Heroes of yesterday and today!
My visit to Bengal this time came after a very long gap. So, what I learnt this time while I spent a few days in Calcutta city and also when I paid a visit to Santiniketan, after a day out, driving through the Bengal countryside, what I read afresh from a number of books I got hold and what I learnt as new information and new thoughts enriched me beyond anything else I might have done those few days out of my usual routine.
I saw my old haunts in fresh light. I saw my old heroes in a new critical perspective. Gone are the days, it seemed, when I saw Tagore, Subash Bose, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda and many others, the writers and intellectuals of a later generation, the likes of Nirad Choudhury and Prof. N.K.Bose(the critical defender and interpreter of Gandhi)and many others…all seemed to me in a totally different angle.
Some of the books I read also gave me the needed balance and critical perspective. Even the two books now in the market, by Prof.Amartya Sen, perhaps the tallest living Bengali intellectual and the Nobel Prize winner ,after the great intellectual, Nirad Choudhry seemed to be in a lesser admiring manner. Sen, for instance, had put out certain theses, like India’s argumentative traditions, men’s multiple identities and his explanations for violence, in the world at large etc seem to me not fully acceptable. Bengal was home to a long tradition of renaissance thinking, such was the history of Bengal, its imperialist past and its peculiar middle class that was perhaps the largest, covering a wider spectrum of learning and professions and also the political evolution of the State into the present hybrid Leftism, all make me feel exhilarated and at the same time depressed as well.
Because Bengalis as a people seem now very backward, very much left out of the development opportunities in terms of human development index. Bengal is now seen by outsiders, like me, as a backward State in terms of education, health and other basic infrastructure development, power, water, sanitation, rural roads, most important the communications revolution that is sweeping through the whole of India. Not the least is some of the governance norms, the “best practices” in government administration as well as corporate governance. With all its advancement in political rhetoric, there is not much development information, latest data unavailable. The Calcutta newspapers, English newspapers I mean, don’t carry that much development news, as say, The Hindu or the other States-centric newspapers.
So, what we have is just superficial news, superficial writing of inane issues.
So, I sought to read books on the past, sadly, nothing was available on the present.
Some of my heroes of the past, recent past, are from Bengal only. Heroes of my past, recent past are from Bengal.
Of all the Indian Provinces, as they were the present States were called in the pre-Independent India, it was Bengal, Calcutta which produced so many leaders of outstanding merit. Bengal Renaissance came about for the obvious reason that the economic wealth and the imperial power of the British Empire created a society, a culture and a way of life that was very conducive for the birth and growth of ideas of a very cosmopolitan and international kind. The impact of the Western knowledge, based on science and modern knowledge led to a new awakening.
So, we saw the great men, the great minds, Raja Rammohan Roy, the Tagores, then the rise of the religious mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciple Swami Vivekananda and then later the rise of nationalist consciousness. The nationalist awakening produced so many brilliant minds, from Swami Aurobindo to Subhas Chandra Bose and many others. However, we get attached to some names in the course of time; the distant heroes remain few while the current heroes could be too many! Why this is so and how to judge our heroes, how to benefit from their life and wisdom?
Our distant heroes remain few; while our current heroes could be many! Why some persons turn out in their lives heroes? Once we see certain persons as heroes we hero-worship them, right?
Just now finished reading a book on Calcutta (Calcutta: The city revealed by Geoffrey Moorhouse, 1971) and that evoked so many names and images. Rammohan Roy was obviously the most multifaceted personality. He was the one who caught the spirit of the times he lived and hence he was able to achieve so much in so many fields. It is said that more generalizations are made about the Bengalis than about other people in India. Mount start Elphinstone, the British rule had said that while every Maharatta above the rank of messenger invariably sit in his presence, in Bengal there was scarcely a native allowed to! Bengalis were always supposed to be passive talkers, interested in intellectual and cultural matters, never willing to soil their hands with physical work. But then Moorhouse shows this was not always true. He cites instances of so many Bengali names, like Tagores, who were the first to enter high business, in the founding of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce or other first ventures be it jute mills or coal or metal trading.
But then the dominant trait of Bengalis is always seen to be one of intellectual brilliance. They became the bhadralok, the respectable people, and respectable class of people. We are told how the Bengalis started with education under the British patronage and how in turn they helped to break the caste barrier among the top three castes. Yes, they remained a class and never felt at home with the masses who toiled on the lands owned by these classes. Calcutta it is said has more poets than Dublin has the same number of novelists and the city boats of too much culture, poetry, literature, theater and cine. Satyajit Ray could not have come from any other city of India. Such is the intense interest in things artistic and intellectual.
