Bongs are born intellectuals. They often consider themselves culturally superior to rest of the Indians. If you are ready to accept some quirks, a little bit eccentricity, you can live happily in a Bong neighbourhood. Sudeep Chakravarti in his book, ‘The Bengalis,’ has narrated an interesting incident. He lost a bengali friend after confessing that he also liked Sri Lankan teas, and the finest from Nuwara Eliya possess fragrance unlike….she then cut him off mid-delusion. To her, there is no civilized option to the very Bengali oeuvre of Darjeeling tea, and that narrowed down to the offerings to two particular estates, Makaibari and Lopchu. That Lopchu is owned by a Marwari family and politically and ethnically charged Darjeeling is inhabited by Nepali population couldn’t distort her feeling of Bengali ownership of Darjeeling tea.
It’s not the homeland alone, it’s the race, the language and above all the heritage that they are proud of. You come to Bengal and confront any Bengali, he will talk about the intellectual awakening of Bengal of the 19th century, somewhat similar to the renaissance movement of Europe of 16th century. He will talk about Tagore, Vivekananda, Vidyasagar and Netaji in the same breath. Today, when Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declares that she will make Kolkata a look-alike London, you realize that Bengalis are still living in the colonial hangover, because this was the second best city in the British empire.
Bengalis are fond of their cultural identity
Bengalis love spending their time basking in the glorious past, debating and discussing on the legendary icons of 19th century. Mamata Banerjee invariably talks about Kolkata’s pride place in India as the cultural capital in all her speeches. She even declared that Kolkata would become the cultural capital of the world. To prove her point, she started renaming all metro stations after the names of legends of Bengal. She built a number of auditoriums, amphitheatres to foster cultural activities. She is fond of invoking names of all the legends in her speeches- we are the land of Rabindranath Thakur, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekanand, Nazrul Islam. Aagami dine ei Bangla aabar Bharatke path dekhabe. (Bengal will once again show the way forward to India in future)
In every Bengali, you will find the romanticism of an Apu, depicted beautifully by Satyajit Ray in his debut film, Pather Panchali. The romanticism will not be manifested ordinarily, but when you join an adda, over garam chai and alu chop, you will discover the idealistic intellect which makes serious issues, such as poverty, hunger and death mundane. Watching them discuss varied topics even in an environment of small shanty, you might, perhaps, be amazed at their erudite knowledge. On the other hand, if you visit College Street Coffee House, you will encounter a different set of intellectual crowd. The cigarettes, the aroma of coffee, the crunchy fish fry along with endless discussion on Jean Paul Sartre, Zen, Fidel Castro, Henry Miller or Paolo Coelho are bound to mesmerize you, in case you are a first timer. Famous literateurs including Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhaya, Joy Goswami, Shankha Ghosh frequented coffee house in the 70’s and 80’s and add to its intellectual quotient. Bengalis are elated to learn from Satyajit Ray’s film Agantuk that the origin of the tradition of intellectual discussions dates back to Socrates and Plato in ancient Greece. Ramachandra Guha compares Bengalis to the French for this habit of nirbhejal (without any qualms) adda. To narrate the characteristics of Bengalis, he quoted the French historian Jules Michelet’s description of the French: ” We gossip, we quarrel, we expand our energy in words; we use strong language, and we fly into great rages over the smallest of the subjects”
While taking a long walk along Diamond harbour Road towards Behala Chowrasta (Opposite to Saurav Ganguli’s house), I used to come across a number of people squatting cross-legged on the footpath engrossed in playing bridge. I stood by a particular group one day and struck a conversation. In Kolkata, you can discuss any topic with anybody at any place. Yes, it could be in a taxi, or in a non-descriptive shanty, or on a road. The bridge enthusiasts inform me that they don’t have any regular source of income. But they are are not unhappy. They have already formed a club and now they are quite excited to participate in a footpath tournament shortly.
