Peter Jackson has confirmed what I hazily suspected.
The hobbit is not an imaginary creature living in some idyllic corner of English countryside known as the Shire. He is very much real. He is Bengali, a Bengali bhadralok to be precise – smallish, bookish, the kind who would much rather read about an adventure than go on one. The Shire looks like a bucolic version of Chittaranjan Park populated by a race of scuttling Pranab Mukherjees.
The names are the first clue that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a secret Bengali manifesto. Frodo and Bilbo are clearly daaknaams or pet names with which fond Bengalis habitually saddle their children. In the hobbit’s world, the daaknaam has gained triumphant ascendancy over the bhalo naam or the good name. So Bilbo probably had a perfectly good name just as a Potla was once Apurbakishore but no one remembers anymore.
When I first read The Hobbit I didn’t cotton on to his intrinsic Bengaliness. However seeing him in 3D on the big screen, I could almost touch his Bengali soul. When Bilbo says “I miss my books, my armchair and my garden,” the Bengali heart wells with understanding and sympathy.
The great tragedy of the Bengali is that like the hobbit he has been thrust into unexpected journeys far from home. In the Bengali’s case, it’s mostly because his own state has proved to be such a disappointment. He is not a natural wanderer like the Punjabi. He has scattered all over the world because that’s where he could find some opportunity when he would have rather lived on in his cozy little burrow where the fishmonger knew his name. The Shire represents that unchanging vision of home, armchair and mustard oil the Bengali carries with him no matter where he lands up in the world. Other immigrants also miss home. But the Bengal turns pining for home into an art form. The Gangulis in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, recreating jhalmuri in Boston could not have been anything but Bengali. Bilbo’s great act of bravery is motivated not by a desire to save the world or even Hobbit-dom but to save this sense of home (as opposed to homeland.) “ I have a home. You don’t have one,” he tells the dwarves who have been turned into refugees by a rampaging dragon. “It was taken from you and I will help you take it back.”
The only un-Bengali thing about Bilbo is that he is happy to join a team of non-Hobbits while a Bengali would shudder at the thought of being stuck on a long adventure with a horde of non-Bengalis ( a quintessentially Bengali word) even if the wizard at the head of it is a dead ringer for Tagore himself. If Gandalf had offered a Kundu Travel version of the adventure to Bilbo, a trip to Lonely Mountain with a caravan-load of other hobbits, all meals included, perhaps he would have accepted with greater alacrity. When he does finally take the plunge he is almost ready to turn back when he realises he did not bring his pocket handkerchief with him. He’s a son after every Bengali mother’s heart — fastidious, a little averse to risk, somewhat anxious about his masculinity.
But other than that, Tolkien (and Jackson) could have been working off a checklist of the stereotypical Bengali middle class man. He belongs to what Lord Macaulay classified as “a non-martial race.” The hobbit likes his food. He seems to be perpetually terrified of going hungry. His sense of emotional security is tied to assurance that his next meal is accounted for. Somehow even a bachelor hobbit’s home has enough food to feed a dozen hungry dwarves who show up unannounced.
While we never get to see Bilbo’s mother we are given to understand she was a formidable creature. And Bilbo seems to have remained in thrall of his mother, trapped in her doily, even though she’s not there any more. “Those are my mother’s plates” he squeaks in agitation when the rough and ready dwarves handle them a little too carelessly.
Bilbo Baggins agonises over setting off on his big adventure because he thinks he can’t just take off into the blue like that. “I am not a hero or a warrior or even a burglar,” he tells his band of merry dwarves. When in trouble, he isn’t terribly useful with his fists. The prince of the dwarves doubts the wisdom of taking him on the adventure. The hobbit does not even want to ride a horse. The only weapon he can muster up when they are caught by mountain trolls is his tongue. He is a talker, not a doer. If you need an adventurer who can stall for time or solve strange riddles, Bilbo is your man.
But if there is a lesson to be learned from the hobbit’s unexpected journey it is this — the Bengali man can leave the womb and surprise himself by finding unexpected reserves of derring do. Subhas Bose did it in 1941, disguised as a Pathan. Bose never told his mother he was leaving when he made his great escape. He just stole off in the dead of night. She never saw him again. His fiery end probably dampened the zeal for adventure in Bengali hearts for several generations. Perhaps that’s why so many Bengalis still refuse to believe he died because believing that would prove indisputably that their mothers were right all along. No good comes out of going out on risky adventures, especially without a handkerchief in your pocket. Bilbo Baggins reassures us that you can leave home, fight orcs, scrape your knees and still live to tell the tale.
For that, if nothing else, Mamata Banerjee should take note. Tolkien and Jackson might not have realised it but they have given us a Bilbo babu. And Didi should claim him quickly as an honorary Bengali and bestow on him one of her beloved Banga Bibhushan awards. Banga Bibhushan Bilbo Baggins has a nice ring to it. We could name one of our Metro stops in Kolkata after him.