Keshub Chandra Sen – Pedestrianization of the Brahmo Samaj

Sanjiv Chattopadhyay. Dharmayuddha. Bengali. Dey’s Publication. Kolkata. 2011.

The book is a biography of Keshab Chandra Sen, a prominent social reformer of Bengal who lived between 1838 and 1884 and occupies the mind of the Bengali intelligentsia as man of gigantic proportions that Bengal would rarely see ever in its history. Keshab Chandra Sen belongs to the same genre as Prabhu Nityananda in centuries before him and Vivekananda born a generation after him. Keshab Sen was a preacher and proselytizer of the faith he followed. Aggressive and expansionist, like the men of his genre, Keshab Sen mixed the idealism of Raja Rammohan Roy with the pragmatism of Hindu beliefs, absorbed the mystic Ramkrishna Paramhansa and the atheist Vidyasagar. He moves towards the profaner stage of Calcutta, uses the theatre as public education rather than the secluded erudition of religious discussions of the Brahmo Samaj under Maharshi Debendranath. What is interesting for me is how the social background of Keshab Chandra Sen influenced his own thoughts, his attitudes and eventually the future of the institution of the Brahmo Samaj.

Unlike Raja Rammohan Roy and later Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen came from the middle class. His family had no asset income and instead depended on salaried employment to meet their daily needs. For them, academic brilliance was perhaps the only weapon they had in making it big. The trouble that Raja Rammohan Roy brought upon the Bengali society was that achievement was counted in terms of cultural attainment. Hence to be successful meant to be recognised as a contributor to the cultural pool of the society. This model of upward mobility, namely through access to cultural capital and to become a culture creator dominates the Bengali society even today. The problem is that with unequal economic means, participation in the cultural field also becomes unequal despite brilliance. This anomaly, namely of brilliance and yet the lack of economic means started to constitute the foundation of a middle class in Bengal, especially among the Hindus. Interestingly, Bengali culture is founded upon the constant striving of a middle class to command resources to create a high culture, balancing precariously between a job and earning from it to pay the bills and sparing some time and money in pursuit of esoteric goals. The structure of the family that has developed in Bengal, especially among its middle classes is to balance between its cultural aspirations and to find a job to be able to bear the costs of such investments.

Reading through the family background of Keshab Sen, one immediately notices how different this is either from the family of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and of Narendranath Datta. His family is from the Baidya caste in contrast to the Brahmin and the kayastha. All of the above mentioned are salaried employees, all of the above have huge aspirations in commanding culture, namely through social reforms and setting about new trends almost akin to new faiths and yet the family structure of the Sens strike out so much like an ideal Bengali middle class family. There is much more family unity among the Sens despite the fact that there are sharp differences in opinions, especially as they stand divided over the wayward ways of Keshab Chandra Sen. There is a far greater spirit of family support, where members of the family help one another in times of distress and where the individual even one who is as rebellious as Keshab Sen stands by the decision of his family in terms of his marriage and employment. Hence when he went over to Brahmodom, he fled from home. Most Baidya families have a deeper sense of family because it is through the family that they support the aspirations of the most talented ones among them. Compared to the Sens, the Banerjees and the Dattas seemed to be more individualistic and somewhat disconnected. Can we scientifically attach family values to the Baidyas? Is any form of empirical research possible?

Baidyas appear to be a caste of recent origins, though there are references to them sometimes as Brahmins and sometimes as kayasthas and many times as shudras in ancient texts such as Manu Samhita. Manu says that they should be counted among the untouchables as they move around corpses, surely their closeness to the dead bodies also drew many among them towards tantrism. Many times, Baidyas lived in the periphery of the village as they were practising surgery on dead bodies, treated just about anybody and travelled to far flung places and learnt their trade from just about anybody. Notwithstanding such textual mentions, this caste seems to be a collection of castes with similar financial and educational means. It became soon a club class with likeminded people over issues of knowledge, who it would be acquired from, who could benefit from the dissemination of such knowledge and so on. The caste congealed around a common set of cultures those which were neither common worship nor ritual practices, but social influence, political clout and professional acumen.

To be accurate to their nomenclature, baidyas are supposed to be medicine men with surgeries and text writings, so they knew a lot of Sanskrit but since they lived off grants and petty patronages, they were typically neither king makers nor feudal lords. Hence they were not quite learned in Persian though they cultivated Sanskrit fairly well. This is why when the British came, they were quick to learn English and sneak into the various posts created by the corporate counterparts of the imperial power. Baidyas are thus a caste born out of modernistic and secular impulses of the society towards professionalization and the pursuit of vocation. With the coming of the British, the Baidyas naturally flourished and did even better with the waves of social reforms that entailed the study of Sanskrit texts and arguing with the Brahmins and absorbing readings on Christianity those which were written in English. Professional ascendance, knowledge of Sanskrit and English, social reforms that attacked rituals (in which they were weaker) and attacks on Brahmins, a caste whose domination they would balk now that they were upwardly mobile, suited the Baidyas very well as they emerged into a new force, absorbing a motely combination of castes within them only on the basis of economic parity and professional attitudes. Hence, the family of a Baidya had to bear the responsibility of launching a caste and propel it right at the top of the social ladder. Families of Baidyas developed a sense of a mission where one divided time and effort responsibly towards feeding the family as well as preparing its members for jobs and also subsidizing their activities in the cultural sphere. This model of the family incidentally came to represent the ethos of the middle class family in India. Naturally then Keshab Sen’s efforts regarding age of consent, marriage and its nullification are part of the Indian Civil Marriage Act.

Keshab Sen hails from the Sens of Kolutala, a rather modest locality of Calcutta and the Sens are supposed to have descended from the last Hindu kings of Bengal, namely Ballal Sen. As with the descendants of a fallen king, the Sens lived their life in utmost poverty. Gokulchandra worked as a clerk in with a zamindar in Hooghly and earned a pittance. But he studied hard after office hours and wrote out his notes on the leaves of the banyan tree. He had six chidren, of who Ramdulal, Ramkamal and Madan did very well in life by working in the offices set up by the East India Company. Opportunities were expanding especially as stevedores and customs clerks and besides there were many Bengalis who lived by lending money to the Company. These men and women became rather rich and had huge offices in Calcutta.

Ramkamal, the second son of Gokulchandra was Keshab’s grandfather. He had a fiery desire to be a learned in modern Western education. He hopped and jumped jobs to earn some more money so that he could buy books and read. With a lucky break he was employed as a clerk in the Asiatic Society and that opened up his life, as he read voraciously and devoured intellectually its vast resources. His older brother, Ramdulal was however lucky to have read with the children of the Calcutta’s elite families. His mother, Gokulchandra’s wife used to work as a cook for Madanmohan’s family and Ramdulal got the opportunity to be educated by the best tutors who taught the children of the family. Ramdulal also helped Ramkamal to absorb much of the stuff he read as an autodidact. H.H. Wilson of Asiatic Society had a huge role to play in the advancement of Ramkamal’s career. Ramkamal earned a huge reputation as a good and a capable worker and soon he was appointed as the Dewan of the Treasury, then of Bank of Bengal and occupied posts as advisor in Calcutta Medical College, Select Committee, Insurance Committee, Savings Bank Committee and in various charitable trusts. He was enamoured by Ramkamal and saw that he was part of the expansion of the East India Company’s institutions in Calcutta. Wilson returned to England in 1833. Among his other passions, Wilson also wrote a book called The Theatre of the Hindus.

