To Be, or Not to Be, Bengali

The perverse obsession among Bengalis for old customs merely confirms the anxiety of their decadence.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Rabindranath Tagore. Credit: famouspeople.com and India7 Networl/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Rabindranath Tagore. Credit: famouspeople.com and India7 Network/Flickr CC BY 2.0

In a letter from Shelidah, a place in the Kushtia district currently in Bangladesh, as a 31-year-old managing their family estates, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “I am a Bengali, not a Bedouin! I go on sitting in my corner, and mope and worry and argue. I turn my mind now this way up, now the other—as a fish is fried—and the boiling oil blisters first this side, then that.” Hailing from a zamindar family, still 21 years away from the Nobel Prize, Tagore found being Bengali stifling – full of demands upon his restless and expressive mind. The next lines in his letter read: “I hate these polite formalities. Nowadays I keep repeating the line: ‘Much rather would I be an Arab Bedouin!’ A fine, healthy, strong, and free barbarity.” For Tagore, relinquishment of the nomadic spirit is the price of civility.

He puts down puts down his agonies of being Bengali in some detail, “I feel I want to quit this constant ageing of mind and body, with incessant argument and nicety concerning ancient decaying things… free from everlasting friction between custom and sense, sense and desire, desire and action.” The fine distinctions between cultural convention and sensibility, motive and free act, show the influence of European thought on a young Tagore. He is clearly unimpressed by the “incessant argument” around him, “concerning ancient decaying things”. The perverse obsession among Bengalis for old customs merely confirms the anxiety of their decadence. It is also a ridiculous indulgence to try reviving what is lost in history, through language. For Bengalis who suffer from feudal predilections, language is a home of biting nostalgia, obscuring the merits of the present.

In the same letter, Tagore suddenly takes flight to articulate what he really wishes. “If only I could set utterly and boundlessly free this hampered life of mine… I would career away madly, like a wild horse, for very joy of my own speed!” Tagore curses the hampered life of an argumentative Bengali that disallows him nature’s uncomplicated luxuries. At the end of the letter, he solves his predicament: “Since I cannot be thoroughly wild, it is but proper that I should make an endeavour to be thoroughly civil. Why foment a quarrel between the two?” The poet succumbs to his fate, choosing the civility he loathes against the barbarity he desires. Tagore heralds the modern Bengali as a repressed symptom of civility, a troubled entrant into civil society.

Bengali culture in Tagore’s time was colonially modern. Anything that is modern by definition must face the possibility or temptation of decadence. Romanian thinker E.M. Cioran wrote in A Short History of Decay, “The Oriental nations owe their everlastingness to their loyalty to themselves: having failed to “develop,” they have not betrayed themselves; and they have not lived in the sense in which life is conceived by civilizations on the run.” Cioran holds prejudice – “organic truth, false in itself but accumulated by generations and transmitted” – the key cultural (or civilisational) element that fosters historical stability. So is cultural pride a self-mechanism to hold on to historically fomented (and cemented) prejudices? Is prejudice the only source of loyalty to the past? Pride establishes difference, and difference is often a list in the notebook of prejudices. But unlike what Cioran said, modernity also instills newer forms of prejudice among people. History brings in fresher reasons and instances of prejudice.

Partition, for instance, managed to inflict a range of prejudices on the Indian side of Bengal. How many Bengalis on the Indian side remember the exiled nawab from Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah’s contribution to the style of the Kolkata biryani and the Bengali kurta? How many would acknowledge and appreciate the mix of Sufi Islam, Vaishnavism and Buddhism in the Baul tradition, in Lalon Fokir’s scathing Kabir-esque critique of the caste system? How many would question Vivekananda, like Ashis Nandy did, for transforming his guru, Ramakrishna’s heterogeneous mysticism into a missionary movement, thus evangelising Hinduism?? The denial of history, or uncritical eulogy of cultural figures, prompted by religious and national pride, can only mean a rather hollow way to be Bengali.

