THEY SPEAK ONE OF THE GREAT LITERARY languages of Asia. They embraced Western concepts and forms long before their neighbors, then pioneered resistance to colonial rule. Their conversation, when it is not indulging in witty, often spiteful gossip, tends to be intensely political. And their politics – usually passionate, seldom middle-of-the-road – tend to be nationalistic and radical. They proudly defy stereotypes – including these – and yet retain a national character that evokes tenderness and admiration. All these things need to be set down before you say where they live and who they are, because once you mention Bangladesh and Calcutta – place names that have become synonymous with calamity and third-world misery – the Bengalis become objects of pity.

In part, that is because the world’s attention quickly turns away from their steamy, overcrowded corner of South Asia in between catastrophes. Often these are meteorological in origin – like the cyclone a few weeks ago that churned the Bay of Bengal and sent yet another huge tidal wave crashing over the low-lying Bangladesh coast, with a loss of perhaps 10,000 lives – but sometimes they are man-made. In this century the man-made disasters have probably had the more far-reaching effects. The Bengal famine of 1943-44, for instance, was attributable to hoarding and disruptions in the distribution system rather than a failure of crops, but it claimed 3.5 million lives. Among its more notable victims was the British colonial government, which lost whatever legitimacy it had through its failure to prevent mass starvation. Only two years later, the Great Calcutta Killing – as it has ever since been known – left 6,000 Hindus and Moslems dead in the city’s streets in a one-night orgy of mutual slaughter that, more than any other single event, insured the partition of British India so as to create Pakistan out of Moslem-majority areas in the east and west. The partition meant the vivisection of Bengal, an outcome that the 180 million or more Bengalis now living in the two resulting Bengals, elsewhere in India or the world, seem to deplore overwhelmingly but to accept more or less as permanent.

Under the glare of the tropical sun or lowering monsoon skies, the distinction between fate in the form of bad weather and calamities that are man-made sometimes blurs. Predominantly Moslem Bangladesh – the former East Pakistan, nee East Bengal – owes its birth, it is sometimes suggested, to just such a blurring. The Punjabi military elite, then and now dominant in Pakistan, could reasonably be accused of having established an exploitive colonial regime in East Bengal, the majority province in what was a weirdly misconceived excuse for a nation with two wings, no center and nearly 1,000 miles of Indian land mass in between where a center might have been. Still, it was hard to blame the Punjabis for the tidal wave that overwhelmed the Bengal coast on Nov. 13, 1970, killing anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 people in what may have been the century’s worst natural disaster. Hard, that is, for anyone but the Bengalis. Incensed over a Pakistani relief effort that was laggard to the point of seeming inert, they forged a national consciousness by doing just that. The victims of the cyclone became the ”one million martyrs” in the speeches of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the leader of a Bengali autonomy movement that finally provoked a brutal and mindless military crackdown by the Pakistani army. Ultimately, it was the Pakistan of the 1947 partition that the tidal wave drowned. Thirteen months later, Bengali resistance and an Indian invasion established Bangladesh as an independent nation.

So Bengal has known both man-made disasters and disaster-made history. The wonder in Bengal is not that so many people can die in a natural disaster. (As early as 1737, less than half a century after Calcutta was established in a swamp by British traders, a tidal wave roared up from the Bay of Bengal and drowned an estimated 300,000 people in the vicinity.) The wonder is that so many survive in between disasters, improvising precarious livelihoods as ragpickers, beggars and day laborers, desperately competing with cattle for work. There is no other part of the world in which more people have to work so hard, doing so little that is necessary or productive in order to survive.

In part, the pattern of ruin and renewal is decreed by geography. An Englishman, oblivious to the sensuous patterns a tropical breeze can make as it ripples the surface of a field of ripening green paddy, once summed up the flat topography as ”new mud, old mud and marsh.” He was pointing to the basic nature of the land, possibly the world’s greatest delta; in fact, it is several deltas, providing outlets for the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers and their tributaries, as they flow from the Himalayas, flooding annually with more or less devastating results but leaving new deposits of fertile alluvial soil. New mud is Bengal’s most important natural resource. In the delta, a little piece of it is something for which a man will fight and die. Cyclones and floods regularly menace, but the most exposed and dangerous pieces of land are promptly reoccupied as the waters recede. In Bangladesh – as densely populated a nation as there is in the world – no arable land can be allowed to lie fallow.

What Bengal hasn’t known in this century is a government that could sustain its support, or a persuasive vision of its future that it could embrace with the passion it has directed against foreign overlords. When I lived in India, I was drawn repeatedly to Bengal, especially Calcutta. I wrote about it as a social disaster, but the truth was that it charmed me.

