Ashok Kumar Ganguly alias Kumud

Ashok Kumar’s biography has been much written. By Divine Grace the actor lived long and in full alertness of the mind and in good health and spoke freely to those who sought him out for interviews and a longer engagement. He has been an institution unto himself and has been almost intrinsically associated with Bombay Talkies. Yet, to understand Ashok Kumar, we pin him down to the song he sung both on screen as well as the playback in his first film, Jhoola, Ek Chatur Naar, the very same one that was remixed for the film Padosan releasing more than twenty years later and sung by Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar.

The song is interesting for here is a young man, who cleverly dresses himself up and cultivates seductive body language to attract women towards him. The young man is posing in front of the mirror, trying to anticipate which of his smiles, the bending of the neck and the arching of eyebrows and the flirtatious laughter in the eyes will get a girl in his snare is central to the image of Ashok Kumar and to the star of the Hindi film. We must understand that here is a medium that is prospecting the idea of the new individual, the individual having just been discovered through modernity, revved up with a set of human rights and charged with the modern institutions that guarantee her freedom against the archaic traditions. Such an individual is also the romantic in a Western sense, the notion of romantic love sits tight on some semblance of equality between the sexes. Hence, for the image of the romantic hero, masculinity must be compromised and this, the image of Ashok Kumar is trying to convey, eager to appease a woman, eager to seem attractive to the feminine gender and a lot of effeminising, therefore.

We now move back to Ashok Kumar’s social background and we find here a combination of many forces. His paternal side descends from the infamous Raghu Dakaat, his mother is a descendant of Raja Shibchandra Banerjee of Bhagalpur and he married a direct descendant of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. The story goes that once Raghu Dakaat, in order to evade his arrest disguised as a Brahmin priest of a temple and the British police did not touch the elderly holy man. Thereafter Raghu Dakaat, who was a Robinhood like character, robbing the rich to protect the poor left his profession and became a priest in real life. Though one does not know the background of this brigand, one may safely assume that he may have been a low caste, who on account of his money and good will becomes a Brahmin through upward social mobility and their caste is known as the Amathe Brahmins. Anyway, Ashok Kumar’s father moves into Bhagalpur and marries his mother, the granddaughter of Raja Shibchandra Banerjee. We learn that Shibchandra and Bankim Chandra both jointly held the first position in Calcutta University law examination and both were offered jobs of the Deputy Magistrates by the British. While Bankim Chandra took up the employment, Shibchandra set up his private practice and earned a whopping sum of Rs 40 lakhs in 12 years and with this sum of money he laid out public parks and gardens and buildings and earned for himself the title of Raja. He entertained British guests lavishly and was seized with the strong desire to convert to Christianity, which somehow, he could not bring himself to do. In his advanced years, he developed senility and soon died. Ashok Kumar marries the granddaughter of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. Ashok Kumar’s education was almost wholly overseen by his erudite mother, Gouridebi, who taught him Chaucer and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Among the three, Ashok Kumar’s father’s family was economically the most modest and it was thus important that he, being the oldest of the three brothers and a sister settle down as the next earning member of the family. Therefore, when he joined the films, it was indeed a risk. But in this he was encouraged by Sasadhar Mukherjee, his sister’s husband who was in employment of Bombay Talkies. Bombay Talkies was founded by Himanshu Rai in which Sasadhar Mukherjee was a partner. Himangshu Rai belonged to an aristocratic Bengali family, who studied in Santiniketan and then read law at Kolkata and established his practice in London. Here, he used his money to produce Indian films like Light of Asia and others. He met, love and married Devika Rani, grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who was a textile designer with her own assignments in London and together they moved to Bombay and set up the Bombay Talkies. Here, he met Sasadhar Mukherjee and Gyan Mukherjee, both of who were brilliant physicists in the making and studied under Meghnad Saha. Their acumen in physics helped develop the craft of cinematography. Himangshu had brought with him, his friend, Niranjan Pal, the son of Bipin Chandra Pal from London into Bombay to be a partner for his venture in the film studio. We see an interesting sociological profile of the Bombay Talkies; it is set up by Bengalis living away from Bengal, or better called as pravasis. We have Niranjan Pal with high political connections, Himangshu Rai with a moneyed background but also a professional, middle class scientist in Sasadhar and Gyan Mukherjee, partly middle-class background of Ashok Kumar and partly an enormously upwardly mobile maternal family of Shibchandra Banerjee. It is interesting that while an entirely Bengali enterprise, the studio did not have any Bengali from Bengal, except later by way of Amiya Chakravarty and Nitin Bose. The class ensemble of the film industry was thus a mixture of the aristocratic and the professional. But these being Bengali, combined the intellectual riches of the Bengali culture and the cosmopolitanism of the wider country and fused into products that constituted a class apart.

Ashok Kumar’s family settled in Bhopal was furiously anti communal and in their public life, they strove for communal harmony. Much of Ashok Kumar’s portrayal of masculinity was one of a comely man, eager to please women and with soft sentiments and misty emotions, a complete contradiction to the murderous masculinity of the communal being. But besides ideology, the other thing at work was to learn the art and the craft of the new medium, the cinema and to fully gain handle on its new and emergent technology. In other words, the pursuit of ideology and technology went hand in hand, complementarily to each other. Bombay Talkies had a galaxy of film makers from Europe, the most famous of them being perhaps Frantz Osten, from Germany.

Ashok Kumar is very sensitive to Gandhian ideology of communal harmony than he is towards Freedom. For the star, patriotism meant communal harmony and Freedom would be a by-product. Sadat Manto, Mehboob Khan, Dilip Kumar and Kidar Sharma are the young brigade for whom a free India is a land of liberal and secular institutions protecting individual rights and freedom. What does not worry him are international affairs of fascism, socialism or even the War or the Bengal Famine and strangely, not even the Partition of the country. Intrigued by a total absence of any mention of the Partition especially as K A Abbas and Sadat Manto both of who write such ferocious critique of the cruel consummation of communal politics in their essays are surprisingly silent about the matter on screen.

I have wondered why this should be the case?  I agree that a few studios may not agree to depict the pains of the Partition, but one wonders why overall, an entire film industry refused to touch the subject even with a barge pole? The answer may perhaps lie that the cinema by and large has oriented itself towards the discovery of a fulfilled individual and communal politics which is about the alienated and anomie individual may not find a place in the scheme of things.

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The Sister and Her Brother

This is the story of the sister and her brother, both superstars, one the highest awardee in India and the other of Pakistan. The sister is known as Lata Mangeshkar and her brother, though born as Yousuf Khan is better called Dilip Kumar. This story is of two Indias, two social classes, two kinds of geniuses, one supporting the other as siblings growing up together and responsible towards the same family. They bonded by rakhi, a ceremony that creates families where blood always does not flow. This piece is the story of such a family of the sister and her brother.

The sister, Lata Mangeshkar is born utterly middle class to one Dinanath Mangeshkar, who is a talented singer, composer and lyricist and has put together his music company called the Balwant Music Company. This is a travelling company, singing songs to audiences, supported in his endeavours mostly through princely patronage. Dinanath died in 1942 and Lata Mangeshkar, all only 13 years of age became the patriarch and breadwinner of the family. The age of 13 is fortuitous for both Babar and Akbar became the rulers of their kingdom at the age of 13. While reading Harish Bhimani’s rather untidily written account of Lata Mangeshkar, I understand that Lata’s father was undergoing an enormous mental strain. The overflying bombing aircrafts used to disturb and distress him especially as the family was used to sleeping in the open terrace in summers and with the war on, they were huddled in clammy rooms. This was very stressful since he felt constrained and claustrophobic of forcibly having to take cover of cramped walls and low ceilings.  The gathering momentum towards Independence after the Government of India Act in 1937 in which his patrons, namely the princely states were on the anvil of dissolution also disturbed him. The middle class means that families live off current incomes without a pile of family wealth accumulated over generations to fall back upon; it becomes difficult to withstand existential challenge to that source of wealth.

We now turn to Dilip Kumar, as he is yet Yousuf Khan. He too witnesses the rise of communal politics; he too witnesses terror in the form of the British military on a spree of killing innocent Pashtun tribals. As the War breaks out his family moves out of Peshwar into Bombay. While Lata’s family has travelled widely in Maharashtra and Goa, Dilip Kumar spent the best days of his life in Deolali, a military town in Maharashtra and his later illustrious days in Bombay. But Dilip Kumar’s family remains staid in the face of threats to their property and livelihood, precisely coming from an upper class of fruit merchants, they have accumulated wealth which can cushion the present generation and perhaps even beyond. However, Dilip Kumar too is the breadwinner of his family, not because he had to but because he earned the most and hence raised the standards of living to a higher level. Principally, Lata should have had a better time since she was not a minority community while Dilip Kumar should have felt more insecure with the two-nation theory. But it is he who remains unfazed while it is Lata’s family which is rattled.

