Bengal’s Vegetarianism

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Three Impressionists

I love the threesome, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet. I don’t think that they were a trio, but nonetheless I always thought of them together. They were born around the middle of the 19th century and lived into the early 20th. Van Gogh was Dutch while the others were French. Not that this matters to me for I am not too familiar with European sociology to be able to discern the influence of nationalities upon the individual talents. Yet, pure aesthetics has helped me understand something of these works. The neural impressions I get of these painters are that Monet has a way of capturing time, Cezanne captures space while Van Gogh captures human energies. These attributes brace their styles and not their content. Art uses content for the play of its style. The style is the real business of art just as the soul is the real business of salvation. Art moves close to religion on the one hand and politics on the other because of the transcendence of the concrete by means of the style, known in sociology as structuration, or the emergence into Being.

It is interesting that India where the salvation of the soul is important and perhaps India is also the inventor of such an ontology, yet the Indian painting is a mere abstraction of the concrete. It represents of objects and representations of those objects, juxtaposed with one another to produce newer meanings, generalized, stylized, and presented linguistically. Structuralism, as methodology is useful in studying these representations of objects. But where the impressionists of Europe are concerned, structuralism might not yield us good conclusions for these forms are not about the concrete realities but the transcendence of those, not about identities of artists based in specific political and social milieu but moving beyond them. While such desires of impressionistic artists to move beyond what is merely material and manifest might appear Hegelian, yet we may assign a Kantian intent to these painters. This is because the will to power in the styles of these painters are evident in their resignation into the world of the abstract, so great an abstraction that it may even be a nullity. In terms of Indian philosophy, we mean nirvana. In Nietzsche’s words, this is nihilism; for Zarathustra it would be final revelation of the Light.

Monet seems to have discovered Time, Cezanne discovered Space while Van Gogh gels into his brush, strangely the human energy. Monet’s painting is overwhelmingly Nature, its foliage, its verdant woods, the still waters, the lilies afloat in a pond, aimless and peaceful. The works are almost like life in Paradise, by their equanimity, by the eyes and the minds of the beholders of the work desiring to and intending to stay on here forever.

Cezanne encloses space; his sterling works are of still life. For the hasty mind, still life might mean as time standing still, but rather than that, still life may be looked upon as moments of time captured in the stillness of the canvas. Still life paintings attempt to capture space; only those paintings capture time where they present the flavour of timelessness. Only when the mind is in perfect harmony of colours, thoroughly satiated that it no longer has the desire to move anywhere else, can we say that Time has stood still, its journey into the Universe has now come to an end. Cezanne thus captures space; amazingly and gallantly.

Van Gogh is the most intriguing of the three for he concentrates human energies. There is something about his style that copies the field force of nervous stimulation. Renoir does just the opposite; he dissolves the neural tensions through his strokes.

Madhubani Painting
Kalighat Paintings
Van Gogh of the Above Cafe
Paul Cezanne
Leave a comment

The White Winged Horse Called Pegasus

Memories of Pegasus returned to me after so many years with the snooping activities of the government. The present Pegasus is however a software that can tap into mobile phone conversations. The BJP government has been using this software to tap into the conversations of its rivals in politics though with what effect we are yet to decide. There has been mayhem in Parliament because of this indiscriminate phone tapping, a blatant breach of privacy being an offence as in mature democracies this offence by the government would have constituted a misuse of office and worthily qualified for dismissal. However, nothing of that sort is likely to happen because the ruling party has enough seats in the Parliament to veto the motion. Besides the eavesdropping will not affect the voters because the moralities are different of the BJP voters and those of the protesting liberals.

Morals uphold the conduct of the society as a collectivity, to go by the simplest Durkheimian premise of social solidarity. Hence, despite the intrusion of privacy is a serious matter with the liberal minded people who uphold the value of the individual, it has no moral connotation for the BJP voter who represents a crowd. Canetti and Le Bon have both insisted that crowds lose values and ethics, and its morality is only the power of the crowd to curb the individual. In this case, the Pegasus, by curbing the freedom of the individual through espionage on privacy is an act of bravado and not shame. The Pegasus is an expression not only of power to control the movements of individuals but also to cower them down, worry them, unsettle them, and make them apprehend an intrusion into their selfdom at any moment, more so scary because it can be at any time, without warning. Hence not only is there an infringement of freedom but also a huge oppression by creating the fear of that infringement. The BJP supporter would clap gleefully at this huge achievement by the government. Hence Modi is likely to make more gains than incur losses of his popularity in the Pegasus scam. It will be another fantasy of the effete liberals to imagine that anything will be otherwise.

Like sex, there are two other things, hugely operative in the Indian society which are regularly pushed under the carpet and those are discussions of social class and communal sentiments. By pushing these out as the untouchables from intellectual discourse, we have forced every perversion into sentiments of the people. No wonder then one repeated phrase that the BJP followers use, “sentiments of the people.” Now what could these sentiments be? It is here that we will observe how fascism is nothing but a more advanced form of democracy itself and not its contradiction. The popular cinema, of all regions and Bollywood (though I think that the term is a perversion) have fought valiantly against this intellectual untouchability only to be brow beaten, hated, leered at by fashionable academia and scholars and as Susan Sontag rightly observes, interpretation has been used as a weapon in the hands of the scholar to attack art. Anyway, the consequence of untouchability is the elimination of chunks of possible talents among those who we push aside, just as unexplored swathes of land buried under sands and soil could yield precious metals and minerals if exploited; no wonder foolish people practice untouchability.

In cinema (though not in our novels), narratives are founded upon class struggle, not between the rich and the poor, nor between the rulers and the ruled but between the entrenched and the aspiring elites. The star is an aspiring person, an aspirant of the position that the entrenched occupies. S/he directs his angst against the incumbent by sometimes agonizing that the person s/he loves have been denied to him/her, or s/he has been abandoned and hence divested of justified legacy and so on. The protagonist weeps, jeers, quarrels, and even fights the incumbents to dislodge from positions which s/he will eventually occupy. Social movements notwithstanding, this has been the formula of our democratic politics as well and perhaps so for every democracy that has been on earth.

