12 February 2013

Being a Bong, Bengali & Bangali

Most of the observations on Bengalis in this post have been made keeping in mind Bengalis residing in the Indian state of West Bengal, from the persepective of a non-resident Bengali. The latter is too diverse a category to qualify for such blatant generalizations. Bengali chauvinists - if there is indeed a species like that - are forewarned that some observations may ruffle their feathers. Finally, please excuse my stereotyping.

I sometimes wonder what it means to be Bengali and I must admit that this question of identity has been bothering me for some time. My bangali-yana probably begins with my name. While my name figures quite low in the scale of difficulty to pronounce and spell amongst the pantheon of loaded Bengali names, I, who has grown up and worked, in a pre-dominantly non-Bengali milieu have been subjected to a lifelong agony of seeing incorrect spellings of my name and hearing my name mispronounced with myriad regional accents. However, the question of cultural identity is deeper and more complex. For someone like me, who straddled across different cultures while growing up, the question of where-do-I-belong has no easy answers. I certainly don’t identify with many, many things of my generation of Bengalis but that shouldn’t automatically disqualify me from penning some thoughts on how does one define a Bengali, however, skeptical I may be of stereotypes. Dhoomk2 has done this terribly funny self-description of bongs. I neither have the sense of humour nor richness of imagination to attempt something similar. It can of course, not be a dispassionate account nor can it be an account loaded with nostalgia of past glories. At best, it can be a set of observations of someone who found the world he visited during summer vacations quite different from the one he inhabited during rest of the year, whose parents tried to cultivate in him a love for all the things for which Bengalis are justifiably proud of and who tried to read and understand some writings on Bengal, Bengalis, Calcutta and their recent (say last 2 centuries) history, politics, society.

There are certain keywords which define – or rather used to define – a Bangali Bhadralok (the Bengali genteel-folk). A certain disdain for money and moneyed classes, an appreciation of good literature, music, theatre, cinema and art and valuing certain moral principles. In short – to repeat a cliché – a simple living and a high thinking. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard examples where a person had the option of making pots of money but didn’t do so to serve a higher cause. Such examples are glorified and considered as worth emulating. Now, as many perceptive observers have pointed out, this peculiar Bengali trait has a lot to do with the economic degradation of Bengal over past couple of decades. I shall come to this point later in this blog post.

While education has always been valued in the Bengali society more than it has been elsewhere, this used to be accompanied by a healthy disdain for money – as if both can’t co-exist. But I think things have changed or are changing because when it comes to running after material goods of the world, the current generation of Bengalis is of course, no different from the other races whom their fathers used to despise. But that is a story for another day.

However, valuing of education doesn’t exempt bongs from what I call academic snobbery. For most of the bongs residing in West Bengal, the epitome of engineering excellence is Jadobpur (I deliberately spell it the way it is pronounced in Bangla) and Shibpur. Most of them also harbor certain grandiose misconceptions that most non-Bengalis are a little slow up there. In their world view, they have a near monopoly in all things related to grey matter and the ones who have veggies and dal roti are only fit for manual labour. To back such claims, some moronic bongs will cite the percentage of NASA engineers who are Bangali (again a highly dubious, if not tenuous claim) or worse drop names beginning from Satyendra Nath Bose to Mani Bhaumik. At the time of our annual visits to Calcutta during my school days, I was often subjected to thinly veiled barbs from my uncles, aunts and cousins about the supposedly pedestrian academic standards of my CBSE syllabus as against their supposedly superior State Board standards. Much later in life, when I actually came across the boys from JU and Shibpur, I was far from impressed with them. They are good but not gods and if they are good so are the boys from PEC, Chandigarh, VJTI, Bombay and PSG, Coimbatore. Then, there is that over the top fascination with marks and awards (Though this is not restricted to any particular Indian community, I think Bengalis distinguish themselves here as well) and the constant lamenting of how their state board and subsequently Calcutta University are parsimonious when it comes to granting marks. For the consideration of admission to colleges under Calcutta University, they used to (I don’t know how things are today) deduct marks obtained by CBSE & ICSE students by a certain percentage using some pervert logic-defying rationale. Now, if their fossilized dons want to keep them in nineteenth century, are the CBSE & ICSE students to blame?

A second cousin, after relocating to Bangalore, commented that no one in Bangalore had heard of her alma mater, a certain South Point High School in South Calcutta (my obvious reaction was “Why should they?”) which happens to be the first choice of most parents in their area but to me is not much more than a factory for churning out students in pure assembly line fashion.