Dilip Kumar’s higher social class helps him to remain above the communal frenzy, but Lata suffers an exposure to the world of work and this makes her, as yet a teenager somewhat fearful and jumpy. As Dilip Kumar constantly opens himself out into the world, he being a male helped as well, Lata, being a girl cocoons herself up, draping herself ever tightly in a sari, careful to wear mainly white lest any hint of colour may fetch unwarranted attraction. Dilip Kumar grows as an institution, Lata revels as a professional.

The circumstances of employment of the two are also interesting. Dilip Kumar is employed with Bombay Talkies, a corporate body while Lata is hired as a playback. The film industry is still more or less organized into studios, which are corporations in charge of film production, direction, script writing and music composition and here actors are hired as salaried personnel. Lata Mangeshkar comes into playback, a branch that was perhaps the first one to enjoy the technology breakthrough in form of the record, recording and playback independent of the actor. Lata joined films as an actor because she was needed to sing but soon enough, she was freed from her ordeal before the screen and concentrated wholly on being behind the heavy glass walls of the recording room. Dilip Kumar’s career moves are about him absorbing the various aspects of film making and into becoming an institution even when the studio system falls, and individual production houses take shape with hired free lance artists. Dilip Kumar tries to imbibe more and more with variations in characters and stories. Lata intensifies here; she is withdrawn and avoids socially mingling with the world she professionally inheres. Unlike Dilip Kumar, whose private world and the professional life fulfils each other, for Lata these are hermetically separated, as if one would corrupt the other. It is interesting to note that while Dilip Kumar was a Gandhian, having also been in jail for Gandhian speeches during the Quit India Movement, Lata’s family were devoted to Veer Savarkar.

The different political affiliations appear to be matters of two distinct social classes and their respective vulnerability to and the immunity to the vagaries of the working world. While Lata is vulnerable, Dilip Kumar is immune. The nature of danger is to the body; Lata is vulnerable to possible attacks on the female body in local trains, to untoward advances from male colleagues and so on. Dilip Kumar is much safer, his social class, his masculine gender, his family of surviving male members and the state of his employment as a salaried star gives him a sense of trust towards the world.

Dilip Kumar plays the role of a hero, he is morally upright and a pacifist. His heroism lies in self-abnegation. He sacrifices his interests to the larger status quo of the world, Devdas being central to his stardom. Andaz, Ganga Jumna, Bairag and even Naya Daur in which he does enters into a conflict with the forces of mechanisation. He is visible and he, is his image. Lata is in fact never really seen; she is heard and if seen, then we see her through other bodies. Lata’s invisibility, her lack of footprint in the visible sphere, her staid persona, reclused existence are galvanized and expressed on screen in which she must generate what the cinematic music must always do, movement. Her songs generate huge movements, sometimes through the song and dance with vigorous movement and sometimes with only emotions which can shake up the frames of the cinema. I find it so interesting that she has her sari around her shoulders, her hair oiled and braided, demeanour so girlish and as she has always been warned by her younger brother that her face must never bear any expression of the songs she sings, Lata is a complete anomaly in what she does, namely produce the erotic. Lata’s superstardom is her erotica and the reason for the erotic is the wide range and exhaustive movements she can bring into the screen. The erotic is the movement that it generates, a superstar is one who can engender very wide range of movement. Lata is a genuine superstar because she can generate movements which seems to exhaust the filmic space.

I can literally see the movements when I hear Bindiya Chamkegi, or Kaanta Laaga or Jai Jai Shiva Shankar, I can see the heroines dancing filling up the entire visual space of the frame. When I listen to Banake Kyun Bigaara Re or Naam Ghum Jayega,  I can sense the emotions of the protagonist searing through the film discourse. The voice brings about a movement that breaks the very limits defining the space and this breaking out of the limits is erotic. Lata Mangeshkar is perhaps a greater hope in our times than Dilip Kumar is. Ours is a time of fascism, Lata truly fits into a fascist social strata, conservative, apprehensive, jealous of her boundaries in life, careful never to really transgress of her limits, but here she is with unbounded ambition and unparalleled talent and all of this manifests in the expression of the erotic. Lata’s superstardom is thus her expression of the erotic essence within the notation of the song; this she catches very fast and deftly. No wonder she is so confident that while there are many who can imitate her, there are none who can really sing like her, because the erotica is her trade secret, somehow none have been able to discover what is it about Lata that no one quite has.

Asha Bhonsle has a sexy voice and that’s what everyone speaks of her. But Asha’s voice expresses desire, desire seems to be contained within the voice. Lata’s voice invokes desire in the other. Asha still dresses up, is much married and with children. Lata is careful to deflect attraction away from her person because she invokes strong sexual desire in the other towards the singing voice. If she sings for films, we have the heroine on screen to take in the onslaught of admiration. Lata’s break was Ayega Anewala in Mahal, the haunting allure calculated to attract and this magnetism in expression rather than the voice that has made what Lata is today. Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar are siblings through rakhi; it had to be because Dilip Kumar is one who everyone wants to attract and Lata’s voice is one which can surely attract. It was better for Lata to tie a rakhi lest passions spill out professionally.

It is interesting that we look at the production as well as the power of erotica in the rise of the individualism. Professionalism too is individualism. The individual as a moral agent is still not as alienated as the professional person. The moral agent commands capital; the professional individual is alienated. She is left with the task of moving remotely, affecting things which she does not command. Unlike the moral agent, the professional individual must create her impact on objects which do not belong to her, the only bond between her and the object seems to lie in the attraction which she develops towards something that does not belong to her. Affection, the way Saratchandra looks at passion, too are emotions that belong to this category of remoteness between the subject and her object of operation, whether that is a human, or an animal, or the nation or for that matter, the machine. Eroticism is a separation, alienation where the isolated human’s only bond is to seek beyond into entities over which she has no ownership. I think that moral agency alone cannot produce the erotica that the alienated professional individual can.

What do we see in our times? The alienation yes, but the rise of fascism which is anti-erotic. Few of us note that the rise of fascism is the collapse of the power of the professions. This is bound to happen in times of the stagnation of technology and the rise of the mega capital. With stagnating technology and lowered barriers to entry, predatory capitalism kicks in to resume control of the sundry and petty entrepreneurs. When all can produce the same stuff through technology which is accessible to all, the big players with more money power can gobble up the sundry entities. The power of the professional declines yielding way to the manager. The manager must be an odd identity for she controls capital without commanding it, she manages the professional without knowing her craft or art. She is thus an impersonator of a moral agent, devoid of her agency in the erotic economy. The falsehood of such an entity is the perfect trap for the fascist self.

Just as the relief from fascism lies in the emergence of new knowledge, whether in industry, or in biospace, or in the forms of governments and politics, we need new knowledge to once again move on to the technology growth curve and hence to new activities. Then we will have the new professional, new knowledge, and again the new individual who wants to move matter in a new way; then we have the renewed desire for the erotic.

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Mystery of the Dipping Auto Sales

Most of us, who have been born well and belonged to well endowed families often look upon the consumption of stuff by the less endowed as being aspirational. We imagine that they are imitating us when they buy their refrigerators or an automobile. Little that we understand that as more and more people improve their incomes, they get into the same income class as ours they develop similar needs. Hence the automobile was a need of a middle class lifestyle as well as livelihood needs for most people who get into the middle class. This means that it has little to do with aspirations. But an expansion in the middle class means that the cities are more populated, land prices being on the rise, the city limits spread out into suburbs and distances stretch between anywhere to anywhere. With overcrowded buses and heavy traffic, it makes sense to use the car if only for anything then at least to get less sweat and have your clothes crushed by the crowd in public transport. The expansion in affluence intensifies car ownership in the city. Since the development of infrastructure needs huge fixed capital, the rate of growth in investments in infrastructure comes much slowly than the rise in personal incomes. Hence, compared to the investments into the development of roads and housing, the need for these increase much faster causing land prices to increase and roads not to increase faster than the number of cars driving on them. Traffic jams are the measures of the discrepancies between investments into infrastructure and the speed of growth of middle-class incomes. Traffic jam is the sign of rapid economic growth of personal incomes. As incomes grow, one may expect that the ownership of cars will continue to grow; unfortunately, the drop-in car sales has come as an unexpected shock.