The BJP must be seen as the angst of the aspirants against the incumbent and there is nothing new about this except that this time, the aspirants have become the “crowd” who revel at morals of the society being broken as the breaking of the shackles of the bosses on the juniors, not trade unionism exactly but a noisy office meeting. The BJP is not a party; it is an ism, a faith and an ideology that is religion and its supporters are its followers. In such movements, the crowd pulls down the individuals, iconoclasm and idol breaking are part of its grammar. Therefore, any act of abrogating the liberal values can only be greeted with immense glee in its camp.

Otherwise, I associate Pegasus with the Russian fairy tales which the elders would buy for us, lovely coloured illustrations and engrossing tales of poor boy or poor girl being rescued by the white winged horse. It seems that the Pegasus is a mythical figure across central Asia, China, Siberia and even in some lands beyond the Urals. We are not too much into the horse except the Ashwmedha but remembering the stories we heard from our household helps hailing from the villages in Bengal, reading stories from Saradindu Bandopadhyay and a visitation of origin stories of tribes in Chhotanagpur plateau, that a white winged horse is associated with an invader from a distant land, a dark horse is feared as a Turki conqueror and a black horse, is an omen of disaster to come. It is believed that when Durga comes riding a horse, she leaves behind pillage and famines, and if she leaves the earth on a horse, then rebellions threaten the royal throne. The horse is thus intimidating in this part of the country, showing that associating invaders from Central Asia, Aryans, Sakas, Kushans, Huns, Parthians, Pathans, Turks and Mughals is deeply entrenched in our psyche. It is thus the eerie similarity that the BJP uses that of a conqueror into India that the Pegasus becomes its apt mount.  

Leave a comment

Nusrat Jahan

The case of Nusrat Jahan has upset mainly the young, idealist, zesty and nationalist minded Bengalis much concerned with the pride and dignity of their culture, little realizing that it is the Renaissance and not the Sati that defines Bengal. Unfortunately, unknown to themselves they are sounding more like Radhakanta Deb than Rammohan Roy. This is sad because only a few days ago, in their opposition to the Hindu right wing politics, they swore that they would not support Ram (Ramayana and the icon of the right wingers) that sent his wife to the pyre but the Ram (Rammohan) who saved women from burning. The conservatism and the misplaced idealism that the young are showing in the reactive statements in the Facebook. The young and idealists say that Bengali women’s role models should be Dr Kadambini Ganguly (the first woman practicing physician of Bengal and presently the subject of a television serial), Arundhati Bhattacharya (retired head of State Bank of India) and even Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister of Bengal) rather than the wanton and willful Nusrat Jahan, who for this generation seems to be an embarrassment for what they read as loose sexual integrity. Nusrat’s case may produce landmarks judgements around the question of ownership of rights over children and change the nature of marriage significantly, which may have an enormous impact on the future of women. This is because, for more women to become Dr Kadambini or Arundhati and even perhaps Mamata, Nusrat Jahan is the preliminary step!!

Nusrat Jahan is a Bengali film star known for playing roles with striking silences and for respectable banners. She is moneyed, propertied, famous, and beautiful; in short all that makes for a heavenly maiden. With such endowments, she strategically converted her cultural capital into a political capital by joining the ruling Trinamool Congress, married a Marwari Hindu businessman, had an exotic wedding in Turkey and threw a reception for the political galaxy in Kolkata. She dressed as the copybook Marwari bride, won a Lok Sabha seat, and penned down her status as being married. A couple of years down the line, once confirmed of her pregnancy she suddenly did the unthinkable, namely refused to accept the paternity of her husband for her child. Men usually do this, the Hindi film from down the line is full of tearful girls saying, Main tumhare Bacche ki ma bannewali hoon …which the cruel man denies making the woman into a hapless unwed mother and so on. In the classics, Dushyanta threw a pregnant Shakuntala out and in the Uttar Ramayan, Ram banishes Sita knowing fully well that she was pregnant. Denial of paternity is a man’s prerogative. Interestingly, Nusrat has done it this time. She has shown the behaviour of Ganga who denies Shantanu of children born to them, sets them afloat in the river and then finally when he claims Bhisma, Ganga herself disappears. Nusrat has followed this motif, namely denied paternity to the child in her womb to her partner in marriage and to reinforce her decision, denied marriage. The facts must be seen in their correct order. Nusrat does not deny marriage and hence paternity of her husband for the child, she denies marriage to deny paternity to her husband.

Nusrat’s legal stand is since she married in Turkey under the Islamic laws of that land and never registered her marriage in India, her marital status under the Indian law stands null and void. She remains married alright under the Turkish law, where her husband has no rights over her because she has spent her own money all along, namely wedding and honeymoon expenses, residence after marriage and other paraphernalia. Since the husband has no monetary obligations towards her, the dissolution of the marriage under Turkish law is a mere expression of her will and Indian legal system has no scope for intervention.

Men and women have different kinds of burdens in their lives; men are encumbered with the worry of having to earn a living and endure enormous pains in pursuing boring and uninteresting subjects that may help them get jobs. Women are torn between independence of careers and its loss in marriage. Both are unemancipated beings but the nature of their unfreedoms is different. A man must go on without ever stopping for a breath, women are forever pulled in two mutually opposing directions, marriage, and work. The low participation of women in the workforce in India, which is among the lowest in the world is also due to the demands of the Indian marriage and family on the woman. Many Kadambinis, Arundhatis and Mamatas lurk unfulfilled in public life because of their incarceration in housekeeping. Feminist literature is never tired of placing woman’s biology that manifests in the sociology of marriage as being contrarian to the organization of work and which is why it is construed that marriage pronounces the end of careers for women and deprives the society of her talents and contributions.