Fixation with education and extra-curricular activities, makes Bong moms to keep on hopping from art class to swimming class to dance class with their kid in tow during after-school hours. One feels a tinge of regret for the kids born to these parents who probably want their kids to grow up to be a crossover between Jamini Roy and Ananda Shankar. A natural extension is a fair bit of mollycoddling to the point when they are thrown out of their familiar environs, they don’t realize that one has to make up their own bed in the morning when there is no mommy around. Then, there is the ubiquitous problem of “Khabar Koshto” (unavailability of the right kind of bong food) for the brave hearts who have ventured beyond the boundaries of Bengal.

Apart from intellectual and cultural snobbery if there is another thing which defines Bengalis, it is that of a talker of big, abstruse, lofty things & ideas – more often than not, pure hot air. The word Adda probably doesn’t have an equivalent in any other language. Adda – Made in Bengal, to quote a dialogue from Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk. Adda brings me to another aspect without which it is difficult to imagine a Bengali – the all-pervading fascination with nicotine. According to a survey I had come across a couple of years back, 95% of Bengali men smoke at home (give or take a few percentages). Non-bengali acquaintances who smoke have often offered me a cigarette and were genuinely surprised to know that I don’t smoke. To them, every bong male of a certain age smokes. I have personally seen people lighting up in public offices of Calcutta within closed spaces (most often on their very desks) – concerns about passive smoking and fire regulations be damned. My father (who loves to have his smoke once in a while) once remarked that nicotine and caffeine simulates the grey cells of Bengali pseudo-intellectuals sitting at College Street Coffee House who after interminable debates, come to the conclusion that biplab (revolution) is the only way out of the current morass.

Bengalis are often considered as cunning and untrustworthy by other communities. In my own personal experience, I have seen Bengalis playing some of the worst sort of office politics. They are also perceived as being jealous of success of others. While such blatant generalizations are definitely unjustified, it is worth pondering over why very few Bengalis have been successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. I think there is something more at work here than just the disdain for commercial activity. Though most Bengalis sorely lack certain traits of successful business communities like risk appetite, commercial acumen, successful and sustainable commercial activities also requires adherence to certain basic business ethics and foregoing the temptations of huge profits in the short run. What I have seen and heard from experiences of others, most Bengali businessmen want to make the killing of their lifetimes in their very first deal. Bong businessmen seem to forget what Abe Lincoln had remarked long back, “You can fool some of the people all the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.”

Violence & Bengalis – This is probably a very tenuous connection but I think the otherwise meek-mannered Bengalis who never got classified as martial races in the ethnic taxonomy designed by the British, do have a proclivity for violence. From worshipping Goddess Kali in her fiercest form to the mob justice meted out to the unfortunate petty criminal on the streets of Calcutta, one can’t ignore a thread of resorting to violence at slightest provocation. In the pantheon of Indian revolutionaries who fought the British by means of armed resistance, Bengalis far outnumber any other community. Netaji’s freedom in exchange of blood exhortation may be more than just a metaphor. The Naxalism of 1970s and state sponsored hooliganism of the current and previous regimes of West Bengal is probably result of much more than just long standing resentments.

Lest the reader – not that many read this blog – thinks that I am an unapologetic Bangali-basher (and not very different from a second generation Indian American who is ashamed of the land of snake charmers & elephants – another cliché), let me state on record that my own personality, my sensibilities, my ideas have an unmistakable stamp of being an inheritor of Bengali genes and I am justifiably proud of many of these things, particularly some aspects of the Brahmo heritage which came down from my father’s side.

There was indeed a time when what Bengal used to think today, the rest of India used to think tomorrow. From the time of Bengal Renaissance to the first few decades after independence, Bengal not only produced innumerable giants in every sphere of human achievement but was also at the forefront of an enlightened modern Indian thought. Being one of the first beneficiaries of Western-styled education under the British (they were predated only by Parsees of Bombay in this respect), Bengalis produced a rich, cosmopolitan amalgamation of best of both the East & West during the particular period of second half of 19th and early 20th century. Their contribution to India’s general social reform and freedom movement requires no elaboration and probably, doesn’t have a parallel, at least in this country. And when the entire India lays claim to the legacies of Swami Vivekananda and Tagore, it just reminds us of their universalism.

But today, it saddens one to see that while these achievements may continue to provide some spent ammunition for today’s Bhadralok, who deep down there knows that today’s rot goes right down to the core, the current crop of youngsters are not even aware of their past glories.

