One of the favouritest past-times of the argumentative Bengali, usually over noisy slurps of tea, bites of aloor chop and intermittent puffs on Gold Flake, is to apportion blame for Bengal’s marginalization in national politics, the economy and even culture in post-Independence India. For politics, the schism between Subhash Bose and Gandhi is considered to be the starting point of Bengal’s steadily decreasing influence over Delhi. The freight equalization policy that took away much of Bengal’s locational advantage and the Congress-party-held Center’s discriminatory fiscal policies towards CPM-ruled Bengal, both as retribution for repeatedly electing a non-Congress party as well as to favour Congress-held states (or states where they had a decent chance of winning) are considered universally (and rightfully) to be two of the major factors for Bengal’s economic marginalization. And lording over these factors is the ubiquitous, inexorable CPM-led militant trade unionism from the 60s to the 90s that led to a massive flight of industrial capital from the state—-though this contributory factor is likely to be debated vehemently by the hard-core Leftists, a breed that is thankfully being slowly supplanted by the pragmatic Leftist as exemplified by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.
But what usually happens during these heated discussions is that possibly the single most important cause for Bengal’s decline is overlooked—the ‘passion’ of the Bengali, a passion which the present interlocutor is frequently not above.
Perhaps the best realization of the passionate Bengali spirit is the character of Apu, the quintessential Bengali young man of Bibhutibhushan’s “Pather Panchali” and “Aparajito” (subsequently immortalized by Ray), a romantic, supremely idealistic intellectual whose passion for life enables him to rise above the death and poverty all around him.
In pre-Independent India, it was this kind of positive passion that led to Bengal emerging as the frontline of violent revolutionary struggle against the British and fuelled the cultural Renaissance of the early 20th century.
But once India attained independence and the intellectual base of the great Bengal awakening started whithering away, this passion found expression in trade union violence, jingoism and stultifying intellectual pride. An unhealthy obsession with culture and the glories of the past started paralysing the Bengali working classes—action was for those “other unenlightened states”, we Bengalis were content to argue, score debating points and discuss Fellini and Bergman. After all we had the “cultural capital” moniker to uphold. Let the state economy go to the dogs—we are above such corporeal concepts.
Bhabotosh Dutta, the great economist and teacher, in his autobiography talked about a man in Writer’s Building who did no work. When he enquired why he did not, his colleagues told Bhabotosh-babu, without any trace of irony “Please do not ask him to work. He does ‘culture’.”
Had there been less of this passion and more of the pragmatism, workers would have realized that while striking work for bonuses even while the plant suffered financial setbacks may seem like classical Marxian class struggle against the bourgeoisie, it would be they who will be the worst sufferers once the company cuts it losses, locks its doors and goes elsewhere. No matter how much we blame Jyoti Basu for running the state to ground, he and his CPM goons weren’t aliens flown in from Vulcan. What sustained Basu’s populist policies and rhetoric against multinationals and Western capital was the misguided idealism of his people, the people who joined CPM trade unions in large numbers because CITU was sh taking revenge for all our comrades in Vietnam by kicking Western-capital controlled businesses out of Bengal. That it was Bengal’s economy that was suffering as a result and not the multinationals was lost amidst all the hot air and the ‘Inquilab Zindabad’s.
A small experiment to convince yourself of how the Bengali has contributed to his own decline. Go to a sari shop run by a Bengali. Look at one sari or kurta. Look at another. And another. And another. By this time, the average Bengali shopkeeper will become irritated (again note the word “average”, there will always be exceptions). You will be lucky if you can escape without a scowl or a grumble or sometimes downright rudeness. Go to a similar shop by a Marwari. He will patiently and silently do the same things with not even a slight gesture of anger. Unlike the passionate Bengali, the Marwari shopkeeper realizes that this is simply ‘business’ and an expression of ‘passion’ would lead him to a loss of a potential customer. Which is why Marwari businesses have flourished in Kolkata at the expense of Bengali ones. However the passionate Bengali refuses to acknowledge the root cause of the success of the Marwaris and react by grumbling how all the nice houses have been taken over by those ‘rich Marwaris’.
