Congress Redeems, Congress Ruins

The promoters and owners of the INC, its supporters, those who are naturally inclined towards the Congress have entered the mode of metaphysical faith rather than of reasoned reflection. They are wont to believe that their routing at the polls is not a result of their irrelevance but the natural process of the rise and the ebb of tides, when, as the water drains off, they will be revealed as eternal as the hills and be redeemed as India’s sacred geography. Why? Only because the good, the Congress in this case always wins over the BJP, the evil of the story. This is a faith-based discourse, medieval, irrational, and non-secular to the core. It only shows that the liberal discourse is at its journey’s end.

The problem is not about the Congress, the problem is the failure of a liberal politics to carry us any further than what it already did. In India, we may say that it lasted for less than a century, if we consider Gandhian politics to be its beginning, when liberal ideas seem to be fully formed. The reasons for its rise and the causes for its death today remain fairly the same and both lie in the final promise of modernity, which is the emancipation of individual agency.

Individualism has a long history; long because without science and technology, it cannot have a secure material base, producing wanderers, travellers, monks and nuns and ascetics before it became artists, professionals, entrepreneurs, and political leaders. We may say that the desire of the individual to be free has always lurked as a prehistorically constituted species DNA, waiting for the right environment to manifest. Whether it is a Newton or Moses, whether it is Charlamagne or Einstein, and Michael Jackson or Michelangelo, individuals live off the surplus of the society. In crass Marxist terms, the individual may well be a parasite, living off the surplus of the society for no society that does not produce a surplus can produce individuals. Thus, societies egalitarian societies fall short of producing the genius. In feudal times, the talented individual was supported by the royal courts, in monastical orders, monasteries held them. Therefore, the rise of capitalism based on science and technology that can go on reproducing its surplus also supports democracies based on universal franchises.

The rise of Gandhian politics is due to the rise of capitalism in India; the model of the Freedom Struggle was a promise of individual emancipation. This continued into the Constitution of India and hence it is life. The individual’s emancipation out of her class, caste, religion and creed, language, and region, were to be eliminated into one homogenous image, the Indian citizen. A large bureaucracy was installed to check this individual from slipping back to her social particularities. The IITs, IIMs, competitive examinations were part of this monastery, that created opportunities but also monitored should she slip back into her original categories. The promise of unity in diversity was truly respected, provided the diverse elements melted into a unity. Or there was a hierarchy of terms, unity was super built on diversity. This was wonderful for equality but where it lacked was to produce the genius through letting her access the surplus. In every institution one was guided by elaborate rules, only to control entitlements and not to facilitate through surplus. Thus, while we created able bureaucrats and technocrats, judges, teachers, and a management cadre, what we could not produce were scientists and thinkers. Scientists who drained their brains to countries abroad did far better, the writers and film makers worked wholly on private finance and the artistic awards were always “politically influenced” and “manipulated”. Iron caged bureaucracies guarded and protected mediocrity, the genius was suspected and smothered. Gate keeping the order of the day to keep the talented out. Shibram Chakarabarty in his two-volume autobiography exposes this clearly and one has only to watch the films of Raj Kapoor to understand the menace that mediocres can bring about in the society to maintain equality and unity.

Still the Congress politics would not have suffered if the system that upheld it, besides the concentration of power, also had the monopoly of economic powers. But wedded to mediocrity, our school examination system, the curriculum of colleges, the format of the competitive examinations could only select the intellectually mediocre who needed to excel in rote learning. Institutions fell because staffed with the mediocre, they pegged down the genius. Public sectors stagnated because there was not enough talent to progress technologically, education became irrelevant, judiciary became clerical, politicians lacked imagination. No wonder then the engine of economic growth slowed down, depending more on the circulation of money, separation of the physical and the financial sectors, growing speculative finance and stagnant industrial production and eventually the falling value of the INR. Unity, equality, and mediocrity of the politics of the Congress did this to us. Lies about history and raising the nation as a religion were the two horns of ideology, not of the BJP of today, but of the Congress in its heydays.

Once the economy dipped, the agent of that economy, the state had to withdraw. Public sectors were sold to private individuals, liberalism was the only way out. Congress was the chief architect of the grand privatization of the economy; once started it was a juggernaut, proceeding on inertia. Hence the Congress faced the same fate as that of the Mughal Empire post Aurangzeb, when due to the latter’s policies of incessant warfare, warlords became rich from the money that was drained out from the imperial treasury. In this case, private industrialists, swindlers, and capricious individuals became richer who started to secure their influence and power as individuals. The BJP was born with the support of this new rich. So far so good. But what about the massive populace that has joined the BJP of today?

The reasons for people joining Modi are like the people rallying behind Gandhi, personal growth, and emancipation. Gandhi fought the British because they were in power; BJP fights the Congress because it is in power. Hence Sonia Gandhi’s call to another Freedom Movement backfires. The BJP is the Freedom Struggle. The Indians fought the British as the oppressed, excluded and the inferior fights the superior. The BJP fights with those who feel the same way about the Congress. No wonder then wherever you go in the government or in deliveries of public services, you see such deterioration in efficiency, quality, and finesse. Because the “new Indians” are fighting the encumbered and entrenched “British”. Culturally this is expressed as anti-Valentine, anti-Christmas, ant jeans, demolition of Lutyens Delhi, privatization of railways and airlines and so on.

The dominance of private capital over the public sector is the single most reason, inter alia for the polarization of the society. Unemployment worries only the Congress because it is its tag line; the recent CMIE study shows that unemployment does not worry the people at all because most are not even looking for jobs. Since enterprises providing mass scale employment are no longer around, jobs are mostly part time, multi skilled, multifarious, tentative, combination of salaries, professional fees, and self-earned commissions. Such jobs need networking on the one hand and family and community support on the other. The hijab of the Muslim girl, the tika on the Hindu boy are nothing but a sinking back into their own communities, finding approval and hence support from their kith and kin to be able to network and earn. No one looks out for the MNREGA anymore as sustenance, it is better to head a Hindu outfit for networking for jobs and deals. No one is looking for that small time private sector job when one can network among Muslim brotherhood to supply aggregates in construction. And this new source of economic power has itself become the new bureaucracy, in the Foucault style, which no longer needs to exercise power from a vantage point but is spread throughout the society in capillary action, each one trying to control the other.

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Rammohun Roy Barely Remembered, 22nd May 2022

Today, i.e., on the 22nd of May 2022 Raja Rammohun Roy’s existence completes 250 years. He died on the 27th of September 1833 in Bristol. His contributions can be measured by the extent of our forgetfulness of him; he must have been very successful that he has created conditions for us so comfortable that we no longer need his services. He would indeed have taken this to be his greatest achievement; so effective, so effectual, so vital that he is no longer needed to run the show. His success can also be measured by the fact that he has made the world which he inhabited wholly incomprehensible to us, so deep are the changes he brought about. That is why there are absolutely no celebration of the Rajah’s life and contributions worthy of note. The various outfits of the Brahmo Samaj are putting up poorly rehearsed songs, factually incorrect and incoherent talks and all the wrong prayers on the occasion.

