Editorial/Hail the conquering hero
All about the Hispanic
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO 
 
 
 
 
What the people think today, the people’s government does tomorrow. No doubt the people of West Bengal feel that Sourav Ganguly, Bengal’s sparkling star in international cricket, deserves all that the state can give him. And the state government has done them proud, coming up with a magnificent reception for him at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, with a gold and silver trophy, a specially composed song for him by the Calcutta Choir, and 800 children creating his face in the stands by holding coloured placards. Perhaps the last bizarre creative spurt originates in the government’s well intentioned desire to create meaningful role models for children. Certainly, there is no harm in admiring the successful captain of a cricket team. Hard work, tenacity, discipline, leadership, decisiveness, daring, physical hardihood are qualities that should be emulated. Admiration or emulation is one thing, however, and somersaulting overboard with flailing arms and legs to express admiration, which the state government seems to be doing, is quite another. It would be a matter for grave concern if children take this as the model code of expressing admiration. Waving placards from the gallery with enlarged pores of a man’s face on them is bad enough.

The bizarre, as in this case, is often a manifestation of excess. The Bengali wallows in excess, and the state government is merely presenting an organized form of it. As far as the reception for the cricket captain is concerned, the people and the government would be in perfect accord with each other: proud Bengal’s “son” deserves the best. There is a recurrent tone in the effusions that gives the excess its unmistakeable — and cloying — Bengali character. It is both proprietory and ingratiating; it drips closeness through kinship patterns. The Bengali seems a devoted player of “Happy Families”. All it needs is a little success the world might be expected to take notice of — and the Bengali goes to town about his newly sprouted “son” or “son-in-law”. In the sphere of cricket, neither Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi nor E.A.S. Prasanna could escape this loudly touted all-embracing son-in-law love. Mr Amartya Sen is obviously the son without peer; the state has not been able to produce Nobel laureates by the dozen after all. But such love has its own chauvinistic impositions, especially if the state government decides to exhibit it. Ganguly, who is uncomfortable in Bengali, is expected to speak at the reception in the language, and will be gifted with a muslin dhoti and kurta, and a pot full of rasagollas to follow. In other words, he had better not forget that he is Bengal’s son. That is a reception with a vengeance.

It might be noticed in passing that Bengal’s “daughters” do not seem to have such a thrilling time of it. It actually helps if someone is somewhere else’s “daughter”. Ms Deepa Mehta will be received with open arms by the state, so this benighted country can appreciate the scale of West Bengal’s magnanimity.

But the gender disparity fits perfectly the aspects of Bengali culture that are being reclaimed. The crying hoarse over “Bengaliness”, Bengal’s family values, culture, customs, language and the occasional hero, points to a pathetic crisis of identity. Rightly or wrongly, the Bengali feels left behind, unnoticed, his glorious past — some of it mythical — ignored. In a changed world, there is little achievement he feels he can claim, apart from achievements in the world of academics. The academe lacks glitter, and Mr Sens are hard to come by. So the Bengali — remembering glorious forefathers and aspiring to superhero progeny — and the government he has elected, pull out the more provincial attributes of the culture to reassert its distinctive presence. So it is back to bizarre excess, to family terms which sound hollower as old values disintegrate and change. Ganguly, being Bengali, must be knowing that the reception has very little to do with sports.    


 
 