Ramkamal represented to the Government to end the custom of “Antarjali Jatra” where often the old and the sick were cast into the Ganges to drown to death. He made the Government ban many life threatening rituals in the Charak festivals. He also took up the task of compiling dictionaries in Bengali and English. Yet Ramkamal was a conservative. Perhaps out of a sense of guilt that he was transgressing his religion, he supported many orthodoxies like Sati. He was instrumental in driving Derozio out of Hindu College for his bohemian nihilism. As a member of District Charitable Society, he divided the city into two distinct areas, one for the affluent and the other for the poor and saw to it that the communication between the two were minimized. This was social distancing, which was actually a reinforcement of his class snobbery. Yet he would argue and even come to blows with the Brahmins who believed in the caste system. Ramkamal insisted on social mobility and meritocracy. While he argued against the caste system and the superstitions of the Hindus, he was a devout Hindu who lived a simple, frugal and disciplined life that no one could ever accuse him of being footloose.

Ramkamal had four sons, Harimohan, Pyarimohan, Bansidhar and Muralidhar. But Pyarimohan died soon after Ramkamal died and Keshab, a boy of eleven years was left to be raised by his uncles. Pyarimohan had a generous disposition; he would buy the most expensive mangoes from the market and distribute among the poor. His generosity and kindness reached to such proportions that when he died young the people around him were grief stricken for days, months and even years. Keshab Sen’s father’s family were devout Hindus veering towards the Shakta and tantric traditions, but his mother hailed from a Vaishnav family. It is strange that these differences no longer exist among the Bengali Hindus but the in early 19th century, such differences were pronounced and one wonders why. It is possible that social networks existed along these affiliations those which influenced both the availabilities of social opportunities as well as their outcomes.

Keshab Sen was born on the 19th of November 1838. His elder brother, Nabinchandra was very ill and Keshab too nearly died at childbirth because of the poor ventilation and pathetic hygiene conditions of the delivery room. Keshab thus grew to be a pampered child and emerged as a spoilt brat. Soon he grew up to a sense of entitlement even when he lost his grandfather at the age of six and his father at the age of eleven. His uncles continued to pamper him. Keshab was also very brilliant, his English and mathematics were outstanding. He grew to be puritan and a vigilante. He would carry a whip in his hand to punish the offender. Since he was born in an influential family in terms of high posts, many of his friends and associates also surrendered to him. He moved about with an air of non-compromise and condescension if not an outright contempt. He would never go out to apologise, never argued, never conversed; he only spoke as if delivering a dispensation. He never participated in games, he only played those games which he invented. In other words, he played only where he set the rules and he assumed the position of the leader. If he played a dispensary then he would be the doctor, if a school then he would be the headmaster. This does not make him seem to be a very adaptive personality and instead an overwhelming man with domineering habits veering towards being a bully. His cousin, Pratap Chandra Majumdar writes that once Keshab wanted to make an English ban, the children were dressed up to seem as if they were the players, they had to play the saxophone with their mouths blowing into their fingers and the thumb while Keshab got a drum from somewhere, tied it to the back of a small boy and marched ahead beating it. There seems to be a kind of oppression and sadism in this apparently innocent description.

Wilson had taught Ramkamal the importance of the family in the education and raising of a child; interestingly, Baidya families lay a lot of importance in these matters even today. The family is the key to a child’s education and character building. Keshab thought that rigidity and obstinacy and even domination were signs of a good character. For him, life was full of temptations and to stand away from temptations was the key to a good character. Hence repressive austerity became his idea of being of a good character. In this he developed, according to Ramkrishna Paramhansa, a mind that was naturally that of a sinner.

Keshab Sen was a brilliant student; after completing his school he was admitted into the Hindu College where he continued to excel in studies. English and mathematics were his strong and the most favourite subjects. But the Hindu College became a hot bed of dissent; more than a dissent against the British, it became a point of dissent against the Hindu orthodoxy. Students rebelled and drank alcohol, ate beef and pork and led delirious lives in abandon. Keshab’s uncle, Harimohan decided to withdraw him from the college and soon the Duttas of Wellington Square opened the Metropoliton College and pleaded with Keshab to join them. Keshab was admitted to the highest class. But here the biggest catastrophe of his life happened. The standard of the class was too high for Keshab to cope and while he managed the English, he failed in mathematics. This was a shock for him; feeling betrayed by mathematics, he drew into a shell, forsook the subject altogether, sulked and felt betrayed by his own strengths. He focussed on English which continued to yield to him but mathematics remained treacherous. This shock of failing in mathematics, hardened Keshab, set him off into a depression because he withdrew from the world and hand wrote posters instigating people to leave their homes and families and become wandering seers. He stuck those at the middle of the night so that he would not be found out.

While in the Hindu College, Keshab just watched a magic show by the famous magician Gilchrist and soon picked up the art so well that he would stun his friends and family with amazing tricks. Keshab was hugely talented and he could well have also been a magician. The Metropoliton College soon wound up because the Duttas lost money and Kesab returned to Hindu College, peeved to be back in the company of the Derozians, still poor in mathematics, concentrated in wider readings those which were not in his syllabus. He read Hindu philosophy and Christian theology and soon felt alienated within his family and walked over to the Brahmo Samaj to seek guidance from Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Debendranath took Keshab under his wings and much impressed by his brilliance started to see in him a future for the Brahmos, those which were larger than what he had planned. Keshab’s family was furious, not only because the patriarch Ramkamal Sen was opposed to Rammohan Roy and supported Sati, but to become aa Brahmo was looked upon as a change of one’s faith, feared to have adverse effects on the prospects of marriage and inheritance. They soon decided to get Keshab married and though he opposed this tooth and nail, the family structure of the Baidyas operate like a closed unit, there is little scope for dissidence. His bride was a much younger woman who bore the brunt of his unwillingness to marry for Keshab tortured her physically and mentally so that she would often fall ill with violent fevers. His distaste for his own marriage made him to fervently campaign for the age of consent bill and education and employment for women so that they would not have to depend on men. Keshab felt trapped in the role of a husband whose duty was to look after his wife; women would have no need to depend on men as their succour. Men, he felt were as badly trapped into their gender roles if women were subjugated in theirs; hence the emancipation of women was the key to the genuine emancipation of man.

Soon, like Chaitanya centuries before him or Buddha in the aeons of time, Keshab also fled home to be on a ship with Debendranath, his son Satyendranath and a few others and set sail to Ceylon. Since the roots of Hinduism lay in tantra which was the foundation of Buddhism, the party decided to visit a Buddhist land to experience things first hand. Keshab was wholly disappointed with the country, found its people non transparent and slimy, ethics in public life unimpressive. On the whole, it appears through his detailed travelogues that neither Buddhism nor Ceylon impressed him. Keshab returns to India, comes back home where his family, despite their utter disapproval of his disappearance nonetheless arranged for a grand reception. Keshab fled the crowd at the port and sneaked home directly. He could not face his family with the disappointments in Ceylon.

Keshab put off by the excesses of his college mates in the Hindu College turned vegetarian. He also turned into a teetotaller. He used his vegetarianism to claim a high moral ground vis-à-vis those of the Brahmo Samaj who the elites like the Maharshi Debendranath were himself. Nabinchandra Sen was a puritan and followed the Upanishads but did not believe in the congregational worship of the Brahmos. He avoided all contacts with Keshab after he established the Sadharon Brahmo Samaj. Nabinchandra was eager to protect his individualism, which he feared would be compromised if he simply went on with the flow. So he kept himself aloof, another Bengali middle class ethos of extreme individualism, desire to stand out as lone figures on neutral grounds of ideology. Nabinchandra started an evening school to “educate” the youth away from the excesses of the Hindu College and also had a drama company where he wrote and produced plays over the need for the Hindu to reform.