Rammohun is an interesting person, far too big to be comprehended in a consistent and coherent frame. That he knew many languages, that he wrote religious books as well as legal, administrative and even school texts, that he raised Bengali to the level that Bankim Chandra and Tagore could write about it and infused Hindustani classical music to the Bengali song and was a social reformer who changed Hinduism to such an extent that even the Sanghis cannot return to conservatism and that he was sought by Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay, Robert Owen in England, by Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Emerson in the US, that the Cadiz Constitution in 1812 was especially presented to him, that the German institutions translated his works on Christianity and that Louis Phillipe threw a dinner in Paris in his honour, also do not help us to understand the man holistically as he single handedly wrote the script of modern India as the later generations was to imagine it, Constitutionalize it and live in it.

If Rammohun must be resurrected today it is due to the polarization that is happening in the Indian society. Interfaith harmony should at least be pursued if not interfaith unity. Let us examine Rammohun’s ideas on religion.

I think that the book Tuhfat ul Muwahhidin which he wrote at the age of 16 and did not publish till he was 32 because he did not wish to annoy his father any further than he was already angered by his views on religion. The source of this book was his education in Patna where he was sent at the age of 9 for “higher studies” which meant Persian literature and Arabic texts. Here he passed the examinations of the Koran and earned the title of Zabardast Maulavi. He had learnt a smattering of Sanskrit at home because of his caste and priestly professions of his family before they came into Imperial Services of the Mughals. Rammohun went to the nawabi school and because of this he had also learnt Bengali better than most. In village schools, Sanskrit was taught, and Shubhankari was the only way that Bengali was instructed; Bengali was a rude language and hence looked down upon. The knowledge of Bengali stood in great stead when later he developed this language to the present high point. Persian learning was quite common as it was the English of the times, necessary to obtain a government job. But his learning of Arabic was important for he read in this language, translations of Greek works of Aristotle and Euclid, Heraclitus and Aurelias, Plato and Socrates; in short, those texts which had created the European Renaissance that generated thinkers like David Hume, Francis Bacon, Lucretius, and others. Rammohun did not learn English till he was in his 30’s; he could not have been influenced by Western liberalism. He was the western liberalism, teaching the Mintos and the Hamiltons, the Middletons and Tylters, the importance of reason over religion.

Tuhfat must be read by modern sociologists and anthropologists for published in 1804, it preempted the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi Strauss who were to write a hundred years later. He writes that religion is an invention of the human mind, universal to all societies to mark as sacred those which are incomprehensible, unattainable, unreachable, and uncontrollable. As science progresses and magic develops for the stage as entertainment, the scope of the comprehended, attained, and controllable expands, pushing the sacred to ever more newly discovered areas of the unknown. The beauty of reason is that it not only knows but also can mark what is there to be known but is presently not known. Hence, reason’s language crashes religion. So far, Rammohun speaks like Europe. But where he diverges his path is his recognition that religion is an innate need of the human. Wars and violence brace the human society when religion vacates leaving a moral vacuum. To fill this, one must raise reason to the level of religion, with its ideology, its principles, cannons. Thus, was born liberalism, in his hands through his various publications and the Atmiya Sabha. Western liberalism spoke only of the redemption of the individual, refashioning polities that guaranteed such freedom of action; Rammohun’s liberalism lay upon a contract between the ruler and the ruled, and among the people to respect each other’s freedom and hence to desist from thinking one as wholly free willed and without responsibilities. This thought has been the primary focus of Bollywood since the birth of the star in its movies; many scenes and dialogues of Deewar are directly from episodes of the Rajah’s life. This is what makes us as Indians, freedom to exercise responsibility, freedom to realize the higher opportunities in politics and society through taking on roles of responsibility. When eventually the Congress went to Gandhi, the imagination of the free citizen became this; in the Constitution of India, the imagination of the individual is also this.

The intellectual source of the Raja unfortunately not noticed by most, lay in Ain I Akbari. He was particularly close to the Mughals as his family was, inhering most of the Mughal values in institutions and as his notes show, in the system of their justice. For this reason, he hated the British in his youth. But later as he came to know them and despite his tiffs and arguments with the Christian missionaries, he admired the new civilization and saw in it a path to escape into the future. Hence, he delves into our homes, packs up our bags, leaving behind the baggage of superstitions, suspicions for other faiths, useless rituals in Hinduism, buys a ticket for us in the Upanishads and helps us evacuate the now irrelevant medieval institutions into the land of the modern and rational. That’s why, his stay in Varanasi where he learnt Sanskrit in a structured manner and read the Upanishads and classical music is such an important part of his life. It is this journey that we are now on to, it is a new land that he has brought us into; the land of the yore lies far beneath us, we are above the clouds of medievalism.

Rammohun’s religious views were split between Debendranath and Keshub Sen; the former took God as the manifestation of the natural laws of the Universe to be deeply realized within us and help us align to such rules and eventualities while Keshub Sen opened the New Dispensation to worship of all faiths, Islam, Christianity, Jews, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others. For the 250 years of the Rajah, we perhaps need the New Dispensation again.

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Awakening With Ahalya

Ahalya’s Awakening. Kavita Kane

Kavita Kane writes like an expert Sanskritist. She seems to have read stories and scriptures with an eye that is rarely trained to grasp metaphors and meanings hidden in the heavily coded Sanskrit texts. But here she is, analyzing and reinterpreting Ahalya, the most beautiful woman to have ever been born on earth. Her beauty seemed to be her disability since what remained hidden inside of her exterior demeanour was a sharp brain that could and would equal, if not surpass the best of Rishis of her times. Hence, she was born a scholar destined to study deeper into the higher order of things. Yet, she was to be married, for marriage was a must. The family privilege that could have helped her to excel in her studies, pay the expenses for her education, invest in a gurukul of her own, somehow became determined to get her married. Indra was her prime suitor.

Ahalya marries Gautam to escape Indra. The marriage ends up her being turned into stone. The Ahalya myth is not patriarchal because Gautam punishes Ahalya, it is patriarchal because of the way a woman’s sexuality is constructed and then imposed upon her. Since in a world, dominated by masculinity and defined to secure that domination, a woman’s beauty and her sexual desires are used to obtain her a man. The act of being acceptable to a man is what not only constructs a woman’s sexuality but also insinuates the desire in her. According to the author, a woman’s eagerness for being accepted kindles her sexual passions. This is what happened to Ahalya; eager to be accepted by Gautam, she awakens into sexual desire. This is her first awakening.

