In praise of Calcutta and Bengali Maiden

In Praise of Calcutta and Bengali maiden

                   My Readers, this has been more than a year and Calcutta Summer is back again. Those of who has suffered Calcutta Summer and Calcutta are poised to undergo another humid summer. My anniversary at Calcutta, by some magical calculations was destined to be memorable due to a visitation – from further East.  The true sons of Calcutta, in spite of their individual peculiarities share something very basic and that is not only love for fish and adda, gossiping and party-bazi , living and swaying in the jhulla, suspended by the dual ropes of equally irrational self-love and self-pity. Even an outsider like me, after a few months could sense it.  Admiration for womanly beauty and a romantic softness in speech, custom and manners was imbibed by Bengalis, directly from the European ideas and that made a clean break for him/her from the ancient Hindu for whom – Puthrarthe Kriyate Varya. In this break it was women of Bengal who were more creative, more enduring and could sense the historical direction more easily. For example, the Muslim Rule of Bengal could barely touch a Bengali women’s mind as well as her taste regarding her garments. But European clothes and shoes, the long sleeve blouse, the socks, wearing the saree in the traditional style with a chemise made a complete change in her looks and personality.  Shakespeare, Shelley, Milton and Byron could easily enter her inner psyche; she could sense with an unerring insight that ideological regime of Europe will not make her husband a less constant husband compared to the ancient regime.  She was right. Reading of European Literature has made Bengali young men susceptible to beauty that invites both on sensual and aesthetic plane and a creative synthesis of both is divinely gratifying. It is in the nature of man that if he could once taste and feel a higher pleasure, his intelligence guides his energies in that path where he could discover the cause and inner causes of this higher pleasure. As soon as love or its verbal or artistic image entered a Bengali’s Life, it first burst into holiness and grace in Bengali Literature, never before and I don’t know when again. The language of Mr. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, in spite of its Gothic form in architectural terms was having that quality of holiness and that what Mathew Arnold called high seriousness; he brought discipline and chastity in language and if Bengali Literature has dared to experiment with fritations in form, content and style, if it has announced and proved its ambition of being capable of being the vehicle of most subtle and noble inner feelings with Tagore, then it was the giant who has chastised her and then allowed to let her go.  Bengali Literature, even though it’s primary architects were mostly men, but behind those men were always those Bengali wife, sister, sister-in-law, mother, neighbor-girl, lover that guided the development.  Even ladies of foreign origin. The most prodigal genius of Bengali literature, Mr. Madhusudan Dutt was a chosen one and his wife Heneritta’s contribution to Bengali Literature has been unsung yet. No Literature of Contemporary Times could raise its claim of such a level of growth in such a lesser span than Bengali and this miracle could only happen because the growth was in resonance with the character of Bengal, it got support from its women, and the landscape sanctioned it. If History is unforgiving to those who manipulates it, if last seventy five years of Bengal has been a continuous sadness in comparison, if Sic transit Gloria Mundis is really a fact, then in this world of relative glory, a thousand years hence, Bengal’s greatest achievement will be honorably remembered as her literature because here and here alone, she is true, here in the a-kshar, she has chosen to tell her timeless story. 

If someone asks me what is the most wonderful thing of my childhood – it was roaming in the College Street, with massive Colleges and Schools by both the sides of the road and the rows and rows of Book Stalls – the Boi-Para. It was somewhere in the early eighties and I was fascinated by the sights of which I read in books and lo they were printed here – in this North Calcutta heart. I used to rummage through the books and there I got the first sight of the Folio of Rise and Fall of Roman Empire, Loney’s Trigonometry, Huxley’s Brave New World. One evening, my father took me near Presidency College, pointed his finger to the staircase and told that this was the place where Subhas Chandra Bose allegedly manhandled Mr. Oten. College Street, to my boyhood days was a El Dorado – the air itself was intoxicating – of the massive buildings with datelines back some one hundred fifty years, of books and volumes, the students and that inexpressible air of easy-ness and intimacy. It was in those book shops, I met a bookseller whose love for book was contagious. Calcutta of Eighties was still having rare specimen of the remnant radioactive trace of Rennessaince where you could meet a man, otherwise inconspicuous, not exuberantly dressed, not having nor aspiring to have a great fortune and material wealth but an empire in his passion for literature, knowledge and expression. He could speak with you over the tea in bhar for hours together. Not anymore. Little I knew, boy as I was then that the ground is loosening, Calcutta and Bengal was entering a phase of halting in all spheres where urban excitement will be slowly replaced by a memory-less fatigue.