It is not only the drop in the sale of cars but the closure of one car factory after the other and millions of retrenched workers on the streets that has created a panic among Indians by which we are to revisit our data; is the Indian economy growing after all? Were the growth percentages a lie? Did not personal incomes increase? Then why is the hunky-dory story not reflected in the sale of cars? Let us not get into the controversy of the growth figures; let us assume that growth happens, and personal incomes keep rising and yet, contrary to all expectations, auto sales drop. Why is this so?

Here we may think of the famous S curve in demand. The S curve signifies that when consumption levels of durable items are low when incomes are low and may take income levels to rise to some respectable threshold for households to accumulate some savings or creditworthiness. At very low levels incomes may have to rise for quite a while before consumption of durables begin. As household incomes reach certain levels in which savings start accumulating to at least a third of total incomes consumption of durables start increasing very fast. In fact, consumption rises ahead of incomes, loans are used to close income and consumption gaps and future incomes are used to calculate creditworthiness for issue of loans. However, in the upper reaches of incomes, incomes rise faster and most stuff which are to be bought have been done and households taper off their needs for consumption. Consumption falls below incomes.

In case of the dropping automobile sales, there are two possibilities. One, personal incomes have risen so much that the desire or even the requirement for owning a car has dropped as households can afford to rent car and driver services. For middle income households, if the promise of future incomes disappears, credit worthiness of households drops as well, and financing of consumption becomes difficult. In case of India’s automobile sector, both forces have played out at the same time. While increase in incomes have shifted the preference towards hired cars, the middle class having lost the certainty of future incomes have settled for the Uber system.

The middle class buys a car for keeps, especially if this is for purposes of aspirations. The usual metaphors of a girlfriend, child, pet and friend or even a family deity is rested upon the automobile. Ritwik Ghatak’s movie, Ajantrik which speaks of a car which is almost human. The attachment of the human to the automobile is so sentimental that Ajantrik takes on the pathos of Saratchandra’s story, Mahesh which depicts the love between a buffalo and his owner. When the government passes the law that no car will be allowed to ply the roads after the 15th year of age it offends the sentiments of car owners. People pride in their first car which they often keep for years and even across generations. Setting a limit to the life of a car is therefore to offend a primary reason for owning a car, namely pride and emotions of the owner to the car. Indians go a lot by sentiments, to impose the impersonality of consumerism on a civilization that basically likes only simple living is to greatly misunderstand and undermine it. Economies do not run counter to civilizations.

Development has cut off points; actually, much of Indian politics is against development and not in favour of it. Narendra Modi has not come on a mandate for development; he has come on a mandate for not developing. Development means changing landscapes and cityscapes and apart from the annoyance caused by dug up roads and piled up gravel and concrete, development is a health hazard with broken thoroughfare, water logging, epidemic of dengue, choking due to pollution and others. Development changes the contours of the spaces and it is not merely the skyline

Development changes the demographics of spaces, the more successful migrant pushing out the native from the land. Along with spaces, time changes too as commuting takes more time. For a while, people adapt to changes in spaces and time through aspirations like buying apartments and cars; later then somehow give up being on the bus by reverting to rental properties and hired cars. Indeed, a downward slide in the expectations of future earnings have a lot to do with it and perhaps this diminishing prospect of earning well right into the future takes the mind off aspirations, settling down for minimalism instead in the form of occupation and use rather than ownership. In other words, if the economy does not own its people, people will also start not owning the economy and the present-day economic recession is nothing but the mutual disowning by the economy and its people of each other. The dip in automobile sales is a manifestation of this mistrust.

There is traffic on the roads and the surface is not in the best of conditions. Driving is more pain than pleasure. Besides, the time consumed in commuting is too long to be away from the WhatsApp and messengers. Drivers mean enormous expenses, drivers also mean having to carry a passenger in your life, salaries, wellbeing, anxiety over absence from duties and other human resources related problems do not augur well for the employers, the car owners in this case. Hired cars address and resolve the problem of time consumed in commuting far better than hiring a driver.

The rise of the police as a draconian force on the streets works as a deterrent in wanting to drive a car. It is much worse if it is a two-wheeler. Driving your own vehicle exposes you to an oppressive state and blood sucking rules. Who wants to have a car when you have an Uber? Then there are ever changing rules around the vehicles, pollution rules, rules of checking the CNG tanks, rules around insurance and driving licenses and so on. Then rules change around emission norms making it necessary for you to buy a new car every five years. Fuel prices are a concern as well, not so much the prices but the constant change in the prices towards a limitless sky is too unsettling for the users. Hence the Uber.

Have we realised that with changing income patterns, our time and space use has changed too? There are very few of us who need to attend regular office and for the one-off day that we go for a meeting in different locations, we don’t really need to invest in a car and a driver.

City spaces are cramped up and with vehicles jamming up the streets, parking is an issue. Parking is stressful, eventful and conflict ridden and no sooner do these invoke the most terrible killer instincts pertaining to the riot. If you have a car, you are at risk of entering a zone of social conflict. If you don’t, you are mentally freer. There is anxiety associated with owning a car; until and unless the rest of the anxieties like the prospects of income are settled in, one does not really have the mind space or the mood to take in more anxieties.

The discourses around the electric vehicle have played their role in the dipping auto sales as well. We arrive at Joseph Schumpeter now where all the principles of Alfred Marshall which assume technology as the given T begins to vary with a variance in technology. As technology stagnates, Schumpeter says that both profits as well as prices of products drop and not until the new technology rises again on the horizon do returns on investments and willingness of consumers to pay rise again. The present-day cars run on fossil fuels may well signify the ultimate stagnation of technology and it is possible that consumers are waiting for the electric vehicles to come and are shelving their purchases.

There should be a shift towards the hired car and now more people would buy hired cars. But hired cars which can serve about twenty passengers a day will represent only a twentieth of the passenger cars and will not constitute the whole volume of purchases. Besides, as people do not go to work everyday these days, the use of car by individuals is likely to go down even further.

The drop in the sales of automobiles is therefore a coming together of various forces, primary among these being the growing income inequality where growth of income in some segments and the non-growth of money to the commensurate level in the others have both contributed to the deceleration of auto purchases. The story of dipping sales is also a story of human annoyance with what we call as development, the irritation with too much population a la, the attitude of the police, the over enthusiasm of end of life declarations around cars and far too many rules over the use of cars for owners to follow. The fiasco in the auto sector is one of the paradox of development, a sign that the human does not always respond well to the purported limitless growth.

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Sociology of Winning Societies, Losing Societies

I am visiting Chennai with mother in what is likely to become an annual affair from now on. My cousin and her family are dedicated doctors to say the least, fantastic in diagnosis and peerless in commitments to patients. Besides, this is always an occasion to reconnect with family. I have an irrational faith and which is that I will always come back from Chennai with good news. And I always do. But the experience in Chennai is what a visit is worth for.

Chennai has been the hotbed for Tamil chauvinism when way back in the 1970s. I knew of it when the television first came to India and Tamilians refused to allow the telecast of Hindi programmes. Not only was news not read in Hindi but the so-called Hindi news was banned too. This means that news from the Hindi heartland did not reach the Tamilian ears. So deep was the Tamil chauvinism that the rest of India did not come into their reckoning. This was backed by the domicile issues when non Tamilians were restricted from college and school admissions. At the time of Independence Tamilians in Chennai could understand English but with the language chauvinism from the 1980s even that most could no longer follow. In what was to become a cesspool of regionalism and frog in the well syndrome, Chennai became quite the contrary, namely cosmpoliton. What made it so?

Fortuitously in the late 1970’s and the early 1980s there emerged in Chennai three very bright and exceptionally talented doctors who stayed on in the city instead of heading offshore. Among them and drawing up on the Brahmin funds they built hospitals of excellence. These hospitals started bringing patients from all over India. If you could not afford a treatment abroad then you could come down to Chennai. Like a pilgrim town, Chennai became the medical pilgrimage and the usual adjunct businesses like hotels, restaurants and transport emerged. Chennai remained a linguistic chauvinist.

The transport lines were developed with trains, road networks and air connections, the Chennai port awoke to new opportunities to connect with the hinterland. Slowly by the late 1990s Chennai graduated from a sleepy port to one teeming with cargo. Indeed when opportunities rose post economic liberalisation from a busy commerce from Southeast Asia, Chennai and not Vizag could make hay. Again, the city remained wholly enwrapped in Tamil.
Chennai never became cosmopolitan. Here people seemed to have forgotten even the little smather of English their grandparents spoke.