You need Druid’s magic potion to rejuvenate the present intelligentsia
Had there been less of this passion and more of the pragmatism, Bengal would not have seen such mass exodus of its working class. Movement of educated and skilled working force across provinces is not an uncommon feature during development. But the economy of a state is in trouble when dereliction sets in the performance of the Government leading to large scale migration of its work force. Whenever I travel to Howrah and Sealdah railway stations, I find hundreds of people queuing up to board south and west bound trains in search of jobs. The only jobs created in Bengal today are the lowly paid jobs of civic police and para teachers who get a fixed monthly remuneration of Rs. 8000 to Rs. 13,000. The State Government has appointed 50,000 para teachers, as there is shortage of fund to appoint full time teachers. The Government lacks adequate fund to pay DA in line with the Consumer Price Index to the teachers and State Government employees. Wage revision has already been implemented by Central and other state Government, but here the Pay Commission has been asked to delay the submission of its report to buy time. In the mean time Government decided to increase number of holidays for its employees, as if to compensate the delay in wage revision.
There is a huge uproar among the intellectuals of Kolkata and the social media on the issue of vandalizing the statue of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. But how many people know that the statue of Vidyasagar hasn’t been broken for the first time. It happened twice in the past, once in 1970 and again in 1978 . Unfortunately, the Bengalis of today have started focusing their attention on a symbolic issue of vandalizing a statue with an utter disregard to systematic demolition of our moral fibre over the years. Any act of vandalism is despicable, but the same intellectuals who have raised such hue and cry, conveniently preferred to close their eyes on severe irregularities made in the recruitment of school teachers in 2017. It is alleged that the Government refused to publish the list of empanelled candidates, because the selection is flawed to give undue favour to party cadres. In the latest report of HRD Ministry on the standard of education at secondary level, West Bengal has been categorized in the fifth grade along with Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and Tripura. Where were the intellectuals in Bengal when more than 200 poor people committed suicide in the aftermath of one of the most notorious ponzy scams, Saradha? The group collected around 200 billion Rupees and duped lakhs of depositors. Mamata Banerjee was reported to have said, ‘ Ja gechhe, ta gechhe.’ She announced to establish a corpus of Rs 500 crore to compensate the small investors; levied an additional tax of 10% on tobaco products; requested the citizens to light up more cigarettes.
Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasrin’s book Dwikhandita was banned by the West Bengal Government in 2003. Taslima herself was thrown out of Bengal in 2007. Nobody protested. The Government decided to disburse Rs. 5 lakh to each of the 15000 club across the state after coming to power in 2011. A whopping amount of Rs. 600 crore has already been spent from the Government exchequer. Kolkata’s leading Bengali newspaper ‘Ananda Bazar Patrika’ and English daily ‘Telegraph’ became scathing critique of the State Government. Mamata Banerjee openly retorted, ‘I hate Ananda Bazar. I have instructed all the Government libraries to stop subscribing this newspaper. Please don’t read this paper; tear it off the moment you see a copy.’ Government advertisements were stopped. Ananda Bazar made a volte-face. Since tamed, it now publishes articles to virulently attack a particular ism.
It appears Bengali intellectuals of today can only act or react under the direction of a superpower. I recollect the fantasy movie Cocoon, where a group of elderly people had to be rejuvenated by aliens. Perhaps, we should invoke the super natural power of Druid to make some magic potion for their resurrection.
Nirad C Choudhury on his own community
No write up on Bengalis is complete without a reference to Nirad Chandra Choudhury. I am not going to quote from his famous work ‘Autobiography of an unknown India’, but from his not so famous book in Bengali-‘Aamra Atmaghati (Suicidal Us) and second part of his autobiography-‘Thy Hand, Great Anarch! India.’ It was Tagore who wanted Bengalis to cross the boundary and be a vishwa Manab (Universal Man). Nirodbabu went a step further and provoked- “Bangali hoibo na, Manush hoibo?” (should I be a Bengali or a human being?). Niradbabu made a blistering attack on Bengali sentiments in his book, Thy hand, great anarch! Bengalis, according to him are intellectually fragile, weak in character. He wrote, “No one can deny that in the 19th century, the Bengali people created a new life, not only for themselves, but for the entire Indian people, by their intellectual and moral effort. For present day Bengalis all that is now thing of past, except for retrospective, senseless and unmanly bragging…”. He predicted the fading away of Bengali slowly but steadily. In Atmaghati Bangali, he wrote, “We do not know how the end will come, whether through a cataclysmic holocaust or a slow putrid decay.”