Ahalya would have never married; but compelled to marry, she tries to balance marriage with her vocation, chooses a rishi as her consort and falls into the structure of the family which is founded upon the submission of the wife to the husband. In this role of a submissive wife, her body, or the seat of beauty, which is what attracted men to her, is awakened into sexual desire upon which she becomes the typical nagging wife. Pushed into a subservient role of a woman who must “attend” to the needs of a man, she becomes the stereotype wife material, making demands on her husband. Ahalya for whom the mind was above the body is now an inverse of herself, the body becomes paramount over her brains.

Ironically, Gautam was attracted to her because of her beauty, never noticing her brains because of her gender. This places Indra and Gautam on the same plane, and only later in her life does she realize that if all men are for her body, then why not choose the one who satisfies her body better? She accepts that she was attracted to Indra all along and goes along with him. This is her second awakening.

Her choosing Gautam was to buy freedom for her scholarship by trucking her body. Unfortunately for her, neither was satisfied. Was she to marry Indra, she may have had a better deal because Indra was not himself balancing the body and the mind; he was all of body and perhaps, he could have left some space for her to be the Ahalya who she wanted to become? But Gautam was balancing the body and the mind as Ahalya was and soon he decided to favour his meditation over lovemaking. To walk off into meditation leaving everything else, was a privilege of a man; the woman because of her role of a homemaker, was incarcerated indoors from which she could never have a choice. The balance of vocation and work, according to the author is an impossible task and hence the balance which both Ahalya and Gautam imagined would be the case, ruined the marriage. This was her third awakening.

Then the woman, to be free in her mind, needs a room of her own. That room is her retreat, and this she can only obtain if she turns into a stone. The stone is useful for her, for it is the stone’s lifelessness that protects the woman inside it from being open to male desires. The woman’s unfreedom is the man’s lust, that is her greatest danger. However, Ahalya finds her peace inside the stone; if not a wife, then she is also denied for being a mother, a daughter, a friend and what is even more important, a teacher. The curse of becoming the stone is to be deprived of humanity and any form of visible presence for the world if she is to pursue her studies. The myth of Ahalya warns women not to touch books nor to develop her brains for then, she may have to forego her humanity, a humaneness that is permitted as far as the man wants, a humaneness that is confined to only what the man desires of the woman. This is Ahalya’s final awakening.

Kavita Kane clarifies that Gautam is not the jealous husband whose male ego is threatened by Ahalya making love to Indra; instead, he is hurt by Ahalya’s own defilement, her fallenness at giving in to lust. Her lust has diminished her, and this time, both her brains and her beauty. While he was with her, he divided her into two, taking her beauty for himself and leaving her alone with her brains. But now, as he catches her “red handed” in making love to Indra, she needs to become a whole again. What is better than a being turned into a stone to preserve her wholeness?

The author stops here with Gautam reconciled and Ahalya peaceful. But we see the desperate soul of Ahalya, a woman whose existence is construed only in terms of sexual desire, her desire for men and the men’s desires for her. Hence, she secures herself against it; but with her sexuality also evaporates her many sensualities, like taste for good food, ears for good music, feet for graceful dance, nose for the fragrances and the touch of the per deer or of children, or the feel of the cool breeze on the skin. The stone, by making a woman’s body into only a site for the satisfaction of the male desire, also ensures that a woman can have no other senses like taste, smell, sound, visuals and feeling; the stone is the hijab. This is my awakening after reading the book.

In this novel, the author makes a good case for polyandry. Gautam says that polyandry is best suited for women who are too good and multi-talented. She may find a partner each for each of her attributes. Polygamy should ideally be the mirror of polyandry and not what it is, marriage as conquest and expansion. If spinsterhood is not a choice for women and marriage is indispensable, then the Hindu wisdom says that polyandry may be the best option. In either case, the woman’s sexuality is left unaddressed and that she may be a person in her own right is waylaid. The man can be self sufficient as we find in the idea of the Ardhanariswar, but that a woman too could be somewhat of a man is denigrated as Sikhandi, the guy who is not quite the guy. Adds up to say that gender means woman only, the male is gender neutral.

Reader may also refer to the novella, Dui Bon by Rabindranath Tagore.

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English Medium, Bengali Medium

It appears that a storm is raging in Bengal over a recent controversy stoked by one RJ called Ayanatika who perhaps made some comments or observations around the inferiority of Bengali medium schools. Naturally, apologists for the Bengali medium rallied on the social media showing off their present state of employment in jobs with impressive salaries to vindicate the point that the students read in the Bengali medium are not always the losers. It is strange that only a generation before me and hence two generations before those who are writing in the social media, schools like the Ballygunge Government, Mitra Institution, Diocesan for Girls, and the United Missionary School were the top-ranking ones which produced star students and with their confident, strongly networked, and boisterous alumni associations thumped the executive boards and elite clubrooms of Calcutta were Bengali medium ones. I distinctly remember a few relatives who studied in Loreto House and La Martinere as shy and retreating ones, unable to stand up to the staggers and straddles of their cousins who went to the creamy schools, incidentally in the Bengali medium. Then what happened and why did the tide turn? To my mind, that is the more significant question than the demerits of the Bengali schools vis-à-vis their English counterparts.

The likes of Amartya Sen, Barun De, Nitish Sengupta, Sukhomoy Chakravarty and before them, Satyajit Ray went to only Bengali medium schools and which is perhaps why their command over the vernacular is so secure. They also have few peers in the writing of English even among the English persons and yet the Bengali medium schools produce children who not only speak English hesitatingly, write it jerkily but are unforgivably weak in writing, reading, and speaking the Bengali language. The problem is not with the medium of language, but what is being said, read and culturally produced in that language. And hence the divide between the Bengali medium and the English medium lies not in the medium of instruction, but in what is instructed.

The changeover from the domination of the Bengali medium to the English medium schools has taken place in multiple steps and it is important to follow these in some detail. The process of the change over seems to have taken place since the mid 1950’s and consolidated by the middle of the 1960’s. The most important episodes of this era were the expansion of the public sector large scale industrial giants and the setting up of the IITs and Universities. The local industries which were supported by innovations were now taken over by those dominated by large capita, albeit through public investments. The public institutions for education were also geared to supporting the base of large-scale production as its intellectual superstructure. The agency of the innovator and hence of his milieu lost importance. Therefore not only did the Bengali enterprise suffer so did the Tamil enterprise, the Punjabi enterprise, the Marathi, the Malayalam and so on. As these innovation-based local production declined, the vernacular language that upheld the thoughts and ideas leading us towards this innovation based local production also diminished in significance. It is not Bengali alone, but every language as in the Telugu, Oriya, Gujarati, and others shied away from being vehicles of human thought and learning. The fault lies with centralization, whether of politics, or of capital, or of the public life; the middle of the 1950’s made it sure that India was to be a unity with less space for diversity.

