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- Bengal is distinctive not lonely, unique but not exclusive

There is such a thing as the rasa of a place, its sthala-rasa. There is also such a thing as the icchha-rasa of the rasika even as there is such a thing as an icchha-raga of any lover of classical music. As a rasika of Bengal, I can say that my Bengal, which need not be anyone else’s, is not tinged with the colours I see sprayed on Holi here in Calcutta or in Santiniketan. Rather, with those that one sees in Tagore’s self-portraits and which Nandalal Bose has applied on the Halakarshan fresco at Sriniketan and Benode Behari on the three walls at the Hindi Bhavana there — earth brown, mustard yellow, frank madder. These are the colours of life which can be toned to one side to make them the colours of pain, or toned to the other to make them the colours of joy. You can guess to which side mine turn.

Black and white in photographs are not about black and white but about grey, which is the natural colour of so much in life’s anomalies, ambiguities. The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 stimulated Somnath Hore’s grey sketches, Sunil Janah’s black and white photographs and, unfortunately in colour, Ray’s Ashani Sanket — another Bibhutibhushan-Satyajit Ray pairing. These creations are part of that same unified field which saw the dying of three million people and the breakdown of village life in all its departments and individual tragedies all merging into one whole, brilliantly symbolized by the giant trees that recur like a refrain in the film. Scarring episodes like the Great Calcutta Massacre of 1946 and the riots of 1947, of which the killings of Sachin Mitra and Smritish Banerjea, non-violent activists for Gandhi, form part, are another unified field of personal tragedies sublimated into a common experience of pain.

There is in Bengal’s sensibility, in its swabhava, that which metamorphoses tragic experience, when individual, into the collective and then takes the collective to some form of artistically, politically or institutionally shareable expression. I do not wish to dwell on the politicization of grief, a phenomenon which can be — to the politics concerned — productive as also totally counter-productive.

A slender isthmus of feeling links the continent of Bengal’s emotion to the subcontinent of its intellect. Equally, a narrow strait of sentiment links the ocean of Bengal’s sub-liminal sympathies to the bays of its willed understandings.

Continents are made by the sundials of Time, subcontinents by the clock-towers of history and countries, we might say, by the wristwatches of politicians. Bengal’s emotional continent is anterior to its intellectual subordinations. And it is that continent which has determined the shape or the structure and the stability of its objective creations.

Oceans are about aesthetics of creation, bays are about their demarcated interpretations. When oceans heave, bays ripple. An ocean of sentiment has fed , one might even say nourished, Bengal’s artistic expression. Creativity and even scholarly academic inquiry move over the strait of sentiment in Bengal.

Sentiment is not the same as sentimentality. Derozio and Derozians like Ramtanu Lahiri and Peary Chand Mitra were not sentimental people. But when opposing “the hollowness of idolatry, the shames of priesthood” and “summon(ing) Hinduism to the bar of reason” , they were actuating a sentiment which we may call, paradoxically, the sentiment of reason. Bengal, even when it employs the instruments of reason, does so with a passionate intensity. In the winter of 1992-3, I heard Amartya Sen speak in Cambridge on the shame of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was among the most moving speeches I have heard in my life. And he was speaking on the side of reason, and against emotion.

Alongside the isthmus of feeling and the strait of sentiment, there also rises in the Bengal I know, a delicate char, sandy, soft and shy, from the riverbed of personal experience, personal inclination, personal bend, to make Bengal’s shared creations both narrative and three-dimensionally physical. The Gitanjali, I would say, arose thus as did the little clay hut in Santiniketan built, as Rabindranath said, for his “seshbela’… jaar naam ‘Shyamali’” where “maatir kole mishbe maati…” and which “birodh korbe na dharani sange…”

The connecting vestibules — the isthmuses of feeling,the straits of sentiment and the char of personally felt experience — have been crucial to my understanding of Bengal. It is those strips of sand or water which, like a hyphen, both connect and keep apart, that make Bengal for me, ‘my Bengal’. In the case of Rammohun and Vivekananda, these vestibules work through their letters, which share and not just convey, in the case of Saratchandra through his short stories where he lets the characters play, not preach. In the case of Rabindranath, they work through his paintings and shorter poetic or musical works. In the case of Buddhadeb Bose, through the triptych, Maner Mata Meye, which, to my mind, is an isthmus, a strait and a char combined, linking the heart and the mind, with love shown in all its dimensions, too serious to be taken lightly, too accessible to be seen as philosophic expressions. And loss, too terrible to bear alone, too private to be understood by anyone but the loved.