Tamilians started off with one great advantage because here, at the head of the Tamil identity formation was the Dravida movement and not Ambedkar. In fact, despite the deepest caste troubles, the severest caste based social disenfranchisements, Tamil Nadu was veered by Dravida politics by which all castes now became more or less aligned to the Brahminic customs in worship. The ethos that alignment to Brahminism did was to bring within the lower castes, a culture that the social leaders had. While Ambedkar would have taught them to valorise victimhood, Periyar taught them self-respect. While Tamil Nadu fought for reservations just like so many other states, yet, they never compromised on self-respect, something that the Periyar taught. Hence when the medical facilities started and which needed very high professional commitments not only from the doctors but the huge variety of the adjunct staff, Chennai could create a hospital system comparable with the very best anywhere in the world. Soon, the Dravida stalwarts especially the film stars invested heavily into the hospital business and Chennai developed a formidable healthcare infrastructure. This is Chennai’s core business.

Health business being the central business of the city, it created a veneer of ethos in the wider society which were like those of the hospital ethics. Everyone seems as if to be working on a protocol. So even if you did not know the language, you could use certain keywords and find your way across the city. Since people are so conscious of their duty and what constitutes their duties, they respond very well to indicative words. You can go to a counter of a clinic and all you have to say is the name of the patient and report, even better if you could use the Tamilian accent with an emphasis on the last letter. The person in the counter would immediately know what it is about. You could take an auto, better still use the Tamilian accent and say the name of the place. Even when he does not know, he will converse with you with the names of many possible landmarks. This happens because he knows the protocol. The high work culture of Tamil Nadu has now got almost all Japanese and European companies locate their businesses out of Chennai and larger Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil language is helpful too. With its emphasis on words and verbs, it has an innately designed focus on the problem at hand. Unlike Bengali, it is not ruminative, or has not been cultured to be so ruminative and reflective. The Tamil language may not always been spoken like this; they have had days of romantic literature too. But now they excel in comedy; the emphasis on verbs and adverbs at the end of sentences perhaps helps them. But Tamil it is all the way. Food too is almost wholly Tamilian, fashion largely so, shops sell mostly Tamilian wares. The shops are owned by Tamilians, so is most of the property. Not the NRI fellows of IT but by the real Dravidas, film producers, shipping magnets, transporters and so. Brahmins remain, some salaried, some professional, some propertied and moneyed. Before Independence Brahmins were rioted out of Tamil Nadu and they came in droves to settle into Calcutta, much of south Calcutta was haven for the Iyengars and Murthys, Swaminathans and Iyers. Much like the Bengali Hindus from East Bengal and the Kashmiri Pandits. But unlike them, these Tamil Brahmin refugees did not make an issue of their displacement and hence their claiming back of their homeland never entered into the politics of Tamil Nadu. Tamilians who stayed back never entertained such sentiments.

Tamil Brahmins were now a minority in their own land and had no ritual statuses in the state. But what they lost in terms of social status they made up wholly with their secular knowledge and talent. The non-Brahmins whole heartedly accepted the knowledge and the Brahminical supremacy in it and the Brahmins too contributed generously. This is unlike in Bengal where the lower classes resents the knowledge of the upper classes; the tirade against Tagore that springs up occasionally is an ample proof of this. The clinics carry on with streams of patients from all across the country descending on an American franchisee for the scan to a wholly Tamil staff. But there is no screaming, no shouting; and the atmosphere is one of assurance, confidence, of focus and hence of calm. No one is excited, no one seems to go out of control. Everyone knows his or her job, knows exactly what is to be done. There are only encouraging and welcoming voices, Amma, Appa, come,,ah, slowuulihha…


Till 2005, when I was 45 years of age, I must admit that I had no idea of what Kashmir was except for some vague idea about its special status as one reads in the Civics books in school leaving standards. But it was just then that my father wrote a book on Kashmir and I proof read the matter before it went to press. Hence I gathered some wisdom from my father’s book on the state. Though I never pursued Kashmir in any seriousness yet I got some framework to be able to set to a schema the affairs in Kashmir. I felt enraged at the presence of the military in the state and wrote often to various authorities about making the entire patrolling army to be replaced by women; patrolling does not need men and an all-woman army may land softly on the state if the baton is to be wielded. That was about all. But soon enough I met some scholars from Kashmir and some Kashmiri Pandits too as my interns. It was then that I realized that the problem of Kashmir was more a matter of a social malaise before it was a political one. Kashmiris simply never knew what they were all about. I am not clear what they want.

The Kashmiris have been more eager to prove a point against one another. They all want to be leaders and since they were not very clear about what they were gunning for, they had factions and multiple parties and could never unite under one leader. Becoming free is a social and a historical affair, having a political seat is an entirely different game. All Kashmiris wanted is political power without securing their Independence from India, if that is what they finally wanted. There were multiple parties each wanting to rule, but none whatsoever who could achieve what they said they wanted. Actually Kashmir could never decide what it wanted.

Kashmir went with India because Pakistan was attacking it; India saved it but annexed the land as well. Kashmir was stunned because all it wanted India to do was to save it from Pakistan but India was greedier and hungry for the land. In 1971 when India stood for the Independence of Bangladesh, Kashmiris barely raised their voices. Actually they were never quite sure of what they wanted. I don’t think that they were very sure about their autonomy as well; if they were about Azad Kashmir they would have made it a point to get it. Kashmir lacked not only political but social, intellectual and above all moral leadership. Above all, though they spoke of Kashmiriyat, we barely know what it is all about. Soon, their weakness turned towards Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist jihadis got the better of the youth. I am not concerned about what India did.

I have read many books on Kashmir which almost veers towards a support for full Independence for both the Kashmirs. But all of these are written by non-Kashmiris and coincidentally almost always from the south. Where are the Kashmiri scholars? What kind of concern do they reflect in their PhD theses? I don’t think that we have anything of clarity.

The little that I get to learn about the Kashmiri psyche is from the shawlwallahs and the scholars who I meet. Were the politics of Kashmir left to be handled by shawlwallahs the state would have done better. Atleast they know what they want; they want to remain Kashmiris, a Kashmiriyat which is a simple enough life of community and belief and yet they want to be cosmopolitan because of their business. They want the freedom of movement. The Kashmiri elite want the goodies of life and are never sure how they could produce these through entrepreneurship, which is ownership of capital. Had they known how to own capital, they would have demanded autonomy. But they did not do so. Instead, in order to have a middle class life with universal aspirations of owning a car and a flat, branded goods from shopping malls, the elites have jostled for stuff that falls to them as the end products of capitalist system like goods and wages with which to buy those goods. The Article 370 was just an ego satisfaction; we are like everyone else but we are different because we are Kashmiris. Yes, but as Kashmiris what do you bring to the table? Why should I laud you just because you are a Kashmiri? What for? Somehow, Kashmir could never provide this answer in its own words.

The Kashmiri Pandit is of course the malignant cell in the body politik. They raised their statistics of displacement to ever increasing heights with the passage of time. They took the fullest advantage of the fact that beneath the veneer of the unity in diversity, India was a communally divided country. They hated Nehru and the dynasty because despite being Kashmiri Pandits themselves they showed no favour to their ilk. The Pandits were distressed because due to rising democracy, the Muslims in their own land, Kashmir were now so confident and hence, in their terms, defiant. Of course Muslim defiance is a story that runs throughout India and the Kashmiri Pandit fanned the fire in the minds of Hindus of India. Democracy has the fine effect of creating a sub stratum of middle class, known as the lower middle class, a middle class in terms of income and consumption but without the historical consciousness of agency. Such a lower middle class breeds sentiments and emotions around identities, victimhood, paranoia and weaves stories of conspiracies in which they lose land, honour, women and opportunities to the nearest neighbour of the most aggregateable difference, Muslims in case of India.

I think that the entire politics of the right wing is built around the pain of the Kashmiri Pandits just as the entire left politics has been around the displaced Hindus from East Pakistan. The danger that Bengal faces in its path towards becoming Kashmir is precisely this and the presence of a sour, defeated and defeatist group of Hindus who even after 70 years have not been able to mould their lives satisfactorily. For long the left politics articulated their angst and implemented their status quoism, hating success, hating achievements, hating progress and raising all of the above into the grand politics of 34 years of unchanging Bengal. The defeatist sentiments became the brunt of literature and poetry; angst and resentment as if the world owes me a living. Forget it, no one owes anything to you at all. But so powerful was the culture of complaint that it created class enemies of people who were the erstwhile elites; shorn of confidence and of course stunned out of their own reflections, and also systematically driven out of institutions where all appointments went to the weepers, Bengal lost the steam for thinking like a leader. There was a rush to occupy positions among the elites and the larger number of the substratum made it sure that the game was designed as per their rules, rules which unfortunately were to produce standards that did not take into account innovations. Innovation, being a kind of thought was neither encouraged socially nor promoted politically. Those who cannot think innovatively cannot command their lives, they cannot imagine a future; they fall to what is given to them, let others run their lives for them. Just as the Kashmiris did. Just as Bengal seems to be doing as well.