Much before he formally converted to Brahmosim, Keshab had abandoned idol worship, refused to be initiated by the family priest into Vaishnavism, gathered a group of friends into a small prayer circle called the Upasana Sabha. His asceticism and the resultant spiritualism was an impulse towards his desire to reach out to the people, gather popular forces and then bring about a social change and reform. For his purposes, he included a few Christian missionaries and included a literary club as well along with the reading of religious literature. He was sold to the idea of God as Father and the community as brothers. This was a search for a Prophet and also a certain comfort into the herd of believers. It is here that I would place both Nabinchandra and Keshab Chandra as the quintessential Bengali middle class, a desire to be superman, an aloof ascetic, and a discerning individual seeking support not among others of his ilk but in the masses, who they would like to arouse as a herd in following him. These would make him unique. Would this innate model of a fascist leader be found in a social class that seeks upward mobility? Would upward social mobility necessarily seek a new religion? Or emerge out of the traditions those bind into a newer cultural space, would the new found respectability refuse to acknowledge the existing social authorities?

Like all the middle class Bengalis, Keshab too had to draw a salary to run the kitchen. He was employed in Bank of Bengal, where his uncle, Harimohan used to be the Dewan. While at work, whenever he would get some spare time, he would write frantic notes. Soon his colleagues complained about him to his boss, but when the British officer found out what Keshab would jot down in his spare time at the desk, he promoted Keshab to more than double his salary. Keshab was also spared to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the bank which he refused; the Bank did not force it on him and instead qualified him for a further promotion. Despite the promise of a great career at the bank, Keshab left his job to devote full time to the cause of spreading Brahmoism. He had to prove to his family that he could if he wished to, to hold the supreme position in his career, but now left that for a larger purpose of becoming a Prophet. The impulses which worked in Keshab also worked for Swami Vivekananda, Subhas Bose and even for Uttam Kumar, the same individual, the same Prophet, the inaccessible celebrity, the discerning individual, the unique. Uniqueness would mean that he is a “swayambhu”, one who cannot be placed against his family nor be seated with his peers, he would be superior to all, pure enough to claim that superiority, unblemished by “influences”, so unprecedented that he would be comparable only to himself.

Keshab showed the typical traits of representing an upwardly mobile culture. He admired the Christians and their influence and the organization of the missionaries, imitated and incorporated them into his own understanding of One God and eventually when he preached in Krishnanagar, he lambasted the faith of Christ. When in the Brahmo Samaj, he too changed the faith, divided the Samaj, mixed its purity with the elements of Vaishnavism and Shakta and tantric mysticism and brought it closer to the people. He thought that the pristine form of Brahmos which Maharshi Debendranath following the footsteps of Raja Rammohan Roy was too elitist and over the top. He desired to make Brahmo religion more open to all and reach out to the larger populace. He interpreted the exclusivity of the Brahmos to be “cruel” and a lack of closeness or love for the people.

Keshab Sen campaigned against the sacred thread and Bijoykrishna Goswami supported him in this. Maharshi Debendranath also started working around the Hindu rituals so as to eliminate kanyadaan and other rituals that appeared as idol worship in sraddhas. Such efforts were converted into the Civil Marriage Act so that those would not be construed within the purview of Hindu marriage. The elders of the Brahmo Samaj did not take to this kindly. Debendranath was against the abolition of the sacred thread. Keshab used this as an issue to rile in his seniors in the Samaj. He convinced Bijoy Krishna Goswami to be his aide in this matter and the latter created problems as he did not want to share the podium with a priest who retained his sacred thread. Closely following this act of defiance and indiscipline came another when Keshab uttered some nonsense words in lieu of the mantra while ceremonizing the marriage of one Nibaran Chandra Mukhopadhyay from Bhagalpur. Debendranath wrote a note on a chit in pencil warning Keshab to mend his ways while dealing with the affairs of the Brahmo Samaj.

Expectedly it was not meant to be a formal note but Keshab wrote back to say that he took offence since the note did not contain the usual “affection” of the Maharshi towards him and hence he was hurt. He then set out to write that should Debendranath decide to expel him from the Samaj, he would not only let the post go, nor severe the connection with the Samaj; instead twine around it like a poisonous snake and spit venom to kill the organization. In short, he threatened suicide bombing. On the one hand he provokes Debendranath and on the other expects to be forgiven and indulged and when reprimanded even in the lightest of all ways, he becomes vengeful and threatens to blow up the edifice. Shibnath Shastri, however chose to be with Keshab and the Samaj split. The Adi Brahmo samaj remained with Maharshi Debendranath while Keshab Sen created the Bharatvarshiya Brahmo Samaj where most of the tenets of the Brahmos were brushed aside like study of scriptures. Mysticism and bhakti were incorporated in a major way and Ramkrishna Paramhansa got a lot of prominence in it.

It is interesting that Keshab Sen, unlike Debendranath lived in a vacuum and this vacuum could be labelled as a cultural vacuum. Though his family was well educated in the scriptures, surrendering to those would mean to acknowledge the superiority of likes of Tagores; defiance against the Tagores translated into a defiance against the scriptures. He also created some unnecessary enemies with his close friends like the Christian missionaries who he may have also befriended to taunt the Brahmos as they had arguments with the Church. Later he fought the Christians openly and drew close to Ramkrishna Paramhansa, who, despite being an idol worshipper was also a mystique. Keshab was constantly changing allies and realigning himself by once siding with the Christians and then opposing them, once attacking everything Hindu and specifically Vaishnav and then embracing those, once fleeing home to be with Debendranath and then defying his authority and splitting the institution. The above show the instability of his social positon which seeks power, once by appropriating power through alignment and then overpowering everything by dissent. This could be the power dimension to upward social mobility.

Keshab Sen was a demagogue with attractive looks and charismatic personality. He may have thought of himself as Lord Krishna. The role of Krishna was explained thus to him by Swami Brahmananda as one who creates a bridge between the world of humans and the world of Gods. However, Keshab’s brand of Brahmoism was based more towards Protestant ethics where the concept of the sinner seeking redemption was strongly underscored. This later created many more splinters in the Brahmo Samaj especially those who leaned towards Vaishnavism seeking a mystic and erotic union with God.

Just as Keshab found himself at the core of disagreements with the Brahmo Samaj and split it, he also split with his family, whereupon his share of the wealth was given to him and he moved away to southern Calcutta where he purchased a huge bungalow from an Armenian. The property used to house orphan girls run by Christian missionaries. Since these little girls were under the shelter of Christians, he did not wink an eyelid to dislocate them. His share of the property was purchased by his younger brother and so the family property remained intact and he got some money with which he purchased substantial land for his Brahmo Samaj. Friends like Pratapchandra Majumdar donated some money and so did a few of the petty zamindars. Meanwhile a gentleman called Jadumani Ghosh, a Bengali from Orissa donated his lifetime savings for the Brahmo Samaj. Keshab Sen seeing that the man was on the anvil of parting with the savings of his life time decided to use the money, not as a donation but as a loan. Till such a time his money was repaid, Keshab housed him in his Kolutala property. Unfortunately when Keshab was unable to repay the loan, Jadumani raised rabble and accusing of Keshab’s wife trying to poison him went to the press and splashed the story that Keshab was bankrupt and a cheater. This had a very bad effect on his reputation.

