is the extent of obsession.

I remember once I had the good fortune of meeting with a doctor practicing Homeopathy courtesy a friend. This doctor was a fruit of age-old Bengali obsession over health. Tensed students in Durgapur just before their Board exams used to queue up in front of the doctors house to get homeopathy medicines. The doctor would off-course not name the medicine but he would sell two small glass bottles full off globules in them – one has “N-for Night” written on it and one has “D-for Day” written on it. Apparently those would keep away the tension and calm the nerves before the examination. He was a tremendously polite man and that is why people loved him. He was very expensive too.

A typical conversation with him will go something like this.

Tensed student: Doctor, I am much tensed because my exams are coming. I may forget everything before exams because tension is making me ill.

Doctor: Oh come on, nothing to worry. I will give you something which will help you.

Tensed student: Oh really. [Doctor goes behind a cupboard where you cannot see him and takes 5 minutes to prepare the medicine]

Doctor: Here you go. [As he hands over the N and D bottles]

Tensed student: Oh thank you so much. How much should I pay? Doctor: Oh come on, I cannot charge you a lot. Just pay Rs 200. [In 1994 and that is quite a bit to pay a doctor in India].

I am sure the medicines may have helped some students. I am sure the doctor had good intentions too. Apparently, Bengalis are not the only one who obsesses over health – Chinese do too. This was told to me by few of my Chinese colleagues. However, what I gather the difference between Chinese and Bengali obsession regarding health is – Chinese people take lot of herbal medicines to keep fit but Bengalis would perhaps avoid herbal medicines. Or will they? If anyone of you have been frequenting sub-urban trains in Bengal you would see a variety of ointments (claiming to be cure-all and herbal) being sold to interested buyers all through your journey. Whether they are genuine or not is another matter.



  1. Nice play on the word ‘healthy’, Tanmoy.

    Indeed, it would be unfair to dub ourselves the only ‘obsessive’ people, and also an obsession with health is probably much better than many others I can think of (with the ‘right sort of marriage’, for instance, and with engineering entrance, and cricket being treated as a fanatical religion rather than just a game…). If only we could be more ‘healthily’ obsessed with health! Which, of course, would mean eating much less of sweetmeats and oily foods, and exercising much more, but that would be anathema to most Bengalis. At 75, after surviving two strokes, my dad-in-law has just got loose motion after gorging himself for three successive days while travelling, and heaven knows he’s typical.

    The terror of cold and catching colds, is of course, something that borders on sickness with us, especially Calcuttans, seeing that most of them wrap themselves up as though they were close to one of the poles when any sane person would merely say it’s nicely cool.

    Haha about the quacks and gemstones peddlers. I guess, though, that they too must make a living, and besides, if not very effective, they are for the most part quite harmless.

    I shall look forward to your writing more frequently again. Take care.

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