To be Bengali is to thrive in contradiction, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than now, when, on the one hand, we celebrate an Indian winner of the Economics Nobel, whilst, on the other, being deluged with stories and images of migrant workers trying, and sometimes failing, to return home from across India in the wake of an appallingly planned lockdown. About a decade-and-a-half ago, I was on a family vacation in Goa, enjoying a local beer in a beach shack, when I went into the kitchen to ask for another plate of fried fish from the extremely polite and helpful young men with whom I’d been conversing in broken Hindi, and walked straight into a conversation in Bangla. I’m not sure who was more surprised when I addressed them in the same language—them or me—but once it was established that I was one of ‘them’ the service became even friendlier and invitations were extended to take our meals with our fellow Bengalis. This has happened to me a few times when travelling: the sudden giveaway expression, phrase, or mispronounced (Hindi or English) word leading to mutual recognition, followed almost inevitably by invitations to share food or drink. We Bengalis bond like no other when we’re out of our own language-zones—Bengal, Bangladesh, Tripura, or the Bengali-speaking parts of Assam. At home it’s a different story.
The flip side of this is the faintly irritating Bengali habit of dividing the world into Bengali and not-Bengali—with the assumption that the not-Bengali part is somehow slightly unfortunate in not having been born Bengali. There are probably good historical reasons for this, since Bengal was where the type of individual who exemplifies what many would like to think of as the best, most modern, and up-to-date kind of Indian was born, sometime around the middle of the century before last. But this birth was not without its problems, as Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya (1838 – 1894) was quick to diagnose. In his essay A Popular Literature for Bengal (1870), Bankim wrote of how “the dashing young Bengali who writes and talks like an Englishman” found it “degrading” to be “caught writing a Bengali book” and “if anything induces him to stoop to this vulgar course, the book comes out stealthily”. But the same Bankim also stated that among his contemporaries, all writers, “good and bad alike, may be classed under two heads, the Sanskrit and the English schools. The former represents Sanskrit scholarship and the ancient literature of the country; the latter is the fruit of Western knowledge and ideas. By far the greater number of Bengali writers belong to the Sanskrit school, but by far the greater number of good writers belong to the other”. To Bankim, “the acute but uncreative intellect of the Bengali”—who stood “crushed and spiritless, insensible to his own wrongs”—was waiting “till a new light dawned on him, to rouse him…from his state of lethargy”.
Bankim’s illustrious predecessor, Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) had made a similar point in The Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu (1854), when he had spoken how it was the great good luck of the Hindu “tottering on the verge of a moral grave” that the dynamic Anglo-Saxon had come to rescue him from his torpor. In fact, for most Bengalis, the effete, disorganised, crushed, garrulous Bengali has been a stock figure of fun since the early 19th century, about the only saving grace being the infusion of fresh ideas and metaphorical blood brought about by the arrival of the English. Which brings us to another set of contradictions in the Bengali’s response to the ideas, the ideals, and the brute fact of colonial domination. The first was the spontaneous embrace of European ideals, by the Hindu elite, primarily for commercial reasons; chief among which would be the notion of the unfixed individual, unfettered by considerations of origin—a sort of colonial meritocracy. The second was the exclusion of several groups and communities from this modernising project, most notably women, the non-elite castes, and Muslims. Many thinkers and writers of the so-called Bengal Renaissance were quite clear that their embrace of Western ideas and ideals was as inflected with the notion of “my enemy’s (read Muslims) enemy (the British) is my friend” as it was by the supposed universalism of those ideas and ideals. One searches in vain for a non-savarna, Muslim or female name in the roster of the great heroes of the said rebirth, a Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) being, sadly, more the exception proving the rule (of exclusion) than an icon of inclusiveness. Yet, the very fact that a Muslim woman could write so directly about female oppression, to the extent of penning the first feminist science fiction novel—Sultana’s Dream (1905)—where gender roles are reversed, solar energy powers flying cars, and the workday is only two hours long, no doubt gave hope to daughters and wives of men who had by then been beneficiaries of colonial education for nearly a century.
This elitism and the exclusionary tactics continued well beyond the period of reawakening, and Independence, and continue to be a feature of Bengali life, whether social, cultural, economic or political. Thus, one will be hard-pressed to find a leader in the 34 years of Communist-led rule who was not male, middle-class, Hindu, savarna, and even though we have a chief minister now who comes from an economic rung distinctly below those of her predecessors, her Brahmin identity (no matter that she has never sought to use it to her advantage) points to the continued presence, no matter how attenuated, of this tendency.
But this is not to say the other side of the story was wholly absent or banished or erased from Bengali life. For every high Hindu leader, ideologue, or set of practices, we have had both the lowly, local, notionally Hindu practices, such as Tantrism (roundly denounced as “un-Hindu” by the self-appointed keepers of Bengali tradition), as well as those which synthesised Islamic traditions and practices within the larger ambit of Hindu rituals and beliefs. These, fortunately for us, at a time where a monolithic Hindutva is being championed, still continue to live, breathe, and have their being within the daily beliefs and practices of the average Bengali. So, for example, as children my sibling and I would dutifully genuflect before dargahs and masjids, no less than we did before mandirs and roadside shrines to Hindu goddesses and gods—usually before/during school exams but also when hoping to escape punishment for our latest act of disobedience or moral failing. We were not the only ones. My Muslim and Christian friends, too, found no contradiction in praying to Goddess Saraswati (exams again!), and most received new clothes for Pujo, as we did for Christmas and Eid. Nor did the CPI(M) shy away from putting up stalls dedicated to the works of Marxist icons in Durga Pujo pandals.
The lexicographer and humourist Rajshekhar Basu (1880-1960) wrote, in one of his short stories, of the need for a“Marxiya Vaishanavism” which would combine the Bengali’s affinity for mystical devotion to the muscular tenets of historical materialism; he may have done so in a satirical vein, but ever since I read it in my teens, the phrase has stuck with me, even though it wasn’t until much later that I realised that Basu was channelling the spirit of Narendranath Datta (1863-1902), better known as Swami Vivekananda, who had written of the need to “build the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body”.
Often, usually when Bengalis gather over a drink, the lament arises that what Bengal thinks today the rest of India had thought of and forgotten a fortnight ago, but if there is anything they can still take away, perhaps it is this spirit of embracing contradiction without hesitation, or, worse, shame. For the Bengali, having one’s cake and eating it too, or, to use a Bengali proverb, plucking the fruit from the tree and snapping up the one which has fallen to the ground, is second nature. This is our biggest weakness and our surest hope of salvation.
(The writer is professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University)