Keshab married off his minor daughter to the princely family of Coochbehar, unable to resist his greed for upward climbing. He not only disregarded the same age of consent which he so passionately campaigned for but he also followed each and every Hindu ritual. This too was splashed in the news. Keshab’s charisma was so widespread that the newer members of the Brahmo Samaj especially from Monghyr and Patna would touch his feet and worship him like a Prophet. His close associates like Bijoy Krishna Goswami and others including the newspaper conglomerate of Amrita Bazar Patrika were so put off by such adulation that they left Keshab’s company. So, personal glorification, cheating of a debt repayment and the direct flouting of Brahmo Samaj rules in his personal matters made Keshab look like a hypocrite and an impostor. Keshab was finally dismissed from all matters pertaining to Brahmo Samaj and the office bearers put a lock on its gates. Keshab moved in with a few of his cohorts and put another lock on the temple and occupied the grounds. When the office bearers moved in to clear the grounds, Keshab came to blows and the police had to be called to tackle what became a law and order problem.

He was soon shunned by one and all among his older associates. Shibnath Shastri was the only one who stood by his side and together, he helped put up the Sadharon Brahmo Samaj with Ananda Mohan Bose, Umesh Chandra Dutta and himself. Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and Rajnarayan Basu both blessed the new venture and donated Rs 7000 unconditionally though the initial promise was only of Rs 2000. The last days of Keshab was spent at Dakshineswar under the care of Ramkrishna Paramhansa.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Bankimchandra and Bangadarshan – Looking Into the Future of Bengali Language

Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay was already an established novelist and a well-entrenched bureaucrat under the British rule when he decided around the 1870’s to edit a Bengali literary magazine called Bangadarshan. The idea behind this was to expand the reach of the Bengali literature among a wider segment of the population, who were ever so beyond its pale. Modern Bengali prose had to struggle against Sanskrit on the one hand and the Persian on the other and raise its bar to the level of English literature to command a perspective of the world that could be said to be visionary. Yet, Bengali literature could not be only a rehash to English works translated into vernacular; while it had to absorb the stature of the English thoughts and feelings, it had to find its own identity in a life that was entirely its own. The Bengali novel’s and that of the Bengali culture in general was to be able to provide to the Bengali, a sense of a future.

Bankimchandra was quick to realise that the shortcomings of this culture were in the class that produced it; yes, Bengali literature was produced and even consumed by an elite class, sociologically, economically, and intellectually so distinct from the populace that its ethos were nearly alien. Bengal, being largely rural and tribal, its culture was limited territorially, confined geographically and often constrained by the lack of any shred of higher thought. Not unlikely thus, it was limited in its syntax and vocabulary, in its concepts and ideas and often veered towards the poverty of taste. This world of the low brow needed to be penetrated by the high culture. Bangadarshan was founded upon this mission.

There were two motives for such an effort; one was commercial, and which was to increase circulation of Bengali literary works and make the businesses of printing and publishing more economically viable and the other was ideological, to raise tastes and levels of culture so that the small section of the Bengali elite could expand and acquire significant numbers and density. The tendency of authors in those days and as always was to lower their standards of writing to appeal to the popular tastes. Bankim was against this and said that while the language could be more lucid, there could be no compromise with the complexity of thought. The people had to be teased out of their moorings and tempted towards the high culture. Language had two components, the grammar, and the dictionary on the one hand and the thoughts it carried on the other. Since Bengali was a little too hard for the people beyond the elite circles to follow, he suggested that let the populace be taught to read Hindi and Hindi could carry the ethos of the Bengali high culture. Hindi was closer to the language that most of the rural folk understood and the kind of literature that Hindi carried was often closer to the jatras, songs and other folklore of Bengal. In other words, the Bengali written by the bhadralok was farther removed from the spoken vernacular of Bengal than Hindi was. The idea of propagating Hindi was to develop the language as a lesser vehicle than Bengali to carry thoughts and ideas generated by the highbrow Bengali writers to the people.

Bankimchandra despised Vidyasagar, fearing him as a Sanskrit scholar, who he felt would pull Bengali towards Sanskrit and hence render the language obsolete and deprived of freshness that it had only begun to acquire. It seems that Bengali was taught along with Arabic and Persian in the royal schools which the elite could attend in pre British Bengal while the ordinary Bengali was left with reading some obscurities in Sanskrit only. To free Bengali of Sanskrit meant to free Bengali from hoary thoughts. For a long time he thought that Vidyasagar was trying to revive Sanskrit and hated him. Anyway, a few decades down the line, the ideas of Bangadarshan were taken seriously by the Hindi elites and there began a hectic translation of the novels of Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra and Rabindranath Tagore. The trend continues till date with authors like Premendra Mitra, Narendranath Mitra, Bonophool, Kamal Kumar Majumdar, Sunil Gangopadhyay and even Shirsendu Mukherjee to mention only the major ones translated exhaustively into Hindi. Presently Bengali OTT films and television serials and stories of Bani Basu, Smaranjit Chaudhuri and Suchitra Bhattacharya are more easily available to the Hindi readers than they are to the Bengalis because the translations are found online. The height was when I searched the Internet for Ramcharitam by Sandhakar Nandi, I found his works in Hindi but not in Bengali. It is seen to be believed how much of Hindi readership and viewership constitutes translations of Bengali literature.

It is not only the cultural legatees of Bankimchandra and Bangadarshan that the Hindi litterateurs frantically translated Bengali works but eminent novelists like Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Premendranath Mitra, Narendranath Mitra and others enthusiastically contributed towards film scripts those which were made from Bengali novels, especially those of Tarashankar, Saratchandra and Bimal Roy. Besides the novels, ethos of Bengali literature heavily dominated the Hindi film world through the presence of Bengali film directors, music composers and even producers like New Theatres. What I want to insist is that Bengalization of Hindi is not fortuitous, it is deliberate. The rise of Chhayavad is largely an urbanization of the discourses to make space for the emotions and angst of a rising professional middle class among the Hindi speaking persons.

Chhayavad was a movement of the 1930’s, a time when Bengali literature was in its Kallol period. It was also at a time when the Bengali middle class seems to have wholly come into existence. Unfortunately for us, the orientation of Bengali literature changed from its search of larger principles of history and civilization towards the narrow focus of poverty, defeat and emotional non fulfilment. The Bengali literature started looking trapped, cornered and as that culture that failed to make it big, somehow hanging on to the fringes. Bengalis indulged in politics of complaints and agonies, dissatisfied with life and yet bereft of energy to initiate change, the Bengalis along with their language became parochial and inward looking and eventually opted out of its own future. Having fewer inspirations to draw from, Hindi literature struggled for a while, sank into writing for the cinema and eventually also dropped off largely from literature into the new millennium, making Hindi into a vehicle for nonfiction, as in textbooks, news stories, commentaries and so on. The development of Hindi thus moved towards politics and the market where a large Hindi reading, if not speaking people abound. It lost in terms of literature but flowered into a vehicle for expressing political concerns. For the Bengalis, its literature still exists but as that inward looking, narcissistic self-pity, losing its universal appeal, no longer being able to inspire people who speak other languages. Like the Bengali, the language too has degenerated for the want of a wider perspective and this is because of the changing nature of the Bengalis.

In other words, we may say that the Bengali culture has lost its universalism and instead sinks into parochialism because the Bengali has degenerated from being a universal entity into a regional entity only. This is because the “Bengali” of today is represented by a lower middle class who lives off employment but is not an employer herself. Driven by democratic politics as everywhere else in the world, the Bengali is perhaps the first one to fall into the trap of the politics in which political equality promised by democracy is used to crush inequalities either through inherited legacy or through unusual talents. Such politics finally saps the creative juices of the society, making everyone as ineffective as the envious failures useless for deployment for social growth or productivity. This politics in defence of social failures have cursed the Bengali language as one that is used for the representation of angst, despair and in general, of failure of human agency and endeavours. That is why, to return to life, Bengalis those who wish to rise above this trap of sourness and cynicism are looking towards other languages with enthusiasm. After all, a language is what it communicates; if it communicates an expansive vision of the world, it will be sought after. But if it only braces the failures, it can just as well disappear. The world never remembers those who choose to drop off.

