A Gandhi for our Time
14th January 2013
Dr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi
The Ex-‘Figurehead’ of Bengal
Subject: Reflections on a Lecture
Dear Dr. Gandhi,
As a lawyer, I find it difficult to write or think without an argument. My years of education and training have instilled in me the need to think about an argument, buttress it with sufficient justifications, avoid inconsistencies and make the most persuasive case possible. Oftentimes, this instilled, yet essentially unfamiliar way of thinking, gives way to a deeper, more spontaneous sense of feeling. After all, I am Bengali, and the overpowering of emotion, irrational and blind, is second nature. It creeps in unobtrusively into legal answer scripts where protoplasmic globules that slithered around strongly and purposively to evolve into more advanced life forms are used to provide perspective to a question of separate legal personality of corporations, in lectures where Hugo’s ‘Armies cannot stop an idea whose time has come’ is used to explain the challenge to parliamentary sovereignty in England. But never has it shed its pusillanimous and apologetic self to dominate my thinking so totally, as it did this afternoon when I read the full transcript of your Kamala Lecture delivered at the Calcutta University a few days back. Hence this letter to you, at a time, when my legal education is chafing at my ill-thought out and wayward indiscretion.
Writing this is painful for a number of reasons. Personally painful because the demons of education in my head are advising caution, careful thought and rational editing at the end of each sentence. Intellectually painful because I am completely bewildered by how a lecture that talks about so much pain can be so equally pleasurable. And most deeply painful as a Bengali, because the Bengal that pains you so is simply descending into an abyss of pain, suffering and hopelessness unredeemed by its usual richness of creative outpourings, substituted instead by a growing hubris of a cultural superiority that once was and perhaps is, but shall remain only as a figment of our collective imaginations of a glorious past where pain, despite being torturous, could still be poetic, a window into life complete with all its frailties. Hubris rarely makes for creativity; observing pain keenly does. Which makes it ironic that when there is so much pain around, infant deaths, economic backwardness, displacement of livelihoods, forced migration, large-scale unemployment, rampant mediocrity, unfulfilled hopes and dreams, we are becoming progressively and creatively blind to it. But your lecture gives Bengal hope. Of pain that is used creatively, that is overcome with a flourish of a poet’s pen, a director’s insights or a musician’s fingers. Of a cultural renaissance in India, with Bengal leading from the front.
To call you the poet of Bengal’s pain would be apt. Although left to yourself, your humility would not allow such a description, how else could I describe a lecture that encompasses the pain associated in disparate elements such as the sacrifice in Gandhiji’s human shortcomings, of the poignancy of a father donating his entire savings for the lighting decoration of his only daughter’s marriage so that an itinerant kabuliwala who his daughter couldn’t even recognise could be reunited with his own daughter, the overwhelming sense of Harihar’s loss when Durga dies, and the pain endemic and eventually triumphed in most of Tagore’s songs? But such a title would also do you a great disservice. Because you are so much more. Your lecture cannot be pigeonholed into the narrow confines of alliterative epithets. For it is not just pain that you talk about. For me, what you talk about is life in Bengal and of Bengalis. Of Nirad Babu and Guru Dutt, of epistolary communications to the Governor and your visits to the districts, and of Gandhiji’s letter to Bidhan Babu that laid the most wonderful background colour to the melange that followed, coloured by your paroxysms of pain. To attempt to summarise it or describe it would be foolhardy. So, as tribute, it is My Bengal that I write to you about, disagreeing with you, like a good Bengali, about a place and a people whom I love so dearly that it often and very easily transforms into despair, anger and hate. Perhaps this is the “risk of love” that is concomitant with my being Bengali.
Once, when I was about 7, I was returning from Barddhaman, where my father was posted, on the Santiniketan Express. As we were passing the lush green fields of Janai Road, 20-odd kilometres away from Howrah, a couple seated next to me were talking loudly and pejoratively of Bengal’s under-development. I distinctly remember them saying how in Mumbai the city began at least 50 kilometres from the city centre whereas in Calcutta we were less than 20 kilometres away and it was still “cows and fields”. Bengal is hopelessly backward, the husband said. I went home and cried that night for a reason that was as inexplicable to my parents then as it is to me now.
Today my Bengal is a place I can’t dream of returning to live in. I see it as a melting pot of mediocrity, overrun with lumpen elements that pride themselves on their boorishness and a civilised minority cocooned in their upper middle class Ballygunge and Alipore homes complaining, criticising and doing nothing. The green fields of Janai Road are still as green as before. And I still see them as beautiful. But they are not my abiding image of Bengal any more.
Bengal speaks to me today, not through its depressing contents, but rather more powerfully through its absences. Of people like myself, who, despite professing their love for the state and its people are too cowardly to return, preferring the more comfortable life that Delhi, Mumbai or London promises. Of software engineers who left in an exodus in the nineties lured by the dream of a new India in the steel-and-glass cities of south Indian suburbia. Of the millions of Bengali domestic help in Delhi and Bombay driven to these cities by utter desperation; the goldsmiths in Gujarat, the daily wage labourers in construction sites in Tier 1 and Tier 2 Indian cities, cooks and chefs in roadside joints in faraway lands- the list, just in my personal experience, is seemingly endless. In my Bengal, the loud silences that emanate from these absences, speak louder than anything else. Much like the ghostly silence as one passes the skeleton of the Tata Nano factory on the Durgapur Expressway.
This is why your dominant association of Bengal with pain strikes a chord. But the eloquence with which the chord is struck is so pleasurable that pain almost becomes a virtue and masochism creeps in through the interstices of uncertain feeling. I feel proud that I come from the land of Tagore, Ravi Shankar, Bibhutibhushan, Saratchandra, which has had such a tremendous impact on great men, and I use the combination advisedly, like you and both your grandfathers. To be reminded of Bengal’s influence in nourishing such greatness, so delightfully as you have done, was indeed a joy. As is your wonderful thesis that it was predominantly pain that was the genesis of their timeless masterpieces.
But pain, Dr. Gandhi, is all things considered, not a virtue. Pain may provide fuel for the creative juices of talented Bengalis, but for the voiceless majority, most pain is a burden that must be borne because someone somewhere failed to prevent it. The deaths of innocent infants, the paucity of farmer support programmes, the failed promises of industrialisation, are active testaments of the same pain. Unfortunately for them, there is no ‘jibono jokhon sukae jae’ to follow, nor is there a moving sitar dhun. Bengal does bear its pain with fortitude, Dr. Gandhi and it can certainly teach India how to do that. But when that pain is not a consequence of our mortality or human nature, but primarily the product of flawed governmental policies, of years of failed governance, unfulfilled promises, corrupt and high-handed administrations, of lazy officials who refuse to work, of indisciplined students more willing to create a ruckus than study, of a party which wrecked the education system and industry for its petty political gains, of another which attempts to beat the first at its own game, then I cannot, no matter how much beauty it can lead to, acquiesce in romanticising it. It must be condemned and sought to be prevented at any cost.
This does not mean for a moment that I question your assessment of Bengal. So beautiful is your grasp of my people, so erudite is your rendition, so commanding your sweep and breadth of knowledge, that my piddly rational argument stands no chance against it. And since I can feel the rational side of me is now taking over, I’ll stop because I know it’s pointless. Your thing of beauty must and will remain a joy forever.
Aapnar bedona aamar monke notun chetona diyechhe Dr. Gandhi, kichhui diyi-ni, shudhu niyechhi prochoor aapnar theke. Oshesh dhonnobad.