ALL ABOUT THE HISPANIC 
 
 
BY ION DE LA RIVA
 
 
Spain has bequeathed the world three renowned archetypes of paramount cultural importance, which tackle the human quest for freedom and transgression of established order. The man of La Mancha, Don Quixote, has even given rise to the term “quixotic” in English, but Don Juan can flaunt “Don Juanesque” for anything ranging from liaisons dengereuses to immoral seduction, deceit and adultery in the quest for pleasure. Less likely to be part of universal clichés is Segismundo, the grim character in Pedro Calderon’s Life is but a Dream, a masterpiece of the baroque Weltanschauung. He is a hapless hero in an uncanny world of make believe, struggling with maya, from the position of a crown prince first, and later from that of a dungeon-ditched prisoner, for a crime he is not aware of. It is all about human fate and life’s vicissitudes, as they swing in eternal metamorphosis and delusion. In an eloquent way, Segismundo is, of all three, the most profoundly metaphysical archetype of stoicism and fatalism — all-pervading traits in the Spanish character that one can even trace, very accurately, in Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning melodrama, All About My Mother, beneath its vast array of colourful surrealism that wraps it up in a unique and masterful carnival of topsyturvy. Don Quixote refuses to surrender to the zeitgeist of his Spain and sets out on his own rough-and-tumble pilgrimage of chivalry, accompanied by his down-to-earth servant, Sancho, who senses that there is more than sheer folly in his master’s provocative attitude, and is enthralled by his relentless zest, larger-than-life adventures into untrodden terrains and his disdain for the smug and petty mores of rising bourgeois ideals. Don Quixote refuses to come to terms with the despicable reality that is as meaningless to his acute perception of the true stature of men as his battle against windmills is predictably absurd to “normal” people. Here is Spanish defiance at its best, a rejection of the acquisitiveness and the common sense, that were the harbingers of modern capitalism and empire-building greed. On the other hand, Don Juan reenacts the surviving heathen demon in the suffocating and sexually repressive era of the Inquisition. It is not clear whether Tirso de Molina’s work sought to praise the Counter-Reformation’s zeal to banish all forms of freedom and difference in its fanatical pursuit of uniformity, a clerically dominated nation state and a sharp distaste for heretical or Renaissance ideas. If he did, he seems to have unwittingly wanted the contrary, for his drama ultimately comes across as a joyful chant in honour of seduction’s Wunderkind and triumphant privileges, in a society of puritanical lilliputs and twats. His transgression of the erotic codes of his time is as violent as it is rewarded with indisputable victories in the battlefield of pleasures. In that sense Don Juan could be an open air rogue without having to be first conveniently transformed against his will into a monster. But then again we are speaking about imperial Catholic Spain and not about hypocritical Victorian Britain, in which an alibi for doing the reverse of what one admittedly stands for is almost a raison d’etat. Confession, repentance and the noble acceptance of sin as life companion from cradle to tomb make all the difference. And vive la difference! But if these three Spaniards still speak to us, loud and clear, about their rebelliousness in the face of adversity and wreckage, we must nevertheless bear in mind the background against which they rose, to become universal metaphors for self-realization and freedom. There is no doubt as to the ferocity with which, in imperial Spain, two different ideas were confronting each other in the arena of the first ever “modern” state: humanism as the flower of Renaissance thought and the fundamentalism of the Catholic monarchs, who, by 1492, had acquired a clear dislike of the multicultural and affluent society in which Jews, Christians and Muslims had coexisted for centuries. Thus, when we mention the Hispanic free spirit mavericks, we cannot forget to bring to the fore the Torquemadas that made them necessary in a country that was then leading the Western world and where first witch-hunt, and then genocide would eventually give birth to a black legend, which portrayed Spaniards as fanatics in religion and ruthless conquerors in politics. The Catholic monarchs united the kingdom, expelled the Jews, defeated the Arabs and discovered the New World, by serendipidity, for “sword and cross”. But their pious and martial reign was, however, also the cradle of modern human rights marksmanship with the laying down of promissory fundamentals in international law, the equality of peoples and the defence of indigenous nations in America. The Spanish and Portugese empires differ from the other European ones that followed suit in that they embraced the mestizo, or the superiority of intermarriages over sexual and nuptial discrimination against natives. Thus, along with gross intolerance and holy fanaticism, Latin America was also bestowed a conviction of being peers with the metropolitan Spaniards and a taste for the forbidden fruit that was quixotic, Don Juanesque and Segismondian, namely a highly satirical spirit of criticism and rage in the face of false transcendence and fanaticism. The Hispanic world never quite overcame the desperate need for these allegories. True, Spain is now among the topmost developed nations of the world after a successful political transition, in which the two previously opposed Spains were alchemized into a paradoxical “monarchy of 17 republics” which refuses to acknowledge itself as such. True, Latin America has achieved an all-in-all successful transition to democracy too, with its own kind of alchemy, including the foul Pinochet, willed amnesia over the disappearences of political dissidents in Brazil, Uruguay and the Argentine and outbursts of messianism in Venezuela or Equador. Cuba, of course, is the exception. That is what makes Fidel Castro an interesting study and a fashionable archetype in his own right. Hispanic full tilt, nevertheless. He can rightly claim to have outsmarted all predictions about his imminent fall after the Soviet collapse. He can still create, in a jiffy, his own kind of tempest over the Florida Strait from his island’s fiefdom. For Castro still enjoys the wiltering charisma of a hoary Quixote for many. The gallant charm, good looks and hardly concealed macho predator’s trajectory of a Don Juan and the dreamlike tussle with reality of a Segismundo. But, alas, his Cuba also speaks of Torquemada, of one party logomachy, of rafters escaping everyday (risking the sharks) and of intrigues that can end in court martials with the careers, and sometimes lives, of full-fledged revolutionaries. In recent years, the pope in 1998, and King Juan Carlos of Spain later, have personally visited Havana and tried to persuade the unflinchingly stubborn commandante to change gear and embrace political transition. But he seems to be more interested in Beijing than in the West, enthused as he is by the potential of economic reforms without liberal democracy. His Asian connection is yet another ruse in a strategy to have the final say in his operetta version of a David versus Goliath-type feud with the United States. His staging of a conference of 77 nations next April, that India has declined to send its prime minister to, could backfire on him. But the 77-nation summit could also give some badly needed fuel to the propaganda battle of “the rest against the West”. The arrogant and reckless capitalism of the e-idiocy age needs to be reminded that a spirit of enlightened criticism cannot side unilaterally with a project which aims to turn the world into a free-market theme-park with a blind eye to human and ecological devastation outside its suburban bliss. Castro has skilfully managed to equate his name and fading political sex appeal with the urgent and righteous need to strike a balance in a world that is increasingly lobotomized by corporations and their unswerving scheme to make McWorld a safe kindergarten for cheerful and obeying states. But Castro is not the only living example of a Hispanic political archetype. Albeit he is the only one that has paradoxically wrought all previous contradictions to create Castroism. Pinochet is naturally and simplistically Torquemadian. Fidel is not. He is a man of talent, Machiavellian intelligence and stature, a living myth, but a myth that failed to deliver the paradise he promised. A sad myth that, and one much in need of redemption in the way Juan, Quixote and Segismundo all sought self-renewal. But could they still have remained themselves if they had surrendered their mythical qualities? Let me end with yet another very Hispanic experience of confusion between myth and reality: the Basque country. The world over, Basques are now known for an ETA terrorism which supposedly aims to liberate the millennia-old Basque people from their Spanish and French oppressors. According to the myth, Basques are altogether different, speak a mysterious language and want independence. However, migrancy and modernity have dissolved the drastic differences and the myth is now irrelevant to more than half of the population. Instead of updating their political agenda, some Basques prefer to turn a blind eye to the killings, the bullying and the ethnic cleansing of the ETA thugs in the name of a liberated homeland. However, their opponents in the central government fare no better. Nationalism-bashing is trendy with most Spaniards because of the simple but worrying fact that they consider themselves free of that most reactionary attribute. Basque Torquemadeism is quintessentially Spanish and Spanish nationalism quintessentially intolerant of diversity. In the French part of the Basque country, fanatical nationalism has no hold, which goes to show that Basque myths only become a real problem in a very Hispanic context. Fortunately, Hispanic archetypes can be transfigured into creative, compassionate, humorously transgressive energies, inimical to fanaticism and narrow-mindedness, exactly as in Almodovar’s All About My Mother. For in coming to terms with one’s motherland’s karma one should refrain from being too earnest and just enjoy the ride.