Tagged | Leave a comment

Muslim Politics

A very young friend of mine who is already an internationally acclaimed scholar pursuing his post graduate in a globally reputed University in England and from who I always have learnt a semester worth of knowledge through his posts and shares, has obviously thrown cannon fodder into my thinking about the Muslim question in general. He is a Muslim ofcourse and despite his scholarship, he has remained a conservative Muslim eager to forever draw boundaries of differences whenever he feels vulnerable that such boundaries of his self-identity will dissolve in the face of the wide world which he has been constantly encountering. He comes from a rural background of prosperity and being a West Bengali, where Muslims have turned an indifferent eye towards the communal politics leading to the Partition. The only thing the Bengali Muslims in its many villages know that “they” are “bangals” and identity of the soil which is easily translatable as nationalism inheres the West Bengali Muslim. This is why, the rise of communal politics in the era of Mamata Banerjee who rode the wave of Bengali nationalism seems to be almost wholly out of place, and Bengali nationalism is not only about a communally harmonized Bengal but also Bengal’s imagination that it imagines the new and evolving India as its bounden duty.

My young friend seems to be stoking a certain brand of communal politics which resembles very closely the politics of Partition. Being the brilliant scholar that he is, he has drawn a map of Muslim population, shown those to be concentrated in some pockets, drawn a boundary line around it and dropped unmistakeable hints that these areas could secede. Secession is not too worrying for me, what worries me are two things; one is the provocation of a riot, which being a Bengali Muslim in the villages his family has not seen, but my family being Calcutta Hindus know too well and what it means for the person, property and psyche for generations to come. The other worry is what draws from him, his worry that the girls and women who have benefitted enormously from Mamata Banerjee will still continue to vote for her. So he worries how to control the women, which so quickly will translate into the purdah and eventually to domestic violence on them. He has also posted against Nusrat, a sitting MP and who is the image of a modern Musim woman who dresses like a Hindu Bengali, married a Hindu but still keeps her religion. His attacks against the progressive and successful Muslim woman portends the extent to which secessionist, divisive and communal politics can attack women of the community.

In a few posts earlier in the month, he has created a passion to vote against the TMC. His words seem to echo pretty widely too in some other fringe outfits and there is the all India Hindi speaking Muslim outfit which tries to do a Jinnah. The aim is to demolish the TMC, knowing fully well that it is the only viable barrier against the Hindu right wing fascist politics. So the Bengali Muslim now is transformed to the Partition seeking East Bengali Muslim of 1947, territorial consolidation, secession and an all India domination rather than regional autonomy. The Bengali Muslim is already demolished, separated from his homeland and driven by the interests of Owaisi from elsewhere, the West Bengali Muslim is veering towards a Pakistan. He has learnt a lot from history that Pakistans never survive, for they soon secede again along lines of nationalism and become fragmented nations. That’s the gain he is moving towards, he wants his own little world where he could be king; where his will would be the word, his way will be the way or else you can catch the highway. So India to Bengal to his even little territory; my brilliant friend is looking to shut the doors of his world from the influences from the outside world.  The trouble is that when the mind thinks this way, the final unit that might make him safe would be his own dwelling, or else may be his bathrooms, though village homes usually do not have them. Such minds are thus fearful minds. The trouble with fascism is that it is a whole politics based on the carrying of personal eccentricities into the public.

Yet I would wonder why a scholar, so promising, so well brought up with nothing to demand from the world on grounds of deprivations should suddenly move into a proletariat mood, emerge so harassed by social oppression so as to emerge into almost a vindictive violence. Things did not match up well. Just then, this morning, and he was one of the very first ones to respond to the incident of the US where Trump supporters have taken to street violence despite the poll verdict that has dislodged them. While my friends in the US look at the episode with downright disdain, they also shrug this off as saying that they have little energy left to address such aftermaths to a Kurukshetra. Unlike the Uttar Ramayana, the sequel to the Mahabharata goes without an impact because the war leaves even the readers so drained of energy. But my friend has seen in this incident the vindication of his fears, which has constituted his politics.

This fear of physical violence unleashed by the majoritarians/ nativists/fascists soon translates into a contempt, not for the perpetrators of the violence but towards the liberals, whose politics grants them space and freedom. One does not need to explain this further to a woman for a woman, even if she is not a feminist knows this for certain that the fear of violence braces her in every walk of life; this fear the man can never know and hence cannot gauge. By the same token, the fear of violence that the minority lives by cannot be gauged by a liberal, who does not experience this fear as part of her everyday life. Hence, as a liberal I have to understand by friend’s position, who by no means is unintelligent. While I understand his fear very well, what I cannot understand why his anger should be displaced away from the fascist to a liberal. This displacement comes from a strange working of the mind, he feels that there is “someone” who should protect him; women marry compulsively because they feel that they need a man around them for protection, minorities feel that someone needs to protect them. When they feel that the “someone” who could protect them is becoming weaker then they revolt by breaking free. But they do not break free to freedom but to greater vulnerability to violence as the fascists walk easy when liberals are removed. There is suicide in such an act of the minorities because so certain they are that the fascists will attack them and the liebrals will not save them because they are either indifferent or too formalistic to emerge out of the administrative rigidities of propriety to strike the streets in defence against physical violence that minorities often desire to take to armed militancy. Terror funders step in nicely here just as secession does.

There are then two theorems at work here; one is the utter dependence on the political machinery as though it were a feudal machinery, meaning that Muslims have not as yet emerged to citizenship from feudalism. The other is the overwhelming fear of violence upon them. This fear leads them to desire secession, enclosures of fundamentalism, conservative defence against the world to the extent of being denied its opportunities and to be relegated into the darkest hiding places. The movement into hiding, desire to destroy the “feudal lord” and to enter into a suicidal combat with the offender also constitutes the irrationality of fascism. No wonder then every Muslim is a terrorist at heart, there is only Pakistan in their soul and that they can never modernise into citizenship are proved true. Who proves them to be true? Is it not a fearful and an unreflective mind, a mind that cannot reason well? The question is, what is the sociology of such a mind? What conditions create thoughts? The answers to those will emerge into theories of fascism.

Leave a comment

Some Obituaries

That Saroj Khan will not live into her centenary was clear from her demeanour. She looked exhausted and harassed, puffed up in her face with a glassy glint in her eye and somehow communicated a feeling that somewhere the world to which she could have given so much was already full to the brim without needing her talents anymore. Irrelevance is the greatest cause of broken hearts and Saroj Khan died of a broken heart. It is not possible to understand the agony of her irrelevance without also gauging her enormously important talent.Saroj Khan emerged as an independent choreographer only in the 1990’s, the age of the jhankar beats. Before this, she worked through the 1980’s as assistant to star choreographers and choreographed many stars including Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Hema Malini. She lived and worked in post modern India, a India that revelled in the breaking off from roots and emerging into faceless individualism. These were also the years of the beginning of the Babri Masjid politics, the breaking of the monument literally bar binging an iconoclast era.