Nirad C Chauhdhri died, bitter sweet and ripe, breathing the air of England and a very interesting connection between Kishoreganj and Oxford. Amartaya Sen honored, Saurav Ganguly led India quite successfully, Buddhadev Bhattacharya inherited a tradition that also is suffering from bouts of amnesia, Annadashankar Ray died and it was a bereavement for Bengali Literature, Indian Army stood at border, Global Terror did not fail to touch Calcutta, Processions, Meetings and Bandh entertained everybody, Metro Rail gave a breath of fresh air and speed to the commuters, Local Elections reminded a contemporary Bengali poet of Greek Tragedies, lots of hi-end hotels grew up, A cabinet rank Minister is beaten up by a mob quite known to readers of Shakespeare, lots of rape, outrage and unrest that provided the pre-view of Times ahead perhaps, FM had a welcome, Calcutta’s theatre slowly passed into history, Calcutta-Speak even was invaded, a very distinct Babu species which knew that there is only one Square in the world called Shyambazar, one airport Called Dumdum and one railway called Howrah went extinct as Bengalis left for South and West, realizing too quickly of the changed world of Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune.   Readers may like to read a one page Calcutta guide written by me, for two provincials like me who came here for a week’s stay.  The citizens of Calcutta, the first citizen of modern India in its European sense was given rare chance by History to observe hour by hour of a process which is manifesting now as Halting of Civilizations.  Globalization, in this way of interpretation is bound to be related to a process where local histories and traditions are spiraling into a helical cylinder whose boundary is global but periphery unknown. Before I narrate my personal experience of the solemn visitation from East, I would like to remember that the Civilizations that believe in finite philosophies are finite in their duration. In their finest hour, Calcutta’s one of the noblest son spoke of a synthesis without a shred of native complex where the Civilization of Greeks is meeting the Civilization of Hindus over the peripheral activity of British Empire. A hundred years past the mahasamadhi of Swami Vivekananda, another Trans-Atlantic Culture is in imminent crisis and along with the whole world, Bengal is in a historically enviable position to re-examine its past. She is historically best equipped, her subtlety has been benchmarked by history and in this re-examination lies not only a better understanding of Bengal but of the world itself. Brothers and Sisters of Bengal, the door has been opened once more; the distant horizon has become visible once more.

          One soft-hearted maiden from further East, ethnically a Bengali came over in one May morning and landed right into the heart of Calcutta and later, into the heart of this wordsmith.  Calcutta greeted her first with heat wave and in one late evening as we were in one of the Eastern Parks of the city under a heavily perfumed gulaich-flower grooves, the whole sky came tumbling down. Within seconds, the blessed rain made our clothes wet, the air was full of the perfume of flower and that strange womanly smell of soil hungrily soaking the water. It went darker and darker and a wind brought the temperature some degrees below within minutes. She came near me (or I went near her – is a matter of relativity) as the sky danced and sang, blew and whistled and it was  smell of Bengal, of her hair, of her skin, of her lips and it was as if the whole landscape was concentrated, personified into that close-eyed statue who has suddenly immobilized into my arms. Early morning, surrounded by a crowd of morning-walkers, laughing-club members and exercising men and women, sat at the Victorian benches of the Victoria as Lord Bentinck looked on.  I was wondering how this piece of architecture could   mingle with this landscape of Bengal.  Sitting at the bench and lazily looking onto the Entry in the front we looked at the buildings of Chowranghee and what a contrast it was. You see rows and rows of buildings and business towers that could be easily used for the set of a disaster movie. Or just imagine the Indian Museum and its geometrical symmetry  and a water tank just over the road. I told her how on earth a people accustomed to such architecture could parade a mocking display of the degradation of taste ! As a May sun was strengthening each minute, we sat silently with her head softly placed on my shoulder and just like any young lover I felt a great sadness that the City she is going to share has so much of past to speak and so little of present. This can only happen in Calcutta and only a Bengali maiden is capable of understanding it.