The author is a Spanish diplomat    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Night of the speculators

Sir — And the winner is...The Wall Street Journal, of course. Predicting correctly five out of six top winners is no mean thing, even for a journal which has been in the business of speculation for ages. But however much the journal’s opinion poll of the judges may have angered the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, there is no point denying that the Oscars could have done with such a gimmick, what with its fare beginning to get too familiar. A great deal of attention seemed to have been grabbed by the journal and the odds at the betting syndicate of Ladbroke’s, and by extension, to the awards ceremony itself — more than the Academy could have otherwise hoped for. So what were they complaining about?

Yours faithfully,
Sunethra Menon, Calcutta

Unheard melodies

Sir — Biswarup Sen has dealt with the great qualities of the now dying Bengali adhunik songs vis a vis the rock ’n roll of Elvis Presley (“Believe in yesterday”, March 20). In his analysis, however, one notices the tendency to marginalize Nazrulgeeti under the pretext that it symbolized an “obsolete nationalism”. Thus he deliberately denies that Nazrulgeeti is the source of many scintillating modern songs of later days which Sen himself is much enamoured with. Nazrul Islam was also the forerunner of lyricists like Ajoy Bhattacharya, Shyamal Gupta, Gouriprasanna Mazumdar, Pulak Bandopadhyay and others.

Another omission that blemishes the otherwise brilliant article is the name of Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, the singer of such immortal numbers as Ami eto je tomay bhalobeshechhi.

Finally, the genesis of rock ’n roll in the United States was symptomatic of the cultural degeneration of the American youth springing from McCarthyism, militarism, consumerism and denial of human values. There is no reason for glorifying it.

Yours faithfully,
Hrishikesh Banerjee, Calcutta

Sir — Biswarup Sen tries to convince readers that Nazrul Islam was a composer of nationalist songs. Though Nazrul is known as the “rebel poet”, it would be unfair to categorize him as Sen does.

Nazrul’s devotional songs — encompassing both Hinduism and Islam in a way few poets have been able to — bear out his deep feelings for both the religions. Even his famous compositions, like Shyama mayer kole chore jopi aami Shyamer naam, strive for a synthesis of the Shakta and Vaishnava sects of Hinduism. He moved effortlessly between romantic, folk and devotional songs

At the risk of being blasphemous, one can say that Nazrul ranks a little above Tagore, as far as versatility of composition is concerned. One must keep in mind that Nazrul, at some points in his life, had to come up with “instant” compositions, which still reached amazing standards of richness.

Yours faithfully,
Ashis Dutta, Calcutta

Last word

Sir — India’s secularism is a thing of the past. The demolition of the Babri masjid and the events following it, together with the murder of Graham Staines and the Pope’s visit, have shown how the poison of communalism has soared within the law and order system of the country. Secularism, Indian style, may have worked in the past but now the flaws have come out in the open so badly that the preamble of the Constitution might well describe India as a “sovereign, socialist, unsecular, democratic republic”.

Yours faithfully,
S.A. Ahmed, Howrah

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