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Kashi Viswanath

It was getting a bit too much that Madhusree was yet to see the Viswanath Temple of Benaras. So, braving the hot and humid weather, we set afoot in the city, booked a day taxi travelled across its lanes and made a visit to the temple just as it opened for the devotees to pour yet another bout of water on the Lord’s head. We were sweating buckets, so was our driver and the heat made him so irritable that he drove the guide out of our way, leaving us to make sense of the relics all by ourselves.

I realized, especially after reading B.C.Bhattacharjee’s book, Sarnath published by the Pilgrim’s Press in 1942, that essentially Sarnath is the ancient city upon which the city of Kashi came up only in the early medieval era. Sarnath was originally called as Mrigadaya, renamed as Sarnath during the medieval era after a yogi turned minor God, called Saranginath; possibly because he played the sarangi. This was the place where Buddha first became a religious leader and a small sangha was formed with five disciples among who one was named Bappa. Since this name is very common among Rajasthanis of the time, it is possible that he was a Rajasthani; of the rest, one sounded a Sinhala, but the rest were Sikkimese or Tibetans. Interestingly, one wonders that during the time of Buddha, what were so many ethnicities doing in India? I read in Niharranjan Ray, that after the Aryans, the next stream of migration, and indeed a heavy were the Sino Mongolian races, and this may have had something to do with those who gathered around Buddha as he preached peace.

Buddha is clearly against the Vedic Hinduism of the Aryans that involved sacrifices and war. He seems to belong to a culture that belonged to India before the Aryans came in, invaded or migrated, or just flowed in, whatever and had a lot also to do with the fire, were essentially violent people. And these kings also hunted a lot and such a lot that they killed the innocent as well as the intended prey. The Ramayana too started with the killing of an innocent boy by King Dasarath who came on a deer hunt. The great epic, for all practical purposes ended with a deer too when Sita made Ram run after an exquisite looking golden foal. Mrigadaya suggests that the place originally was a land grant to the deer, which means a protected forest. Buddhists who do not believe in killing life and did not know yet that plants had life too, were ones to protect and nurture forests.

The layout of the monasteries at Sarnath are so like the construction and architecture of the Buddhist monasteries and temple of Thailand and burnt brick is the material. The burnt brick was the foundation of the Indus Valley civilization, it has braced the Buddhist sites of Sarnath and the temples of Thailand, it has been found in many sites of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The pieces of architecture added during the Gupta period were stone works. Would that mean there is a connection between the burnt brick economy and Buddhism? What could that be?

We visited three temples of the Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan; architecturally these followed the architecture of the different cultures. But most interesting were the icons; for the Japanese, it is a Buddha lying on his side, emaciated and wasting away. Buddha is in his death bed, facing his end which is also a conclusion and a signing off his life. The Japanese celebrate death for it is only in the ending that the whole life becomes evident. I can’t help but notice out of my incorrigible habit that this is also the motif of many of Amitabh Bachchan’s films where the hero dies in the end, bringing the adventures of the hero to a philosophical home. Japanese novelists desire lissom beauties only to discover that they were ghosts. Japanese have a problem with concrete bodies; they love fine airy essences instead. The Chinese create the Buddha out of white marble, perhaps of porcelain in their land. Here he is a teacher, filled with gold, surrounded by disciples and students, the insignia of royal patronage, well looked after, well respected, well fed. In most cases, he is potbellied and all smiles, the laughing Buddha. For the Tibetan, he is a remote deity, endless in stature, all bronze and gold when one can afford it. Dalai Lama is the avatar and the temple really is dedicated to the Dalai Lama. The campus contains hostels and there seems to be an active teaching programme in the temple. Buddha is like Shiva here, remote and yet all pervasive, distant and yet all controlling and always too big to be gauged wholly through senses. The statue of Buddha is in bronze and is huge.

Interesting are the frescoes on the wall containing the images of Tibetan Gods. There was a figurine that looked like Kali fierce and most terrible but around her were three deer and a hermit, looking totally assured and rested. Whoever had to fear her would be the oppressor and not the ordinary mortal in the ordinary business of life. There was a figure which resembled Vishnu with someone who could be Naradmuni; then there was someone who could be Shiva or even Brahma. Tibet has a lot to do with Indian religion, its idea of Gods and Goddesses, iconography and classification of life, death, dangers and godsends.

Benaras seems to have been originally a Buddhist site, gained its importance as a Buddhist headquarters of the Sangha. It remained a major nadir of a grand loop of the Buddha trail that started from Darjeeling through Sikkim, ran through Benaras, went up to Punjab, Kashmir, Central Asia, Mongolia, China, Tibet and back through to Darjeeling. Indeed, in Bishkek, which is the abode of Lord Shiva according to the local mythology, because Bishkek means the staff which is used to stir the elixir to separate the venom out of it. Lord Shiva, known mainly in present day Kyrgyzstan was most probably brought by Kanishka. Buddhism was the reigning religion of its times and all kings had to pay tribute to the Sangha. Hence the Kushanas did pay obeisance to the monastery at Mrigadaya, but it is he, who encouraged the worship of Shiva at Benaras. During the Sungas, Hinduism revived through the revival of the sacrifice, for those were more closely associated with the Vedic Brahminism rather than the worship of Shiva in a temple. It was more towards the end of Harsha’s reign that the Pratihara kings, especially King Bhoj seemed to have pampered Shiva. Notwithstanding its rather secondary status, the temple of Shiva must have made some mark because Mahmud of Ghazni and Qutubddin Aibak demolished the same. The Pratiharas seem to be in control over the land because the last ruling dynasty to lose the privy purses were Pratiharas, namely the Narain Singhs. Benaras, with religion its core business, seems to be a business hub; in medieval days it must have been something like Bombay.

Our driver was a die-hard Modi fan, never finding enough words to praise him. The real reason for his praise were the clean, wide and cemented roads that led from all sides to Benaras. He was a youngish person with fair skin and sharp features, very tall and lanky and looked the right kind to be an RSS pracharak. He praised Modi for converting the ancient city to a modern one though all that we could see that the city was shorn of its ancient pride to emerge into a tacky wannable class III town that could be Muzaffarnagar or the outskirts of Meerut. Benaras was an ancient city but it had a sophistication. But now in the anxiety to belong to the mainstream of modernity, people constantly run after chimera images while all the time hating themselves. The self-hate becomes a hate for traditions, hate for parental authority, hate for the familiar and a strange attraction for an unattainable state of being. I saw Benaras exactly in this sleepwalking state of inebriated desire to be someone else and to belong to some other time.

So gone were the paan masala and achaar shops, the glass bangle stores, the sari shops, shops for shawls and blankets, of upholstery and fabric, of brass curios and utensils used in puja rooms; there were mobile shops, T shirts, sequined suits for women and that’s about all. I wanted to buy Banarasi paan masala; I found none. Even eateries were conspicuous by their absence and talk of public toilets and drinking water, I found none throughout the city. So much for the toilet movement. I was stunned at the state of “fall” of a great city.

We drove through something called a weaver’s village and our driver became very conscious of its Muslim inhabitants. He seemed almost embarrassed at the prospect of our eyes seeing so many Muslims with burqas and skull cap, more so because it was a Friday and people were out because of the prayers. Weaving, Banaras’s principle industry lies in shambles now; though the purchasing power of the people have increased, demand for the textiles increased as well, size of the market expanded and yet there is a problem of extreme poverty among the weaver community in the city. This is typically the problem of overproduction. This syndrome affects all industries; steel, cement, sugar, in short everything else. Once overproduction sets in bringing in its onset recession, incomes, occupations, after that communities and societies collapse.

We drove through the BHU premises only to find that in terms of spaces, buildings, road networks, colour schemes of the buildings, signages and even the vegetation, the campus was a mirror image of Viswabharati University. I think that Viswabharati was not only the benchmarked standard for academics but for design and architecture as well. The structure and the organization of the space and the nature of academic discourses are somehow connected perhaps through the Kantian ideas of the concepts of the mind.

