Assamese is not Bengali, or the other way

“So you are Assamese, it’s like being Bengali” A statement I have gotten used to. I am an Assamese and have grown up in the state of Assam for the most part of my life. I have referred to West Bengal and Bengalis in many conversations, as a reference for similarity with popular culture. I have applied this comparison for comprehensive flexibility with both my Indian and international acquaintances. Some verses I use —

“You know Kolkata. We are close.”
“You know how Bengalis are? We are similar.”
“Assamese script is similar so, I can read Bengali too.”
“Assamese has similar words so, I can speak Bengali.”

Assam was a part of the Bengal province in the British colonial era, and Bengalis are an integral component of the Assamese state, today. For Assam, I can say it is as diverse a state as India is a country. Assamese and Bengali cultures are distinct. One doesn’t mirror the other as two are divergent. Probably, precisely why the they have been regarded as two distinct cultures in spite of their similarities since ages, and at the start of our constitution in 1950.

As a ground girl, sharing with you a checklist of items which you might be confusing each other with. Being defensive, two things before you read further —

1. Being culturally ignorant to Assam and the Assamese culture is acceptable.
2.Stereotyping/Categorizing cultures for easy cognitive processing during conversations or decision making is ‘totally’ fair.

Migration

Assam is a migrant land. Historically, Mongols and the Ahoms came to settle here. During the 1947 partition, a huge section of them (Hindu-Bengalis) migrated to the north –eastern region. They have since then formed a crucial part of the migrant Assamese land. So yes I am very familiar with how a Bengali society functions. I have grown up with few of my best friends as Bengalis. A huge section of the Assamese population speaks Bengali or have their origin in East/West Bengal. It is one of the reasons, people mistakenly correlate a language to a state and fall into the mishap of incorrect stereotyping.

Kolkata

Yes, Kolkata is the nearest metro to Assam. Assam is connected with the city with roads, flights, and trains. Being in the vicinity, Kolkata is a trading venue. Kolkata has also been experienced to be more acceptable to Assam. As compared to other cities in India, people often have witnessed comfortable experiences in this city. Which influences why Assamese people are much more comfortable spending their college years, a job in this city.

Script

Yes, Assamese and Bengali scripts go hand in hand. All the alphabets are similar except the ‘Ra,’ syllable. I can read the Bengali ad banners at the same pace as I read the Assamese ones in Dispur (the Assamese capital). Mind me! when I say this, both the languages are phonetically very different.

Accent

Listen to an Assamese speaking Hindi, and a Bengali speaking Hindi as well. Both of them would have an accent carried from the mother tongue. The Assamese Chili Chicken is ‘Silly Sicken’ (the pronunciation) ;) and the Bengali version, I will leave it to them. If you are a sharp observer you know, the phonetics are different and distinct.

Food/ Fish

Bollywood movies have done justice/injustice to the Bengali love of fish. The Assamese love for fish is undeniable too. But, I believe the love is distinct ;) The Assamese diet is primarily dominant with other non-vegetarian meats, green palates, and rice. Fish holds a special place. With the low spice levels in this part, the Assamese taste buds are highly sensitive to the taste of the fish in itself. You will often find the recipes named after where the catch belongs to — paddy field fish curry, backyard fish curry, Dihing (the river) fish curry and others. The traditional festival of Magh Bihu accompanied by fish festivals and the local markets flooded with all kinds of fish.

Last Names

Many of our last names are similar e.g. Bhattacharya, Das, Pujari, and others. Please be mindful when someone says he is Assamese, he/she is one and when someone says he/she is Bengali he is that. The liberty of associating yourself with any culture is a human right, and a man knows his identity more than anyone else would.

Dress

The women wear saree and our Assamese women wear Mekhala. That said Assam is also home to a big section of our tribal society, who have their individual dresses. The men are traditionally known to wear a long fabric called dhoti, the individual dresses for the tribals are also very different.

Durga Pooja

Bengalis celebrate the Durga Pooja, and the embedding of new culture has intertwined that into popular Assamese culture. For the Assamese its mostly a symbol of enjoyment. Krishna is the dominant deity, and the Vaishnavite culture is widespread. That said the tribal societies have their beliefs along with a big section Islamic and Christian followers.

Is there Assamese –Bengali Friction

Assamese and Bengali cultures belong to the same geographical landscape. They have many things in common to be united than the distinctiveness. I recently read a book by Udayon Misra ‘India’s North East’; which explicitly mentions the tension between these communities because during the 1947 Indian partition. The seeds of the differences were sown during the colonial rule. The Assamese-Bengali friction has many shameful incidents in the state’s history. Better be distinct, then similar. As has been observed in cultures of the globe- Communities with similar attributes forgo a stronger strife.

I am absolutely positive this blog wasn’t triggered by that and in my defence,

The Assamese and Bengali tensions trace back to the time of pre and post-Indian partition times. I would like to keep it there and never carry it forward. My idea of this post is to stress the fact the Assamese culture is distinct and should not be veiled in one of the commonly represented cultures in the silver screen. I have infinite Bengali friends and very familiar to, the spicy Ellis fish and the sweet Rosogolla. Each of which I have my heart to pour for.


P.S: This passage has been thoroughly experienced and mildly researched.