This has been a hard election for the fragile Bengali ego.
First, 19th century Renaissance figure Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar lost his head. Literally. When a roadshow for Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) president Amit Shah got into a violent altercation with local Trinamool supporters in front of the Vidyasagar College in Kolkata, the polymath’s bust ended up decapitated.
Now Raja Ram Mohun Roy, the man sometimes called “The father of the Indian Renaissance”, the man who lobbied to end sati, has been branded a British chamcha (sycophant) by reality TV star Payal Rohatgi.
Somewhere in between these two shockers, the BJP marched into Bengal, seizing 18 Lok Sabha seats from Trinamool before it could say Jai Shri Ram. Once, Bengalis proudly said what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. After this election, a chastened Bengali is wondering if now what Bengal thinks today is what India already thought yesterday. Is ekla chalo re Bengal following the herd?
This might, in fact, be the beginning of the end of the Bengali’s most prized character trait—an annoyingly smug sense of exceptionalism. In 1911, the capital of British India moved from Kolkata to Delhi, which was in many ways the beginning of Kolkata’s long sunset. Yet somehow, thanks to regular doses of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, with booster shots of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda, the Bengali had managed to cling to a sense of snooty exceptionalism, threadbare yet self-righteously worthy. Bengal’s industry floundered under Communist hartals (strikes) but its “money is not everything” self-importance flourished. For decades, Bengal has been ruled by governments that have been at odds with Delhi, often in opposition to it, like that outpost of the indomitable Gauls holding out against the Roman empire in the Asterix comics. Exceptionalism was Bengal’s magic potion against the big national ruling parties who wanted to gobble it up.
Now that magic potion is losing its potency and Bengal stands to lose that sense of exceptionalism. The Asterix is no longer a star. He’s just puny. Bengal’s cultural icons have become targets of ridicule for reality show Bigg Boss stars on Twitter. Its lofty claims of being a fortress against cow-belt politics have fallen flat. A few years ago, when hairdresser Jawed Habib was trolled by Hindutva warriors for daring to show Ma Durga having a salon day with her children, Bengalis rose in spirited defence of Habib. Our gods are lovable family members, they said. They have spa days and outings with the children. They might even eat egg rolls during Ram Navami while the rest of the country goes shuddh vegetarian. We are like that only. Now Habib himself has formally joined the BJP, leaving his Bengali defenders nursing their egg rolls.
Many across the ideological spectrum have rallied to the defence of Roy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hastily promised a newer shinier panchdhatu (five-metal) Vidyasagar. Reams have been written analysing their great contributions to social reform in India. Roy’s interest in Unitarianism, his fight against purdah and dowry, Vidyasagar’s campaigns against polygamy, child marriage and his fight for widow remarriage have all been written about. If Roy looked westward to see what India could gain from the West, it does not make him a chamcha. It makes him pragmatic. Historical icons should not be deified just as current prime ministers and chief ministers should not be made into gods who can only be worshipped and never criticized or caricatured. But it’s just ridiculous to hold 18th century figures to 21st century standards. Whether they were revolutionary or not is wholly dependent on the context of their time. So right-wingers suspicious of these historical figures’ interest in the Enlightenment are just as far off the mark as woke liberals tut-tutting over their feminism or caste politics not passing muster. Whether Vidyasagar was a feminist is a pointless question. A more appropriate one would be, was Vidyasagar a feminist in the context of the 1870s?
But this outrage also shows this debacle hits Bengalis where it hurts the most—in the soft underbelly of their nostalgia for a golden past. If nostalgia were a state, Kolkata would be its capital, a friend once told me. Now it’s as if that capital has been moved once more, just like 1911. No Tata Nano factory. No industry. Not enough high-paying jobs. Violent polls. Chit-fund scams. Syndicate wars. Now even our nostalgia is under attack—not from historians but from reality stars and political hoodlums. The Kolkata traffic signals once warbled Rabindrasangeet, another of Mamata Banerjee’s bright ideas to showcase Bengal’s unique sense of cultural self-importance. But now the monkey cap that protects Bengalis from the elements is unravelling in front of our eyes.
This election feels like it was really a battle to tame Bengal and cut it down to size. It’s happened in spurts before. Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana is periodically attacked as a paean to the king emperor and unworthy of being a national anthem. BJP leader Kalyan Singh once suggested its words be changed. When Bengalis within the BJP firmament sprang to Tagore’s defence, as some are doing now for Roy, they were accused of putting their Bengaliness before nation and faith and principle. It’s regarded as yet more proof of the blinkered Bengali and his swollen head.
But what is striking is that all these debates are about Bengal’s yesterday, rarely about Bengal’s tomorrow. Modi promised a golden Bengal again. Mamata Banerjee could not articulate a response about Bengal’s future. She defended its past, accused the BJP of not understanding its Bengaliness, of mixing up Tagore’s Sahaj Path primer with Vidyasagar’s Barnaparichay. In Bengali, as in Hindi, kal means both yesterday and tomorrow. It is high time Bengal looked to its tomorrows instead of wallowing in its yesterdays.
My mother sometimes tells the story of her sexist private tutor who thought mathematics was a waste of time for girls like her. They needed to study home science. Her grandfather rebuked the tutor, saying, “Do you know her father is a Tripos from Cambridge and wrote books on calculus?” The tutor, unimpressed, shrugged and said: “So what? Was Vidyasagar’s son even a pond of vidya (knowledge) let alone a sagar (ocean)?”
My mother did go on to study mathematics but it’s worth remembering the larger lesson in that tutor’s snotty retort. Our inheritance is only as good as what we make of it.
Roy and Vidyasagar were ahead of their times because they looked to the future. They must surely be defended against ignorant stone-throwers but it would be terribly ironic if we found our self-worth in looking back at those who once dared to look ahead.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.