I was taught to read and write Bangla at home by my parents at a very young age – something I am proud of today. (To someone who has grown up in Bengal, this may hardly be an achievement to be proud of but I don’t know a single soul in my entire circle of Probashi friends and acquaintances (including my sister) who can read their mother tongue as well as I can.) I guess this is another thing which distinguishes Probashi Bangalis from Bengalis residing in Bengal. They tend to hold on to their culture more dearly and try to go an extra mile to ensure that their children don’t suffer from a cultural rootlessness. While my writing will at best look like that of a kiddo, I have managed to read some novels and short stories. But then I have probably read more short stories of Amrita Pritam and poetry of Sahir Ludhianvi than I have read Tagore. I must also admit Bankim Chandra’s writings are utterly inaccessible to me.

But then, none of my close friends are Bengali. I am also quite an anti-thesis of certain things by which rest of the world identifies a Bengali – small stuff mostly. I never got hooked to football as a sport – neither as a player nor as a spectator. I remember once asking my father during a World Cup match long back to explain me the concept of 'Offside' only to get an admonishment for my ignorance with a comment on how a Class IV Calcutta kid will know such basic stuff and much more. I also dislike the kind of fresh water fishes most Bengalis can’t imagine their lives without and love the sea fishes, most true blue bongs won’t touch with a bargepole. But here at least, my father and I are on the same page.

No discussion about Bengalis can be complete without a reference to Calcutta. Whatever the Bangali Bhadralok say about their being dispossessed from their own city and its encroachment by Marwari land sharks and their ilk, to me, Calcutta remains a quintessentially Bengali city – in a way Bombay can never be a Marathi city, however hard the Thackeray brothers may try.

The city has got quite a few shameful tags – starting from Kipling Sahib’s City of Dreadful Night – and has been variously called as a dead city, an urban disaster beyond redemption. The first thing which goes against Calcutta is weather. As Moorehouse notes in his book, the only thing which made Mr. Charnock & East India Company to select a location with such insalubrious weather to launch their future conquest of Bengal and subsequently, of India was greed. Calcutta with its strategic location provided ready access to sea and inland waterways.

There have also been many eloquent, nostalgia loaded tributes to the lost glories of this city. There were the box-wallahs of late 40s to early 60s and their Anglicized clubs. There were the tea planters of Darjeeling and their lonely, leisurely lives (not exactly Calcutta). Many columnists like Vir Sanghvi and Jug Suraiya spent their early working lives in Calcutta and wax eloquent about the Calcutta of 1960s but that was a Calcutta of Flurry’s and Firpos, of midnight masses on New Years’ Eve at St. Paul’s Cathedral and dancing to Usha Uthup’s music in the discotheques of Park Street. As the City and state’s economic degeneration happened, generations of Bengalis like my parents simply left. Somehow, my nostalgia for that era makes me to go back to any book on Calcutta and its history – whether it is through books like Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta or Rathin Mitra’s sketches. It is also the same nostalgia I feel when I go to Nahoum’s in New Market for that date brownie or attempt to take a stroll along the pavements of Chowringhee.

My parents have recently moved back to Kolkata after a gap of more than 28 years and their experience in dealing with the ‘system’ – right from a tradesman called to fix the leaking pipe to the local bank to official bureaucracy – is what I can mildly term as ‘culture shock’. While most of our government issued documents have been issued from Gujarat, my folks are being treated as if they have arrived from a different planet. Having to make affidavits and undertakings by the dozen, even after having a permanent residence proof and all other papers in order, is a bizarre sort of harassment. My mother was joking the other day about the fact that while the need to bribe is a universal thing in this country, at other places the work gets done after you have paid the bribe but in Calcutta, paying the bribe is no assurance for the work getting done. My father is blunter when he says that the fish has rotten from the head.

The social fabric of the city has probably also changed irrevocably since the late 1970s. This year’s Durga Puja was a first in Calcutta for my parents after a gap of all these years. While they had expected a fair bit of cacophony and rampant commercialization, but they were not quite prepared for the binge drinking by parar cheles (boys of the local neighbourhood) – most probably with the money siphoned off from the funds raised on account of organizing the Puja.