An average Calcutta born and settled Bengali is most likely to be ignorant of Bengal proper, by which I mean her countryside, her rivers, her paddy-fields, her pilgrim centres, her seasons and her women. Except Malabar (in Kerala) nowhere the landscape has been so prominent and so inescapable in the women as in this land. My explanation is simply this that the landscape of both the places has been feminine – soft, fluid, humid and fertile. It is said that Indian women, unlike her Western counter-part have got a kind of calmness in her eyes, a sad gravitas mingled with a womanly grace and when this reaches its peak, we get a face and form like Suchitra Sen of which I remember a fancy line I heard, I presume in some conversation of Holmes and Watson – “My friend, her face was like something for which a man may die for.” The equivalent of a Venus de Milo in Bengal is none and cannot be. One line of Tagore captured her essence while he was narrating the homecoming of a man to his village from West (may mean anywhere from Venaras to Vrindavan) –

Buk bhara Madhu Banger Badhu Jal laye jay ghare 

Ma bolite pran are anchan Chokhe Ashe jal bhore   

[A housewife, kind and sweet hearted going home carrying water from the river / The heart is pounding to call Mother, eyes are full of water]

It was this Bengal in her womanly personification that produced Jibananda Das’s poetry in his volume Rupahsi Bangla, a major advance in Bengali poetry after Tagore.  Post-Jibananada Bengali poetry, other than a few independent workmanship is the story of enchantment, seduction and struggle with the strange, chiaroscuro and individualistic voice he forged.  After that , women had an exile from Bengali literature. Bengalis got convinced and quite strongly that one of the reasons why Lord has said “Let there be Word” was to create some other world, charted nicely in some finite Manifesto. In those schemes of things, where literature’s primary duty was commanded to bring change or to support the changed order, feelings as told previously could not have much role to play. An average Bengali, whose mother or wife has repeated the sentence, word by word for almost thirty years –  “Oh, he does not even know how to pour water from the pitcher”  and lovingly tolerated this  incompetence, went so far as to change, build and run another order itself. The result has been part tragic and part comic. The tragedy is this: Bengali women, her inner psyche could not comprehend it and argument with a Bengali is as dangerous as a religious war because it will go nowhere and will stop nowhere. She went silent and along with stopped all real supply of energy to the fire-breathing revolutionaries. The Fate of the Project for all practical purposes was insignificance, in long term evaluation. The comedy is more terrible to bear: Nature, in her hatred for vacuum offered choices before the women of Bengal. A trash culture of West, first received at the West of India, Bombay and later downsized and customized and then re-transmitted isotropically. These gave rise to a variety of desi born foreign dressed women who looked as comical outside and as tragic while contemplated. In short, women of Bengal were not there, their heart was not there in it, her mythical aura did not shine in the social stream and the stream was there, it was having all the functional aspects but missed all signs of growth, vigor and joie de vivre. It is my view and even though I am crippled as a scholar to justify myself, I will not move away from this intuitive feeling that  it is the women who or rather whose lack of true presence  lies at this present decadence of Bengal. But one way, it is the same women who have saved the community from a social catastrophe to which we will return soon. 

It is my intention and I have been tracing around an expanding work on these themes in the form of an intimate history of Bengal, first three drafts of which can be read here. It will remain a long-term assignment for me to study this very dear subject - Cultural History of Bengal.