Marriage as in having a sexual partner and the childbearing responsibilities may not be the reasons. Marriage becomes contrarian to a woman’s achievements because it is patrilocal and patrilineal, which means that a woman moves into another household, lives off her in laws and hence produces children which belongs to the man’s family. Marriage is thus a change not merely of location but of identity where one becomes the member of another family and alien to her own. We may say that women are still so especially important for parents even after marriage, but these are laxities in the sociological rules and not their essences. In essence, the sociological rule of marriage means that a woman is transferred in body, mind and will to another family, which has control over her earnings, property, and children. The patrilocal laws ensure that the property of a married woman on her death will first go to her in laws while patriliny ensures that the child belongs to the father bearing his name. When banks and schools ask for mother’s name, we know that this is charity in accommodating a simple recognition and not really a transfer of rights to the mother. The pull of the marriage away from the career is the pull neither of sex nor of childbearing but of patrilocality and patriliny. Nusrat’s decisions have thrown out patrilocality and patriliny from her biological process of childbearing and the sociological commitment of handing over the child to a man who in plain sight is her husband. In simple words, once the woman is free from having to go over to another family, become a part of that and hand over her child to them, and instead continue to live in her own family with the child, who bears her name, she becomes free of marriage just as a man is. That freedom for a woman would make the man free of his yoke too in having to pull the household along, provide for three generations and make savings for the next. Freedom of one would lead to the freedom of another.

Nusrat is thus speaking of freedom from patrilocality and patriliny which helps a woman reconcile her biology and sociology to her individuality. Since the irreconcilability of marriage and career has made women stay indoors most of the times, the reconciliation of the two for her might help us see more women liberally participating in the workforce with creative energy and productive force. Hence, to be a Kadambini or Arundhati or Mamata, better not to rely on good husbands and liberal families, but to have the rules changed for you. This makes Nusrat as the preliminary step towards these role models.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

In a way, A Warning to the Muslims

A smart alec Muslim young girl, perhaps to be in the fashion fray of fiery women from Bengal in the likes of Mohua, Mimi and Nusrat and the hanger on Ms Hakim, decided to also write an open letter to Mamata Banerjee. In what she was supposedly vindicating my arguments against the Hindu fascists of their discursive position around Muslim appeasement by the present CM, she has, noticeably due to a lack of command over her language, kicked the ball into her own goalpost. She writes in a tone of accusation that while Ms Banerjee, the Hon’be CM has so-called appeased Muslims by granting them access to cemeteries and doles to Maulvis, she has done nothing to look after the fact that the Muslims are barely represented in higher education and in jobs commensurate to their proportion in the population. This, the writer construes that the CM, in a manner of a Hindu upper caste Bengali and true to her innate bias against the Muslims, is hatching the grand conspiracy of keeping the Muslims as Muslims and not helping them emerge as full citizens of the country. Not only is this post ungrateful and daft, this is mindless and suicidal for the Muslims in the state.

No one would have been as happy as me perhaps if the Muslims had really improved their representation in higher education and employment and lessened their representations in the prisons and police lock ups. For, in that case, West Bengal would have been a rare instance of a government that would have really been successful in structurally altering the redistribution of income and wealth towards greater equality. Some of this has really happened as well because Mamata’s policies were directed at the land, improvements in farming and what is more important, in integrating much of the Bengal village to the rest of India. Such integration may also have been the route through which the BJP much like the forces of Ikhtiyar Bin Bakhtiya Khiljee came and overran Bengal. But all said and done, it is Mamata who raised Bengal as a probable venue for investors, traders, transporters, shippers and even people who thought of settling down in Bengal for good. A modern historian of Bengal’s Partition, Rakesh Batabyal tells me that it is a dream for every Bihari to settle down in a small flat in Kolkata. I have witnessed hostile cab drivers fuming violence against the Bengali farmers who resist the Biharis buying up agricultural land. It is a well-known fact that the community of Gujaratis had a lot to do in stoking riots in East Bengal for they made a killing buying and selling abandoned properties of the Hindus. Such Hindus settled down in Bijoygarh, Jadavpur and Santoshpur if they had money, or else they were relegated into shacks of Garia, Belgachia and Kadapara. Biharis have a similar eye towards the newly constructed flats in Kolkata. Also, as more and more goods are exported out of Bengal farms and mines there is also an interest in controlling the transport business; a reason why Singur voted against the TMC is because it is a transport hub. The transport advances are controlled by people outside Bengal, usually the Marwaris. In short, the rising fortunes of Bengal, like fascism anywhere else, has made it vulnerable to the vicious deliveries of the BJP. The rising prosperity of Bengal brought many immigrants into the state and it is interesting that in an atmosphere of falling employment, Bengal was perhaps the only place where the jobs were being created. Because it is Bengal, both Hindus and Muslims benefitted as can be seen in the number of rising Biharis and especially Burkha clad Bihari Muslims. Bengalis usually don’t don the abeya as much as the Hindi Deobandis do.

As Hindus and Muslims, Bengalis and non-Bengalis all did well and perhaps as well as the other, social hierarchy, in an unprecedented manner was challenged in the state. No wonder then every segment of the society imagines that Mamata has appeased the other. What a backhanded compliment, really!

The Muslim girl, our letter writer writes that Mamata needs to assure them jobs in order to really áppease’ them. Really?? For what? This is another way of saying that Muslims want reservations. Dalits get reservations as a compensation of bad behaviour of the caste Hindus towards them. But Muslims have exercised a choice in opting out of the Hindu fold and Hindus have no onus towards them to make their lives happy. However, in a liberal democracy like ours, all that we can guarantee for all actually is safety of life and property and by assuring that Muslim public properties by way of mosques and cemeteries, madrashas and other assets of public life are protected, Mamata has done all that is there to be done towards minorities. She has given them the confidence by which today Muslims can write such foolish and self-harming letters as the low IQ smarty two shoes has written.
Jobs are no longer won through reservations because the share of the public sector in creating jobs is going down alarmingly. The private sector, which works for money have their own preferences of people who can deliver. If Bengalis cannot deliver, Muslims cannot deliver, so let it be the Biharis if they do better. Instead of hoping for reservations in jobs, Muslim children should focus more on their studies, get better marks and then apply for jobs. There are no reasons why Muslim children will be discriminated against if they repeatedly get good marks.

