What chances are there of the prime minister of Great Britain giving a volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare as a present to the prime minister of India when the latter is on an official visit to London? The answer is, almost none. This is not because William Shakespeare is not a British or an English icon but because any prime minister of Britain would try not to be banal while choosing a gift. He would look for a present that tells his guest about Britain today. I take Britain as a convenient example but the argument would hold true of most heads of government/state.
In West Bengal, however, things are done differently. When Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state of the United States of America, called on Mamata Banerjee, she was presented with four books: one on Vivekananda, another on Ramakrishna, and translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitan and Gitanjali. Ms Banerjee fell back on familiar icons even if they were of no relevance to Ms Clinton’s visit and — dare one say it ? — to the future of West Bengal either.
Ms Banerjee is fond of icons. Probably because she sees herself as a living icon and many of her supporters deify her as one. She is the icon called Didi. Her fondness for icons is evident all around — from the naming of railway stations as well as cultural functions and professorships after celebrated Bengalis to the declaration of holidays to mark anniversaries associated with them. At the top of the list of icons sits, predictably, Rabindranath Tagore, whose songs are now blasted out over microphones at every major street corner in the city of Calcutta. This worship of Tagore is perhaps the only similarity that the present chief minister shares with her predecessor, who was fonder of quoting Tagore’s poetry than lines from Karl Marx’s oeuvre.
This obsession with icons is reflected in the chief minister’s choice of books for Ms Clinton. Could she have chosen different kinds of books? This article tries to suggest an alternative list: books that could have conveyed a very different idea about West Bengal and the world of letters of today’s Bengalis.
The chief minister could have presented a copy of Poor Economics: Rethinking Poverty and the Ways to End it written by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both of whom are professors at MIT. This book looks at poverty, surely Bengal’s and India’s biggest and seemingly insurmountable problem, in a radically different way. Instead of providing a grand overarching theory, as economists are prone to do, this book looks at the really poor in different localities and how they cope with the conditions in which they are forced to live. Through these observations, the authors arrive at solutions to alleviate poverty that are relevant to specific localities. The book is imbued with hope and reality. It emphasizes the critical importance of knowledge. This book would have told Ms Clinton about poverty and how a Bengali economist based in the US proposes the problem should be addressed. It is a book that looks at the future.
Turning to the world of fiction, the chief minister could have presented to the secretary of state a copy of Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. These short stories look at the lives of Indian immigrants in the US — the problem and the angst of displaced Indianness. Something difficult and perhaps ineffable happens to values and identities of families that leave a country to settle in another. In the US, the problem is pronounced in the lives of the second generation of immigrants. Lahiri, who lives in the US, captures this powerfully and poignantly. The book would have told Ms Clinton something not often written about her own country and about Indians.
A different kind of novel that could have easily been presented is The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. Through this novel, Ms Clinton would have gained the knowledge of a unique environmental space, the Sunderbans. Ghosh’s narrative and the detailed research that underpins it would have provided a glimpse into the vast world of forests and rivers in southern West Bengal and of the lives of human beings who inhabit that area. There is the added drama of an Indian scientist from the US who comes to do research on dolphins in the Sunderbans. Both The Hungry Tide and Unaccustomed Earth would have struck chords in Ms Clinton.
These two novels would have revealed to Ms Clinton the concerns and the creativity of contemporary Bengali writers who live in the US but are not entirely alienated from the lives of their own countrymen. Without in any way denigrating the writings of Tagore, it should be said that this contemporary dimension, for obvious reasons, is not present in his writings. Moreover, Ms Clinton would not have to read them in translation as she will have to if she chooses to look at the Gitabitan and Gitanjali given to her.
To return to icons. Mamata Banerjee fell back on the obvious ones. She thus neglected two other Bengalis whose contributions to the world of knowledge are far more far-reaching and relevant. I am referring to the two Boses, J.C. and S.N. The mobile phone through which Ms Banerjee so adroitly sends her messages would not have been possible without the work of Jagadish Chandra Bose who first demonstrated, much before Marconi, that it is possible to transmit sound without the aid of wires and cables. Much of modern physics is grounded in the pioneering work of Satyen Bose. Mamata Banerjee could have easily given copies of the biographies of or books on the two scientists since there is hardly anything more relevant in today’s world than the contributions of these two great sons of Bengal. It is telling that neither of the two Boses are accorded iconic status in Bengal, perhaps because they were scientists. Ms Banerjee has followed that herd mentality.
Presents always say something about the giver. As the chief representative of the people of West Bengal, Ms Banerjee, through the books she chose as presents, conveyed, willy-nilly, to Ms Clinton that the people of the state and their leader remain obsessed with poetry, songs and spirituality. The gifts are a gesture towards West Bengal’s glorious past, not to the reality of the present. It was open to the chief minister to convey a different message. She chose not to.
It is easy to hold Mamata Banerjee alone responsible for this choice but she reflects a mindset that afflicts many Bengalis, even those who do not like or approve of her. It is an attitude that, in the world of culture, thrives on the deification of certain individuals and an antiquated mixture of spirituality and poetry and, in the world of politics, privileges the peddling of Left populism. This attitude in a bizarre way is the common bond between Mamata Banerjee and the target of her hatred, the CPI(M). Frogs-in-the-well Bengalis have trapped themselves in the stagnant waters of the past. Whatever else it does, this mindset cannot be conducive for West Bengal’s future. Idolatry and populism are both opiates of the imagination.