It is in the manner of the above, of through the “Silsila” of centralization that there grew a class division; namely those who had the education and wherewithal to participate in the national life versus those who were left back in their own milieu. This class division was marked by the difference in the medium of instruction; the birth of the English medium schools may be looked in this context. The Bengali medium must be a loser and the English medium a winner because of the forces of centralization and the loss of federalism.

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Kerala History Congress – Time Spent Well

Just back from the Kerala History Congress of 2022 where it was the sheer magnanimity of Dr Joe Sebastian, the Secretary of the Congress to invite me as a panel speaker on films and history. The Congress was organized many times and postponed each time doomed by the pandemic and closure of colleges. Hence, when travel was eventually allowed, his colleagues and he put together this impossible task in a record time of barely a week. In this they organized the Congress in as many as three cities, with Ernakulam, closest to Cochi had speakers from outside the state. The host of the conference was St Teresa’s College of Ernakulam.

This was the first time that I interacted so closely with Kerala formally and for work. My earlier visits to the state were that of a tourist, interacting with local guides and boatsmen, hoteliers and cabs. Notwithstanding my many friends from the state, this was the first time that I interacted with the Malayalee society in their own settings. What struck me most, mainly due to my familiarity with cinema, how everything was conducted as smoothly as a pantomime drama. No one rushed here and there, no one called out to one another in loud voices, no one seemed to be confused, none crossed paths with others, and there were no collisions, no cross purposes, no conflict, no confusion. With almost close to a hundred girls, in an all-girls college, everyone knew their place, position, role and duties. Glasses of water was served, followed by trays to dispose the glasses, snack trays came with savouries wrapped in tissue paper. I was very surprised when a student brought me some water in a separate glass; embarrassed I asked that there was no need for the special treatment, she said that the water served for the rest was warm and she knew that I am being from Delhi was used to drinking water in room temperature. I was impressed by the young woman’s alertness and intelligence.

Malayalees are courteous and concerned. Never in my life in Delhi or Calcutta or in my travels in Mumbai or Chennai, have people offered to carry my bags. In Ernakulam, no one allowed to have even a shred of baggage on me, even the lightest of files was carried by someone or the other; it didn’t matter if she were the Head of the Department. Usually in India, girls are shy of lugging things, in Kerala, it did not matter those girls carried heavy stuff around. The hotel staff worried more about my meals than I was, as if the matter of my comfort was personal to them. Passengers at the airport were helping me with the trays and trolleys, bookshop owners took a personal interest in what I read. People conversed too; they greeted freely and generously.

They are clean too. The city was spotlessly clean and looked rather done up; but somewhere the city struck tradition. It did not have the anxiety of Calcutta that is somehow trying to cling to its old glory and at the same time trying to politely accommodate its forever encroachers who claim its spaces and landscape,  nor did it have the supercilious ostentation of Delhi where one is trying to make a point, nor the little weariness of Mumbai, not quite knowing where it is headed to, Cochin seemed confident, contended and sorted out in its state of being. It sat there, oblivious of what others would think of it, receiving the world hospitably but in its own terms. When a young student asked me what my plans for Onam were, I realized that most Malayalis thought that Kerala was the centre of the world. The compere of the cultural programme, a well spoken articulate young girl constantly referred to the state as the country and indeed Kerala is known as God’s own country.

Buildings in the city were painted with traditional hues of white and yellow with heavy cornices and canopies, traffic was steady and somewhat slow, disciplined and restrained. All the lights worked, and one hardly saw a policeman around. The spaces for shops, temples, mosques and churches, schools and colleges, wayside eateries and repair shops seemed neatly contained within their demarcated spaces. Known for its stern caste system, everyone here knew their spaces. Caste system means many things of which the discriminative hierarchy is only one aspect; the caste system has many attributes and perhaps being content in one’s space, knowing one’s social duties might just be some of the good fall outs of this undesirable institution. Perhaps due to this good side of the caste system, Kerala works so smoothly with a great deal of social cooperation in the attainment of its public goals. Perhaps this too is the secret to the high levels of social development indices of the state and its literacy, its ready and eager supply of labor force, the strong presence in the labour force across the world, its distinctive contribution to education, intellect and culture.

In the college, everybody spoke only Malayalee. They had to consciously try to speak English. Even the papers were mostly presented in Malayalee and the paper presenters mostly interacted with the students in their mother tongue.  Bengalis of India do not speak their language with such fluency as they mix English and now Hindi with it, but Malayalee’s can speak for the entire length of their conversation without resorting to a single word from outside their language. This means that the language has kept abreast of times with its phrases and idioms able to capture the essence of the times. The power of language must lie in the power of its people and culture which must have adapted and even been on top of affairs in the presently evolving world. Bengali groups which lament the loss of language must mark that the power of a language to be relevant to its times must inhere in the power of relevance of those who speak the language. Malaylees have proved their relevance, and which is why they speak their language with such fluency and fervour.

The girls of the college that hosted the congress put up a cultural programme in the evening; this was to showcase Kerala’s heritage. In any other college we would have put up a show for folk music, band music or pop culture; but here it was classical performances, and the crowds went wild with excitement over a rendition of mohiniattam as much as they tapped and clapped for Western rock that concluded the programme.

Kerala History Congress has a two-fold agenda; one is to develop social history and the other is to develop appropriate methodologies to study social history. The idea behind this is to make history relevant for the present. Through the papers I understood that Kerala is not an easy “country” to study for it has very strong allegiance to monarchy; perhaps it would have shone out like the jewel of India if the princely state of Travancore was allowed to be. Its leanings to the CPIM, and now to the Congress or a regional party or even if the BJP ever makes a mark will be for the one and only one agenda and which is to define its identity securely against being absorbed indeterminably into a homogenous set of universals. More than citizenship, the Malayalee seems to have pursued a social and a civic entity; more than a political space for contestation of identities, they seem to have chosen a public space for enlisting cooperation. They are comfortable in their own skin, content within themselves and yet that holding on to their spaces has not made them resist the world and erect walls against it; they have been able to carry their traditional selves into the future and in this way create a future for their tradition. That is the power of the Malayalee.

It is not as if there are no contradictions in the above picture as a young teacher from the state observed that there is too much of insistence on family connections, social status, peer networks and hence gatekeeping of new entrants into spheres of excellence. The much-disliked Mallu inbreeding in general discourse is perhaps a case in the point. The network not only works in keeping people out but also keeps ideas out too. It works both ways, to create a resistance among people in accepting the ideas of the more learned as much as it prevents the entry of talent into the existing network of achievers. Therefore, in Kerala, success must be identified and facilitated for each of its many social groups. No wonder then, despite the powerful amazons of Kudumshree, centralized powers of bishoprics, of the King, the state and the public investments are of such importance. A professor told me that Telengana was poaching industries from Kerala as also the industries wanted to flee the state due to its strong trade unions. Trade unions is essential to its society as a strong social group, a tightly knit network which cannot have its benefits compromised with the growing compromises on its closedness by private industries.