Finally, let me touch upon a theme which I had talked about in the beginning of this post. Why has a state whose dominant community once made such stellar contributions in almost every sphere is in such state of despair? Persuasive work has been done on this subject and its analysis by many eminent and distinguished people and I am no expert in sociology. In spite of all the oft-cited reasons – shifting of political capital to Delhi during the days of the Raj, partition, decline of jute industry, small landmass, influx of refugees, rise of left, 1971 and formation of Bangladesh, 34 years of left rule, militant trade unionism, flight of capital and resultant economic migration of people, I want to explore something ingrained in Bengali psychology. Is there some fundamental trait in Bengalis which has a correlation with the current state of advanced decay of the state?

I remember reading an editorial clipping from Anandabazar Patrika, a leading Bengali newspaper, which my father had forwarded to me some weeks after the demise of Mr. Jyoti Basu. It had very eloquently explained how the Bengali psychology works in relation to development and how well Jyoti babu understood it. A Bengali subconscious takes a certain pride in struggling, in being & remaining an underdog and thinks that anything which makes life a little easier and better is not worth having. (To quote another dialogue from Ray’s Agantuk, the word ‘struggle’ is a Bengali’s favourite) A Bengali also tops up such sentiment with eloquent language. Jyoti babu indeed had his pulse on this particular Bengali mindset for close to 3 decades he was at helm. Demonizing all investors as blood sucking capitalists is just half the story – the other half is presence of a fertile ground, a mass of people who will lap up such demonization theories even to the detriment of their own self-interest. They are perfectly happy to shout eloquent nonsense about making power plants with their blood (A reference to the times when a power project at Bakreshwar got stalled due to numerous reasons). GB expresses a similar opinion here much more eloquently than I ever could. Many observers (including my father) have a similar reasoning for wholesale decay of the state.

On encountering the undercurrent of xenophobia in most of the places I have lived, I sometimes contemplate moving to Calcutta. I think of aging parents and brace myself by saying that probably, it won’t be so difficult to live there. I tell myself that for someone who changes cities every 4-5 years, it is just another city. Then, it just takes a week at Calcutta to feel how alien it is to me and I am to it. But then I am an outsider even in Calcutta and I come back to the question of “Where do I really belong?”

8 comments:

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Interesting coincidence that I happen to be reading Nitish Sengupta's 2002 opus, A History of the Bengali Speaking People (UBSPD), and naturally reflecting upon the subject, too. So your post is very welcome. I'll try to keep my comment short and pointed for now:

1)A lot of history conscious people agree that there is much in the Bengali psyche that discourages and even disparages wealth creation through hard nosed business and risk taking, and that goes a long way to explain our current poor status.
2) I have mentioned in a recent blogpost of mine that since the 1980s (for reasons that definitely deserve researching) Bengal has gone into secular cultural decline. Not only was there a time when a lot of Bengalis aspired to (and achieved) serious wealth, but there was a genuine urge to greatness otherwise, which explains the almost incredible effusion of 'great' men between the times of the two Roys, Rammohun and Satyajit: so for every thousand 'pseudo-' achievers we produced at least one of the genuine kind. Notice that not only haven't we produced anyone truly outstanding in any sphere outside medicine and engineering in the last fifty years, we haven't produced outstanding doctors and engineers either (meaning the sort who are mentioned in the history books for their extraordinary services/contributions).
3) Being rich and being blindly, crudely materialistic (whether or not you are rich) are two quite different things. Today's typical Bangali is unthinkingly materialistic and utilitarian: which is why we don't produce either Tagores or Bibhuti Banerjees any more (two examples from the two ends of the economic spectrum), nor Satyen Boses or Subhas Boses, nor even great teachers of the sort we once had aplenty. Think about it.
4) We are also far too comfortable with shoddiness and shabbiness all around us. Think of everything from the cobwebs and mountains of dusty files in our offices to the overflowing garbage vats beside all our roads. Just about nobody cares or sees anything to feel ashamed about, from the CM down to the average man in the street. I do not think this is a trivial issue.
5) As for the probashi variety, I won't say much, but do ask around about the Bongo sammelans they hold in the US and UK. A girl in Chicago just asked me to send over a certain poem by Tagore via email because nobody she knows there has a copy of Sanchayita. Now decide for yourself.

More later. Do respond. And don't be surprised to find a comment from Abhirup Mascharak - he is a very favourite old boy of mine, an MA English from JU who is now completing a course on film studies there.

Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks a lot for your comment. Most of the observations I made on the post was from the perspective of a Probashi.

1) There indeed was a time when Bengalis achieved great wealth. Dwarkanath Tagore's business enterprises & wealth of the Tagore dynasty is a case in point. And that didn't stop them from making all the stellar contributions which they made.