I may be permitted to place five summations: 1. Bengal, as I see it (‘my Bengal’) has been a field of many emotions but, very specially, of pain and of the emotions that accompany pain. 2. Bengal is also the field of an unusual concentration of artistic expressions. 3. Bengal’s pain starts or occurs at the point of the personal or individual but soon becomes shared in and through expression in literature and the arts, especially music. 4. Thus sensed, shared, sublimated, it joins, like a river to a flood plain, that unified field of pain in Bengal which takes the experience of pain into itself and gives it a form that can be deeply fulfilling to the first experience and then to subsequent ones in an almost seamless transmission. 5. This phenomenon is not and cannot be peculiar to Bengal but Bengal is certainly a major theatre for it.

So what then makes up ‘my Bengal’?

I have asked myself many times if the Bengal I know, respect, covet, love, is the Bengal of emotional catharsis or of its intellectual musculature, the Bengal of political assertion, or of spiritual redemption, the Bengal of pain felt and sublimated or of ananda and joy. To say it is a bit of all these would be to cop out of the question, not answer it.

There are works — literary, artistic, musical, basically, ‘creative’ works. And there is work — hard work on the field, on the ground of real life.

Bengal has given us both, not always in perfect balance, but still, both, sometimes in combination as in the field work of Nirmal Bose, Mahalanobis, Amartya Sen, Sukhomoy Chakravarty, Mahbub-ul Haq and André Béteille, and sometimes separately. I say this after pondering (which is different from reading) the works of Rammohun, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Bibhutibhusan, Saratchandra, Rabindranath, Buddhadeb Bose, M.N. Roy, and, in our own times, of pre-eminent academics such as the ones I mentioned and, Ashok Mitra, Mahasweta Devi, Tapan Raychaudhuri, Ranajit Guha, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Partha Chatterjee, Amiya and Jasodhara Bagchi and Uma Das Gupta and of persons in the field like Ashoka Gupta and Tushar Kanjilal. Letters from some of these distinguished contemporaries of mine are among my most prized possessions. They have, more than books, set me on those narrow but continent-linking and ocean-linking bars of human experience.

A statue of sandstone, three-and-a-half feet high, in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, is of the Buddha. It was discovered, according to one version, in the Gond country on the Narmada. Be that as it may, it was drawn, I am sure, by some unknown master sculptor who had before his real or mental eye a youthful Gond, at one with the earth and its innocents, enlightened without knowing it, smiling at the artist who asked him to tarry for a rough sketch made on wet earth to become, in time, this statue.

I was reminded of him when on the tense day that had Nandigram written over it, at Tamluk, I saw a figure, prone, among a dozen more, awaiting post mortem. It had no smile on its face, only surprise.

In my journeys across the state I saw many who could be the original of the Gond Buddha many that of his mother, wife, sister, and, yes, daughter. At the rajbari in Cooch Behar, a painting of Maharani Indira Devi rivalled that of her daughter, Gayatri Devi. And both were matched for me by no painting but a living being no goddess can surpass for the grace of her deportment, the magnificence of her generosity, the luminosity that surrounded her. On the day I was driving to Nandigram, I stopped by a village, impromptu. The small group of huts in it were inviting me — “Esho, esho…amar ghare” in Iffat Ara’s voice. After spending a few minutes among them, as I was leaving, one woman, shall I call her goddess, asked me to step into her hut. Just for a moment, she said. I did. From a shelf, she brought out a brass thali with a lamp lit on it. And a dab of red powder. I will not describe the touch of her ring finger on my forehead for I cannot.

I must, as I close, share with you a cameo from my childhood. While at school, at age 13, I think, I chanced upon a set of letters retrieved from their sources and kept carefully by my father in a trunk in our home. These were written by Saraladevi Chaudhurani. Wholly emotional, they were addressed to one she called “Lawgiver”. No prizes for guessing who the Lawgiver was. Her handwriting was beautiful, the words lyrical. In the bunch there were letters written by the Lawgiver to her as well, in green ink, addressing her as “Pearl”.

