Read on with horror , how an elite society was ravaged by the senseless communist onslaught in the last forty years. The Bengal that I always adored was of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Sarada, The Ramakrishna Monks, Tagore, SC Bose, JC Bose, Sarojini, Satyendra nath bose, Paramahansa Yogananda, Ram Mohan, Bankim Chandra and Keshab Chandra which is no more alive. Only the people like Basu, who regularly holiday in England and the Nandigram Nayaks are calling the shots in this once elite land. Ever wondered why the Russians threw away this sinister philosophy out of their country ?
Is it any wonder that the Communism is a mediocre theory capable of producing only mediocrities ?
I read this article about eleven years in the outlook magazine and boy, it created quite a furore inviting a number of comments. It was adjudged one of the best articles of that year. And when I went to their website it was still online. One reader quipped " The Bengali is dead, Long Live Bengal "
Will my dream of again seeing the elite, intellectual Bengal come true ? Read the article with heavy hearts.
Death Of The Bhadralok
Bengal's decline can be located in the insular legacy of its gentility
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 a thing of the past, except for retrospective, senseless and unmanly bragging... - `Thy Hand Great Anarch!' , Nirad C. Chaudhuri
To be sure, the enfant terrible of Indian letters foretold the decline of the Bengali some four decades before he penned these lines. Writing in his famous autobiography in 1947, Chaudhuri had characteristically predicted the fading away of the Bengali saying that all that they had acquired and prized was "threatened with extinction". That was not all. He even wrote a book in Bengali aptly called Atmaghati Bengali (The Suicidal Bengali). "We do not know how the end will come, whether through a cataclysmic holocaust or a slow putrid decay," wrote the feisty pundit then.
Slow and putrid decay seems more like it. Half a century after Chaudhuri outraged his community with such profane utterances, his prophecies seem to be coming true. The Bengalis comprise some 3 per cent of the world's population - 190 million in all, with about 70 million living in West Bengal alone. The rot is pronounced in tiny and truncated West Bengal. The pioneers of India's intellectual modernity have lost their way and are stuck in stagnant provincialism and sterile despair. The eastern Indian state, racked by famine, partition, political turmoil and over two decades of a deadwood, reactionary government, masquerading as Marxist, is economically ruined; the best and brightest of its residents leave it at the slightest opportunity and the fabled slothful bhadralok (literally the `gentleman') is hoist on his own petard, out of sync with modern-day realities. Says novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay: "The Bengali is under siege, as Bengal is in a free fall economically."
Rewind again to the glorious past, the only pastime of the Bengali these days. Bengal had the first modern university to be established on the subcontinent, the second institute of oriental studies in the world, the first Indian college to teach in English language. It was the epicentre of reform movements, of a renaissance in literature and the arts and of the growth of political consciousness. The crowning glory was Rabindranath Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. "No other province can produce so formidable a list of Indian leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries as can Bengal," says US-based political scientist Marcus Franda, who has studied the state.
One reason was the rise and rise of the Bengali bhadralok - literally, `respectable people', but essentially a privileged Hindu upper caste section. Created by the British for running the colonial state, the bhadralok was usually an educated, cultured and language-proud pen-pusher. "Bengalis grew fast and famous in a pretty short period," says Rudrangshu Mukherjee, historian and journalist.
Maybe that was part of the problem. For, the decline has been rapid too. Today, most of the Bengalis who do well and produce world-class writing or academic work; engage in cutting-edge business and even make zany music videos; reside outside Bengal. Most of its institutions - schools, colleges, hospitals - are among the worst in India, thanks to shameless politicisation and sheer sloth.
Cultural achievements are also sparse. Ergo, Bengalis have to be content with mostly unoriginal, tired and repetitive locally produced writing, cinema and theatre - the only exception remains art as Bengal painters flit in and out of Calcutta and remain a big draw on the Indian art circuit as also the litterateurs and stage people who belong to the other Bengal, Bangladesh. The best of Bengali cinema today is either a well-dressed verbose chamber drama or a soporific pseudo-arthouse biopic targeted largely at middle-level festivals at home and abroad. There is none of the verve and elan of even the formulaic commercial cinema of Bollywood or that of southern India. "These days I work only for money, because there are no good scripts or good directors," says actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who has acted in over a dozen Ray films and now is forced to work in Bengali pulp cinema.