It was Tagore who had exasperatedly written in a poem titled ‘Mother Bengal’: “সাত কোটি সন্তানেরে, হে মুগ্ধ জননী, / রেখেছ বাঙালী করে, মানুষ কর নি। (Your seven crore children, O’ bewitched mother / you have kept alive as Bengalis, not human beings)”.  Apart from being a cultural and moral indictment, the distinction can also be seen in the context of Tagore’s idea of the “universal man”, a person of dharma or righteousness, living under social obligations, working unselfishly for others.

This prompted the maverick Bengali writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri to pick up Tagore’s distinction and gently provoke the people of his community, in a Bengali article asking, “বাঙালি হইবো না মানুষ হইবো? (Should I be a Bengali or a human being?)”. Chaudhuri later declared in an English piece that the glorious status of Bengalis as a community was over, except occasional flickers of gifted individuals. In Thy Hand, Great Anarch! Chaudhuri draws a characteristically provocative paradox on how “English literature” made Bengalis “sensitive, human and creative”, while “European thought, whether political or social” led them to “sterile dogmatism”. But more than “intellectual fragility”, Chaudhuri finds Bengalis weak of character. He locates in Bengali life and society a “duality between the genuine and the counterfeit”. It is hard to find a writer like Chaudhuri, who made it his cultural duty to maintain a lively scorn against his own community. Comparing him to the Russian satirist, Octavio Paz called Chaudhuri, “the only Hindu [Yevgeny] Zamyatin I know of”.

During my adolescence, I suffered for my East-Bengali tongue (which in my case is a blend of what is spoken in Dhaka and Mymensingh) during my trips to Calcutta. I was consistently ridiculed by uncles three times my age for not speaking “proper Bengali”, which meant the Bengali spoken in Calcutta. I learnt enough of Bengali culture from these honourable men. Later I read in Chaudhuri’s autobiography, he was given a stanza from a Tagore poem in his Bengali matriculation paper and asked to rewrite it “in correct Bengali”. This was of course before Tagore won the Nobel Prize.

To be or not to be Bengali was never my predicament. There is also no becoming Bengali. For becoming is associated with something new, uncanny and liberating. The way André Breton declared that to be a Dadaist is to leave “everything”: wife, mistress, hopes, fears, “children in the woods”, “substance for the shadow”, “easy life” and even “what you are given for the future”. There can be no becoming within fixed rules and relations, within any community of the past, linguistic, national, religious or ideological. Becoming belongs to a future that is yet to be conceived, yet to be made. Perhaps it was Ghalib, during his visit to Calcutta in 1828-29, who said the most enigmatic thing about Bengalis ever: “These Bengalis are a strange people; they live a hundred years behind and a hundred years ahead at the same time.” If Ghalib is right, the paradox needs to be abandoned for a pure future where the ridiculous fetish of being Bengali is abandoned for becoming something else, something more than Tagore’s ‘universal’ man and woman.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.

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  • Siddhartha

    While there are some home truths in this article, it also suffers from a certain amount of undeserved self-flagellation. I am sure every community while introspecting would find some nativist tendencies unappealing or even abhorrent, and in that sense the Bengalis are no different than any other community – they are not an exotic species as the author would like us to believe. Tagore was an universalist and a great soul who transcended the “narrow domestic walls”, to that extent the author is right about the lack of the soaring spirit among the Bengalis of today perhaps. But where the author loses the plot is by mentioning Nirad Chaudhri and Ashis Nandy as participants in the reform movement within the community. Ashis Nandy is not a theologian and his interpretation of Swami Vivekananda’s mission is flawed. Swamiji was a virulent critic of Hindu orthodoxy, and an evangelist tag is inappropriate for him if it is used in the context of Christian evangelism. He propagated Vedantic thought and even today, those missions that he set up in the US and Europe are called Vedanta Societies which attract people from all faiths without any focus on evangelism or conversion. As for Nirad Chaudhri, as an Anglophile, he looked down on the entire Indian society and its slide to decadence – some of his observations are accurate, but a broad brush is unfair and certainly he exhibited all the characteristics of an Anglophile with a colonized mind.