2) I also agree that being wealthy is different from being crassly materialistic and it doesn't stop one from developing those finer human faculties which distinguish us from animals. In fact, I have a feeling that for all these dynasties from Nehrus to Tagores, wealth was just a means to an end and not just an end in itself.

3) Regarding being satisfied with general shabbiness and shoddiness in quality of work one does, to be fair to Bengalis, I think it is applicable to all Indians (only the degree varies). That explains why most of our output in any sphere of work - whether it be turbines made by BHEL (when compared against the ones made by Siemens or GE) or original research on Indology - is mediocre at best.
To me, what distinguishes Bengalis is a certain kind of insularity, an apathy, a refusal to acknowledge that things can be different. Any random interaction in a govt. office in Bengal will testify to what I am trying to say here. Govt. bureaucracy is venal everywhere but in my experience, Bengal is in a class of its own. So, again it has probably to do with the race. The same logic which is applied for Indians and Europeans can be extended to Bengalis and say, Gujaratis or Kannadigas or Tamilians. We had a discussion on similar lines a couple of months back.

5) Finally, I am not sure about Probashis of the US and UK but the Probashi milieu I grew up in had a circulating library of good Bengali books, quite a few families had entire set of Rabindro Rachanabali, Chitrangada being staged almost on every Durga Puja and a Sanchayita and Golpoguccho were always handy. But then it is almost a decade and half since I left the milieu, so am not sure how things are today.

And Abhirup is always welcome to comment on this almost forlorn blog. I shall be more than glad if he drops by.

Regards,
Rajarshi

Abhirup said...

Dear Rajarshi-da,

Many thanks, first of all, for this post. Not many people these days bother to seriously explore and think about their roots and how it influences and affects them, for the simple reason that it requires both a good deal of knowledge (historical, cultural, social, geographical, political, even theological) and a capacity to frame an insightful analysis. A lot of people I know, Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike, wouldn’t be able to write one articulate paragraph on their ethnicity to save their lives, so a blogpost such as yours is always a pleasant surprise. As a fellow Bengali, I agree with a lot of things, good and bad, you have said about Bengal and its people. But there are also a few points on which I happen to disagree, and this comment of mine is chiefly about that.

Firstly, the bit about Jadavpur University. I have been a student there for nearly three years now, and even before that, when I was pursuing my graduation at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, I used to visit JU whenever I had some free time, both because I had friends studying there and also to attend the classes of some professors about whom I had heard a lot of good things. Personally, my experiences at the university have been rather rewarding and fulfilling: not only have I been taught by a very good faculty, I have also met and befriended not a few bright minds. Of course, most of these friends of mine are from departments like English, Comparative Literature, History, Bengali, Philosophy and Film Studies—the Arts Department, in other words, rather than the Engineering Department about which you have written. Not all them are high scorers in examinations, but a lot of them are reasonably well-read, can express their thoughts articulately both orally and in writing, have interests that they pursue with sincerity, are involved in social work, and are a joy to talk and debate with. And while my interactions with the Engineering students have been limited—most of it has been through a school friend who is studying Electrical Engineering in JU now—I happen to know some very gifted people there as well: there’s one guy, for instance, whose poems and short stories have been published in the prestigious magazine ‘Desh’, and another whose paintings have been exhibited at well-known venues in both Kolkata and other cities in India. I won’t be able to comment upon the academic standards of that department, seeing that Engineering is far removed from my field of studies and that my grasp of science subjects is poorer than anybody can possibly imagine, but I guess it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it is superior to that of a lot of institutes, particularly the multitude of private engineering colleges that have sprung up like mushrooms all over the country. So, if a lot of Bengalis consider JU to be a centre of academic excellence, I daresay, on the basis of my own recollections, that they have good reasons to do so. You say that if the boys from JU are good, so are those from the other universities. That may well be the case, but allow me to state that I have seen students from St. Stephens, JNU, Hindu, PSG and Christ College being beaten hollow by my JU classmates in quizzes, debates, drama competitions and suchlike, and the papers and creative fiction written by many a JU student (including a few by yours truly) have been voted as the best in inter-university seminars. So, while the JU students may indeed not be “gods”, a lot of them are intelligent, inquisitive souls (and I would have stated this unequivocally even if I had not been a student here. As I said, I have been a student of Xavier’s, Kolkata, as well, but you won’t hear me gushing about that institution, for it’s not worth gushing about).

Abhirup said...