Complains Magsaysay award-winning social worker and political writer Mahasweta Devi with chagrin: "There is no environment in Bengal to do good work." She is right. Intrinsically linked to the decline of the Bengali has been the corrosive effect of 23 years of a regime that is purportedly Marxist. It began with great hopes with a largely effective land redistribution programme that democratised Bengal's villages to an extent. However, it's possibly destined to end in a spiral of violence in the near future leaving behind a de-industrialised and bankrupt state. Bengal today is a volatile wasteland dotted with closed factories, teeming with the angry unemployed and peopled by a smug and parochial bhadralokdom and a parasitic army of lazy and unionised government employees who simply refuse to work. There is seething anger and frustration too - some 300 people have been lynched by mobs in the past two years.
The ways of the Bengali has completely degenerated. A curiously named group called Bhasa Sahid Smarak Samiti, with the blessings of the so-called communists, tries to whip up Bengali chauvinism by exhorting the people to ridicule Bengalis who speak among themselves in English, among other things. A government, with some six million registered unemployed on its rolls, is busy building jatra (folk theatre) stages, trying to launch an agitprop television channel and wondering whether the glory of the moribund Bengal football can be resurrected by sponsoring soccer tournaments.
This is burlesque of the highest order. The public works department, which presides over the country's worst roads outside Bihar, spends time worrying about how to sterilise the burgeoning cat population at Writers' Building. The cats were, in the first place, imported to kill rats that chew on government files. Records in the land reforms department go missing after a merry drinking session. The Bengalis' compulsive obsession with gastronomic delights is also taken care of - a cold storage to sell salami, fish and other delicacies to the 9,000-odd government employees inside the secretariat is one of the brightest ideas of the government this year.
There is no seriousness about critical issues. The new city mayor - not a Marxist, mind you - usually arrives hours late or simply fails to turn up for official functions, including a recent meeting with industrialists. Instead, he spends time at the civic body discussing how he is still spooked by ghosts at night. A geriatric chief minister says he can do little about employees shirking work, and attends office for a few hours himself. Teachers are no better; gheraoed by angry students at a suburban college last week, the former didn't turn up the next day leaving the students in the lurch. "We were too tired," explained one of them.
The state's self-proclaimed cultural czar, home minister and chief minister-designate Buddhadev Bhattacharyya, the quintessential modern-day bhadralok, is busy every other evening translating Russian poets and writing subpar plays at Nandan, a bustling cultural complex he built to tone Calcutta's cultural muscles. Even as Bhattacharyya strives to become a better writer, pimps and eve-teasers harass women filmgoers inside the complex. This state-sponsored `fountainhead' of Bengali culture is also the city's hottest pick-up joint today. Says South Asia specialist Subir Bhaumik: "This is a reflection of the posturing of the Bengali, and the bhadralok's decadence and obsession with trivia."
In government offices across the state, where most of Bengalis work as dull pen-pushers, it is business as usual. Most of the employees turn up around midday and, according to a senior bureaucrat in the near-defunct industries department, "read three newspapers, solve crossword puzzles, discuss local politics, drink five glasses of tea" even as long queues of harassed people wait for their work to be done. By four in the afternoon, these offices are empty.
Outside, mafia-like employees unions routinely thrash foreign investors, teachers, journalists (five attacks in the past one month alone), and senior government officers. Unionised policemen openly abuse their seniors. Political rallies continue to clog the streets. "West Bengal must be the only place on earth where the government routinely calls strikes," says noted academic-writer Sukanta Chaudhuri. Bengalis still love to stop working and are unable to run factories - there were 34 strikes and 256 lockouts last year, up from 25 strikes and 213 lockouts in 1998.