Identity politics and affirmative action is a victim syndrome raising both contempt and resistance. The problem is that such politics offer no transactional angle. Does this smarty Muslim girl ask, how as a Muslim can she contribute towards the society? Does she ask that if she wants to be a citizen and not a Muslim and has a problem with Mamata keeping her back as a Muslim, then how can she raise herself to a comparable level of citizenry? Her position is like that of the BJP’s which says that the Congress has appeased the Muslims and if Muslims are still not doing well then, the Congress has kept them back as Muslims. A self-falsifying paradox which now must be explained by yet another level of conjectured theory of ulterior motives whereby Mamata is the Maulavi. This is going nowhere.

The point is that politically Muslims can only negotiate protection of life and property; they cannot demand anything more for they qualify for nothing more. This all Muslims should understand; we can only ensure them protection of physical survival and once that is assured it is entirely up to the community to make the best for themselves. Muslims must realise that their religion is a matter of choice for them and all that they can vie for is the freedom of religion and nothing else. The rest is entirely up to them to make the best of their lives on earth. 

Leave a comment

Kotal Kahini by Biswanath Lahiri

Biswanath Lahiri. Kotaal Kahini. Dey’s Publishing. Calcutta. 1971.

When I was growing up in the early 1970’s, I often heard Madhuri mashi, whose death anniversary is today talk of Kotaal Kahini as though it were a novel. Only last week I accessed the book from our local library, a collection that Mashi had exhausted in her lifetime.

I was surprised to find that the book is not a novel. Far from it, the book is a hardnosed memoir of Biswanath Lahiri, the first Inspector General of Police of the Central Provinces, who retired soon after Independence. Published in 1971 from Dey’s Publishing, the book reads like a veritable work of literature as the author has an amazing way of writing about his work life where the personal opinions and emotions are completely removed to make this book into an empirical survey of a non-participant observer. Through a description of crime as objectively as possible, the author creates a gripping account of the social life of the Central Provinces which emulates the feel of Middle March or the Old Curiosity Shop.

While we know only of the Kakori Train dacoity by the Hindustan Republic Army, it seems that such train robberies were common under the banner of the HRA. The passengers on the train would recount the terror they struck as they extorted money, ornaments and other valuables at gun point while raising slogans in the name of Gandhiji and Netaji Subhas! These robberies used to keep the police the busiest.  Many would evade arrests and slip away into the princely states where the renegades were handsomely rewarded with pensions and land grants. The shelter and the cover offered by the princely states would often leave the police relieved because most of them as Indians never quite liked the job of gunning down the Freedom Fighters. The author writes objectively and yet creates a gripping interest in barely the few paragraphs that he devotes to the killing of Chandrashekhar Azad. He recounts that Azad was a valiant fighter and it took a few batteries of armed men to hem him in. Azad was killed in a forest and his blood smeared on the barks of some trees; the locals tied strings around those trees, lit lamps and incense and started worshipping them as icons of the martyr.

Once the railway police arrested a large company of men and women on their way back from a Congress meeting when they refused to pay the fare for their train ride. The railways handed them over to the police and the author had to arrest them. When the police vans arrived on the spot, local men and women attacked the police and refused to let the Congress workers be arrested. The author set the elderly men and women free and detained the juveniles for a few hours in the police campus. But soon a telegram reached from the Congress headquarters asking the workers to pay up the fares to the railways.

The author speaks of how an Italian prisoner of war escaped the Imperial Army and took shelter in the home of the police head, the author in this case. He also speaks of the many suicides that were reported in his jurisdiction in the aftermath of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He particularly mentions a suicide of a family in the most bizarre way. The family consisted of a married couple and their five children, who went into a depression after the death of Gandhiji and after their infant daughter died of cholera. It seems that they bought new clothes, dressed themselves up ceremoniously, took a boat into an island in the Ganges, made a shiva linga of sand, did their ablutions and distributed prasad among themselves containing lethal poison. Since the man was a practicing Ayurvedist and a merchant of herbal products, he did not find it difficult to procure a large portion of poison.

There are stories of remarkable forensic feats for instance in the tracking down of a serial robber and a killer. There were about six murders across the province those which followed similar patterns. In each case the matriarch of the house would be slain after she was robbed of the entire stock of ornaments arranged as dowry for a daughter’s marriage. Each of the families reported that a man had arrived to help around the house as a servant and since during weddings one always needs hands to do the extra work, he was readily employed. He would then plan the robbery carefully and after the act, disappear completely but always left behind his pair of shoes. He would also stab the woman and wipe his blood drenched hands on the outer walls of the house. He was arrested, tried, and hanged for murder and six of his aides were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. This was a typical city crime but thefts that often turned violent seemed to be a matter of villages. The city and the suburbs were often the site of gang wars; Lucknow seems to be the Bombay of its times in its versions of dreaded gangsters.

For the common person engaged in the business of everyday life, the police were looked upon with respect if not reverence, accessed as assurance of help and not as a fearful incumbent of an office. The acceptance of the police was widespread and universal irrespective of whether they were freedom fighters or rioters, city people or rural folks. This is even though the fires of freedom were raging through the province, the police were not construed as colonial handmaids.