Secondly, I think you get the Bengali parental psychology wrong when you say they “probably want their kids to grow up to be a crossover between Jamini Roy and Ananda Shankar.” Most Bengali parents are actually terrified that their kids should opt for a career in “arts” rather than sit for the Joint Entrance Examination and add to ever burgeoning crowd of doctors and, especially, engineers. Many of my friends in both JU and Xavier’s had long, violent arguments with their parents before being allowed to take up English or any other ‘non-science’ subjects. This is particularly true in case of the boys: not wanting to study science is almost seen as a sign of emasculation in Bengal. As for the parents taking their wards to drawing and dance classes, well, observe carefully and you shall notice that most of these kids are either toddlers or have barely entered adolescence. In other words, they are, according to the parents, still in a stage where indulgences such as painting and dancing can be allowed as hobbies AND NOTHING MORE. You would be seriously hard-pressed to find Bengali kids in classes IX and X—the stage when, owing to upcoming Board Examinations, they supposedly need to start getting “serious”—being permitted to go to drawing classes, lest it results in scoring less in the tests. The real problem, then, is not that the Bengali parents want their kids to become huge achievers: rather, it is that a lot of them want to keep their kids mired in mediocrity.

Thirdly, I believe you should have read up a little more on the concept of ‘adda’. It is NOT something “Made in Bengal” (that claim, in fact, is contradicted effectively by Utpal Dutt’s character in Agantuk). It is, rather, a direct successor of the symposiums in ancient Greece and the sessions held in Café de Flore, among other hallowed Western traditions of erudite conversation among educated folks. Bengalis, being one of the earliest recipients of Western education in India, adopted this tradition and made it their own and sustained it even after independence, for they understood, more than any other people in our country, that this is something worth nurturing. Reading (or re-reading, in case you have already read them) the Ghana-da stories by Premendra Mitra, or Sunil Gangopadhyay’s ‘Shei Shomoy’ and ‘Prothom Aalo’ (which describe the addas that took place in the Tagore household, and at the residences of Harish Mukherjee, Girish Ghosh, Kaliprasanna Singha, Ramtanu Lahiri and Peary Chand Mitra, among others) would give you a good idea about what Bengali adda is really all about, and those “interminable debates” you mention have given birth to a lot of the great works, fiction and non-fiction, in Bengali literature (without the addas of the Kallol Group, for instance, we would probably never have the works of the aforementioned Premendra Mitra, Achintyakumar Sengupta, Buddhadev Basu and Sudhin Datta. To cite an example from post-independence Bengal, the addas were where Sunil and Shakti Chattopadhyay and Bishnu Dey and Shankha Ghosh and Kamal Kumar Majumdar read out their works, discussed them, and revised and fine-tuned their prose/verses). And while it may, alas, have indeed degenerated to raising storms in the teacups and flippant discussions of trifles (though whether Bengalis alone are guilty on this front is debatable: God knows I have seen young people in many other parts of India talk for hours on fairly useless things like snazzy bikes and cars, the relative merits of this discotheque and that, the latest trends in fashion, figures of girls, and the silliest and crudest of Hindi films. At least the Bongs in the College Street Coffee House talk about “biplab”!), dismissing the very concept of adda as “pure hot air” is erroneous. And—once again, I say this on the basis of my personal experiences alone—in the circles I move in, thought-stimulating, enjoyable addas do occur. The key is to choose the right company. Addas, in their best form, have not entirely disappeared.

Abhirup said...

Fourthly, I am a little confused by your take on the Bengali propensity for violence. Not that I disagree with any of the facts stated, but I find the clubbing of the kind of “violence” the revolutionaries in British India practiced with Naxalism and “state-sponsored hooliganism” weird and ham-handed. Surely I do not need to point out the difference between a Master-da or a Bagha Jatin wielding arms against the Englishmen and a bunch of CPI(M) and TMC cadres roughing each other up? So, what exactly was your purpose in mentioning them in the same breath? I would be happy if you clarify (and this is a genuine question, not a sarcastic remark).