Bollywood changed as well, not so much in its philosophical discoveries but definitely in its look and feel as a strange etherealise descended upon its form. Amitabh Bachchan would say in some of his interviews of these times that the frames became too fast and the cuts very unexpected. To this tone of Bollywood, Saroj Khan’s style became a misfit. Here is why.Saroj Khan used to teach dance in a television channel which I followed closely. She would use her students as props and once again teach the steps of the very songs she had choreographed. The crux of her movements would use the movement of the limbs and the torso to express through symbols the lyrics of the song while the facial expressions would mimic the feelings. In other words, she made the body of the dancer a site for both the lyrics as well as the melody and the rhythm of the song. The dancer would be made to seem like the actor who carried the song exactly in this way. Saroj Khan used the conventional formula to let the body carry the song.We will get our point across very well if we are to compare her with another contemporary choreographer, the much younger Farah Khan. Farah taught some dance through the television as well. She would use the dancers body to express the beat of the song and hence the dancer bore no resemblance to the song’s lyrics or moods whatsoever. The song and the body were separated in the music composed since the 1990’s. That was considered to be the in thing and resented the new age while Saroj Khan looked an unmistakable retro.

The Saroj Farah tussle represented the inner tussle of Bollywood, which way to go, the mainstream formula with clear moral resolutions or the post modern vagueness with unresolved issues of morality. Saroj Khan thus stuck to the world largely receding, Madhuri Dixit, the last big star or Aishwarya Rai who played Umrao Jaan in the eponymous film or a Bipasha Basu’s Bidi Jalile.. Songs of nostalgic strains. Farah and her school was ascending in the world of alienated individuals mediated through the electronic manipulation of images, the rise of the narcissist rather than the self absorbed persons of Saroj’s mental world. Saroj Khan became irrelevant because of her understanding of the song as having emanated in the body, as a response of the body to the unfolding of the Universe, for that body no longer existed because the responses to the natural world is replaced by a mediated experience through the electronic stimulus of extenuated sound engineering.

Kader Khan

Kader Khan, New Year Day 2019Perhaps the only reason why I noticed Kader Khan was because he, and not Salim Javed was the dialogue writer of the movie, Amar Akbar Anthony. This movie by Manmohan Desai changed the destiny of Amitabh Bachchan, for were it not for this movie Amitabh would have been a great star but never the superstar that he rose to become. For me, an Amitabh Bachchan scholar, Kader Khan is important because of his bringing into language the character of Anthony Gonsalves. Before this, Amitabh Bachchan got his distinctive image through films like Zaneer, Deewar and Sholay, often studied as a trilogy of Salim Javed in which a hero was created overnight who broke out of the mould of the conventional wisdom of cinema to extend the horizon in all directions.

Crucial to Amitabh’s dimensions and intensity of appeal was the language in which the image spoke, literate, poetic, reasoned, intonated, loud and sharply articulated loaded with a well-defined philosophy that concerned justice and capitalist relations. Much of the hero’s image sprouted from his speech like the mythical Brihaspati, who speech or vach separated from a state of a mere Being into a state of Becoming and evolving. Salim-Javed’s wrote speeches that dynamized the hero’s image, evolving and transforming him through a recognition and an articulation of his experiences and helping him to organize and then to command the world. Speech was central to the hero who Salim Javed created. Amar Akbar Anthony was a different project for here the hero had to return to earth by getting embedded into its daily rhythms, mundane matters and small talk.

If Salim Javed’s hero had transcended his mundanity, Manmohan Desai’s hero found his home among the familiar everyday social life. If the hero graduated to a higher life in Salim Javed’s projects, he returned to his existential home in Manmohan Desai’s films. Without this return to balance his flight, Amitabh Bachchan could never have been the superstar that he eventually is. Kader Khan was the dialogue writer to have captured the phenomenological spirit within the ordinariness of life. This, to my mind is the genius of this college teacher of Civil Engineering who veered into the world of Bombay cinema.Writing for a character like Anthony Gonsalves could not have been easy. For here, unlike the series of Vijays of Salim Javed, the speech congealed into the persona of the hero instead of articulating a selfhood. Kader Khan’s speech writing was short and curt that embedded the speaker into his environment. Speech acts, like writing is differentiated and Kader Khan’s dialogues seem to have achieved exactly the opposite because these wove the characters together as beads in a set of interconnectedness. They all belonged to a family because they were speaking the same language, had the same goals and were moving together in a roundabout. The camera movement and the music of Amar Akbar Anthony has this roundabout sense, a horse drawn carriage, the roundness of the Easter egg shaped shell, circular staircases, the qawwali and the garlands and the eunuch songs support the circular movement of the ensemble of its dialogues. In Amar Akbar Anthnoy, Amitabh Bachchan and Manmohan Desai found a lasting bond and Kader Khan’s speech helped wax this union.I end looking up who Kader Khan was born as and what he became to step into the Hindi film. I read on the Internet that he was born an Afghan in Kabul, moved to Mumbai, then Bombay read and taught civil engineering. Civil engineering was a front running profession all through the 20th century and attracted the best brains in the country. But by the 1960’s, the profession stagnated, and the better students veered towards Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. The cream of civil engineers then expanded into creative areas, namely novelists, art commentators, film makers and later the urban Naxals in the 1960’s were civil engineers.

Kader Khan must have represented the spill over bright minds from civil engineering. The other interesting thing about Kader Khan was his nationality; originally Afghani and later Canadian. I wonder whether he ever was an Indian citizen. In a sense he forever remained an “outsider” and this may have given him a deep sensibility to the contrarian existential position of what it needed to be an insider. Possible. His being brought up an Afghani, if not a Kabuli helped him in yet another way, a way we are not much aware of and this is the innate instinct of Kabulis at making poetry. Even as early as Babur, wrestlers too were veritable poets, as the Emperor to be mentions in his memoirs, Baburnama. Much of Kader Khan was prolific and not always noticeably brilliant, unlike Salim Javed but his genius lay in his ability to immerse his characters into their milieu and in their togetheredness so that everything stood out together as a coherent work in the film. This was the spirituality of Kader Khan and hence also his genius.

Posted in Obituaries | Leave a comment

Fascism Talks 1 : Long Calls With K

K called up; I was busy and so I sent him a message saying that I will call later when free. He sent a bit of an apologetic message saying that he just wanted to continue the discussions of some issues on which our arguments were going on. His and my arguments will never end, for he intends to put forth a position to destroy mine, and I do the same too. No one has ever won an argument, so goes the adage.

K is better off than me, he is born into a business family, manufacturing something, I think so. Rare because Bengalis are more like me born to salaried fellows, government employees till a couple of generations back and corporate employees in my father’s. With the rates of interests on deposits in banks constantly running down and brains which have no time to study speculative financial markets after devoting to constantly acquiring professional acumen, we are being pushed steadily towards the nadir of our economic class. In this way, K and I are the same, I mean in being pushed down. For some reason his family was pushed out of manufacturing totally and now he seems to have taken a refuge in Bangalore. I suspect that he does not do much except to write in churlish English with long winded sentences telling us less and confusing meanings more, perhaps an angst that the world has failed him. He is educated in England, I think for he knows a lot about the inside ways of the English sophisticated classes and has some Members of Parliament among his family friends. My contacts have gone down like no one’s business, I barely find six people for registering a society.

Leave a comment

Dusting During Lockdown

Ever since the lockdown I have taken passionately to sweeping and mopping floors of my homes in Faridabad and Kolkata. I visualise and plan the best ways to do the turns of the rooms, which order must I sweep them so that the dust collected by my broom finds the easiest passage to the dust pan. I have also visualised the corners in which dust collects and how best to reach them through ways more innovative than ever. The results have shown, floors look clean and feel soft. After this mammoth activity, I use the mop to clean the grills and here in lies the tale that I will tell today.