Interestingly, the number of Muslims in organized employment in the city seemed to be much larger than those of the Hindus. They served as orderlies with the police and military, as cooks and waiters in the posh colonial clubs, were numerous in the police both as officers and as part of the force and were very well represented, if not overrepresented in the medical and legal professions. Despite this, there was no animosity between the Hindus and the Muslims of this professional class. Communal disharmony prevailed among the lower classes and erupted predictably over festivals that required the use of the public space. Hindus would blare bhajans in front of mosques and Muslims would climb atop their homes and look down with rageful eyes. The Muslims took to the streets pelting stones on a Hindu ramnavami procession because they were playing the same music as in Muharram; Muharram music is for grieving and yet Hindus were celebrating with it and even dancing with abandon.

I must put in a personal experience here when one of my mamas innocently hired a tasa party for the bisarjan of Ma Durga in my mother’s ancestral village. Both Hindus and Muslims were furious at a funeral band seeing off Durga to her husband’s home! The Muharram and the bisarjan have remained contentious since a long time.

Riots do not figure in the annals of the author who by now is already promoted as the DIG. The war, its supplies, and management of crowds at railway stations when Gandhiji would pass by and the control of tempers of the demonstrators of the Quit India Movement seems to be greater harassments. The communal riots are confined to Deoband where Muslim clerics seem to object to everything that Hindus would do as celebrations of festivals on the public roads. Hindus attacked mostly in defense, provoked in defiance but also raided Muslim settlements where they insisted on putting up installations for Janmaashtami. But interestingly, there does not seem to be much interest in Jinnah’s call for Direct Action as much as there was to Gandhi’s call for Quit India Movement.  Among the middle class, old aristocracy and princely states, the spirit of Freedom flowered and there was absolutely no evidence of communal intolerance. Communal frenzy seemed to be a lower class and rural affair here among people with surplus energy and deficient gainful employment.

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

Raja Rammohan Roy 250 years and not out…

When I recently, which is just about a year, started to study Raja Rammohan Roy both as a scholar and philosopher I realized that our history books had mistakenly written about him as being the first Indian to be fully influenced by the western education, an influence which he processed and then transmitted through to his fellow beings via the social reforms on Sati. Nothing can be a greater misunderstanding of the man and his mind than the above. Rammohan was not influenced by the West, he was the Western influence. He was not one to be modernized, he was the modernizer. He was not a spirit of an Indian Renaissance; he was the very spirit of the Western Renaissance. Jeremy Bentham and James Stuart Mill were fascinated by his intellect, so were the intellectuals of France and Spain, Rammohan’s contributions to Western philosophy itself and especially to what a 100 years later would emerge into Claude Levi Strauss’s structuralism was evident within the first tract he published in 1804 called Tuhfat-ul-Muwahiddin.

Rammohan stands together in the line of David Hume and Descartes, of Mill and Locke if his slim volume of about 40 pages which literally translated means A Gift To Monotheists is analyzed deeply. We were given to believe in our school texts that this monograph was an invitation to the commonality among all religions through the worship of One God. Far from it, the monograph was an attack on religion itself, more so those religions which worshipped Prophets, specifically Islam and Christianity. Yet, in this tract, he resolves the most vexing question of Western philosophy and which is the debate between science and religion, especially climaxed around the question, Who Created the Universe. Despite theories of self-evolving matter and self-revolving planets, from Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motions to Descartes’s expanding substance that holds the Universe to the breakthrough of Newton in his Laws of Motion coming out of inertia, the rational philosophy could not crack the metaphysical question, then Who is it who has created the inertia, the substance of the Universe, the innate laws of planetary motions and so on. In other words, the issue of the Creator and His Creation remains unresolved through secular science, leaving the conflict between science and religion unresolved and secularism as insecure.  Religious fundamentalism often tended to erupt in this unresolved gap. Despite the claims of modernity that it could and would relegate religion to the backdrop, Rammohan realized that unless the question of Creation was answered the matter would not rest.

Rammohan’s seminal idea in the tract is his question which the Western philosophy had not yet asked and would not do so in the next hundred years that followed and which is that religion being universal to human societies must be an innate property of the human mind and its consciousness. The root of religion lies, not in the human need to have a sacred as perhaps anthropologists like Henry Maine or Emile Durkheim suggested, but in the species nature of the human mind to classify and categorize objects in the external world. The idea of the sacred emerges from this classification. Classifications are done in opposites, where eventually the opposites are classified as one being better than the other of the pair, for instance, white and black, tall, and short, strong, and weak, where white is better than black, tall better than short, strong is better than weak. The sacred is the preferred term in the pair, and the sacred emerges from a set of dualities, sacred and profane.

The principle of classification itself creates the notion of the sacred. Anything which is higher than the human being, exhaustive of its powers of comprehension can thus be classified as being sacred. Hence, as more and more things that start to make sense in the human mind and which happens through education, these get increasingly classified and hence profane. The sacred then is the way humans think about things which are not in their realm of understanding. Suppose, some men, seeking powers were to use this innate tendency of the sacred to emerge as the source of knowledge, then they are likely to have great many followers. This is where Prophets and the Holy Men come. The holy men manipulate the minds of lay persons by claiming that they have answers to questions; Prophets with their stories of origin are part of a huge human conspiracy to control human minds.

Those who seek power by manipulating the idea of the sacred of human minds take to miracles; obviously, miracles play with natural forces only those which are known only to the miracle maker and not to others. The magician does this too, but his art is to entertain and not to overwhelm and hence he inhabits the realm of the profane. When one is educated one understands more things and many more laws of the Universe and the wonderment of the miracles dissolve into the entertainment of the magic. The amazement of miracles is easily transferred to the person of the miracle maker and this is what Rammohan calls as Idolatory. We were made to understand that the worship of idols by the Hindus was what he called as Idolatory and Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, in his mode of fast thinking thought that as well. But in Tuhfat, Idols mean Prophets, Idolatory means those who worship Prophets, the pamphlet is about the deep lies of Islam and Christianity.