And finally, in relation to what you say about “struggle” being the favourite word of the Bengalis, well, I think one needs to take a closer look at the history of Bengal before choosing to mock the Bengali use of the word. Have we ever wondered WHY Bengalis grew fond of the term? The answer, in my humble opinion, is that Bengalis had had to undergo a lot of genuine, fierce struggle, first against the British rule (you have acknowledged yourself that they participated in the independence movement in greater numbers than any other community), and then against the cataclysmic effects of the Partition (for that matter, gross misfortunes have befallen Bengal even before the British arrived, but those I choose not to dwell upon). I have heard a lot about the horrors of the Partition from my grandparents on my mother’s side, and even the ones on my father’s side were from East Bengal, and their experiences have been narrated to me by dad. If what these “udbastu” (refugee) families had to undergo is not struggle, I don’t know what is. I won’t go into the details of this struggle: there are plenty of films, books, articles and data on the subject for anybody who is interested. So, till the 1980s at least, a lot of Bengalis had to experience struggle in its harshest form, and I may add in this context that while the Bengali tendency to view themselves as underdogs can indeed be a convenient, annoying and insidious excuse to give up any efforts for betterment, even this tendency has at its core an element of truth, and this I say only after undertaking a long, hard study on, among other issues, the relationship between Bengal and the Central government, right from the days of Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. Bidyut Chakrabarti’s The Partition of Bengal and Assam, 1932-1947: Contour of Freedom, for instance, proves, through substantial evidence, the utter lack of concern on Jawaharlal Nehru’s part towards the possible dangers of partition in Bengal, and even after the partition actually happened and the refugee crisis became worse by the day, his responses to the letters sent by Dr. Roy betray a callous lack of interest and/or a complete inability to grasp the enormity of the problem. He did little to alleviate this problem; indeed, in many of his speeches and writings, he downplayed it. And given the discrepancy in the allocation of federal resources to Bengal and to the other states since 1947, I think the charge of the Centre treating Bengal with more than a little unimportance cannot be dismissed. So, I do concede that it is highly irritating to hear the post-1980s generations, who have never had to encounter any semblance of struggle, parrot that word (nor do I think, for that matter, that using the ‘underdog’ theory to remain inactive is justified at all), but the historical context I mentioned must be kept in mind while judging this particular aspect of the Bengali character. I said the same to a person who commented, in a disapproving, even hostile fashion, that Jews love to talk about the persecution they have suffered—I replied that given what they have had to undergo for thousands of years, at the hands of the Pharaohs and the Greeks and the Romans and the Crusaders and the Czars and the other European monarchs and the Nazis and the English and the Arabs, it would be surprising if the Jews didn’t talk about that.

Abhirup said...

On a final note, while there is not much to be said in defence of the closing down of factories and departure of investors during Jyoti Basu’s reign, I wonder if Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s policy of courting the industrialists with the glee and enthusiasm of a child meeting his favourite matinee idol was a better alternative (and what happened to him subsequently only buttresses my reservations). I am no card-carrying member of the communist party, nor do I swear by Marx and his words, but I do believe that capitalists and investors are one class of people who do not look out for anybody’s interest but their own, that they can stoop to any levels to safeguard that interest, and that it’s the duty of any government to do business with them while not bending before every demand and deadline they set. Bhattacharya did precisely that, and in the process he ignored a lot of ground realities and the problems and sentiments of the people who had voted him to power. The consequences are there for us all to see.

This has become a very long reply already, so I shall stop. I hope I have been able to put forward my views and especially my disagreements without being rude or abrasive. Apologies for any offence I might have caused.

With regards,
Abhirup Mascharak.

Rajarshi said...