The house where my parents live was built by my grandfather in 1960, the same year as my birth. Fortunately for everyone my father is an only child and the house did not need to go to the builder. My mother has maintained it really well and this is one area where she has never compromised on finances. The house thus remains much as it was, except some renovations to get me a room to myself after my brother got married and claimed more space in the house. This story is therefore to tell the readers that the grills on the Windows have not been changed. I dust these grills, as old as me everyday. They remain as usual glossy and sleek. These are those flowers with impossible curves so that if you clean these with ordinary cloth both the cloth and the skin on your fingers can meet the same level of bruises.

But when I do the same exercise of dusting the grills in my Faridabad home, the grills tend to rust. These grills are only 15 years old and modern, straight lined in geometric designs and are so much easier to dust. Curved lines tend to rust more than straight lines, and the curved ones are older than the straight ones by 45 years, or three life cycles of an automobile. Then what happened? The quality of steel has seen a drastic deterioration over the long term so much so that people no longer trust steel. The substitution of steel by plastics, the tendency to use no steel in constructing pucca houses, the ongoing popularity of wood and new research on alloys to replace mild steel are signs that people trust steel less and less. The overwhelming use of stainless steel in place of mild steel in rural India is a point in the case. We are having a lower quality of steel by the day.

Then I also discovered that the helps in both places left the bottom of the cupboards and the back of the chairs undusted and unswept. As soon as I took to the broom and the mop suddenly the floors shone in a manner that I did not know that they could. I realised soon enough that as much as I took pride in my activity, servants hated it. I do not remember that sweeping and mopping was so resented by our servants in our childhood. This morning when I discovered that I had a bruise in my forearm and could not remember where I could have hurt myself, the maid readily told me that I hurt myself when I was in the act of cleaning. I notice that servants in either place do not care to remove even a mat to sweep the floor clean, let alone remove furniture and I think that they fear that they will hurt themselves or they will be strained. The problem is that the present generation is not attentive enough to do sweeping and mopping any more. Cleaning needs mental focus, one cannot clean stuff until and unless one is mentally calm. India is unclean because most of its people are mentally agitated. The lack of calm that makes India unclean also is the underlying cause in producing poor quality of steel, the lack of focus.

Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Last Lear – Rituparna Ghosh’s Thesis on Amitabh Bachchan

Many moons ago, my senior in Jadavpur University, now a eminent gender economist, was keen that Rituparna Ghosh who was a year senior to me in the class and I should become very good friends. I barely knew who he was except that he was a pretty boy, effeminate with a crop of curly hair and a nickel rimmed spectacle those which sat precariously on his nose bridge, being a bit too large for his face. I had no time to even notice this fellow busy as I was in campus politics and debates. Yet, the reason why my feminist senior insisted that we should be friends was because she felt that Ritu was a girl despite being born a boy and I was a boy despite being born a girl. In those days, contrary to my cultural legacy of the highbrow, I became a fan of Amitabh Bachchan and hence started watching Hindi films. Ritu, I now learn from his writings was out of Bollywood by miles. My interests in Amitabh Bachchan and my own surprise as t why I became a fan of a Hindi film star led me to pursue an academic career in sociology out of which I emerged with a MPhil and PhD but also with a theory of stars and the possibility of using these persona as texts for reconstruction of an era during which they lived and were loved. Ritu’s distance from Bollywood led him to revive the high culture of Ray, Sen, Tapan Sinha and in some instances even Aparna Sen and Ghatak. Then he returned, when he was older and less shy of himself to Bollywood,to Amitabh Bachchan, to whom he, I suspected was always attracted to but was too repressed to admit. In an interview I read long ago, Ritu said that one of his secret desires was to score a perfect 16 in KBC. So, he returned to touch his deep inner psychology in what turned out to be his last film, Last Lear.

Last Lear was Ritu’s thesis of Amitabh Bachchan. There was a palpable projection of himself on the star, who he imagined as one that ended his life and could now be accessed as a relic. It seems that this theatre artist long retired and is now sought again by a director who wishes to shoot a film on Shakespeare’s King Lear, a role the artist wanted to play but did not. However, the artist is injured and is bedridden after he tries to perform his stunts himself. Last Lear is a film about remembering his performance as an actor. I realized that Ritu stayed away from Amitabh because somewhere the masculinity of the image scared him; he must have thought in his mind that Amitabh if they ever met would disapprove of him. In the film Amitabh speaks poorly of homosexual men, Ritu’s self-infliction of wounds for his own guilt and inferiority complex. Now, in his matured years, with a body of extremely commendable work under his belt and Amitabh, sufficiently toned down and mellow without his scripts meet through the film, Last Lear, a role that is biographical, metaphorical and essential to the megastar of Bollywood.

Ritu captures the essence of Amitabh in his meticulous sense of ordering, his loyalties and commitments, his overpowering dominance, a tendency to bully, exactness of articulation, perfection in performance and the sheer force of personal presence. In these, he becomes like King Lear, one who is finally exiled and dies in the mercy of those who look after a maimed body long after his spirit dies. There are two women in the film too; one we may read as Jaya, because of the way the actress reacts and speaks and the other is Rekha, the actress who he mentors not merely in her craft but making her conscious that her craft needed to free her repressed emotions. Both women, suffer bad marriages when they come to him, and he provides them shelter and solace, respectively. This is the way Ritu looked at Amitabh, one past his prime, one left with little to live for except his personal habits, eccentricities, and quirks. And in this he moves into Amitabh’s personhood from his star persona. He explored the person carrying his proclivity of gossip to construct an image of the real-life Amitabh. This shows that Ritu was in awe of the man, approaching him only when he became less dangerous at the end of the journey, weakened a great deal with age, with his sharpness now coated with more grace.

Ritu has never been a philosophical person, not being able to graduate to larger world views out of what remains as personal struggle among his characters. As his classmate tells me that Ritu can never be a Ray because he is such a domesticated man, he can never get the global flavour of Ray. This mutual friend is not a film critic but has understood Ray very well. Ray used Amitabh only once and uncomfortable as he was with the star system used only Amitabh’s voice as the narrator in Shatranj Ki Khiladi. Ritu also used the very apparent and the visible parts of the actor, like Ray’s used Amitabh’s voice, Ritu used his personal habits. Both were advertising persons; they knew how to use the apparent stuff.

Posted in Film Reviews, Rituparna Ghosh | Tagged , | Leave a comment

15th September, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee

Today is the birth anniversary of Sarat Chandra Chattpadhyay, the greatest novelist that India has ever known, perhaps the greatest in the world, if the impact factor is taken in. He wrote in Bengali and has been the world’s most translated author, perhaps after the Bible and such was the structure of his language that a Telugu reader thought that Sarat Chandra originally wrote in Telegu, or the Gujarati reader thought that the author’s mother tongue was Gujarati and so on. Hence, Sarat Chandra was also the most translatable of all authors. Regrettably, this aspect of the author, namely his semantics has not been studied adequately for us to learn why Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay is so translateable? Why is the appeal of his language so universal? We get too hung up on the content of his stories, realizing little the role of the form, namely the language to carry the stories across regions and over generations.

I knew of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay through hearsay, then read his biography in Hindi by Vishnu Prabhakar and finally a sixty-four-part series published in Bengali in the weekly Bartaman. Most, if not all his stories are true episodes from his own life which he lived in northern Bihar. He represented the quest of a quintessential Bengali, that of a practitioner of culture as well as that of a traveller, vagabond, in his own words. Settling down nowhere and yet telling tales of settled people, Sarat Chandra wrote fanatically of individualism and this is why he chose to write so much about women as women, in his eyes were the most contained and controlled elements of the society. He was a feminist because he championed the cause of the creative individual, not particularly the romantic, but of the free willed ones, exercising a singular choice, and that of just to be. Perhaps this makes the author so universal.