We arrived at the temple precincts when it was about 1 pm. One had to park the car quite a way before the temple from where we walked with our guide, the petite young Brahmin boy. I had been to Benaras a year before I graduated and now, I visit again, just a year before I retire, with my entire working life as an interlude. During this period, I am supposed to see India grow, steel production has grown over twenty times, so have the number of cars on streets, almost the entire country has electricity, many more have access to health care and education but the city of Benaras has been stunned and stunted by modernity into looking like a pathetic and a nowhere mofussil trying to imitate the world and yet unable to clear the exams. In every which way we see, Benaras is a failed city. Modi has been here for the past five years, but there are no toilets, no drinking water, hardly any shop from which one can buy a bottle of water. Yes, the roads are clean but not walkable because the traffic is chaotic, traffic control is non-existent as ever before.

In a bid to reposition Benaras as an international tourist destination, the government has mowed down the quintessential maze of lanes known to all Bengalis as Biswanather Goli. The labyrinth of narrow streets of the temple premises have always held magic to the Bengali mind; not only do we have Biwanather Goli as a figure of speech, but Satyajit Ray seems to have permanently etched the images of these lanes into our minds. But Modi’s idea of development has razed over 300 homes in these lanes, crushed markets and shops under the bulldozers and with heavy earth movers, dug out houses from the plinths extracting out over a thousand temples from homes. In all more than 2000 families are displaced and while the owners have some compensation, the tenants are devasted. Gone are the kachuris, the jilipis (jalebis), the rabri, the flowers, the bangles, the cloth, the condiments, churans, paan masalas and even the electronic markets, earlier this used to be calculators, radios and small cameras, imported from Singapore. There is a Singapore shop selling purses, key chains and some sundry stuff outside on the main road. The maze of lanes that was the magic of Satyajit Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath now lies in debris like Mukul’s Sonar Kella. A township of 600 years is wrecked in order to make way for the VIP car parking and a road that connects the temple straight to the river.

There were protests, but the water and the electricity were cut off, soil dug around the plinth of these houses, protestors jailed and fined. No one took the matter up, it was too small a scale to be of notice. When the males refused to part with their homes, the girls were brought in, promised money and asked to give consent. Since even married women have legal shares in ancestral property their rights were used to gain access to homes in the temple campus. This has created an intense hate of brothers towards their sisters; women are seen to have betrayed men in joining hands with Modi; the triple talaq seems to have worked in this way as well. No wonder then that the streets of the city are now invaded by hawkers, parked cars which serve as shops, the city looks quite dead, a ghost of its former self without the lights, the smell, the flavours and the sounds of these small lanes. The core of its beauty, the temple township is gone forever; the road to the temple is now by boating through the river, then climbing up on a rampart and then viewing the God which is in the form of a linga sunk into the earth.

The locals are upset at the community of the temple town being so displaced but finding the State to be too powerful have paradoxically voted for the very party that inflicted such a pain on them. This is perhaps called the Stockholm syndrome; victim’s love for the oppressor, for that love is the only way to overcome one’s victimhood. They were all echoing the same thing; one must forget Gandhi, one must forget the past, one has to change, one has to evolve and for this icons must be broken just as their own temples over generations and crumpled into ruins and loaded on to trucks as garbage. In this helplessness, in this forced submission to change, humans are emerging as intolerant hatemongers; the very promise of development of infrastructure is searing through our social and national fabric.

A sail on the river by the ghats is so revealing of the power structures of the city. The city and the temple as we know it today was built by the Holkars, Ahalyabai Holkar to be specific. Hers is the massive ghat, tall, broad and majestic. Then there is the Scindia ghat, elegant and tastefully done up. There is the Bhosale ghat, the descendants of Shivaji, bare, minimalistic and barbaric, much like the persona of the Chhatrapati. As the Marathas are ascending, the Rajputs are declining. The ghats of the Rajput princes are modest while there are wannabes and nouveau rich from Bihar and Bengal who squeeze in their ghats as well. The Manikarnika Ghat, the Assi Ghat and the Dashaswamedh seem to be ancient ghats which perhaps predated the Marathas and were more concerned with ablutions and cremations in the river Ganges rather than obeisance to the linga of Shiva. As the sun goes down resplendently costumed Brahmins choreograph an arati to the Ganges. Sanskrit has always been a poetic language and lends itself beautifully to the metres of the mantra, the chime of the bells and the swirl of the lamps made for quite a heady experience.

With the decline of its heritage and the death of its galis, kachauris and jalebis no longer taste the same. The potato stew is tasteless though the service is as cordial as ever before. The thick sugary and milky tea is tolerable, but the crockery of tacky stainless steel is reprehensible. Back to the hotel, we rejoiced over a buffet of the most resplendently cooked kebabs; Benaras has little competition where Mughlai non vegetarian food is concerned. The following morning, we hit the highway again, the very system of highways on which India’s fleeting growth depends on. We reach the airport much before time with ample opportunities to blow up money on yet another round of shopping. I buy a liberal pile of books among which is Roerich’s travels in the Himalayas where Varanasi is an important node in the circuit of trans Himalayan transactions of ancient times. They say in Kyrgyzstan that since Bishkek and Kashi are on the same longitude, the Ganges starts to flow back towards Bishkek in Benaras. That flow back is thought to be an attempt of the Ganges at connecting with the original stream which ended in the Lake of Issykul before the Himalayas rose out of that tectonic shift taking the Ganga with it. Bishkek is imagined to be the abode of Lord Shiva, who looks so much like Buddha as well as Ganesha in Central Asia. Iravati in Myanmar is yet another arm of the Ganges which rises again from the Arakans after it is hived off by the rise of the Himalayas.

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All Wrong With Arong

Arong has been in the news ostensibly because it arbitrarily raised the prices of its products just as the Id shopping was heating up. The consumer affairs officer was called in, who inspected and closed the retail outlet. However, in a short span of eight hours only not only was the shop reopened but the officer was transferred as well. All the above showed the disproportionate power of a monopoly capital. The social media went agog with posts to boycott Arong, and attacks on the government started. It seems from the posts that the PM was visiting Finland and when she was informed of the catastrophe promptly reversed the transfer order of the officer. What she did to Arong we do not know, not many cared to report as well, but one infers that business carried on as usual, unfazed and in all probability with the continued steep graph of the prices.

I see four things that are central to the story. People were happy with the revoke of the transfer order of the officer and no longer bargained for the closure of the shop. That Arong is a monopoly, that Arong prices stuff so high and that Arong has no competitor. The fourth anchor in the story is that monopoly capital and the fate of nationalism are closely connected. I will address the above aspects not necessarily in the order that I have listed.

Arong is the retail outlet of BRAC, a countrywide movement by Fazle Hasan Abed which started in 1972 right after Independence in 1971 based wholly on the idea of micro finance. Around the same time, Md Yunus too started the network of microfinance which led into the Grameen Bank. Abed’s efforts created BRAC, also grew into a money lending body and in its early days, villagers called it as BRAC Mahajan. Grameen became a model for micro credit banking and was largely followed by BRAC. BRAC expanded its scope and developed numerous levels of enterprises but where BRAC stood out over Grameen was the grand integration of a long and almost open-ended value chain. While Grameen was a scalable banking model, BRAC diversified to create an entire range of bottom up economy based wholly upon a pool of poverty! Arong is an outlet that showcases products brought over a long chain of value integration.

As part of economic development, Bangladesh with its hard working and determined people could set up a mind-boggling edifice of outsourced garment factories. Jeans, T Shirts, formal and casual wear, cotton, linen and knitwear across the world stood on the toiling masses of pathetically exploited Bangladeshis. It is not unusual to find volumes of published papers on the immorality of exploitation of Bangladeshi labour, especially women in this huge garment business driven by the greed of global capital. Notwithstanding the exploitation, employment in the garment factories gave workers a much higher level of wages than what could be ever earned in any other occupation. A problem with all developing countries is that there is little scope for labour to move into more lucrative sectors from agriculture. Investments into the garment business made this movement possible. But textile weaving, especially the sari, lungi and gamchha were the lean hour activities of the peasants. Very soon, labour and hence skills moved out of the traditional textile sector into the garment factories due to higher relative wages, leaving the traditional weaving sector bereft of labour, time, skills and after a few decades, also the memory and knowledge. Since economics of textile weaving was so suboptimal, wages had to be artificially higher in order to bring weavers to the loom.

Now we cut to West Bengal. Since we did not have investments into the garment business on the scale that it was in Bangladesh, our weavers stuck to weaving cloth. Village after village, the sari, lungi and gamchha model prevailed. The proliferation of retail business in smaller towns and mofussils, the explosion of hawkers and the multiplying door to door sellers of saris created and sustained a huge market for cotton cloth for the looms of West Bengal villages. Soon, a international specialization took place, weaving became largely a business of West Bengal while hosiery and stitched garments, the preserve of Bangladesh. It is not surprising to see the patented brands of Bangladesh of the jamdani woven in West Bengal and sold in shops of Chittagong at a fraction of the prices of those originating in Bangladesh. Similarly, almost all our desi brands source products of lingerie and garments from Bangladesh.