Education is then the only thing to fight religion. As people know more, the ignorance which leads to the attraction for Prophets and holy men decline. Yet, when the Hindu College decided that no religion should form a part of its curriculum, Rammohun objected. He said that religion must be studied. Why this contradiction? This is exactly where he moves into the core of Western philosophy and settles the conflict between science and religion.

In more precise terms, he identifies that the desire for certainty of the human mind as the culprit. Religion seeks certainty and therefore it so rapidly concocts fiction where facts are beyond its reach while science in providing the facts undermines its fiction. But then religion turns around and says, well we know about the inertia and laws of motion but who is the force behind it all? Rammohan says that such a thought is Idolatory because the mind seeks “Someone” or an “Agent” who is behind the causation. The search for “Someone” is Idolatory.

Instead, if we accept that the Universe is driven by inanimate laws and worship those laws and we surrender to the fact that there is a Universe we know nothing of and submit to this world of the unknown and the uncertain in all our humility, then it is possible for us to worship the principle of Uncertainty as the Divine, to imagine that such Uncertainty is the Wonderment of Divine Forces. We will then worship in Heavens our own search for knowledge knowing that its horizons can manifest every moment into newer experience. Then religion and science would both be doubts, and doubt will be our cherishment, it will keep us shy and reconciled to worlds those which are larger than us, Forces which are yet beyond our cognition but with surrender and submission may reveal Themselves to us. Therefore Rammohan, who never read the Vedas till much later in life started to regard the RgVeda for such a consciousness that those which are Unknown may be worshipped, not because of certainty but because of their tentativeness that more about Them will be eventually known by us. Religion must be studied because it is instinctive to humans; but its intolerance for doubt must be fought with the awareness that there is more to know in heaven and earth.

Rammohan’s education was mainly in Persian and Arabic and some Bengali because he went to the royal schools. He learnt no Sanskrit because he did not attend the village school where Sanskrit and not Bengali was taught. When he finished his kindergarten, he was sent off to Patna to study the Koran and other Arabic texts. Here he read what the people of the European Renaissance did a few centuries before him, namely texts written by Arab scholars defending science and attacking religion and vice versa. Among them was Ghazali’s tome on faith called Tahfat-al-Falasafa or call to skeptics; Falasafa resembling both falsification and philosophy. Ghazali suggests rather conclusively that the domains of science based on logic and doubt can produce mental anxiety for want of certainty and thus it would be a better idea to give up such endeavours and sink into faith alone and that too in the Prophet. Rammohan’s starting point has been this text, the name of his own tract remarkably like that of Ghazali’s.

The poet Sunirmal Basu says that the Muslims were the most attacked by Rammohan and yet appreciated him and gave him the laudatory title of Zabardaast Maulavi in Patna. The Christians were upset with him and the missionaries at Sreerampore broke ties with him. The Buddhist monks in Tibet planned to murder him and the Hindus attempted assassination. Perhaps the Muslims still being the ruling class during Rammohan were tolerant due to their unchallenged social position. Rammohan’s battles were not the defense of Hinduism against Christianity, nor of an Indian identity against the British; his intent was very clear and crisp and which is to rid the desire of religion to define everything assertively and finally and to raise the spirit of science itself to the sacred so that the two warring parties are reconciled. Through Heisenberg and Einstein and every other relativist in science, through the post structuralists and post modernists questioning the fixedness of arrangements of institutions in the society, we are only seeking what Rammohan sought and found, a way to elevate to the sacred, the greatest wonder of the Universe, namely the human mind’s ability to doubt and know.

Leave a comment

Raja Rammohan Roy

When I read about Raja Rammohan Roy in school, I was taught to believe that he preached a new religion that spoke of One God, making Hinduism in similar vein to Islam and Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. The ideas and intent of Rammohan is perhaps a little more complex that this. In many ways, Rammohan is akin to Socrates, he is more a manner of arguments and reasoning than saying anything specific. The troubles that Rammohan faced namely in the form of religious superstitions, the most vicious of which manifested in the burning of widows alive, were different from the troubles of Europe which were conflicts between science and religion. The European conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries were conflicts of Arabia of the 11th and the 12th centuries, each civilization trying to understand the innate causes of a timeless and a spatially infinite Universe and if it were at all run by the Will of God, and if so, then who was God? To summarize mercilessly volumes of speculation and scholasticism, we may say that the scientists thought of the Universe as inanimate matter, working through some absolute forces of inertia, mass, and motion while the theologists believed that there was a Supreme Being, God, the scientists believed that there was some essential force, which both called as the Final Cause. Amidst such conflicts, there emerged another set of philosophers who were concerned about the human mind that tried to think of both science as well as religion. These philosophers were David Hume, John Locke and others. Rammohan was from the last-mentioned tradition of European intellect.

I am not sure if Rammohan had access to such philosophical works, but he read the Koran and Arabic scholasticism, the Bible and its interpretations, and the Vedas, Upanishads, and the entire pantheon of the smritis. He also read Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in one single sitting and had access to all the Vaishnav and Tantric texts from Bengal. With these, he identified the self-contradictory assertions in all religious texts and used these to establish that religion was a figment of human creation without any idea or experience of the Divine. This argument grew into the tract, Tuhfat-ul-Muwahhidin, his first tract published in 1804. The thoughts contained in Tuhfat went much beyond those of Hume or Locke and were taken up only 150 years later by anthropologists and sociologists like Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Radcliffe Brown, Marcel Mauss, Emile Durkheim and above all, by Claude Levi Strauss. This shows that Rammohan was not only the First Modern Man of India but also of Western Enlightenment!

