Conference helps Bengalis stay in touch

There was a reunion of sorts for nearly 9,000 Bengalis yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center.

At the ethnic group's 24th annual North American Bengali Conference, there were vendors' booths, movie screenings and moderated discussions about the culture.


But for many, the most important business of the weekend event, which ends today, was catching up with old friends.

Madhumanti Maitra, a popular news anchor in Calcutta, was walking quickly across the convention center when she spotted a familiar face out of the corner of her eye and stopped to give Potomac resident Dipankar Bhaumik a hug. The pair occasionally meet in India, but they hadn't seen each other in about a year. They made plans to visit during the conference.


"It's an experience being immersed in nostalgia and immersed in the old culture," said Somnath Som, a vice chairman of the event's organizing committee. "For three days, it's almost being back home."

There are nearly 190 million Bengalis worldwide, most of whom live in eastern India or Bangladesh. A significant number have settled in the United States.

The U.S. Census does not track the number of Bengalis in this country, but some estimate that there are more than 10 million Bengali-Americans, including famed author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose book The Interpreter of Maladies won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.

Despite the popularity of Lahiri's book, other Bengali cultural works are not prevalent in the United States. Many at the convention center yesterday said that the conference also offers them a chance to catch up with their culture.

More than 20 movies are being screened as part of the event's film festival, and "we're always full," said Sankar Basu, one of its organizers.

Indian films -- known as "Bollywood" movies because they are often filmed near Bombay -- are immensely popular in Asia but shown rarely in the United States. "This is the one thing they [Bengali-Americans] miss," Basu said.

The conference attracted vendors from across the United States, and the halls of the convention center were lined with booths selling brightly colored cloth and CDs of sitar music.

Anu Rishi, who works for Chandni Silks and Saris in Islin, N.J., has had a booth at the convention for the past dozen years because "it's a good way to meet people and customers," she said.


Although the business is in the heart of Islin's Indian community, "it can be difficult to make contacts outside," Rishi said, smiling as customers browsed through the booth's piles of brightly colored cloth.

"It's also nice to come here and be with people from the same country you are from," she said.