The interregional specialization, as usual has benefitted the consumer in terms of competitive prices. Much of fashion is available cheaply; only brands are priced high. It is a rule of humans that as soon as the basic needs are satisfied, they look out for new conquests; it is really Maslow all the way. The Bangladeshi is now very well dressed and there is a worldwide consensus about the ravishing looks of Bangladeshis. Naturally, with the mirror at hand and the selfie at arm’s length one can only legitimately aspire for even better clothes and brands. Hence the desire for Arong. Even a few years before now, a middle-class citizen did not perhaps dare to enter into an Arong store; besides Arong exists in Europe and the USA and sells in Euros and Dollars; it has never been oriented to a BD taaka market. Yet, due to the pathologies of our times, we imagine that the world is within our reach, rarely reckoning the fact that we are really not as rich as we are made to believe through the television ads, easily available consumer goods, food within our reach and so on. We miss out that there is something that is beyond our reach; unfortunately, the products of Arong fall in that category of the superrich. In nationalisms as strong as that of the Bangladeshis, in a rising democracy as that of Bangladesh, inequality is intolerable especially if that is about the unattainable consumable for the rising middle class, for the rising and the aspiring are sociologically the one and the same only. Hence, there is a deeper resentment against Arong. The construction of the company as corrupt, influential and the contagious call of boycott reeks of populism in which the middle-class anger gets directed at the aristocrat and Arong is indeed one with its international designers and exclusive veneer.

To my mind, the problem is not so much a matter of Arong as it is a lack of competition. It is difficult to imagine a brand in India to be castigated in as consensual terms as Arong has been. This is because the high prices of Arong products would have served as an opportunity for many junior brands to rush in. Cottons, Killol, Sabhyata and even Westland are brands those which entered into the side margins of Fab India not only forcing it to bring down prices but also creating a scope for both investments as well as innovations for the rest of the brands. Monopolies can survive in atmospheres of low capital and social mobility; in societies where capital can move fast, monopolies are natural to be weaned out. The crisis in Bangladesh is therefore in the mobilization of capital and of labour to create competitors to Arong. Herein lies an enormous scope for profits as well as creativity and hence, in the very same model of BRAC and Grameen, an opportunity for yet another round of microfinance networking.

Monopoly capital can puncture national cohesion just as micro finance can constitute a foundation for its nurture. The Arong is a very slight hint at the dangers facing a fragile nation which is just about looking up and alighted the highway of growth; the capital has to be infused and fused with local creativity and enterprise for the country to remove the minute hint of a malignant cell.

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BJP and the Twilight of the Idols

In the early thirteenth century, says Richard Eaton, one Mr Ikhtiyar bin Bakhtiyar Khiljee overran Bengal with merely forty horsemen. Lakhhan Sen, the then ruler of Bengal was having his dinner and upon hearing the marauding Afghans, quietly fled without his footwear. Hence started, one of Islam’s most successful territorial saga in Eastern Bengal, from where it spread successfully to the southeast and even travelled up to southern China. A possible reason why Islam did so well in Bengal, according to Eaton was that people here never really had a structured religion and Islam was a structured discourse. According to me, Bengal was very familiar with Arab culture and because much of Arab pagan beliefs and rituals were part of Islam, the religion could establish itself well. Islam as a religion and the Muslim as a rule however had little parallels, because the Muslim rulers were hardly Islamised. However, they established their powers through crass street violence when Hindus at random and Muslim musclemen clashed repeatedly as and when they met in public spaces. Later, Vaishnavs too used street violence to get their way through and the kirtan was nothing but the blaring music which lumpens play on trucks and tempos as they show themselves off publicly. Violence is thus not new to Bengal and its politics. Why this is so is a matter of sociological investigation though.

When the BJP broke Vidyasagar’s bust, I thought of the Taliban and the Bamiyan Buddha, I thought of Kalapahar and I of course thought of Ikhitiyar Khilee. Hindutva is a Semitisation of the Hindu religion and aims exactly what Semitic religions did, namely, to attain a borderless kingdom of morality. Unfortunately, for all religions of such kinds, violence has underlain the call for morality. Nothwithstanding the philosophy and the grand metaphysics that these religions have emerged into, Semitic religions, at the level of their DNA are licenses for barbarians to attack civilizations. The promise of a dictator, the promise of endless territory or Lebenstraum as in Nazi Germany, the rule of morality as opposed to law, the utopia which is far removed from anything possible on earth are instruments of the barbarians overcoming civilizations. Christianity was a great thing for the barbarians when they tore down the defences of Rome against the rest of Europe, Islam was brilliant when it raised and consolidated armies from the nomadic Turks and vestigious Mongols on the Ulan Bator plateau. BJP’s idol breaking is its instrument to power; it was very important cue communicated to the barbarians that here is my whistle, go and take Bengal.

Whatever is there to modern India is basically an extension of Bengal. It will not be very wrong to say that the modern Indian civilization is a Bengali civilization. Apart from the National Anthem and the National Song and Saratchandraization of National Sentiments, Bengali ethos of metro sexuality, its abilities to attain high notes in political discourses and the ease with which high culture naturally comes to a Bengali has been a point of envy for rest of India. Mano ya na mano! When politics is around the ideologies of the State, left, right or centre, issues of caste, development and unemployment can become rallying points. But when the point is the barbarian claiming an entire civilization as in case of the BJP, idols must be broken. Here comes in Neitzsche with his Twilight of the Idols, where the philosopher carries a hammer to break down all that symbolizes civilization. The iconoclasm of the BJP in Bengal must be understood in this light.

For almost a decade now, hate for Bengal among the non-Bengalis in the state has been rising rapidly. The Bihari drivers are misbehaved, and this is perhaps a reason for the popularity of the Ola and the Uber. The hate speech of the black and yellow taxi drivers are sheer invective; they claim in one way or the other to have a right to rape Bengal. I am glad that I don’t own a car in Kolkata, otherwise this side of the secret history would have been unknown to me. The Gujaratis and the Marwaris are as bad too. The cream of the troublemakers list is of course the Bengalis themselves. Mamata Banerjee has always got a bad press; she is not good looking, does not look to men for sex, independent, unmarried, with no male chaperon, and very homely. This is all the wrong type for a woman to be, or shall we call her a girl? Despite everything on the ground and most visibly so, Bengalis have often, in a manner of self-destruction that both Tagore and Nirad Chaudhuri have commented ad nauseum, oozed out self-hate and embarrassment at being ruled by an unmarried kanya at home! How I think of Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Taara. This is the same girl who the family could not marry off, and now she has done so well for herself, what greater shame can she be for her family? It is this psychology that braces Bengal today most sickeningly and which is why Bengal should fall to the barbarians.

Day in and day out, out of our guilt we have devalued and discredited this brave girl, who has tried to revive the Renascent culture of the doyens, build bridges between rural Bengal and its cosmopolitan city, Kolkata, tried to create harmony among communities, languages and migrants, and raised administration to a level we have not had in years since the late 1960’s. Yet it is because of her simplicity, her accent, her address that we want to heap lies upon her, discredit her and debilitate her. And why would Vidyasagar not be attacked, when the very girl child he wanted to create is here as our CM, why would Tagore not be erased when the numerous little girls of the Golpoguchho have coalesced into this girl whose punishment is to catch your ears and do sit ups as a Didi to the naughty brothers? Why would Saratchandra not be humilaited when Bordidi is demeaned?

I look forward to Amit Shah ruling Bengal, for that will be the right lesson for the Bengalis. I think let us all stamp on the Lotus.

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Vinci Da

This is quite a joke among our girls Ghalib gang that we the single women on the wrong side of the 50’s is increasingly finding ourselves marginalized even if we have a room of our own. Ghalib becomes our reference point because he lived and wrote during a time which was materially and hence logically not suited to give him the sustenance that a poet of his stature needed. In times when the means of livelihood are against your craft, art, skill or even proficiency, what does the endowed do? Maybe s/he seeks revenge. This is the revenge of art turned into a graceful art of revenge in Srijit Mukherjee’s recent film, Vinci Da.

The system has relinquished the need for art and for that matter anything that needs the creativity of the brain as human innovation is highly dispensable in a system which merely produces more of the same thing. The system has also little flexibility to accommodate brilliant minds who run it and hence we have the self-trained lawyer who fails to get a formal professional degree. These two occupy the two ends of what constitutes the middle-class intelligentsia, created and yet crushed by the capitalist system. And they seek revenge on the order; though the capitalist class can defend its position through power and violence, it is the intellectual who really knows the ways of how the world goes who can undo the sceptre of capital. The two categories of intellectuals, namely the artist and the lawyer seek to avenge the system that marginalises them. But then the two clash.

