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An alternative history of modern Bengal

A new cultural travelogue holds up a mirror to the stories that Bengalis tell about themselves

Bhattacharya’s travels and the stories he tells are ordered by one big category, education.
Bhattacharya’s travels and the stories he tells are ordered by one big category, education. (Getty Images)

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What is the basis of a shared culture? Does it reside in external signifiers of songs and movies, politics and economics? Or is it formed by the stories a community tells about itself? Writer and translator Parimal Bhattacharya, in his luminous and thought-provoking book of essays, Notes From A Waterborne Land: Bengal Beyond The Bhandrolok, comes down quite clearly on the side of stories: stories of self-representation, stories of struggle, pragmatic stories, fantastical stories, boastful stories. And, ultimately, stories of “radical aspirations”, a phrase Bhattacharya borrows from economist Amartya Sen. This framing of stories that a self-conscious linguistic community chooses to tell about itself can be clearly found in the title of the book. And among the dominant linguistic groups of Asia, Bengalis are second to none when it comes to creating a narrative of linguistic sub-nationalism.

What Bhattacharya probes and critiques is the one big flaw in the Bengali narrative: the fact that it is almost entirely the product of the upper-caste bhadralok imaginary. For over a century and a half, the history and culture of Bengal—which could be said to include not just West Bengal but also the nation state of Bangladesh as well as areas that were once part of the colonial Bengal Presidency—have been dominated by the bhadralok narrative and its cultural signifiers. The cultural dominance of the Tagore and Ray families, the social reforms of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the revolutionary zeal of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry and Subhash Chandra Bose’s adventures are but some of the markers. Even the social egalitarianism and iconoclastic irreverence of West Bengal’s long tryst with left-wing politics came with distinct bhadralok characteristics—just look at Jyoti Basu’s political career.

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Field Notes From A Waterborne Land— Bengal Beyond The Bhadralok: By Parimal Bhattacharya, HarperCollins, 299 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Field Notes From A Waterborne Land— Bengal Beyond The Bhadralok: By Parimal Bhattacharya, HarperCollins, 299 pages, 499.

While this is fairly well known, Bhattacharya’s book is valuable because it provides a critique from inside, since Bhattacharya is a product of this culture. In this collection of essays, he doesn’t so much as criticise and dismiss the dominant narrative as hold up a mirror to it. From that mirror stare back all the people who haven’t found a place in the narrative of Bengal: tribal communities and lower- caste Hindus and Muslims to be sure, but also other sub-cultural groups within these communities. They exist, have always existed, enriching the cultural mix of Bengal, providing its workforce, holding up its economy, without ever really being part of the mainstream.

Bhattacharya tells the stories of these “othered” Bengalis, wooed for votes but often denied any meaningful social mobility. As an upper-caste bhadralok himself, Bhattacharya’s book could have become mired in problems of authentic representation. However, he neatly side-steps such issues by analysing his relatively privileged life to reflect on the processes by which dominant narratives are perpetuated.

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Bhattacharya’s travels and the stories he tells are ordered by one big category—education. Who has access to it, who doesn’t, and how one’s navigation of the education system—both in terms of the number of years one receives formal education as well as the quality of this education—is dependent on one’s circumstances. In doing so, he subtly turns the narrative of “merit” on its head. Merit is a convenient talking point of Indian upper castes who would like to see any affirmative action abolished. Bhattacharya contends, correctly, that the reason millions of marginalised people don’t get to choose the life they would like to lead isn’t because of merit, which they have in spades, but because of discrimination. And nothing exemplifies this fact better than education.

This narrative thread isn’t surprising. Bhattacharya states in his introductory note that his book’s genesis lay in the Bengal education system’s “missing children”. He had read a news article in the mid-2000s which stated that eight out of ten children dropped out of West Bengal’s primary education system. He applied for a grant to study this phenomenon and used it for his travels across Bengal and parts of Odisha. Although he eventually gave up the grant—his “simple” curiosity having grown to an unmanageable obsession, as he writes—he didn’t give up his enquiry. “I discovered that universal primary education is a prism: it refracts a spectrum of economic, social, cultural and even ecological issues, which usually remain muddled,” Bhattacharya writes. To his credit, Bhattacharya doesn’t try to formulate some catch-all hypotheses, but challenges long-held assumptions.

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To do so, Bhattacharya uses one of the most evocative tropes of modern Bengali culture: the story of Apu, the protagonist of novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali. To Bhattacharya, the bildungsroman of Apu, as captured by Bandyopadhyay, and by Satyajit Ray in his Apu Trilogy, is one of the great Bengali stories. Apart from its artistic merit, it resonates because of its idealism, its depiction of rural Bengal and the “radical aspiration”, as it were, of a boy from a poor family and his drive to better his life through education and culture. His constant feeling that “Life is Elsewhere” (to borrow from Milan Kundera), mirrors the yearning of Bengal’s young and restless.

