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Opinion | Why the ‘paash baalish’ will outlast the pandemic

Mamata Banerjee’s invocation of the Bengalis’ beloved ‘side pillow’ is an example of a cultural metaphor well chosen for political ends

Actor Chhabi Biswas reclining on a 'paash baalish' in a scene from Satyajit Ray's movie 'Jalsaghar'.
Actor Chhabi Biswas reclining on a 'paash baalish' in a scene from Satyajit Ray's movie 'Jalsaghar'.

In the middle of a raging pandemic, we suddenly stopped short. For a moment we got a respite from testing rates, recovery numbers and mathematical models about flattening curves. Instead, we were fixated on a most unlikely object—the humble paash baalish, translated wholly inadequately as “side pillow" or bolster. Neither word has the emotional heft of paash baalish or captures its singular cultural significance in Bengali cultural life.

The paash baalish’s moment in the national spotlight came thanks to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. At a time when covid-19 infections were shooting up in the state, and her administration was scrambling to deal with trainloads of migrants coming in, she said, on 29 May: “It is not in my hands any more. There is nothing I can do. You can sleep with corona by your side. Make it your paash baalish."

That evoked great confusion, mocking tweets and chortling memes. The state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party launched protests with “corona pillows" with Banerjee caricatures on their laps, ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Union government itself had announced Unlock 1.0. But those who mock do not understand the mystical power of the paash baalish. Bengalis are attached to the drawstring of their paash baalish the way others are attached to umbilical cords. It is an attachment that is never really severed. Even if the paash baalish is not physically present, it dangles in the Bengali psyche like a phantom limb.

Banerjee’s political campaign has always been based on stoking a sense of Bengali pride. Outsiders invoke Bengaliness through hackneyed clichés like rosogolla, Durga Puja and yellow taxis. Banerjee invoked the paash baalish, proving that she truly gets what makes a Bengali truly Bengali.

The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation has already decided that the paash baalish will be part of the room decor in government tourist lodges. It had conducted a survey which showed a huge demand for them. An order for some 600 side pillows was placed during Durga Puja in 2019.

Here, it is important to stress that a classic Bengali paash baalish must meet strict guidelines. It must have real cotton stuffing, none of this polyester nonsense. It should have black cotton seeds embedded in the stuffing, seeds that can be felt through the fabric and rolled between the fingers like prayer beads-cum-pacifiers before falling asleep. As a child, an aunt of mine could only go to sleep while sucking on those cotton seeds (through the cloth) and humming “kokoko". Her mother could leave her toddler at the neighbour’s and sneak off on an afternoon marketing jaunt secure in the knowledge that as long as the child had her “koko baalish", all would be well.

A proper paash baalish must have a plain white cotton cover pulled together with a drawstring. Nowadays there are paash baalish covers with printed patterns, even Disney figures, but there is nothing as classic as a plain white 100% cotton paash baalish. It is the sleeping Bengali’s version of the little black dress—simple, elegant and not to be messed with.

Bengalis start early with their paash baalish indoctrination. The baby sleeps boxed in by two small sausage-like paash baalish. They act as guardian angels, preventing the young Bengali from falling off the bed. The informal Bengali rite of passage is when the baby baalish, now limp, well-chewed and bedraggled, is retired amidst tears and protests and replaced by a firmer adult-sized paash baalish. In time that paash baalish becomes a practice dummy for budding romances and the repository of tears for failed romances, best friend, therapist and nursemaid rolled into one.

Every Bengali family has a paash baalish story. Mostly, these revolve around the child who would go nowhere without her paash baalish security blanket. I have heard of five-star hotels being called because a grubby paash baalish had been left behind by mistake and the child was having a nervous breakdown.

I had another aunt who sometimes rolled off the bed in her sleep. Someone found her hanging half off the bed entangled in the mosquito net, still clutching her paash baalish. That story is part of family lore but the real point to note is that she was still fast asleep. It proves that as long as she is clutching the paash baalish, the Bengali can sleep contentedly, reassured that the world is not ending.

In a time of covid-19 panic, that is the magical power of the paash baalish. It literally bolsters our sagging spirit.

Others do not understand this. Scouring social media, I find that journalist Vasudha Venugopal has complained, “This no sleep without paash baalish is a very annoying Bengali habit." Luckily, we have novelist and Mint columnist Diksha Basu, who has spoken up for the humble paash baalish. She tweeted that the Bengali invention of the paash baalish is “greater than the invention of the wheel".

I do not know if a Bengali did indeed invent the paash baalish. The pillow, as far as we know, might have Mesopotamian origins. But at that time they were made of stone, with a bit of a curve to accommodate the neck. Comfort was not the idea. They were looking to keep bugs out of mouths, ears and noses.

The Egyptian elite also had pillows, but wooden ones. Soft pillows were thought of as sapping character by industrious Chinese and doughty Brits. It was the Industrial Revolution that made pillows a household object.

The side pillow exists in other forms in Asia. Koreans have a jukbuin, or bamboo wife, which they can wrap their arms and legs around while sleeping. In the same vein, Indonesians call side pillows Dutch wives, a nod to Dutch East India Company traders separated from flesh-and-blood wives. The Japanese have a dakimakura, a bamboo bolster a wife once gave her husband when he went on a trip so he wouldn’t be lonely at night. Vietnam has a gối ôm, or hugging pillow.

But Bengal has taken the paash baalish to a different level of cultural significance. The Bengali band Chandrabindoo has an entire song devoted to the paash baalish and its inter-generational appeal, the “darling pillow" passing from father to son, though women might wonder why their paash baalish find no room in the song. Journalist and writer Indrajit Hazra remembers checking into a hotel in Kolkata right before the Lionel Messi football exhibition match in 2011. The bellboy showed him to his room and lingered even after he got his tip. Then he said with a knowing smile, “If you need a paash baalish, please let me know." Hazra was a bit mystified, especially since his bed already came with a paash baalish. “I will let you know if I need one," he replied diplomatically. To this day, he does not know whether the proffered paash baalish was indeed an extra pillow or code for something livelier.

Banerjee understands that a paash baalish is truly a secret weapon. As columnist Sandip Ghose has pointed out on Twitter, in the classic 1968 film Chowringhee, the comedian Bhanu Bandopadhyay plays a rather swadeshi-minded hotel butler who wreaks revenge on British guests by placing paash baalish on their beds and getting them “addicted" to the comfort of one before they have to leave and return to their paash-baalish-less first world.

I too remember sleepless nights as a new student in a small town in the American Midwest, separated from friends, family, home-cooked meals and my paash baalish. When I came back to India, nothing spelt home as much as the paash baalish on the bed. They say you cannot ever go home again but as long as there is a paash baalish, you can come pretty close.

It all goes to show the level of nuance that can be encapsulated in one humble paash baalish. In that sense, Banerjee has chosen her cultural metaphor well. The paash baalish exudes exactly the kind of homespun sense of no-frills comfort that the rubber-slipper, cotton-sari-wearing chief minister wants to convey. If the Trinamool Congress needs to reinvent itself before elections next year, it would do well to somehow associate itself in the minds of the voter with a paash baalish—solid, dependable and comforting. A pandemic will eventually recede but the paash baalish will still be there, tethering the Bengali to his beloved torpor.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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