Kerala has its own discipline, its self-discipline and cannot be commanded from sources other than they accept. The caste society has strong ethos guiding its members that coheres them together as well as marks them out from the rest. These have both empowering as well as disempowering elements; while we acknowledge so much of the latter, we fail to recognize the former that has lived on in India since aeons of time, been its primary means of generating the material civilization and providing for its capital as well as supply of labour. Sociologists ask rather different questions and does not recognize the normative; for a sociologist it is a world of cold and hard facts, and the caste system is such a fact. The sense of agency of Kerala draws from its self-restraint in civic space, an inner sense of duties towards the world and self and a strong recognition of the role of the self in making a difference in public life and its long history of the caste, its oppression and the fight of the reformers against it, the many religions of the state, the strong princely states, the external orientation of the economy, the predominance of the cash crop, the land with its waters and the sea with its rain clouds have all worked together in creating the self-identity of its people. Ideas of citizenship seems to have also been contested in some instances, as I gather by absorbing the general tone and flavour of the papers, conversations with the students and teachers and of course by generally absorbing the atmosphere of the state.

In the Congress, a paper presenter discussed the film Martanda Varma, based on the legendary king by the same name who modernized Kerala. In his pagentry and spectacles, in his anger and benevolence, in his stern justice and large mercies, the King contains not only the legitimacy of his rule but the entire persona of Kerala. During my PhD, two Malayalee examiners attacked my thesis of cinema vilely with impositions of their interpretation of cinema as darshan etc. I realized that the Malayalees know only a single film namely Martanda Varma, and it is this film through which they watch every other film, and its directors make their films ever since. The ethos of Martanda Varma guides Kerala even today, just as in the heydays of the court of Travancore. The King still lives on and yes, of course, how could I miss it, still governs the land, regal, confident, contended, contained, extending courtesy to the world, concern for all, a model for cooperation rather than of competition and/or conflict. It is indeed a country unto itself, forever living up to a standard defined by the King, and forever congregating in the grand pageantry to show solidarity among its various social groups, guided by and commanded by the forever living, Martanda Varma.

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Lata Mangeshkar Dies At 92

Today is the day after the Basant Panchami, the day of the immersion of Goddess Saraswati. Today is Lata Mangeshkar’s bisarjan. It happened in the morning while the Panchami tithi had not yet turned intothe sashthi that her body fell still of stirring of life. She is dead now at the age of 92, an immensely successful and a fulfilling life. Indeed, the national flags of at least India and Pakistan may fly half-mast. As a singer who broke into the Guinness Book of Records, Lata will be remembered as the personification of the song in Hindi films. Lata gone is also like the death of a family elder, an icon who lived through ages, associated with moments of many of our lives today. That’s what popular culture does, links our lives to rhythms to lend meaning and a background score to our narratives. That’s what Lata was, the meaning, an overarching one to our lives. One of the many things that we lose as we grow old are anchors of our symbols, patterns, and icons. That loss will be deep.

Yet, I, the compulsive and obsessive sociologist that I am, I find in Lata Mangeshkar, a persona that has defined us in many other ways too. A girl with a dark complexion and a sweet face, school girlish determination that is often due to her naivety in two thick long plaits on either side of her head, Lata is one born in a traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin family, which often is bereft of money resources and social contacts. And here at the age of 19, she loses her father to become the breadwinner of a family of younger siblings and a widowed helpless mother. This is the quintessential Meghe Dhaka Tara, as I see her, with her two plaits, a saree draped protectively and shyly around her as she jostles in the city trains of Bombay to visit the film studios. With the casting couches, male propositioning and male chauvinism, and a thin whiny voice, this girl is now all set to find a toe hold in the world of female singers like Gauhar Jaan and Suraiyya. And yet, she has a strange confidence or non-compromise; she needs money bad, but she won’t bend an inch to get it. She wants to win in her own terms. During her career she fought with all the leading men of the industry, Mohammad Rafi, Sachin Dev Burman and even Kishore Kumar. Through these fights she established her own labour unionish rights, of royalties to play back singers, fees of women singers being at par with those of the men and mostly, to have the name of the singers in the credits. She needed the money, she needed the job, but she refused to lower down her labour rights, her victory is also a great victory of women against the male domination, of a talented individual against a circle of influence and of labour against capital. She is thus the very embodiment of the spirit of the Hindi film industry before it became Karan Joharised into Bollywood.

Lata started her career as a film star, but she hated every moment of that because her face had to be made up and that her face had to be shown. There was some feminine inhibition at exposing herself to a public gaze I think but there was some obstinacy at that too, why should a woman have to be publicly performed to be of importance? That was her conservatism showing but she found an inner power in that too. In her song, she played the part of every heroine to the core, so much so that the heroine had to keep pace with her. Rekha, I think said that she had to struggle to express through her face, songs that Lata sang. She started the trend of studying the actress very closely, talking to her, listening the way she spoke, she nodded her head, she laughed and even cried, a practice that Asha followed too and then she acted out her part through her voice. Heroines like Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman and Sadhna shone through as actresses perhaps because they had Lata singing for them. This is perhaps the truest for Nutan and Meena Kumari.

Lata’s drama was her oomph factor; the elder men in the music industry often scolded Asha and her for singing so sexily on stage; she wore the same white saree, had the same kind of drape around her and the same two plaits on a face that wore no make up ever since she fled the sets of films and yet her voice appealed at the level of the gut. In her head, she was so many heroines, romancing, suffering, adventuring, fleeing and being flayed, despondent and jubilant, seductive, and secluded, worshipping the Divine and at the same time luring the man. The sheer extent and depth of the rasas she embraced and absorbed and worked through to produce those masterpieces should have been documented. Unfortunately, her biographers and admirers were enamoured with counts of her successes and not her inner life. It is not as if she had the best voice, but she had a gayaki that I wonder will ever be reproduced.

Lata was unmarried but never unattached. She took on, till her last breath the complete responsibility of her family. She celebrated her own birthday, bought herself expensive sarees and had food with chillies. She enjoyed cricket and watched music reality shows. She was never demure about living life, never apologetic of enjoying it. She was not defensive because she never married, she never felt inadequate if she did not produce children and sleep with a man, for her all such nobility of a woman to be married to justify herself as a successful woman as the insipid Kiran Nooyi. I think that more so because of the last paragraph that she is very justifiably the Ratna of Bharat.

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Netaji 125 years old and Never Died

Netaji is a man who never died, not even as we celebrate his 125th birthday because if we suspend our reason for a while then in the heart of every Indian, there is hope that he would return to take charge of the country someday. For many years, Indians have lived with the anticipation that Netaji would come back, suddenly appear as the messiah to deliver us from the mess we find ourselves in every now and then.