It is said that Rammohan Roy, a self-made man, though he came from a bankrupt zamindari past who unfashionably denounced suttee (widow burning) was the one Indian to be enamored by the freedom fighters that he broke his leg while rushing up on deck to catch his first sight of a French tricolor in Capetown Harbor when he was sailing to England in 1830,where he died two years later. Though he was not Anglicized he was the forerunner to Anglicization that came soon after. The poet Miachael Madhusudan Datta was the one who wrote both in English as well as Bengali, he composed poems in the two languages in quite the typical English poetical meters and produced Odes, epics etc. Such mastery of English in a creative manner never came to any other province; there is no wonder that later the same Province produced such writers like Nirad Choudhury and others. Even today, we can see the natural felicity with which the English language is handled by Bengali writers.
Anglicized ways and manners came easily to the Bengali bhadralok and also the first national consciousness and a clear intellectual anti-white man attitude. Subhas Bose wrote home soon after he reached Cambridge: “what gives me the greatest joy is to watch the white skins serving me and cleaning my shoes”.
C.R.Das was another such great Bengali. It was nice to read that when he was serving as Mayor of Calcutta he was traveling in Europe and meeting such great like Ribbentrop, Stafford Cripps, from Hitler to Clement Atlee and Eamon de Valera!
It is curious to recall these names and I was also fortunate to meet Eamon de Valera in 1959, when I was a student at Oxford and when I paid a brief visit to Dublin! After all, I mused within myself, life has been so fortunate and the world seems to be so small! But then jealousies go for making the fortunes and fames of people. Bose was also unlucky. He was drawn by 51 bullocks in 1938,when he presided over the annual conference of the Congress and “almost found himself out maneuvered for the ultimate hallmark of Indian approval by the shrewd Gandhi, who preferred the more biddable Nehru as his first lieutenant”(Geoffrey Moorhouse,page197)
Keshub Chandra Sen was one other great hero, cast in the mould of Rammohan Roy. Today his house stands in total neglect with film posters covering the front age.
It was now I learnt to know that India’s two famous nationalist songs, anthems, as they have become were composed in interesting ways. Tagore’s famous Janagana Mana-Adhinayaka was composed in 1911 was presented first as India’s national song at the first UN session in New York in 1946,confirmation of it s official adoption came later from the Constituent Assembly in New Delhi(The Changing Face of Calcutta by David William Martin, page 166).But it was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the great writer, the first B.A.(1858) whose great prose gave a new world view to Indians after the 1857 mutiny and his well-known novel, Ananda Math, the first great patriotic song, Vande Mataram, vied with Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana for India’s national anthem.
In fact, there are other compositions of Tagore that also were done when the partition of Bengal was affected by Curzon. Tagore composed his other patriotic song, Banglar Mati, Banglar Jal that roused and rallied the Bengalis in 1905 partition. Even now the Bangladeshi government adopted Tagore”s Sonar Bangal as its national anthem.
Another new piece of information I gathered this time was about Tagore’s Nobel Prize. In 1913, it was worth Rs.1,10,000, it was received by the poet and given to Santiniketan school, which, I learnt now, was in turn with Tagore’s blessing loaned to an agricultural bank at Potisar to help rural workers to free them from debts!
Ramakrishna Math, it is said, is run like an efficient capitalist machine, so too Mother Teresa’s Charity. Nothing wrong. The point is that the times when it gave rise to the phenomenon of Ramakrishna are past. Swami Vivekananda was seen as a “rabble rouser”(Moorhouse, page 296) and the Bengalis had this characteristic dualism about their persona. Fire-eating revolutionaries and dole-seeking meek government servants, the Indian babus par excellence!
Certainly, the age for revolutionary religion or politics is past. Or, the starry-eyed selfless charities are no solution.
Religion or religions everywhere have to become more secular and solutions to poverty and deprivation calls for robust technological action and technological solutions. Luckily, the world is right for these new awakenings. One hopes Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s change of heart leads to a new revolution and new awakening in the Bengali psyche.
We come to the recent past and the rise of a new class of Communist revolutionaries, the pre-and post-Naxalite, revolutionary Left Governments. Moorhouse book has some graphic descriptions of the new heroes, Jyoti Basu, Hare Krishna Konar and Promode Dasgupta and the Naxalite leaders, Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal. Jyoti Basu, “headmaster like”, always seemed very upright and knowing things, he dismissed Moorehuose, the writer, in a few minutes, asking “Yes, what?” type look!
West Bengal heroes of yesterday and today left me a bit colder and, if I dare to say, a bit wiser! This time!
With all its educational and cultural attainments of the past, the present Bengal society gives me a picture of confusion and a loss of identity! The State only now, rather lately, seems to be realizing what it had lost. So, the catching up with the rest of India, with the outside world is what gives me hope for this once glorious land! For the glorious trait blazed by so many heroes of the past and the recent past.
A new intellectual revolution, if and when, it comes about and when we bring about, has to be on more sober level, devoid of empty rhetoric that we witness even from the Bengal Left leaders and artists and writers.
What Bengal needs today is a paradigm shift from the culture of the babus to the culture of the new “startups” in thousands can be multiplied in Calcutta, as we see in Bangalore. Can Calcutta be transformed into a second Silicon Valley?
There is no other way to wipe out the misery and hopelessness I see all over the city and the State.
Image Source : connect.in.com