The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Existence determines consciousness in Calcutta

A city may decline in different ways. Dilapidated buildings and roads in bad repair provide visible signs of this decline. Heaps of uncollected garbage and inadequate amenities such as transport do not show a city in a good light. Since the economic condition of a city indicates the viability of the city, deteriorating economy is no sign of a thriving city. A city may decline in terms of educational and health services as well. Institutions created to take care of them may be weakened by external or internal reasons. Falling professional standards may be yet another way in which a city declines. Intellectual and artistic cultivation may also show diminishing vitality.

Calcutta has declined in many ways. Once famous for its palaces, this city shows today crumbling buildings and roads, which lend themselves to the measurement of the depth of their potholes. A nature-lover on a short visit to Calcutta once told me excitedly that he had never seen anywhere so many saplings growing in the walls of the buildings of a city. The battered buses of Calcutta can be a good advertisement for the demerits of a transport system gone wild. The garbage in Calcutta piles up at all places. When it is transported away, it tends to be done in such a reckless manner that one wonders whether the purpose is to dispose of the garbage or to spread it all over the city.

Amartya Sen has talked recently of the de-industrialization of Calcutta and how, in recent times, there has been further decline due to misguided policies. It is quite visible, even to common persons, how industries set up under the British, such as jute, engineering and tea, which were located in or around Calcutta, have gone into decline. In other spheres as well, Calcutta has lost ground. It is sad to see students from Calcutta having to go out of their city in pursuit of higher education. Hospitals in south India are full of patients from Calcutta and other parts of West Bengal. This is happening to a city that was once in the forefront of education, including medical education and healthcare. As in reality, so in the world of images. While Calcutta was, at one time, the leading centre of film industry in India where Kundan Lal Saigal, the first superstar of the film world, came from outside and made his name, it is reduced today to making poor imitations of Bombay films. The Bengali film industry has still not recovered from the absence of Uttam Kumar, who died in 1980.

It is common among some circles in Calcutta to deny the importance of the physical decay of the city. The claim of Calcutta as the cultural capital of India is put up with chauvinistic zeal. It seems to be assumed that the physical condition of the city is inversely related to its cultural activity. It is as if Calcutta had a splendid cultural life because of its physical squalor. I do not buy this argument. As a person who has lived in Calcutta all these years, I have witnessed here a convincing demonstration of the elementary principle of Marx: existence determines consciousness.

The shrinking job market, the helplessness of the youth, the indiscipline of those already employed, the political patronage given to the worst elements in society, the pervasive sense of nothing significant happening — this debris of the dark years under Jyoti Basu with which Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is struggling hard has left its mark in less visible ways as well. This point was driven home to me once when I went to pay my telephone bill. On my failure to render the exact amount, the man at the counter started shouting at me. “How do you expect me to have the change so early in the day'” — this seemed to be the theme of his outburst. When I pointed out that this was no reason to shout at me, he became even more aggressive. “Shouting' Am I shouting'” he shouted back. It took me some time to understand that he did not realize that he was being rude to me. What was rude behaviour to me was routine behaviour to him.

It is this rudeness made routine that has become prevalent in social life. The decline of civility has taken place in a city which did pride itself at one time for its bhadra — civil — behaviour. This civil behaviour was seen negatively through Marxist eyes, as if the way to de-class oneself was through making oneself lumpen, as if the only quality that the workers of the world had were of the lumpen kind. This transformation has taken place across classes. It is not uncommon to see the educated middle classes show the worst form of lumpen behaviour, of which shouting at each other is the least of offences.

A menacing expression of the decline of civility is the manner in which women are being treated on Calcutta’s streets. What is being called “eve teasing” is a misnomer for sexual harassment or molestation of women by men. Such cases are being reported frequently. Considering that only a small number of incidents get reported anyway, there is an urgent need to engage with this disturbing problem.

The manner in which those who protest against the molestation of women get beaten up or even killed, as in the case of Bapi Sen, shows how brazen the miscreants have become in the city. The more disturbing part of the problem was shown by a friend’s private narration, which did not get reported in the papers. He was travelling once in a city bus occupying a front seat. He suddenly heard some noise coming from one of the back seats. When he looked back, he found a man harassing a woman. Against her pleas not to touch her body, the man was saying that it was just her imagination. When my friend could not tolerate this harassment any longer, he went to the man and asked him not to stand next to her seat. It was not necessary, he argued, as the bus was far from full. This led to further altercation. Some of the friends of this man joined him and started shouting and pushing my friend, threatening to beat him up. This went on for some time. It was when the miscreants got down from the bus on reaching their destination that there was silence in the bus.

This silence was broken by an old man who chose to pass a judgment on what had just happened. He said it loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Women who get badly treated in public places have themselves to blame. They have become shameless,” he said. That there was nothing shameless about the woman who was being harassed had no impact on his judgement, which was received with silence. An old woman broke this silence. Praising my friend for his effort, she chose strong language to chastize the other men in the bus for not speaking out in defence of the woman. For the man passing his judgment, she had nothing but contempt. “The masculinity of men here gets expressed in either harassing women or watching impotently as other men harass them,” she said. This was her judgement on the incident.

I tend to agree with her. Men need to take note of her harsh judgement and also to ask themselves where they go wrong when they blame the victims of harassment. Women have a responsibility as well. They have to fight their battle with courage and determination, and fight together. They too have to ask themselves where they go wrong.

In a broader sense, the problem belongs neither to men nor to women separately, but to our collective social life. Civility has gone away from it. I have referred to Marx earlier. Let me close by referring to Manu, the original chauvinist of Hindu society, who cannot exactly be blamed for being partial to women. In Manusmriti (III: 56), he said, “Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.”

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