Netaji led two instinctively parallel lives for which his biographers and commentators say that like Swami Vivekananda, he was forever caught between the horns of dilemma. For Vivekananda, it was a tough choice between an atheist rationalism and an advaita bhakti, while for Netaji it was the passionate armed revolution of Bengal revolutionaries and later the group led by Bagha Jatin and the structured and institutionalized platform of the Indian National Congress and hence, he was constantly torn, as all geniuses are between their own talents and capabilities and restrains of moderation that institutions demand.

Subhas’s separation with the Congress was partly this decoupling of his restless passions and energetic action with the staidness which the party was increasingly falling into. Both Subhas and the Congress seem to have geared towards Independence and while the Congress was busy setting the house in order so that a tidy nation with its institutions and structures would be in place when the British leaves, Subhas was becoming impatient for Independence to drop in asap. The Congress felt that it was like a parent who was decorating for a party and Subhas wanted to bite into the cake then and there. But that was not the real meaning of Subhas’s hurry. He was a focused and goal driven person and for him, the task that needed to be completed was India’s Independence.  Like Arjun in Mahabharta, Freedom was the eye of the wooden bird.

But the state of the Congress’s mind did not seem to be quite focused singularly on Freedom; instead, as he thought that the Congress was wavering much into the planning for post-Independence in terms of linguistic organization of states, getting the princely states into the Indian dominion, the structure of the Parliament and of course, the Constitution and were more engrossed in doing the paraphernalia of Free India, when India was not yet promised Freedom. To Bose, it seemed like the proverbial jackfruit, as the Bengali saying goes which is yet unripe and one is oiling one’s moustache to be ready to bite into the juicy ripe pods.

The fundamental point which Subhas asked, when will India be free? Time and date. To this, the Congress had no explicit answer because as a party it had grown to such maturity and commanded such a monopoly and aggregation of the Indians’ surge for Freedom, that within the minds of its leading men, India was already free and Patel and Sitaramiah, Nehru and Jinnah, among themselves working out the disbursements of the spoils of war; a war, that according to Subhas may not even happen and the question of winning it may be as yet a distant dream. Hence, he started to walk alone, the spirit of Ekla Cholo Re would be more suited for him than Gandhi, though Tagore wrote it for the latter.

As a sole plotter of India’s Freedom, Subhas started to correspond with the Axis Powers so that he could use their support to threaten the British, the part of the Allied Powers. Gandhi, averse to war and alert to the danger that the Axis Powers could present to civilization, in his eagerness to dissuade Subhas from falling into bad company, and in a moment both desperate and yet hilarious started to write letters to Hitler, imagining that if Hitler be thus restrained, Bose could be reined in too. This was one of the noblest moments of Gandhi. And yet Gandhi, on grudgingly congratulating Subhas after his victory in the Tripuri session as the party President, wished that the minorities would feel safe with him. He was colouring Subhas in the same brush as Hitler, a mental virus that still braces the Netaji baiters even today. He tried to say that Subhas was a majoritarian and a persecutor of minorities. This was the most reprehensible moment of Gandhi perhaps ever in his career.

History showed that the end of Gandhian politics resulted in the holocaust of the Partition; India was as Partitioned as it was free. Even after Freedom, Indians did not emerge to their nobler and more ideal selves as they continued to slyly practice everything that they pledged by the Constitution not to do. The idealists among us started to represent what today most call as the sickularists and the libbus, meaning the secular liberals, a hopeless minority looked upon as the remnants of castaway colonials. The end of Subhas’s career on the other hand was remarkable; at the height of the communal frenzy, his INA swore by one India. Syed Mujtaba Ali writes in his essay, Netaji, given the communal frenzy raging back home could unite the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh under a single flag and to a common purpose. He coined the slogan Jai Hind, at a time when Muslims in India balked at Hindi and the Hindus resented Urdu, when the south Indians would shirk everything in the North Indian and North India grudge any form of South Indian dominance. Yet, young boys fled homes from Andhra and Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, smuggled in the luggage holes of ships to land in Singapore to join the INA. Indian rubber barons donated liberally to the INA knowing that they were seeking the alliance of the Japanese. Such magic only Subhas could pull through.

Gandhi made much of Subhas taking the help of the Axis Powers, but Gandhi who, being much read in Gita should have understood the words of Krishna, that anything is fair in war and that friends and enemies during a war are not made around ideals but for strategies. Subhas used the knife for surgery, Hitler used it to murder; it was the instrument that mattered to Bose, he was not worried about the uses the owner of the instrument put it to. He wanted the weapons for his own use to Free India, and the price he traded it with was to hand over the enemy’s enemy, the British in this case. In the sense of the Gita, Subhas was the more genuine Arjuna.

Subhas often spoke of dictatorship rather than democracy; were he to have his way in the Tripuri Congress of 1939 and were he to become the Prime Minister of India or were he to have genuinely invited Japan to invade India and drive the British out of it, what could have been the consequences? Perhaps disastrous, perhaps the Japanese would have meted the same cruelty towards India as they did in China and southeast Asia and for which both Togo and Tojo were tried and hanged by the International Court. And if by chance the British would be defeated, then India may have become a Japanese colony with unprecedented persecution of its people. Or the British could have left India sooner and India become independent right in the middle of the war. But one thing is clear, and which is that India’s Freedom would not have the slur of the subtitle of the Partition.

Bose’s vitality, his charisma, his passions would have become the point towards which the mob energies could have been directed, the singular goal of Freedom without the Congress’s Kalnemi like planning for the aftermath would have appealed to the gut of the people eager to repose their ideals on to something concrete. Freedom would then look like a fight, and not a series of negotiations. Freedom would be then everyone’s flesh and blood and not something they were led onto by priests of sovereignty. That would seem more like having an agency, a direct participation, a more complete exhaustion of energies, those which could then drive away the mind’s narrowness of communal competition and strife. And if India was to fall to war, then at least for the nation, the Hindus and Muslims would have fought together, shoulder to shoulder and would have a history that was neither that of the Hindus nor of the Muslims, but something they could have claimed together. Therefore, when there is a Hindu Muslim conflict, people want to believe that Subhas will come back.