In the set was a letter, a very emotional one, from a person as searingly intellectual as Rajaji. Only Bengal, in the shape of Saraladevi Chaudhurani, could have unlocked the sluices of emotion — the emotion of strong disapproval — from the watertight dam of that mind. Asking his “Dearest Master” to sever his relationship with Saraladevi forthwith, Rajaji wrote “…as to (comparing Saraladevi to) Mrs Gandhi it is like comparing a kerosene oil Ditmar lamp to the morning sun…” Rajaji’s advice was followed. I was consumed by a desire to learn more about Saraladevi (apart from kerosene oil Ditmar lamps) and took the bunch of letters to my recently widowed mother who knew about them but had not really read them. Tears flooding her eyes, she re-read them and said (in Hindi) “Jaise rishi-muniyon ki pariksha hoti thi… Apsaraaon ko bheja jata thaa… us hi tarah hamare Bapuji ki bhi pariksha hui… Aur bapuji us agni pariksha mein vijayi hue... Saraladevi se humein koyi shikayat nahin… Ve pariksha kii maatra maadhyam theen, bas…

In his final letter to Saraladevi (available, god be thanked, and published in the Collected Works) Gandhi himself called the closure given “that perfect coincidence, that perfect merging… self-forgetfulness”. Greek means nothing to me now; it did even less when I was 13. But Bengal became for me, from that time onwards, a universe in which transcendental and sacrificial love — Eros — had a place. Sacred spaces, inviolable from the dross of human failings and set apart for the worship of the gods — Temenos — had a place. As did paradoxes or puzzles that come to us as in a heap of occurrences — Soros.

Bengal is unabashedly about love — Eros. Bengal is unembarrassedly worshipful — Temenos. And in its ability to juggle the lyrically emotional with the intellectual, the religious and the secular, the tragic with the joyous, Bengal is wholly paradoxical and puzzling — Soros.

Bengal’s gift of love tends towards its making a cult of it. To have and love a hero is one thing, to blindly worship that hero, to idolize and lionize and make an idol or deity of the object of that love is another. There is no disloyalty or disrespect involved in disagreement. One should be able to differ from Swami Vivekananda on some particular statement or view of his and still revere him. One should be able to be out of synch with Mahatma Gandhi in the matter of, say, brahmacharya in marriage and still hold him in the bonds of love. One should be able to say about Netaji that his political values were inspirational but his political decisions fallible. One should be able to say Tagore’s Gitanjali is unparalleled, but his own translations of it unsatisfying.

The late Amlan Datta once wrote to me about what he called “the risk of love”. Bengal’s loves need to court the risks of love. Equally, love of Bengal needs to risk candour. Eros, Temenos, Soros have a fourth cousin — Pyro or Pyros. In Bengal’s propensity to ignite thought, inflame desire and combust emotion it is Fire — Pyro or Pyros.

Uma Dasgupta and one of the most distinguished philosophers of our time, Arindam Chakrabarty, have done me the favour of interpreting Aguner Paroshmani. Chakrabarty writes in an informal but deeply thought-out communication:

“Fire, standing for all the trials and tribulations of suffering, bereavement, humiliation, disease, ageing — ‘duhkha’ as Buddha would have called it — and Tagore’s life starting with loss of mother, favourite sister-in-law, father, son, daughter, wife, on and on was full of this fire (full of) burns. People take it as devastation, burning to ashes. Rabindranath — not just in this song but in many many many songs and poems — expresses his ‘anubhav’ that this Fire transforms the ‘iron in the soul’ to Gold.

Hence ‘Fire’s Poroshmoni’ ...mixing of metaphors. Instead of burning down life, may the Fire of extreme suffering touch my life like a sparsha-mani and make it ‘punya’ — sacred, holy. E jibon punya karo, e jibon punya karo, e jibon punya karo. By what? By the gift of BURNING: dahan daaney…” That was Chakrabarty, intense and insightful, in his letter. He will, I hope, expand that letter into a book about how emotion moves to reason, feeling to intellect.

My Bengal knows pain. That is not its weakness. In fact, that can be its strength. It can use its experience of tragedy, like dahan daaney, to tell itself and India how to salvage solutions from crises, answers from riddles, not by feeding agun but by transforming it. “I cannot leave Bengal,” Gandhi said. “And Bengal will not let me go.” I can say the first but will not presume to say the second sentence.

This much I will say: Bengal’s legacy of pain, her experience of tragedy, her gift of love, her dower of art distinguish it. Distinction is a form of individualism. And individualism can become a love affair with oneself. A lonely distinction is a form of self-exclusion. My Bengal is distinctive but not lonely, unique but not exclusive and says to its Mother, Diyechhe joto, niyechhe taar beshi.