The lawyer personifies instrumental logic, universalistic ethics without caring for how the generalizations are going to harm the subjects of the objective law. The artist is empathetic, his ethics are compassionate and not rule based. The lawyer turns hegemonistic and oppressive while the artist turns to a selfless compassion; the holder of the universal justice is unforgiving; the compassionate artist is humanistic. Who wins? That is the drama of the film.

The artist’s temptation is an opportunity for work, the lawyer’s temptation is the scope for control. The former is about creativity, the latter is about seeking to order. The question is whether art will lend itself to be used for purposes of the ordering of the world? Art is shocked at the absence of empathy; law that seeks order has none of art’s compassions. Art is self-absorbed and self-fulfilling; law is other directed and external to those which it orders. Art’s reward is spiritual, law’s success depends on what it attains in terms of material gains.

One must watch VinciDa in order to understand what a competent singer Noble is. He debuts as a play back singer in the film. Noble sings in the backdrop of the artist emerging from a mood of determined revenge, to a doubt and then towards a moral tremor. Soon the artist transcends his basal instincts, the limitations of his ego and reaches for the superego where his revenge has dissolved into forbearance; and clemency and not reprisal redeems him. Anupam’s song moves in when the artist is finally free, in a tone that has found an uncompromised freedom, perhaps an escape from all the demands of the system on him, beyond the reach of all kinds of ordering principles of the world on the individual. This is why, all of Anupam’s songs are various versions of the one single song that says Amake Amar Moto Thaakte Dao..

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Sorrow in Spring a.k.a Basanta Bilap

Aniruddha Rakshit posted Late Chinmoy Roy’s photo with the caption Basanta Bilap. This caption is the inspiration for this modest post. Chinmoy Roy was the star in my spring; interestingly he had also a strange appeal for our more girly moods. He was as thin as a reed, dark, medium height, crooked teeth and could look downright ugly, chugged about in body hugging clothes and wore his hair long. He looked less of a being from the film screen and more of a wasted guy from the streets. He was a breathless Godardian.

As a stereotype he had the typical look of the young men of Kolkata, politically charged with the dreams of revolution only if that was out of hormonal energy left unchanneled due to the chronic unemployment for the uneducated. Instead of seeking comedy through the characters contained within the film, Chinmoy’s comedy seemed to target the very youth of the Bengali society; it was as if the cinema was satirising the angry youth of its times. As a comedian he rose to the stature of a hero in Noni Gopaler Biye where he also had a double role in the form of his successful twin brother. Indeed, his striking presence on screen came in the form of Basanta Bilap, a multi-starrer in which he had to stand as a side hero to the doyen, Soumitro Chatterjee. He shone through that galaxy of Anup Kumar, Robi Ghosh, Tarun Kumar, Bankim Ghosh and others. Among his last was the character of Tenida, once again a social satire of an age just before the one that Chinmoy had so long addressed and laughed at.

Chinmoy died long before his death; the cause of his virtual death was the death of comedy of the Bengali cinema, in its literature and of laughter in the Bengali life in general. An inwardly competitive society that thrives on envy and jealousy instead of focussing on its strength, a society that produced more parasites than entrepreneurs and made progressively more and more inward looking and wallowing in self-pity and excuses, is not exactly one that can laugh at itself.

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Bollywood vs Bangla Rock

Much to the disappointment of hundreds and thousands of his fans, Mainul Ahsan Nobel, or just Nobel did not get his usual Golden Guitar in the rendition of R D Burman’s song, Tumi Je Koto Dure. He sang it technically right, he sang it mellifluously and sang it powerfully but then there was something that did not quite connect him and his listeners. I can vouch for this because I have gone through the various versions of this song by many singers and must have heard Nobel sing the song at least twenty-five times. Every time I felt that there was something going against Nobel in the song.

Nobel is an aspiring singer from Bangladesh who follows closely legends like the Late Ayub Bachchu and James. He turned twenty-one during the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa show in 2018. Largely self-taught and self-cultivated, Nobel expectedly ruined his parents dreams of a career in the usual professions of the middle class and entered into the high-risk zone of music, where only a few can ever reach the top while for the many other aspirants it is the oblivion. What guides Nobel’s spirit is thus largely a maladjustment with his family, the mutual pulling apart of a need to make his parents happy and a need to pursue his dreams. No wonder then the rendition of the Bollywood song, Papa Kehte Hain sounded much better than the original sang by Udit Narain. This was acknowledged by both Udit Narain and Jatin, the composer of the song. Unfortunately, in case of R D Burman, Nobel could not connect with the spirit of the undying soul of RD.

The genre of the rock music has its defined style because it starts from a base, hits on the centre and then gathering momentum zooms past the core to scatter into an openness. The Bollywood song is just the opposite. It surrounds a chaotic material and like the spider spinning the web, weaves closer towards a centre and ends by rounding off the song material. The movement of the rock and the Bollywood song are thus contrary to each other. Rock is the music of loss, Bollywood is of gain, of accumulation. Rock can end in death and dissolution, Bollywood asserts life through regeneration and rejuvenation. Therefore, despite the lyrics of the song Tumi Je pronouncing a loss, the tune finally turns in to reconnect with the hope of life, literally of resurrection. The female voice, Asha Bhonsle in the original version and now the female chorus, performs the task of wrapping up the song from its outward journey towards its centre as a reassertion of life. Looked at carefully the song is a duet though it sounds like a solo number for it is only through the female voice the song gets complemented and completed. Typical rock music is never a whole, it revels in its incompletion and sense of loss.

For Nobel whose voice is one of despair, of annihilation, of shooting out beyond limits into a point of no return, metaphor of both the genre of the rock as well as of his life so far, can hardly be expected to sit right for a Bollywood song, especially of R D so absorbing of life, so much soaking in the regenerative force of youth. I guess something similar happened in Nobel’s duet with Snigdhajit in the song Dil Chahta Hai for here too, Nobel sounded out of sorts with the Bollywood genre. However, for Papa Kehte Hain, he could extract the tears in the song and present it in his own way into a point of a no return and thus drew the song into his own genre of rock.

Nobel’s star performance is undoubtedly his rendition of Khwaja Mere Khwaja, the devotional song from Jodha Akbar. When Rahman, the composer and the original singer of the song sings it, it feels as though an Emperor is in a meditative mood, asking the Divine for peace of mind and guidance. Here both entities of the King and God are intact despite the intimate communion with each other. When Nobel sings it, it becomes the despair of one who has lost all, surrenders completely to the Divine beseeching the Great One to absorb him in his unconditional devotion of Him. Nobel dissolves the song material and the song like the rock genre loses its centre and shoots right up to what the judges of the show say, the Divine connect.

His rendition of Pathe Ebar Namo Saathi, the immortal IPTA number by Salil Chowdhury is perhaps historically the ever best. There was self-annihilation and martyrdom in the rendition; as a Bangladeshi he takes upon himself to express the nation, that final limit that defines the politics of the modern person. Hemanta Mukherjee sang it as a song of the spirit and the IPTA as an ideology; the spirit that guided these songs were sectarian and partial and fell short of Nobel’s reach at the outermost limits of his existence.

Nobel sang Amaro Porano Jaha Chay also as never before. I have searched long enough in the YouTube to be able to say this with some certainty. This song too has a climax at its moment of giving up with the lines those imply a final parting of ways. Once again, the song offers a possibility of self-dissolution and Nobel laps up the opportunity to make perhaps the finest ever rendition.

I have observed that Nobel lays a lot of stress on the lyrics of the song. This may be an important thing to do in case of rock music in which the lyrics generate, accumulate and eventually push forth the music. Unfortunately for other kinds of songs, the music merely rides on the lyrics; understanding the web of notes become important and not the poetry. I think that this is what the judges said to Nobel when they said that the way he sung the number of R D Burman missed out on the play of the tunes.

The Bollywood genre is a difficult genre because it must return to the regenerative centre no matter how nihilistically it starts off. The rock is nihilism itself, cynical of an order whose structure seems oppressive. Bollywood is of the home, rock is of the world. Bollywood is media circulated but enjoyed individually, rock is presented individually but consumed as a member of the collective. Rock gets created in the ears of the listener as it rolls out. It cannot be a finished product that can be poured out in a new bottle, the newness of the renditioner being its newness. Therefore rock singers must choose Bollywood songs with care and vice versa.

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