Hello Abhirup,
Thanks a lot for your balanced & well-argued rebuttal of some of my observations. There is no question of taking any offence when I think that you are probably the only one (apart from Suvro Sir) who has taken the trouble to write such elaborate comments in my close to 8 years of keeping this blog. In any case, well-argued disagreements are always welcome. Let me try addressing each of the points raised by you. I shall try to be as brief as possible:
a) Quality of students at JU – Firstly, my observation is restricted to engineering students as I never had any chance of interacting with non-engineering students from JU and I am probably not qualified to disparage the academic standards of JU (which in any case I haven’t done in my blogpost). I personally have no issues with Bengalis lionizing JU, quite justifiably but I do have problems when they start thinking that academic or intellectual excellence ends at the borders of West Bengal. This was the larger message I wanted to convey. If it got diluted, then the problem was with my articulation.
b) Bengali parental psychology – I accept your point here. But here again, the larger idea is that Bong parents want their kids to be a sort of all-rounder without bothering about their aptitude of course, not at the cost of certain non-negotiable things, as you have rightly pointed out. And this aspiration to be a jack of all is also tempered with an attitude of getting satisfied with mediocrity. So, Jamini Roy & Ananda Shankar may have been wrong examples.
c) Concept of Adda – I am sure there are enriching addas happening all over Bengal even today but one can’t deny that lots of so-called ‘addas’ are nothing but pure hot air. You are right when you say that Utpal Dutt refuted that ‘Adda – Made in Bengal’ statement but he also said something similar to what I am trying to convey here. While citing the historical antecedents of adda, which you have citied, he also said that these were far removed from the discourse which today’s Bengali carries – poro ninda, poro charcha, essentially talking about other people – out in the name of adda. Generalizations are fraught with dangers and as I said earlier, I am sure there are honourable exceptions.
d) Bengalis propensity for violence – This is an area on which I need to read up more. Hence, I stated that the connection may be tenuous. But I think, Nirad Chaudhuri had made similar remarks once and the reaction of Bengali intelligentsia was along expected lines. Coming to your point of clubbing Bagha Jatin with Naxalites, a wise man had once remarked, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” Such is the nature of this thing called violence. While we can debate about means and ends, there will always be people who think that violence is justified against oppressors, whatever may be the colour of their skin. This propensity is in comparison with non-Bengalis (especially the non-martial classes. No one doubts a Jat or Gurkha’s propensity to resort to violence at the slightest provocation but I think there are too many myths around Bengalis in this matter). If I have talked about revolutionaries like Master-da and political goondas in the same paragraph, it is in this larger context. I don’t mean any disrespect to the ones who laid down their lives for their country, if that is the message you got.

(Contd. in next comment)

Rajarshi said...

e)‘Struggle’ – While I agree to all the points you have made in this context, my larger point is that Bengalis do have a strong sense of feeling victimized and this sense of victimization is again something unique to Bengalis. Talking about sufferings, we can start with Punjabis and Kashmiri Pandits (two communities which come to my mind right now). Punjabis had to undergo the same kind of – if not more – partition horrors as we had to. They had to contend with their extensive British-built canal system going to West Punjab i.e. Pakistan. It is indeed a great tragedy that partition on western border has had a deeper impact on general public consciousness than the one on eastern border. Couple that with Punjab’s Khalistani terrorism. I have heard stories from friends about how entire villages near Amritsar were deserted by villagers caught in the cross fire between security forces and militants. In spite of all this, Punjabis have done quite well for themselves – be it in Punjab or Canada. Prosperity has also brought accompanying problems of drug abuse for them. For all the jokes on sardars, they rightly boast that one will be hard pressed to find a Sikh beggar. Kashmiri Pandits – a community which has been virtually uprooted from their homeland – have also made contributions disproportionate to their numbers. So, I think we need to have some perspectives when we talk about victimization of Bengalis – and this is not to belittle all the Bengalis have gone through. I absolutely agree with you that the pain of being uprooted from one’s home of a lifetime, being thrown into unknown future and building a new life from a refugee camp can’t really be comprehended by people like us, however many books we may read. My only point was that there is something in Bengali psyche which glorifies the tribulations of an underdog and justifies the current state of decay by seeking refuge in historical wrongs over a cup of tea (boiled for the umpteenth time) and navy cut. It is this ‘something’ which makes Bengalis leftists at heart. It may be worth pondering over why, in spite of partition, couldn’t any right wing organization like Hindu Mahasabha/RSS deepen its tentacles in Bengal?

f)Buddha’s way of wooing capitalists – Some of my earlier posts will tell you that I am no fan of free-for-all capitalism and nowhere – including this blogpost – have I justified the Deng Xiaoping which Buddha tried to do. The issue is too complex to be talked about in pure black & white terms in a couple of blogposts. But Mr. Basu indeed knew the kind of self-defeating policies packaged with righteous self-indignation that keeps the average Bengali happy. This is where Buddha got it wrong otherwise CPI(M) would have probably continued to be in power for another half a decade or so. And as many people much more qualified than me have said, today’s Ms. Banerjee (I don’t say TMC because there is nothing else in TMC, apart from her) is exactly what the Left was 30 years back. So, what we are seeing and are going to see is going to be much, much worse.

I am guilty of making generalizations in this post just as I have been in the past in context of other populations at which I have taken potshots whether it is the yuppies inhabiting Indian IT Industry who think that India is really shining or IITians who think that they are twice born. We can go on splitting hairs and worrying about political correctness, but I think the important thing is the larger points which I have tried to make – not that I claim to be correct on all counts. That will be hubris.

Finally, thanks a lot for pointing me to so many works on Bengal & Bengalis which I was not aware of.

Looking forward to hear back from you.
With Best Regards,
Rajarshi