Conversation in New Delhi always seemed to be about who was up and who was down in Indira Gandhi’s inner circle or the World Bank. In Calcutta such topics rated as trivia. There you might find yourself discussing French movies, Chinese revolutionary politics or the latest adaptation in Bengali of a play by Yeats. The city’s literati weren’t encountered only in its colleges and coffeehouses where adda – talk – is a pastime to be indulged at almost any hour of the working day. They turned up almost anywhere a literate Bengali might find employment – government offices, ad agencies, even a police station, as I discovered on an early visit when a high-ranking officer diverted an interview from the subject of trade-union violence to that of the novels of William Makepeace Thackeray who, it turned out, had been born in Calcutta. Didn’t I think, this cop wanted to know, that ”Henry Esmond” was undervalued and really better than ”Vanity Fair”?

Where else, I asked myself, could you have that conversation in a police station?

In this generation, the film maker Satyajit Ray has been the pre-eminent Bengali to achieve acclaim outside Bengal for his art. But more characteristic of Calcutta are the countless aspiring artists and writers who get neither recognition nor a living out of their work. There is probably no city in the world with more literary journals or drama groups thriving on sheer commitment.

The open horizons of Bengali conversation made a striking, even an inspiring, contrast to the claustrophobic conditions of Bengali life in an urban center that had known steady deterioration and decay since Kipling described it as a ”packed and pestilential town.” But it also could be seen as escapist, a kind of Freudian dissociation from the fetid reality of Calcutta’s streets. Sometimes I wondered whether the bottomless distress of the city might be somewhat alleviated if Bengalis were less outward looking, less given to great visions, better able to focus on their surroundings. It was a point Gandhi made in a classic riposte to Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, who had criticized the Mahatma’s call for noncooperation with all British institutions as a turning away from modern enlightenment. Gandhi wanted Indians to spin their own cotton as a symbol of self-reliance. ”Poems I can spin, songs I can spin, but what a mess I would make, Gandhiji, of your precious cotton!” Tagore complained.

Gandhi replied with tenderness for Tagore, but sternly. ”The hungry millions,” he wrote, ”ask for one poem – invigorating food.”

Although it was a telling answer, it remains hard to see how the Gandhian solution could have transformed Calcutta. The question was whether any conceivable movement or social organization could begin to cope with such mass poverty. Or had the Bengalis been dealt a hopeless hand? The issue was raised to the status of an urgent international problem by the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. For anyone given to nightmares about population explosions or landless rural masses, the new nation seemed to offer a frightening prevision of what might be in store. ”Malthusia,” an economist dubbed it. The phrase that stuck has been variously attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger and U. Alexis Johnson, one or all of whom described the new nation as an ”international basket case.” and U. Alexis Johnson, one or all of whom described the new nation as an ”international basket case.”

You may ask why Bangladesh was a worse idea than tattered, crazy-quilt Pakistan, but Western diplomats and development economists had gotten used to the idea of Pakistan and the influence they could wield there. They also saw at once that Bangladesh would inevitably become a major and permanent client for international assistance. Here was a country that, according to one calculation, had the same density of population that the United States would have if every last person in the world were corralled within its borders.

None of these forebodings, however, left an impression on Bengali minds, which were briefly in a state of rapture. ”Epar Bangla, opar Bangla” (”This side Bengal, that side Bengal”), crowds in Bengal chanted, overlooking some uncomfortable facts – that the collapse of Pakistan left the boundary between the two Bengals unchanged, and that Hindus and Moslems alike had failed to rally to the idea of a united and independent Bengal when it was briefly floated in 1947.

In Bangladesh, nevertheless, Calcutta’s emotion was requited. The new nation was overwhelmingly Moslem but chose for its anthem a Bengali poem of Tagore, a Hindu, who also was the author of the Indian anthem. ”Amar sonar Bangla” (”My golden Bengal”), this hymn begins, evoking a land of endless fertility and tranquillity, an ideal Bengal that remains very much alive in the Bengali imagination.

GOLDEN BENGAL, THE BASKET CASE. THESE contradictory visions have remained superimposed on each other. Yet the first 14 years of Bangladesh’s history have borne out neither the worst fears nor brightest hopes that accompanied its birth.

There were famine conditions in 1975 – they helped set the stage for the assassination that year of Sheik Mujibur-Rahman, ”the father of the nation,” who died in a hail of bullets along with 14 members of his family – but food production, incredibly, has kept pace (in the last few years, more than kept pace) with population growth. Incredibly, because there are now 100 million or so Bengalis, about 30 million more than there were just 14 years ago, and yet self-sufficiency in food grains is a goal that is likely to be achieved the next time the country can toil its way through several consecutive growing seasons without disastrous floods or another cyclone.