Subhas Bose’s immortality must be seen in the light of his energy; a force that is likely to sweep the narrowness of language, culture, religion, and caste into the creation of one large army of devoted and dedicated soldiers for the attainment of goals, no matter how impossible and fantastical it looked. It defied the pragmatism of the Congress in making India work as a free country, it scorned Congress’s paternalism in making everyday life so smooth for the ordinary person that there was hardly a feeling of a rites de passage from colonialism to Freedom. Therefore, whenever humans want to rise above their own narrowness, aroused in a sense of heroic martyrdom, to become conscious of having broken away from something and resurrected into something new, Bose is remembered. If Indians nurture their desire that there was a great war that could have been fought by everyone on the same plane so that they could have memories to share and stories to tell, Subhas will not die for them. For this spirit of his have always created nations, the passions he stirred rather than ideals have made people overcome divisions among themselves, and hence Netaji make us seek salvation in our unity and not partitioned land in the name of our autonomy. If Indians would want to be all brothers and sisters, if Indians would look to have a tryst with destiny, if India would desire the magic of the Purna Swaraj, Indians will desire Bose to be alive. Hence, as Gandhi said, when he asked his family not to perform the death rites, that Subhas was not dead. Reason? According to none other than Gandhi, Subhas could not die.

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Resistance to Being Taught Parenting

One of my post retirement creative flings is a course for parents to raise topper kids. The purpose of this short training in two modules, the second one of which I don’t intend to start off in a hurry, is to make parents aware that they can, through some minor acts of attention, create a huge difference in the performances in the lives of their children as students. Interestingly, the idea was opposed with hostility among parents, student counsellors and the schoolteachers themselves.

Parents were angry at the suggestion of “being taught” on how to do the best for their children. The exercise that entailed them reading through the textbooks of their children were making them the angriest. Why should they d something that their children were supposed to do was the commonest refrain. Many asserted that they had nothing to do with their children’s studies and yet these are the very parents who would go a long way in procuring for the child what the rest of the course said, namely a comfortable study desk and a chair and a well-lighted and more importantly, a well-marked out study area. The other thing they balked at was to peg time slots and routines, and especially tasks like putting down on paper the list of tasks the child needed to jot down. The long and short of this is that while parents did not mind fulfilling those tasks against which they could spend money, they hated to engage in tasks that asked from them, their time, and mental engagements. They were not prepared to give their minds; no wonder then the quality of students despite the gargantuan marks they score is declining in India by the day despite an increase in expenses on education. Parents love to buy but not to give their bodies, minds and souls to the development of the child. This must be strange.

The child counsellors are expectedly offended for they feel that my training course gets in the way of their hold over both the child as well as the parent. Counsellors work on a single model, and which is the parent disciplining the child and the pressures thereof the child must bear. Counsellors aim at counselling parents to take off the pressure as if discipline is the only ingredient of parenting. Ask the orphan please, what she feels when there are no parents around, the overwhelming emotion is that of feeling all alone, abandoned, isolated. Parents are needed to make the child feel chaperoned for the world of study is a rather lonely space. While counselling the child, one often forgets one’s own childhood. Why is my child unruly? Why don’t you try and recall those times when you would be unruly? What made you behave that way when you did? The child who must negotiate through new stuff each day wading through arithmetic, biology and geography faces a harrowing time in these. Studying unfamiliar stuff makes you feel lonely; the children who do well seem to be privileged with some “company” in their studies. A significant percentage of children who fear science subjects usually have parents who never studied science; a child who fears the social studies may not have a parent from the subject or may have poor reading and writing habits and less command over language. The parent must chaperon the child into the weird woods of lessons; a child whose parents know how to speak the language of studies and who are more familiar with the subjects taught in school are likely to do better because they are less lonely since they feel that their parents can accompany them into the world of lessons. This simple fact of life and of growing up would never hit the counsellor because the counselling theories are constructed with a single reality in mind; the parents are trying to trouble the child; the counsellor comforts the child into fleeing from her reality. Its just fine if you don’t get 90 percent in class, so tells the counsellor to comfort the child. But does a poor percentage help the child get into college? I think not. It would be wonderful if the reality was more friendly to the less studious child but unfortunately it is most exacting and punishing. And since we don’t have our alternative modes of lives, we better adapt for, as all educators would know, the definition of intelligence is adaptation.

The third of the triad is the schoolteacher. She is the worst offender here for she tells in no uncertain terms that she hates single minded toppers and would rather have well developed and well-rounded personalities. Schools don’t maintain longitudinal data because were they to do so they would have discovered that one does nothing well unless one is single minded. There is indeed something to the toppers, they can attend tasks, complete these, work consistently at a task and most importantly can postpone instant gratifications. There is nothing more central to a student herself than her acceptance in the class and while this can happen for girls with exceptional talents, for those who are good in studies, such acceptance is easy. Toppers have a better time in class, are less bullied, less scolded, less scapegoated.

As the world demands more and more performance from students, where students with 97 percent may not even get admitted to college, schools have started to rather discourage high performances. This is more so in better off schools, in the sense in schools with richer kids. Here, education like every other thing that is paid for, and indeed higher the fees paid, more so this applies, that education is also to be consumed. Hence, schools should be made into a zone of enjoyment for the wholesome development of the personality. This is a very noble idea, and every society must follow this path but to imagine that the wholesome personality and academic performance are mutually exclusive is to pamper oneself with naivety. Mine is a U-shaped career curve, with a steep success in my early school days, followed by a trough in middle school and eventually a steep rise in the University. I distinctly noticed that those days I was comfortable in my skin about my studies, I also turned out to be a well-rounded personality.

Ever since consumerism has become our culture, education is struggling to be part of that consumerism. Frills like uniform, bags, tiffin boxes seem to take a greater meaning than books, pencils, sharpeners, erasers and so on. This is so even in the government run schools and while these are important, but they are now increasingly taking a turn towards becoming the center of focus. Those who manage education in these levels do not have the adequate brain width to manage both, the education, and its accessories, and because the set of accessories involves larger number of stimuli in the sense of higher tangibility of such stuff. Education, unfortunately which is intangible gets left out. The trouble with a consumerist culture and value for money culture is that education, which is the most intangible of all gets sharved off to the margins as schools offer a variety of activities such as dance, music, arts and so on. These are very important trainings to undergo and that their impact on personality of children cannot be understated; yet these alone are not sufficient to get a child through in life, unless they are exceptionally talented, and which makes the probability of success extremely rare. Schools are meant to study, and any development of the child can only be laid on the firm ground of studies. As said before, it is far easier to become a well-rounded personality if the child is well grounded in her studies.

Unfortunately, no school will ever sell these days if it says that it will promise fine grades to the child. In fact, getting good grades seems to be an anathema for schools as insisting on studies is looked upon as being backward, single minded non holistic narrow personalities. The focus on grades seems to have shifted to coaching classes and online tutorials because schools don’t think that grades matter. So not the best performing child in school but the best grader in the coaching classes get to colleges which don’t seem to be too inclined on wholesome personalities and holistic developments; instead focusses on grades, where only the 100 pointers seem to be assured of their admissions.

Schools bask on their abilities to provide the child a postponement into the world of adulthood and prolong the innocence of childhood. This is fantastic as an idea but not too helpful in a world where grades are the passport to the life out there and such few are issued at that too. Then the schools are riding an anomaly in the sense of promoting education which has few takers and forsaking such tasks of studies to coaching centres, the shameful entities that seeks performance out of students.