Bhattacharya often uses Apu’s narrative, both from the novels and from the films, as a yardstick for the reality of rural Bengal. He finds many versions of Apu on his travels, but none of them are Brahmins, like Apu was, so their struggles, shorn of that important social capital, take on the hallucinatory patina of nightmare: the inescapable stasis of a seemingly pre-ordained fate. To bhadralok Bengal, with its addas and love of French New Wave cinema, the story of Apu is universal. To Bishu, Matin and Utpal, three educated and unemployed friends (Bishu is from a tribal community, while Matin is Muslim) from the small town of Krishnanagar, Apu’s story means nothing. When a group of children from the Kolho tribe on the Bengal-Odisha border watch the famous train scene from Pather Panchali, with its evocation of freedom and the wider world, they are unmoved. “I had no access to their mental world,” Bhattacharya writes.

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Bengal’s cultural history has never been insular. As long back as recorded history goes, it has been a land of transient populations, mirroring the constantly changing courses of its innumerable rivers. Bengal’s milieu is so deeply influenced by Buddhism, Islam and tribal cultures that it is often forgotten, for example, that some of the most popular Bengali names are those of Buddhist deities, some of the most commonly spoken words are Persian, and much of the religion and cuisine is of tribal origin. The hegemony of caste Brahminism took a much longer time to grow roots in Bengal than in other parts of the subcontinent. As a result, caste discrimination, the other major theme of the book, works as an undercurrent of subtle, damaging pressures rather than any overt violence.

This is a conclusion Bhattacharya himself reaches while narrating the story of Dulal Mondal, a lower-caste man from the Sunderbans who completed a PhD in mathematics from the Indian Statistical Institute, joined the West Bengal Education Service and became a college professor in Kolkata. Did this qualify him as a bhadralok? As Bhattacharya delves deeper into Mondal’s history, as well as that of his fisherman father, and travels to the hallucinatory deltaic forests of the Sunderbans, he realises that Dulal could have gone further, achieved more, and married the love of his life, had it not been for caste. “Caste has remained an intangible and, at the same time, a rock-solid reality in Bengal.... Caste discrimination has always worked silently, insidiously, and has spread its tentacles across the joints of social institutions.” Dulal becomes another version of Apu, just not the one that everyone knows.

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Closely allied to the barriers of caste, of course, is poverty, which is often exacerbated by religion. In one instance, Bhattacharya travels with a local high school teacher to a Muslim village to meet Rafiqul, the one boy from the community who not only attends a state school but is about to do the impossible and appear for the class X Madhyamik (state board) exam. Rafiqul has been skipping classes for weeks. They find him helping his father make batches of gur, date palm syrup. Rafiqul’s father promises that he will be back in school once the gur season is over in a few weeks. The family’s poverty ensures that they can’t afford to hire labour, so subsistence is given preference over education.

In Bhattacharya’s narrative, the geography of Bengal plays an important role. The intertwined rivers of the delta, forever capricious, the swamps outside Kolkata, slowly falling prey to urbanisation, the forested hills of Purulia, home to tribes with rich cultures that are slowly being erased by “development”—these are all characters, living entities in themselves. For Bhattacharya, the contours of the riverine land evoke a sense of deep history, a play of stasis and change much like the seasonal nature of the rivers that run through. When writing about this living geography, Bhattacharya shows great facility in crafting prose of poetic grace. His idealism is touching.

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Field Notes From A Waterborne Land isn’t a work of upper-caste guilt, though a sense of that may be felt in places. For me, the book, apart from being a critique, is best read as a lament. In this, Bhattacharya seems to follow the structure of yet another classic novel by Bandyopadhyay, Aranyak. In that landmark novel, published in 1939, Bandyopadhyay’s autobiographical narrator, Satyacharan, works as an estate manager for a zamindar in Bhagalpur. His job is to clear forests and settle new communities in order to increase the zamindar’s revenue. While doing so, he also bears witness to the gradual passing of an older, tribal culture, with its intimate relationship with the forests, hills and rivers of an ancient land. Satyacharan, an urbanite from Kolkata, is gradually altered by that experience and decides to record this change, keeping alive as memory something that will soon no longer exist.

Field Notes does something very similar, and its lament is that of the failings of socialist liberal democracy and the welfare state. Palpably running through the narrative is the sense that successive governments had the chance to deliver the meaningful emancipation promised by independence, but ultimately blew it. This has left fractured communities, barely held together by a shared, though upper- class and upper-caste culture, that are increasingly susceptible to predatory capitalism and divisive politics. Much like Aranyak, Bhattacharya’s book fixes a particular time and place in memory, one that has already changed from the time when he began his travels. For this act of bearing witness, he deserves our thanks.

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