As another example, consider the latest hullabaloo over Tata’s land acquisition in Singur. In a cruel twist of irony, it is the CPM which is now on the side of the industrialists and firebrand Mamata who is adapting the old-school CPM style of political expression that consists of disruption, destruction and vocal chords to win over popular support for a cause that is clearly detrimental to the economic progress of the state. The party may have changed and so have the times but the perceived political benefits of appealing to the passionate core of the Bengali heart has not.
If Apu symbolized the romantic, impulsive and intellectual Bengali, it is in many ways Mamata Banerjee who represents the twisted bastardization of the ideals of Apu in today’s Bengal. Shorn of the intellectual foundation of the Apus of years gone by and yet keen to come off as supremely enlightened, she touts her fake PhD as a certificate for her intellectual bonafides. Her heightened emotions do not lead her down the path of enlightenment but to hysteria—one day she resigns from the cabinet, the next day she is in tears, the day after that she is yelling down the Speaker andÂ then over the weekend she flies off into sullen silence. She has little by way of new ideas. Her weapons are rhetoric, theatrics, bandhs, disruption and vandalism.
In that she mirrors a vocal section of the Bengali bhadralok of today whose lack of substance is covered by a smokescreen of passionate iconization and self-congratulatory bluster. While these people will gladly twist the windpipe of any philistine who may hint that he prefers Raj Kapoor to Satyajit Ray, they will let the Charulata DVD gather dust on their shelves along with the multiple volumes of Rabindranath’s collected works. While they will claim to be true connoisseurs of cricket, they will stay totally silent when an opponent scores a century and indulge in the worst form of crowd violence and pelting of a player with rubbish when he feel “cheated” by his team, in the process refusing to acknowledge the personal dignity of a sportsman, the cornerstone to understanding and appreciating sport. Incidentally, I am not implying that the true Bengali intellectuals are dead, as a matter of fact they are very much alive. All that I am saying is that the people making the most noise about Bengali culture are not them.
And worst of all, these faux intellectuals will hark back to Bengal’s glorious past at every opportunity and take solace for the state’s loss of influence in India’s economy through ridiculous assertions like the one made by Suhel Seth (who incidentally is not a Bengali by birth but considers himself an honorary one)
Bengal produces more civilised people in a day than Delhi will produce till 2012 – if and when we host the Commonwealth Games.
What a load of crap ! And we wonder why anti-Bengalism is such a strong feeling in most states of India.
Again let me repeat. Bengal has had it bad after independence because of several external factors. There has been discrimination and pretty severe ones at that — whether it be for allocation of Central funds or selection in the cricket team. But too often these injustices are used to explain away our personal shortcomings and our self-serving agendas. For instance when we skip office and shout on the street corner for Dada’s inclusion, we convince ourselves that we are not cheating our employers by leaving work but merely discharging our duties as true-blue, passionate Bengalis. When we strike work and get an extra holiday, we justify the losses suffered by the government and industry as a sacrifice necessary for recognizing the “spontaneous display of emotion” by the people.
But there are positive stirrings now. People like Buddhadeb have realized that the “cultural capital” spiel is beginning to wear thin and we need economic growth. And we need it fast. Buddhadeb is trying to do something good, bring back the industries that once fled, trying to change Bengal’s horrible industry image as a hot-bed for red hot trade unionism. He has realized that roads and trade zones are more important than an extension to Nandan, Calcutta’s cultural complex and a library for Trotsky. But still there are people like Mamata and her cohorts who are dead eager to push Bengal back to paradoxically the darkest days of CPM rule.
What has been encouraging is that for the first time in many years, public sentiment is with Buddhadeb , on the side of the pragmatists and against the disrupters. Which is undeniably a good thing.
Cause it is high time that we got off our cultural highorses and realized that all the intellectual hot air, the generational hurt, the cultural feel-good and the “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” wishy-washy cannot compensate or justify the lack of jobs and opportunities in our beloved state.