Where is the fabled intellectual bhadralok (gentleman)?
If you desire to meet one, rewind to the glorious past. The last vestiges of bhadralok culture have sadly extinguished with the demise of Bidhan Chandra Ray. Bengal was besieged with problems during the last two years of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s tenure. Ratan Tata, nonetheless, showed high regards and respect for Buddhababu’s ability to steer Bengal to the growth path. He described the leftist chief Minister a true bhadralok, genuinely interested in the industrial development of the state. When virtually all industrial houses left Bengal during the misrule of left front Government, when Bengal’s economy had a free fall into bottomless pit, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made a last ditch effort to invite industrial houses to Bengal to uplift the fragile economy of the state. Buddhababu put all his effort to establish Nano factory at Singur. But he was not a good strategist, therefore, he failed to connect all the dots. He couldn’t even garner support from his own party men and ultimately fell into the trap, opposition had set for him. Nano was shifted from Singur to Sanand. If the leftist policy against computer in the late 1990’s is considered as the first nail on the coffin, the decision to drive Tata out of Singur tantamount to the last nail.
The exit of last bhadralok from the political scenario paved the way to the rise of fire brand leadership in Bengal’s political arena. Bengal is drawing attention from the whole country today, not for social reforms, not for visionary outlook or for its once much vaunted colleges and universities, but for ugly poll violence, vitriolic behaviour of its politicians. In 2018 more than 70 people were killed in panchayat election alone. Opposition parties could not field their candidates in 34% of the constituencies. Anuubrata Mandal, Trinamul Congress President of Birbhum was nonchalant in his reaction,’ Candidate debe ki kore? Rastay unnayan dnariye aachhe. Ora unnayanke dekhe bhoy pachhe.‘ ( How can they field their candidates? Development is standing in the way. Oppsition is scared of development).
The abuses hurled against each other in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are simply unparalleled. If Anubrata Mandal instructs his party workers,” the CPM rats are trying to peep out of the paddy field, kill them as soon as you notice”, BJP President Dilip Ghosh goes one step forward in his diatribe, ” If anybody attempts to stop BJP, we will ensure that he is placed in the history book. No hospital will be able to save him.” Fire brand leader, film star turned politician, Locket Chatterjee from BJP threatens a polling officer, ” I will take off your skin, if you don’t listen to me”. Mamata Banerjee’s vilification, on the other hand, is unidirectional to Narendra Modi and Amit shah. She has openly declared that she will drive Modi out of the country after 23rd May. She doesn’t recognize him as India’s Prime Minister. Modi is expiry babu. Perhaps, the most vitriolic has been her this comment on Modi, “I will make him do 100 sit ups holding his ear.” Seems, as if she wants to punish an unruly student in the class room.
I will end my story with an anecdote which I heard during my college days. This is an interesting conversation between a ruffian Bihari and a student of Shantiniketan. The student from Shantiniketan takes great pride to explain that Tagore was a great poet; he got nobel prize; he has written thousands of melodious songs. The Bihari snubs him, abuses Tagore and says-Tagore was not at all great. Our Ramdhari Singh Dinkar was a better poet than your Tagore. The student from Shantinikatan lost his cool and could no longer control his anger. He blurts out, “If you utter one more word against Tagore I will be compelled to call you sala.”
Bad behaviour sells. Absolute bad behaviour sells absolutely!