It’s a very modest success story, one that is unlikely to give global doomsayers much pause so long as Bangladesh, with a population growth rate of 2.5 percent a year, continues to bulge against its borders. (India has actually contemplated building an electrified fence to thwart the leakage of Bengalis across the border into the troubled province of Assam.) Still, it is worth trying to understand how the food deficit has been contained and what this means to the rural poor, that 70 percent of the rural population that has to subsist on only one or two acres, or no land at all. As population pressure mounts, Bangladesh survives by farming smaller and smaller fragments of land more and more intensively. It survives, too, by making hitherto unthinkable adjustments in its traditional diet; the poorest, having no choice, have learned to eat wheat in place of rice. And it survives because foreign aid – about $1.7 billion a year in commitments, somewhat less in actual spending – exists to double hard-currency resources that these days depend heavily on the export of labor to the Persian Gulf: Bengali workers now rival jute as Bangladesh’s chief export.

A rice economy can sop up a rising population and forestall starvation because there is almost always room for more labor, even on the smallest pieces of land. But it does so in conditions of ”shared poverty,” as anthropologist Clifford Geertz once put it. He was thinking of Java but the phrase applies to Bengal, where the number of those living at the margin of existence rises steadily in the absence of famine.

In these dismal circumstances, independence for East Bengal has not given Bengalis the sense that they are masters in their Golden Bengal. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other aid donors who now jostle one another in Dhaka (formerly Dacca) with their own pet strategies and agendas can be said to have replaced the Moguls, British and Punjabis as the latest incarnation of foreign power. Three heads of the government have been gunned down by military claques, one of them only four days after his own coup. And the Bengalis – once stereotyped as a ”nonmartial race” by contemptuous British categorizers – have watched rival factions inside the army seek to consolidate power in a parade of martial-law regimes.

The present leader, a cautious, uncharismatic general named Hussain Mohammed Ershad, played no role in the civil war of 1971, returning to Bengal from West Pakistan only after it was over. The mistrust of politics that has always characterized the Pakistani army, in which he and his associates were trained, is Pakistan’s legacy to Bengal. There is a sad symmetry in the politics of the two Bengals. What remained of Bengal on the Indian side of the border, the shrunken province called West Bengal, was too small to exert much influence on the politics of India. (There are more than 750 million Indians, and only 56 million of them -roughly 7 percent – reside in Bengal.) Once it was said, ”What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow.” The phrase evokes irony now. So, going its own way, West Bengal has inured itself to fractious protest politics, electing a succession of putatively Marxist state governments that pay lip service to the goal of revolutionary transformation while failing to implement the most modest social reforms. ”My principle is all or none,” declared Subhas Chandra Bose, Bengal’s political hero who allied himself with the Nazis and Japan during World War II, and who died in a plane crash at war’s end. Decades later, it is the ”none” that seems to be expected.

Fractiousness and the politics of frustration are characteristic of Bangladesh, too, whenever the military lifts the lid – at one point there were 55 parties – and Maoist notions of rural mass mobilization remain fashionable in some intellectual circles. At various times, each of the Bengals has had up to four Communist parties operating simultaneously; occasionally they have conspired across the border in efforts to ignite rural revolution.

The scale of their problems and the sheer pressure of human numbers can be blamed for the assumption, seemingly common to the two Bengals, that they have lost control of their destiny. Or the 1947 partition can be blamed. If that won’t do, it can be traced back even further, to 1912, when the British moved the viceregal capital from Calcutta -where it had been growing and simultaneously moldering for some 155 years – inland to Delhi, partly to diminish the influence of the difficult, radical Bengalis who were already experimenting with revolutionary violence. Wherever the Bengali sense of loss begins, it is enough to keep a tiny flame flickering before the icons of a united Bengal.

”We Bengalis feel ourselves to be homogeneous,” a poet from Bangladesh remarked in a recent conversation. ”We are one single whole.” In Dhaka, where the best Bengali poetry is now being produced, writing pure Bengali becomes a kind of protest. Just as they did in the Pakistan period, writers resist pressure from Islamic fundamentalists and military censors to use more words of Persian and Urdu origins so as to cut themselves off from the predominantly Hindu literary elite on the other side of the border.

The idea of a united Bengal may not be quite dead, but it is hard to see how it would be a solution for the problem of mass poverty. Adding Calcutta’s urban misery to Bangladesh’s rural misery hardly sounds like a recipe for prosperity. India would certainly not want to annex Bangladesh – it has enough problems already – and, in any event, the genie of Bengali nationalism is already out of the bottle, often defining itself in proud antagonism to its larger and more powerful neighbor. So long as they remain apart, Bengalis will find it easy to remain sentimental about their shared identity. But there is usually a mental reservation. It is the suspicion, amounting to a certainty, that if they were ever reunited, their separate identities as Hindus and Moslems might pull them apart all over again in the competition for power, influence and jobs.

What remains is the sense – nurtured by Bengalis through all the years of swelling population, land fragmentation, deteriorating living standards and postponed dreams – that something has to give. ”People want to survive,” the poet said. ”The struggle for survival will lead them to do something. It could change the map again.” If Bengali history is any guide, it might take only a cyclone, a famine or a flood.