Rammohan says that religion is universal to human societies and must therefore emerge from something which is also universal to the human mind. He finds that the idea of the sacred is innate to the human mind and this in turn comes from the species instincts to classify things. Humans classify things as opposites and creates a hierarchy between these to accept and reject stuff. Hence every society has its own sets of haram and halal. Religion uses such instincts to classify humans, customs, and beliefs into the pure and impure, setting up a group of believers and a group of non-believers. The religious leaders, or the Mujtahids claim to know the words of God and use their command over the language to use the support of the believers against the non-believers. The idea of jihad is none other than a calculated instrument of oppression using the believers against the non-believers. Religion is the use of nature to overwrite culture on it. Therefore, he prays to God saying O God, give me the strength of mind for making distinction between nature and custom

Every religion is thus divided between two classes; one is that of the Mujtahids, those who speak with an air of authenticity and the other is of the muqammals who are passive and uneducated, in fear of the mujtahids. The Mujtahid establishes truth in three ways; one through writing texts and epics which are then used as grounds of validating the truth. Secondly, the words of the the Mujtahid are repeated as part of socialization of children in families. Thirdly, the lot of passive muqammals are stunned by magic, miracles and by charismatic talks and when the believers grow in number, the ever-growing community is shown to be a ground of validity as if truth is proved by numbers.

Miracles are devises used by the Holy Men to show to the community of naïve and passive believers that they are the Creators of the Universe. Miracles seem to defy the natural law, so the mujtahid shows that by twisting the natural laws, or by obtaining contrary results to the working of nature, they are like the Creator who commands the natural laws. Since miracles stun too, they use this sense of wonderment to claim the inadequacies and limitations of reason to be able to explain things and instead replaces the mind with faith. Reason is obliterated to establish faith. Once faith is invoked, it is easy to see that this faith resides in the persona of the Holy Man, who is the repository of truth and the ground of validation because he is, he and he is He. Rammohan says that there is a difference between the magic shows of Europe and the belief in miracles in India is crucial. In Europe, people take magic as entertainment while people in India believe in miracles. Miracles in India turn the mind of the believers into faith and wipes out reason; in Europe, magic intrigues people to know more about the natural laws which they may have missed and turns them even further away from faith.

Like miracles, Prophets are false, says Rammohan Roy in his tract, Tuhfat. If Almighty is the Creator of all living things and can be accessed directly by every human without intermediaries like priests, then the Prophets have no reason to be around because they too are intermediaries. Believers say that the Prophet is a representative of God, sent by Him to guide the mortals. This makes Prophets like the very priests who they deny, also an intermediary and part of the same inventions by the Mujtahids. The Prophets say that they have been sent by God to guide the mortals and on such instructions of the Almighty Muslim invaders have persecuted Brahmins in India. But despite their torture and misery, Brahmins have said that even they are under injunction of the Almighty to adhere to their faith. Both claims to have received special instructions from the Divine; on what grounds do we say that one is right and the other is wrong if not upon the might of the sword? Surely, we are mixing logic.

Somewhere down the line, Muslim conquerors said that the Prophet says set your victims free through ransom or conversion. Ransom being money and loot also is not part of the Divine order, as it is manmade. Conversion too has no grounds for justification. How does one choose between religions if all religions say that they are the best only upon assertion and not logic? Prophetic religions ask us to follow them for a good afterlife, but so do all religions. Which religion to believe? Hence conversion has no logical ground. Prophetic religions teach us that the ways of our ancestors are sinful and that they are likely to descend to Hell. This creates disrespect for our ancestors and detach us from our socialization and social moorings. The human thus alienated from his past is anchorless and may seek recourse with the Mujtahid. Thus, on both counts, conversion is a means of recruiting into a tribe of believers which is itself motivated on non-religious reasons.

Rammohan classifies the society into four classes of people.

  1. The deceivers who fabricate things and attract people towards themselves.
  2. The deceived who without checking facts fall into charm of the deceivers.
  3. Those who are both the deceivers and the deceived.
  4. Those who are neither and stand free to contemplate on the powers of the Almighty.

Tuhfat -ul-Muwahhidin follows yet another Tuhfat-al-Falsafila written by Al Ghazzali that writes about the need to do away with speculation and totally surrender to the Almighty God through the full suspension of disbelief. Rammohan may have purposely called his tract as Tuhfat to combat Ghazzali. The Almighty, he would say elsewhere in his pieces on the Vedanta and in his exchanges with Christians is neither a Creator nor the Creation, but the “soul” of the Universe, without which the Universe would be inanimate. Religion, then would use yet another instinct of the human mind and which is to see the interconnectedness of things, and that set of interconnectedness for Rammohan is the Almighty. Tuhfat thus brings religion right into rationality and bridges the gap between a scientific disposition, speculation, intellectual doubt and spirituality.

Tagged | Leave a comment

Michael Madhusudan Datta – Miusunderstood by Mediocres

Betrayed By Hope. A Play on the Life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal. Harper and Collins. New Delhi. 2020.

Betrayed By Hope is a slim volume consisting of a single play that seeks to investigate the follies of Michael Madhusudan Dutta. While Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Sarat Chandra are widely known outside the world of the Bengali reading public, Michael Madhusudan Dutta is not so familiar. Hence the efforts by Ms Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal at presenting Michael, as he is better referred to through a modern-day researcher on this poet. The researcher, who apparently starts from Michael’s genius gets increasingly disillusioned as she delves into his life where the impulsive nature of the man, his bigamy, neglect of his first wife and children born of her, his constant debt and eventual penury and refusal to mend his ways which makes the protagonist of the play construe his genius as delusional. The words of the protagonist in the play reminds me of the heaps of criticisms against Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU, as to why he continued to study at an age when he should be working and earning to run his family. The play, also, through the protagonist has a similar position on Michael. Such are the mentalities of the everyday middle class who struggles to maintain a semblance of dignified living by engaging with his labour in the world of production and because of the drudgery and yet compulsions of everyday life develop a deep contempt for those who are the idealists and engaged in works of the higher order. In other words, these are the very words of Narendra Modi when he coins the term Andolanjivi for idealists who work towards the creation of culture and ideals for the society. Thus, I sense a whiff of right-wing snigger at Michael.

