One phrase every Bengali worth his sweater has grown up with is thanda lege jabey. It is the ultimate warning of impending doom, an unadulterated form of existentialist advice. Thanda lege jabey. Thou shalt ‘catch the cold’. ‘Catching the cold’ comes easy to Bengalis. It’s a skill that’s acquired almost immediately after birth.
Watch a Bengali baby and you would know. Wrapped in layers of warm clothing even if the sun is boiling the mercury, the baby learns quickly that his chances of survival in a Bengali household depend on how tightly he can wrap himself in cotton, linen and wool.
Bengalis have almost romanticised warm clothing, so much so that Bengali art has found eloquent __expression in a form of quilt-stitchwork called kantha. I’m sure wool-shearers even in faraway Australia say a silent prayer to Bengalis before the shearing season (if there’s any such season). I’m also sure the very thought of Bengalis sends a chill down the spine of many a sheep.
In winter, the quintessential Bengali’s outfit puts the polar bear to shame. Packaged in at least seven layers of clothing and the head snugly packed inside the queerest headgear, the monkey cap, he takes the chill head on. Easy lies the head that wears the monkey cap. With a pom-pom at the top, it’s not just a fashion statement; it’s a complete fashion paragraph.
I remember strolling down the Walk of Fame in Hollywood on a pleasant May evening. My eyes scanned the glittering stars on the asphalt – each an ode to a Hollywood heavyweight. Suddenly, my ears caught the unmistakable Doomsday warning – ‘thanda lege jabey’. I stood transfixed. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is probably the last place one would like to get caught ‘catching the cold’. I turned around. There was this Bengali family braving the American chill. The young brat of the family was adamant that he didn’t want any more clothing but mom wouldn’t have any of it – “sweater porey nao, thanda lege jabey.” I need not translate that. Mom won, and the family – sweaters et al – posed for a photograph.
For a race that is perpetually running scared of cold weather, Bengalis have a surprising affinity for hill stations. Probably, warmth of heart is best preserved in shawls, pullovers and cardigans. In an age when you are judged by how cool or uncool you are, the warmth that the kakus, jethus and mashimas exude can melt icebergs. I wouldn’t trade that warmth for any amount of cool. However, the monkeycap may look cool without the pom-pom.
About Vikram Hazra
As Program Director of the International Art of Living Foundation, I travel, teach, sing, smile and serve, and strive to excel as an instrument of His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose goal is to put the smile back on every face on this planet.