Essential to Sarat Chandra is the Hegelian tragedy, tragedy born of the impossibility of existence of things which have been decided upon as being mutually exclusive. Bindu is only an aunt, she cannot be a mother to the child she loves so dearly. Ram is only a brother in law, contender to the inheritance of his widowed sister in law, Narayani and yet, instead of rivalry over property, Ram looks upon Narayani as the mother he never had and he, for Narayani is her first born child. The story of Mahesh, if voted upon could easily be the world’s most intense tragedies. Sarat Chandrian tragedy has constituted the tragedy of the Indian popular cinema of each region. The form and structure of the Indian popular cinema is Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay; those who do not fall into his form are considered as parallel cinema. This is an important fact to be noted and pursued when discussing the writer who could well be called as The Novelist like Aristotle is The Philosopher. Like his feminism, his tragedy is also individualistic, about individuals who unite on an emotional plane, irrespective of the roles and statuses they occupy.

It is due to the great emphasis of the individual, her freedom to be just her, which also makes him, according to his own description of himself, a vagabond that Sarat Chandra is modern, humanist, rational, secular, post-colonial, existential and universal and yet deeply rooted in the ethos of the Indian life.

Posted in About Books, Bengali Icons | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Indian Secularism

My friend Reshmi Bhaskaran asked us through her Facebook posting what secularism was? On the face of things, secularism, by its European definition would be the ineffectuality of religion in the affairs of politics and of public life since ideas of the Divine were to remain relegated strictly to the realm of the personal and the private. In India, secularism, which has had far longer a tradition than in Europe, usually meant equidistance from all religions. Parliament of religions which we frequently ascribe to emperor Akbar was, in fact quite the tradition in India.

Religious tolerance, tolerance of every faith and every creed was in fact quite an intrinsic part of a king’s dharma. Indeed, the cult of Jagannath launched by the great Ganga king Indradyumna at Puri is a veritable synthesis of all shades of beliefs, tribal, Vaishnav, shakes, Tibetan, Egyptian and even of Sri Lanka. Religious pluralism has been an essential component of good governance in historic india. IHow was such religious tolerance possible in India and for so long? Why was it necessary that every king worth his name would practice religious tolerance, plurality and equidistance? A possible reply for this is that religion never really mattered in the affairs of the state.

Religion was a cultural capital, cultivated as a matter of social refinement and not to govern the people. For governance, law and jurisprudence, India had its own dharma, a set of laws that were created purely on the basis of ideas of social equilibrium, or even perhaps of social status quo. A study of ancient and medieval law would give one an ample idea that principles of justice held equally for persons of all religion. In fact, it is only now that India does not have a uniform civil code.

The civil code, based on discourses of social equilibrium automatically relegated religion into the private sphere, though it may not have rendered it into a personal affair. Religious conversions often happened against social oppression, never in was close to empires, or to seats of power where the state was active enough to meet out justice to the aggrieved parties precisely on merits of hearing by a jury or even just a single judge. In short, India has always been secular even from the western point of view, because state and society were always separate, God belonged to society and the king to the state. These are my views.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Detective and the Thriller

Culture, taste, literature/detective

Detective vs the thriller

Sociology of literary genres

August 2020

Last week I finished reading two books on the Amazon kindle, one was a detective story and the other one was a thriller. Women in their early 50’s wrote them and both hailed from similar backgrounds in terms of income, class, legacy, education and most importantly, caste. In fact, they also belong to the same family; the writer of the detective story is a daughter while the writer of the thriller is the daughter in law. Yet, the flavour of the books were different as chalk and cheese or what is the same thing as typical detective novels would differ from the genre of a thriller. The difference is crucial between the two and has interesting sociological ramifications.

The detective novel which I read, as the name suggests is part of a series called Cosy Mysteries which means that it has a sense of cosyness about it that comes from contentment, partly because one has things in abundance but this also means that there is desire for no further. The detective, a woman, like the author in her mid-50’s is a development professional, bound to her wheelchair for movement outside of her home and depends on a crutch to move about indoors. She loves food, cooks well, entertains guests, gardens a bit, loves to travel, and does a lot of that, visits cafes and read books. Though her movements are over long distances, such distances do nothing to her behaviour, she speaks, thinks, reacts, responds, and sleeps and eats the same way as she would were, she never to leave her cottage in Shantiniketan. In this novel I read, the detective travels to Shimla to solve a suicide which she thinks is murder.

The thriller involves huge travel. The protagonist is a young male, a NRI who flies down to inherit a kingdom on the death of a childless patriarch and to find himself in the midst of a family power rubric wherein lies the lust and the love, the romance and the vengeance as the title suggests. The hero behaves differently in his new milieu as he has been born and brought up in the USA, comfortable in neither space, the opposite of the cosy and couch feel of our detective series. The pace of the thriller is racy, as characters are darting here and there for purposes know only to the hidden agents at work. The characters in the detective novel follow routines rhythm of their daily chores and even if they are fazed by something or the other, they return The pace seems crazy especially as the protagonist is unfamiliar in his surroundings unlike the detective who seems to be comfortable in all worlds at all times. While the detective’s movement is through her mental faculties, observation, reasoning, collation, and inferences, as they take the reader through mental calisthenics of guessing the criminal. The movement in the thriller is physical; the mind does not move here because the mind cannot move owing to the unfamiliarity of the circumstances that the protagonist finds himself in. He spends the narrative spaces in absorbing the strangers in whose world he finds himself in in the face of adversities as well as opportunities. Women are falling over him; men are tugging at him as he negotiates spaces of a medieval architecture. The detective, on the other hand is never caught unawares in the regal Shimla building of the Institute of Advanced Studies. She belongs to modernity and hence encounters her familiar world which may have people she has never met but they are just as well from within her world.

The thriller is too medieval for comfort discovered by a post-modern young man, there is a sharp contrast between the too desi and the one shade too much of the NRI. The agitation of one with the other constitutes the drama that is resolved through the sleaze of physicality. The detective, on the other hand encounters restrained emotions and sharp reactions of the mind, dualities of modernity over reason and passion.

When an incorrigible sociologist like me writes on the two genres, obviously would mean that the above is meant to climb spaces of the social reality. The detective is the elite whose space in the society is assured; the cosyness comes from her command over time and outcomes of the use to which she puts her time into. This means that she commands adequate social and intellectual resources to be comfortable with herself. The thriller writer, like her protagonist is a little iffy, she does not feel secure in her social entity, edgy with fear of being examined by the people who she lives with, always finding herself in alien situations, overwhelmed by strange people breathing down her neck. In other words, the thriller writer has stranger anxiety. Her strangeness with her situation is expressed in the youth and the masculinity of her character, the detective’s comfort is expressed in her protagonist, middle aged woman slightly compromised in her physical movements.

I mention that both writers come from the same social background, then how do they experience their objective reality so differently to represent the world views of two different classes? The detective has always been the entrenched elite, explaining the essential cosyness and the mental acumen rather than the need for physical energy while the high physical energy of the thriller is a will to strive, to achieve, to span across spaces, from which she has been hitherto debarred. The detective stories have morals and ethics, thrillers have egos, physical brawls, competition, and the need to get ahead of others, through chase and race. Thrillers do not need well ordered spaces, for the crime to be committed, to be hidden and to be detected. The thriller is an aspiration, detective stories are leisure. The difference between the two authors thus does not lie in the state they are in but in the state they want to see themselves in and the gradient between the two; the length and the angle of the gradient between the two states is the aesthetic quotient of the thriller.

Leave a comment