The trouble is that the consumerist templates of schools set the template for all schools and hence village schools or municipality schools also attempt pursuing extracurricular activities or else they lose enrolment to private schools and soon after, their posts of teachers. That is how, so many teaching jobs have been lost in villages and corporation or government aided schools.

While coaching institutes are mushrooming in every corner, schools those would teach the extracurricular activities are disappearing. It is not unusual to see the music, dance and art schools collapsing and even their online avatars are not picking up well. That their functions are now taken over by the schools themselves just as the education roles of the schools are now entrusted to the coaching classes is creating institutional reorganization in education with celebrities now adding value to schools in extracurricular activities, but the lesser mortals of coaching tutors are taking over education.

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Cafes Up My Street

There are two cafes up my street: one Barista and the other CCD. I used both for my meetings. If I had to sit quietly in a corner and record something in my voice recorder, I would choose the CCD because tucked away in a corner of a shopping patio, I would complete my tasks and order for a cappuccino to celebrate my hard work. Often there would be a garlic toast. But the Barista which had a wall of glass overlooking the street with trees that have grown old with the street and its houses, casting a canopy of shade in the summer forenoons would usually be the venue for meetings or to take a break from the household chores and answer those long calls of just chatting friends up. The Barista remains there still, having withstood the Covid shutdown, but the CCD is gone, given way to yet another upstart eating place where food prepared without grace costs nearly as much as three-fold the CCD prices. Surely, the place is mostly unoccupied. This is what development of cities do to us and the businesses all around.

As cities develop, rentals go up, shops those which sell cheap and in high volumes give way to shops with highly priced goods, lower footfalls and hence less staff. The worst hit are the medicine shops in our locality for they have disappeared giving way to designer bags and purses; these will scoot in a while too, giving way to even bigger brands with higher prices and even less footfalls. High rents increase the cost of holding stocks; hence stocks of essentials are replaced by stocks of those goods where the margins are higher, even if customers are less. Most medicine shops I visit these days, irrespective of whether it is Delhi or Calcutta, stocks seem to be always wanting. The margins and the customers must attain a magic number with the rent paid for the shop. Marketeers in pharmacy companies price their products in this way. Therefore, in the newly developed areas in terms of housing projects which are off the limits of the city, shops do better, and it is common to find franchisees or branches of the famous city shops doing brisk business in the peripheral townships. Not only the medicine shops but even stores that were more traditional like the Suruchi café, Dasa Prakash and others. It is common to see shops those were at the heart of the city move towards the newly developed suburbs pulled violently within the city limits.

Development in cities often suffocate the erstwhile localities and shift the focus outwards into what would for so long constitute the outskirts. The development of the Calcutta in the 1930’s saw the shift of influence from the heart of Bagh Bazaar and Bow Bazaar towards Ballygunje. The hub of influence from Bowbazaar which housed Raja Rammohan Roy, P.C Ray, Jagadish Bose, Satyen Bose and Michael Madhusudan Dutta and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay moved to Subhas Bose in Elgin Road, Naren Deb in Hindustan Park, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay near Deshapriya Park, Jatin Das in Southern Avenue. Satyajit Ray’s shift from Garpaar to central Kolkata and to Rajani Sen Road in his imagination is a sign how the development of cities bring about shifts in centres of influence and indeed of culture. The Bengali cultures of the northern hub of the city and those of Ballygunje are almost as different as chalk and cheese. The culture shifts also changed fortunes of the theatre, nature of goods circulating in shops, with a distinct fall in the standards of medical treatment and the scientific talents of the people. The scientific culture which includes a high level of political consciousness settled into a somewhat apolitical artistry, from the culture of producing economies and institutions to cultures which consumed what emerged out of the above mentioned.

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Bengal’s Vegetarianism

It seems from a piece published in the literary supplement of Ananda Bazar Patrika on the 3rd of October 2021 by Debashis Bhowmick that Bengal has traditionally and historically been a land of vegetarian food and it was not before the conquest of Bengal by Akbar in the 16th century that Bengalis started to eat fish. Bengalis started to eat meat only after the British were more entrenched in the 18th century. Why this was so is interesting because the land has known substantial migration from the rest of the country, namely Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka and even Tamil Nadu where non vegetarian food was common, so common that vegetarianism was a matter of caste, as in the Brahmins were vegetarians to mark themselves out as a distinct entity. Bengal’s vegetarianism may have been possible due to the abundance of vegetables, mainly the leafy ones as palong, beto, or betuya, kumro, lau, lal shaak and others amounting to fourteen in number were found in abundance, no wonder then 14 shaaks are part of the celebrations of the autumnal waning moondays. Ghee was the principal medium of cooking and a variety of rice filled in the plates of the Bong gourmet. Daals were plenty as well and potol, kumro and kachu were cooked enthusiastically. It appears that the Bengali chefs were much involved with the plentiful of ghee and vegetables to even miss non vegetarian food. Besides, cooking seems to be tied to religious rituals as well, where fish or meat are taboos. Special items on the menu especially those prepared as wedding feasts would be payesh and Sandesh. With the preponderance of ghee and milk, it seems that Aryanization had more to do with lactose than with animal protein.

But after the era of Sri Chaitanya, fish and mustard oil come in with a vengeance. While the spices were mainly jeerey and dhoney and ginger, now onions and garlics get aggressive as the major ingredients of non-vegetarian cooking. Ginger takes a backseat and turmeric moves in to fill in the space. Though we associate the onion and garlic with the Muslims, this may need a rethink because the Muslims had started to conquer Bengal since the 12th century, yet it was not until the invasion of Akbar that cuisine changed really. Three factors may have been responsible for Bengal’s change towards fish eating. These are as follows:

  1. The role of Nityananda, himself a meat eater and who expanded the Bengali culture towards the tribals trying to bring them into the fold of the mainstream. Fish may have emerged from them, though it is important to learn of their cooking medium.
  2. The advent of soldiers from Punjab and western UP with Akbar’s army who were fish eaters and cooked in mustard oil.
  3. The Portuguese who widened the Bengali palate with the introduction of the green pepper, potato and musurir daal, at last we know why it was called as non-vegetarian because it tasted best when cooked with mustard oil, the medium of cooking fish.

Muslims in Bengal also ate vegetarian food and later relished turtle eggs fried in ghee and not oil. It was only with the British that meat eating, especially in the form of the curry became popular.

Therefore, the quintessential cuisine of the Bengalis namely turmeric, mustard oil and fish were imports from lands outside of Bengal for historically Bengalis were ghee eating and milk drinking vegetarians. The crux of the influence of “non-Bengali” outsiders are thus most entrenched in what consists of essential Bengaliness.

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