Why Bengal is to India what France is to the world
- Published 5.09.15
In a book published some years ago, the sociologist, Rabindra Ray, observed that Bengalis were so obsessed with intellectual pursuits that even their swear words reflected this. In other parts of India, the most common form of abuse dealt with incest - you accused someone you disliked or were quarrelling with of sleeping with his mother or sister. The most common curse in Bengal, however, was he who so far forgets himself to make love to a fool.
I was reminded of Rabindra Ray's insight when reading How The French Think, a new book by the Oxford historian, Sudhir Hazareesingh. This presents a panoramic view of the life of the mind in France, from Descartes and Voltaire down to Sartre and Foucault. The subtitle of the book is An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, and its main thesis, illustrated by many different examples, is that among the cultures of the West, the French are most devoted to the arts of thinking and arguing.
Reading Hazareesingh's book, I was struck by how many of the quotes he uses, and the aperçus he provides, are relevant to Bengal and Bengalis. They too are an intellectual people, so much so that in this long-time Bengali-watcher they evoke much affection and occasionally some exasperation.
The great historian, Jules Michelet, once wrote of the French: "We gossip, we quarrel, we expend our energy in words; we use strong language, and fly into great rages over the smallest of subjects." This is a characterization that fits the Bengalis too. For the French, writes Hazareesingh, "ideas are believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for". Much the same could be said for Bengal through the 20th century, when - as in their involvement in violent anti-colonial movements and later in the Naxalite rebellion - they showed themselves even more willing to die for their ideas than the French.
The more adversarial the ideas, the better. Thus, as a Parisian scholar remarked in the late 19th century, "we are French, therefore we are born to oppose. We love opposition not for its results, but despite its results: we love it for its own sake. Our mood is combative, and we always need an enemy to fight, a fortress to capture. We like to launch the assault, not so as to enjoy the spoils of victory, but for the pleasure of charging up the ladder".
Once more, the Bengalis can recognize themselves in these remarks. A slogan common to all protest movements in Bengal is Cholbé Na: This Will Not Do. Opposition comes naturally to the Bengalis; notably, opposition to the fortress that is New Delhi,which all Bengali politicians (from Subhas Chandra Bose and Syama Prasad Mookerjee down to Jyoti Basu and Mamata Banerjee) have heroically sought (but thus far failed) to capture.
How the French Think describes how the penchant for thinking, the desire to read, and the compulsion to argue, cuts across all social classes. Analysing letters written to a left-wing newspaper, Hazareesingh notes that the contributors "came from all walks of life: students, workers, artists, priests, mayors, members of parliament, doctors, lawyers, industrialists and farmers; there was even a customs inspector".
Much the same could be said of Bengal. When I lived and worked in Calcutta, one went to the National Library not knowing whether the adjoining desk would be occupied by a fellow academic or by a railway clerk seeking to improve his mind. The film and bridge clubs I belonged to, which in Delhi or Bangalore would have been the preserve of the Westernized elite, here had as their members babus from Burdwan, sub-inspectors from Howrah, and the like.
While all citizens think, those who think and write for a vocation claim the privilege of speaking for society as a whole. In Bengal, poets, artists, and film-makers are accorded a greatly elevated role; so also in France, where, as Hazareesingh tells us, there is a widespread belief "that the possession of a certain cultural capital entitled writers and thinkers to intervene in public debates and to provide overarching answers to the problems faced by French society". Bankim and Tagore, in the past, and Mahasweta Devi, more recently, have played a comparable role in Bengal to the likes of Voltaire and Sartre in France.
In recent decades, the intelligentsia in Bengal has tended to be on the Left. Here too, they mimic their Parisian counterparts. For communism, says Hazareesingh, has "exercised [an] extraordinary fascination in France".
The flip side of communism is a hatred of the United States of America. The historian, Jacques Portes, observed that that since World War II anti-Americanism has become "a defining criterion of French political and intellectual life". Hazareesingh himself remarks that, with rare exceptions (such as the great Alexis de Tocqueville), "French writings consistently represented American society as alienated, violent and materialist, dominated by eccentric beliefs and an absolute incapacity for cultural elevation".
Here, again, we can recognize the similarity with Bengal. Few acts have ever given Bengalis more pleasure than when, at the height of the Vietnam War, they named the street on which the American consulate stood after Ho Chi Minh. Like their French counterparts, Bengali intellectuals have tended to see Americans as crassly commercial as well as nakedly imperialist. More recently, they have followed their French counterparts in continuing to despise America while seeking a haven in the American academy.
Halfway through his book, Hazareesingh sums up the characteristics of "the French style of thinking". These include: "its inherently disputatious and polemical character; its fascination with... order, predictability and linearity (and, paradoxically, its contempt for conformism); its obsession with religious forms and metaphors; its belief that the possession of a high degree of culture provides (in and of itself) an entitlement to rule; its ability to transform private setbacks and personal misfortunes into general philosophical world views; and its capacity to swing from energetic optimism to melancholic pessimism".
The italicized phrases are those where the parallels between the French and the Bengalis are more or less complete. Disputatious, polemical; non-conformist; the elevation of culture above politics and especially above entrepreneurship; the personalization of societal misfortune; the abrupt mood swings - such are some of the characteristics of the Bengali way of thinking.
Sudhir Hazareesingh writes that the French believe "that they have a duty to think not just for themselves but also for the rest of the world". The problem, however, is that the rest of the world no longer accepts this. The loss of global influence has bred a deep pessimism in the French. Towards the end of his book, Hazareesingh speaks of a sense of "Gallic doom" that pervades intellectual and political life in France today. Everything, it seems, is declining in France; French cars are no longer exported, nor are French films much watched outside France. As one novelist bitterly remarked, a nation whose science, philosophy, literature and film was once the world's best now has "nothing to sell except charming hotels, perfumes and potted meats".
The Bengalis do not have even this consolation. People from all over the world flock to Paris, but there are no Malayali or Tamil tourists to Calcutta. The days when Rabindranath Tagore dominated Indian letters, Satyajit Ray dominated Indian films, Sourav Ganguly dominated Indian cricket, are long past. Indeed, even the ownership of the roshogulla has been challenged by the Odias. No wonder that the bhadralok sense of doom is even more complete than the Gallic one.