It must have been the late Fifties. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s lifelong passion was to bait his kinsmen, and he was at his sardonic best. The epitome of Bengali double wish-fulfilment, would be, he quipped, Subhas Chandra Bose returning home as general-secretary of the Communist Party of India.
Maybe he was not altogether wrong. The Bengali literati at that juncture had begun to cross over to Marxist faith. They were simultaneously discovering Bertolt Brecht, many of whose plays would soon be staged, with great gusto, by Calcutta theatre groups. Bengalis would nonetheless differ from Brecht on one point; the German playwright’s dictum to pity the people who are in need of a hero had no custom in the neighbourhood. Bengalis have always felt comfortable with a hero, either a father figure or a prince charming with a fairytale-like quality in his exploits. Subhas Chandra Bose fitted snugly into the frame of that imagined icon. He resigned from the Indian civil service, joined the freedom movement, spent years in prison or exile; his sacrifices for the national cause were a legend, his charisma was so overwhelming that he could not be prevented from enthronement as president of the Indian National Congress. He challenged Mahatma Gandhi and won a second term. The conspirators ejected him. He went on undeterred, gave the foreign rulers the slip and set up the Azad Hind Fouz abroad to engage the enemy in direct battle from across the Burma frontier.
That clinched it; the Bengalis had their hero. Subhas had his traducers as much in Bengal as in the other parts of the country when he was actively involved in national politics. But after the Indian National Army, the mystery-shrouded air crash of Saigon and the rest of it, no force could resist his emergence as an ethereal figure. Polemics continues whether that air crash was or was not a piece of fiction, and whether the Russian archives do or do not contain vital secrets concerning his post-World War II perambulations. There are even some Bengalis who would pour scorn on such facts as that he had an Austrian wife and that the lady with the name Anita Pfaff, who occasionally visits the country, happens to be his daughter: data of this nature apparently do not gel well with the immaculate Bengali concept of a hero.
Fascination for a totem, some will say, is typical of a tribal society and, when all is said and done, Bengalis are in essence a tribal people yet unable to get out of the behavioural mores they embraced a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago. Despite the layers of experience they have gone through over the past couple of centuries or thereabouts, including the happenstance of being the earliest Indians to come in contact with the Western discourse of Enlightenment, Bengalis at their core remain a bundle of contradictions. Their modernity is hopelessly mixed up with beliefs and prejudices eerily reflecting totems and taboos of a tribal culture. The allure for the Left that ensnared wide sections of the Bengali middle class in the middle decades of the last century did not make the least difference: Bengalis might vote for a party claiming Marxist credentials and yet jump with frenzy to greet a hero as long as he possessed the right attributes; in this, they are not different from most other tribes.
Wishful dreams do not come true. The Bengali literati switched over to the Communist Party in droves. Subhas Chandra Bose, by now Netaji, however, did not return. The Bengalis tucked in their disappointment and made do with whatever surrogates were on offer. For a time, following the ushering in of the Left Front regime in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu seemed to have attained a halo which almost qualified him to fill the slot of a hero; after all, did he not tower over others in the national scene? Politics in a competitive democracy is by nature divisive though; besides, schisms are a fate tribal societies can hardly avoid. Even when the Left Front was at the zenith of its glory, Jyoti Basu was unable to become a universally accepted hero in Bengal. It was a near thing in 1996, when he was on the point of being sworn in as the country’s prime minister. Had that accident actually occurred, the snob in the archetypal Bengali would have taken charge. Jyoti Basu’s party, rightly or wrongly, put paid to that possibility.
Meanwhile a number of sub-heroes appeared on the landscape, mostly belonging to the arena of dramatics, film-making or sports. These categories do not have the same dazzle the populace expect to associate with an authentic hero. A thespian or a film-maker — or a film star for that matter — is only a local celebrity or has a segmented appeal. He, more often than not, fails to have a national clientele, not to speak of an international following. Satyajit Ray was perhaps an exception. But while he made films depicting the stark reality of the Bengal countryside and some of his creations captured the angst of Bengali middle class existence, he had much too sophisticated a personality to hold in thraldom the multitude of ordinary men and women. There was also the other factor at work: it is an unstated norm that a hero must have a decisive influence on the levers of power in the polity.
The game of cricket has suddenly made a difference, largely on account of the satellite channels and the fervour global advertising has succeeded to generate. The money front-rank Indian cricketers make surpasses the earnings of Mumbai’s leading film stars; they are also immensely richer than their peers in England, Australia and New Zealand. Even as known political figures get caught every now and then with their pants down, a significant, and not at all inexplicable, development is the phenomenon of machine politicians increasingly seeking the patronage of film- and cricket stars to boost their own image.
Consider in this context the symbiosis between Sourav Ganguly and Bengal. Cricket may at present be mostly confined to the Commonwealth countries; it is nonetheless an international sports, a number of cricket tournaments bears the sobriquet of the World Cup. Sourav Ganguly has made his way to the forefront in the game. For the first time, a Bengali has made it to the national team in a sporting event and is about to play his one-hundredth Test match. He has skippered the national team too; and, what do you know, as captain his record is superior to that of others. He is, besides, handsome and smart, and expresses himself well. All that apart, Bengalis — always ardent believers in conspiracy theories of all descriptions — are convinced that some scoundrels had plotted to drop him from the national team. The Bengali ego found it difficult to take the affront lying down. The manner in which Sourav has fought his way back has now created a dilemma for those Bengalis who want to be grammatically precise: does this sub-hero deserve to be considered for promotion to the rank of a hero, or at least that of a deputy hero?
Sourav Ganguly’s second coming has coincided with another development. The past few months have been a horrendous experience for Bengalis. Singur, Nandigram and their yet-unended epigram have riven society athwart as it was never riven before. Bengalis are tearing into one another; the media have turned into the receptacle of mutual recriminations of the most sordid kind. In this situation, Sourav’s success story has come as an anodyne. Bengalis are a divided lot, Sourav Ganguly is at the moment their only common point of agreement. Hurrah for Bengali parochialism, Sourav unites them when all else fails.