All those who mock my obsession for it, do not understand the mystical power of the paash baalish, translated wholly inadequately as “side pillow” or bolster. 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.
Outsiders invoke Bengaliness through hackneyed clichés like rosogolla, Durga Puja and yellow taxis. Much beyond that, it is very important to stress that a classic Bengali paash baalish is much specific and hence 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. As a child, an aunt of mine could only go to sleep while sucking on those cotton seeds (through the cloth) 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 “pash 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 cousin of the Dhola pajama (not Aligarhi…but Lucknovi) —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 untidy, 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 all the 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/his paash baalish security blanket. I had another aunt who sometimes rolled off the bed in her sleep; a replacement for the unavailable pash balish. 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 such panic, that is the magical power of the paash baalish. It literally bolsters our sagging spirit. Others do not understand this. Scouring social media, a friend, to whom I went for a night stay said “This no sleep without paash baalish is a very annoying Bengali habit.” Luckily, his Bengali wife defended me saying 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.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.
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 Rajasthan 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. The paash baalish exudes exactly the kind of homespun sense of no-frills comfort that the rubber-slipper, cotton sari wearing Bengali leader enjoys. The humble paash baalish is like a most adored old friend—solid, dependable, traditional and comforting…a humble bedfellow.
Freelance Journalist, edits various small magazines.