In the midst of such anarchy, the Bengali has become disturbingly insular. A smug middle class tom-toms past glories at every available opportunity. "Bengalis often think," says novelist Buddhadev Guha, "that Bengal is the only place in the world. Nothing exists outside Bengal." When Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize two years ago, a Calcutta-based newspaper began its report describing the economist as a "Bengali, and an Indian". Iconising, producing apocrypha and myth-making have been perfected into fine arts - the myth of a cinema maestro producing classics out of crummy studios, the myth of a thespian who goes into recluse, the myth of a rooted Nobel Laureate returning home to ride his favourite old bicycle, the myth of a once-wronged, now successful cricket star as a maharajah. There is little tolerance for criticism in the bhadralok literary establishment either. In 1980, two senior theatre critics of Calcutta were not allowed to even buy tickets to watch a Bengali adaptation of German playwright Brecht's Galileo - its cast was an ensemble of Bengal's top theatre performers, including Sambhu Mitra. Their only crime: writing critical pieces about `serious Bengali theatre' that catered "to a section of Bengali babu-bhadralok". Wrote Bengal's top seven theatre actor-directors: "We don't regard them as friends of our theatre.... If by barring them from the show, some constructive criticism will emerge, so be it." It was an astonishing show of cultural fascism by the Bengal's top tastemakers. Says critic Samik Bandopadhyay, who was one of the critics to be banned: "The power and glory of the Bengali theatre is one of the biggest myths. Never did the Bengali theatre draw huge crowds, and always grew in fits and starts."
Some social scientists believe that the stranglehold of the bhadralok on society is largely to blame for today's reactionary, lazy, highly negativist, fatalistic, mostly blue Bengali. That the cpi(m)-led 10-party coalition of fuddy-duddy `leftist' parties finally ended up promoting a culture of apathy and sloth, possibly has to do with the fact that most of their leaders and members are drawn from the same elite. The stale, bland and usually uninformed discourses on such pet Bengali theories of "crisis of capitalism" in the West or the "larger American conspiracy against Bengal" during sad-looking television shows and boisterous addas over endless cups of tea are dominated by the same elite. It is also a reflection of how Bengalis can still be taken in by profoundly dim rhetoric.
This constant talk of Bengali decline echoed all over the state betrays the anxiety of an entrenched, but now somewhat beleaguered literati," says political scientist Partha Chatterjee. Chatterjee believes that the cultural dominance of the upper-caste bhadralok in Calcutta has impeded all efforts at a true "caste mobility" in Bengal. In the state, some of the most resilient and hard working people are its fishermen, mostly low-caste Bengalis, who beat all odds to make the state the top fish-producing state in the country and a big prawn exporter. At Malancha, on the southern outskirts of Calcutta, some 200 trucks roll out every morning of a filthy, unorganised prawn market with no electricity or decent roads and make their way to the Dum Dum international airport for exports. The bhadralok-dominated bureaucracy is not interested in such ventures. The raison d'etre of the bhadralok concept has been its complete antagonism towards such indigenous, rooted and productive notions of life and work. So much so that it refuses to be productive even in the modern sense. Says Amit Mitra, economist and secretary general, ficci: "There is a psychological bottleneck in Bengal's work culture, which prevents everyone from working normally. This is painful because we're in the age of knowledge-based economy and Bengalis are best suited for this age. We're just destroying it."
But today's rag-tag bhadralok continues to cherish his insularity and looks down upon people all over the country. Pejoratives about other communities abound in the Bengali lexicon: the Marwaris - who control almost all of trading and businesses in Bengal - are called Meros, Biharis and UPites are Khottas, Oriyas are called Ures. "The decadence is complete," bemoans Soumitra Chatterjee. "We've been reduced to a cowardly incompetent people taking shelter behind Tagore and other icons."
There are some hesitant, some half-baked efforts at introspection and proactive work, but they also remain bhadralok-dominated. Desh, a highbrow literary journal, ran a cover story last fortnight on the alarming cultural freefall. Nabajagaran (renaissance), a Calcutta-based group of boxwallahs, journalists, actors and sportsmen tour districts and hold meetings to motivate Bengalis. "We're telling Bengalis to work hard, start businesses and get their pride back," says Ashok Dasgupta, Ajkaal editor and a founding member of Nabajagaran.
This, though, is easier said than done. The cretinisation of the Bengali cannot be reversed unless there is a sea change in his attitude. The inevitable fading away of the Marxists will not bring about a miracle - the shadow chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, seems to be carrying the defunct politics of mindless cadreisation, agitation, strikes and destruction of public property, kickstarted by the ruling `Marxists', to its logical conclusion.For Bengal to come out of its deep funk, Bengalis have to reinvent themselves. Till then, it will look more and more like the Unknown Indian's doomed people.
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