There is yet another aspect to this story and which is that of late there has been a rather perverted attention towards the Bengalis and Bengali culture. Notwithstanding the angst of a group of Bengalis who in various kinds of outfits are resisting the imposition of Hindi and the flood of Hindi speaking immigrants into Bengal, grabbing land, jobs and property and the public spaces, there is yet another kind of appropriation of the Bengali culture by the high and mighty. It is out of the latter trend that Arnab Goswami and Smriti Irani speak Bangla and they must have made enormous efforts to learn it, Modi dresses up as Tagore, Amit Shah squats on Tagore’s seat which no Bengali dare touch, companies from across India want to have Seminars in Kolkata and so on. Here the moneyed are nw using their economic power to appropriate the Bengali culture and squeeze the Bengali out of its ownership. The appropriation of the Bengali culture is not very unlike the greed of the Bihari taxiwallah to buy land in Bengal, of the BJP to use the instrument of the NRC to throw Bengalis out of India, of Bibek Debroy’s inane comparison of Bengal’s economy to that of Bangladesh. These are designs to take Bengal away together with its land, language and culture and throw the Bengalis out bereft of all that they ever held. The future that the BJP and the right wing thinks for Bengal is not any different from what the Indians have been doing to its indigenous people for ages. The play Betrayed By Hope, is also an effort in that direction. Hence it is nothing short of being a sinister ploy to break the spine of the Bengali culture, which undoubtedly inheres in the persona and works of Michael Madhusudan Dutta.

Michael Madhusudan was born an upper caste Hindu and lived as the only child of his doting parents. He lived in the times of Derozio, times that Raja Rammohan Roy had ushered in with his nearly single-handed vision of a future for Bengal. Loosely known as the age of the Renaissance and social reform, there emerged a forward-looking thought on integrating the Bengali culture which was overwhelmingly Hindu to the ideals of the West. By “west” the social reformers meant the secular and liberal ideals of Europe and not Christianity because Rammohan, who was the originator of secular thought in India, was deeply critical of Christianity for its refusal to step out of its religious moorings into the secular world. The Hindu College admitted Hindu and Muslim students but refused to admit Christians because they could not be adequately secularized. Michael’s conversion to Christianity was thus strange; it shows us that Michael was not comfortable living in a secular space, he needed Gods and as was the mood of times, One God. The Brahmo Samaj under Maharshi Debendranath transformed itself into a fully religious outfit where a Formless Absolute was worshipped, which Michael may have found too abstract and esoteric. He was full blooded and needed concrete stuff; he may have chosen Christianity for its innate Idolatry, namely in the Persona of Jesus. There was no question of becoming a Muslim for that kind of conversion was mainly for singers and performers who wanted to belong to powerful coteries dominated by Muslim artists. Islam as a religion became almost invisible in the public space after the Mughals and while it was still identified as the faith of the rulers and culture of the Nizams, no one ever thought of it as a religion anymore and with the Mughal Empire on its way to a natural demise, Islam no longer existed in the cognition of the Indians and least of all the Bengalis. So, for Michael, Christianity it had to be. He was called Madhusudan; Michael was what he called himself as a Christian.

Michael must be understood as seeking the past glory from the first principles and not following Rammohan and the Brahmos. Medieval tales of honour and bravado, gore and courage endeared him more than a world of ideas only. However, Michael also represented an emerging trend in Bengal and which was to get more physical with one’s participation in the creation of a new culture. Sati was a culture of the body, the masochism and the suicide and so would be the onset of Agniyug of Bengal terrorism with Khudiram Bose in 1911 and between this period was Michael Madhusudan, with the same self-destructive energies towards martyrdom. It was in this spirit that he wrote his tome to Ravana. Meghnadbadh Kavya is his version of the Ramayana where Ravana is the hero and Ram is a conqueror, who wins through trickery and treachery. In Ram, he sees a Robert Clive, who captured Bengal through conspiracy with a ramshackle and rikety army of monkeys. Being a zamindar of Bengal, he aligned his sympathies with Ravana, a guy who was defending his territory and honour, much like the Bengali zamindar, a class to which he belonged. Michael was indeed impulsive in which he did not always attend to the fact that Ravana kidnapped Sita. If we conceptualize Michael’s age as one where modernity was trying to force medieval thoughts down, then Michael was yet to emerge fully into modernity. Despite his western clothes and demeanour, he remained essentially medieval, hooked on to stories of valour without the right values and the reason he clung to Christianity and to Ravana’s prowess were both because of his medieval thoughts. Therefore, initially the Bengali elite used to the high ground of idealism found Michael’s works as out of place. However, the sheer power of his poetry, the grandeur of his language and the vividness of imageries soon won the Bengalis over. Michael was a rage as a genre unto his own. But to bring about this genre, his own brand of the Bengali culture he had to struggle, mostly all by himself. That was his mission and not a personal ambition; he was betrayed not by hope but by his circumstances.

If one must read Michael then one must read him in the same way as one reads Raja Rammohan Roy; both trying to create a whole new sense of future for the Bengali culture by connecting deep into its past, by collecting memories and myths, paring some and repatriating others, both were lonesome in their missions, attacked in their life time and neither buckled under pressure because they were carrying within them inspirations transcendental to the world they lived in. Both were regarded as heretics in their respective families, and both were disowned and disinherited. Yet, Rammohan was fortunate to have inherited his father’s fortunes while Michael was deprived of his, partly by law and partly by his relatives. Rammohan had wealth to pursue his mission, Michael lived off borrowed wealth. Yet, Michael had no qualms about his debts because he had a huge sense of entitlement because of what he was supposed to have inherited and hence his net worth was he not to be deprived and because he was aware that so unmatched were his talents that Bengal owed a debt to him. To judge this genius with the morals of the mediocre is certainly a travesty that the authors seem to have committed.

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

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