IN THE SPELL OF WORDS

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By Even in this age of easy entertainment, the argumentative Calcuttan loves his debate, writes Rohini Chaki
  • Published 3.01.08
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Sauntering by the lakes on a winter evening, a pair of octogenarians were chanced upon, giving careful consideration to the relative merits and demerits of the walking stick. While one gentleman manoeuvred his with pride, executing perfectly what could almost be taken for a swing in the step, the other grumbled that it was a nuisance that gave him wrist pain and wasn’t a hit with the missus either. Both gentlemen held their ground for long, arguing with conviction their allegiance — or lack thereof — to the walking stick.

Perhaps, then, it all began with the adda, this propensity for debating every aspect of one’s life, discussing and apportioning logic to all of one’s choices. One look at our ancient literature and sacred texts, though, will show that the tradition goes back civilizations.

It is in the nature of the Indian to be argumentative. In a country of such diversity — of faith, of culture — as ours, competing ideas and points of view have meant the existence of a prolific tradition of public discussion. Calcutta is certainly one of the major hubs of argument in India — where the interest in debating thrives even as it seems to be flagging in the other cities.

The Calcutta Club national debate has been for long an important social event in the city’s calendar. Prominent personalities have participated in this annual ritual — from chief ministers and activists to film stars. The faces in this year’s crowd indicated that greater enthusiasm is felt for this activity among the older generation than the young. And not without reason, for the Fifties and Sixties saw heated debates being held regularly in Calcutta. Then the stars were N. Viswanathan, professor of English at St Xavier’s College, the author Sasthi Brata, actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, and scholar Tilottama Tharoor (then Mukherjee) — the last three being students at the time.

Arguably, it is the encouragement that debating has received from schools and colleges that has kept the activity alive over the years. Collegiate debates in India may be traced to the tradition of debating in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxford Union, for instance, has a centuries-old tradition of holding debates in which speakers from all over the world have taken part. Members of the Oxford Union include five former British prime ministers. The late Benazir Bhutto was its president in 1977. Perhaps, when debating weightier matters of State, their eloquence reverberating from the rafters at Westminster, prime ministers William Gladstone and Harold Macmillan would have recalled their training from matching wits with their peers at Christ Church and Balliol.

It comes as no surprise that a flamboyantly intellectual pursuit such as debating would gain favour in Calcutta — a city well known for the academically-inclined, with their tendency to flaunt their erudition, real or assumed. Better informed and with a keen interest in world affairs, it is but natural that Calcuttans have divergent opinions which lead to discussion and argument. Shiv Rahul Chopra, an alumnus of St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, who follows debates closely, pins it down to the revolutionary zeal of the Bengali. “One reason for the rising popularity of debates could be the influence of the electronic media. Debates on political and social issues are regularly featured on the news channels and are very eagerly followed, by the young and the old alike,” he adds. Indeed, this year has seen the emergence of a civil society in Bengal built on furious expressions of public opinion following the Nandigram crisis and the death of Rizwanur Rahman.

However, despite this renewed interest in public debate, most enthusiasts remain sceptical of its purposefulness. It is generally agreed that the debate as a social event is just a talking shop. It is a rhetorical diversion, and not much else, and most keen debaters believe that it resolves nothing. “It is a platform to speak out with panache,” says 15-year-old Suhail Dhawan from Delhi. A university student, Aditya Vikram Das, was cynical after the Calcutta Club debate this year. “I come here every year to reaffirm my belief that people in general have no perspective,” he laughed. Sometimes, though, debates have made delphic pronouncements on the state of the world. An old faithful recalls one particular debate in the late-Sixties that had the motion, “This house regrets the discovery of America”. The then American ambassador, Kenneth Keating, sportingly agreed to chair it. The motion was upheld. To repeat a cliché, what the world thinks today, Calcutta thought generations ago.

Irrespective of which side one takes on the question of the usefulness of debating as a social activity, there is general agreement that debates provide a catholicity of vision that, in the long run, is sure to contribute to the process of democracy. At any debate, there are pockets of animated dialogue within the audience, which form their own opinions alongside those voiced by the speakers on the dais. Reasoned deliberation on issues of crucial import naturally appeal to the Bengali with his feverish attraction for intellectual exchange. No wonder then, that the Nobel-Prize-winning author of a book on the origins and contemporary significance of the argumentative tradition in India is a Bengali.

In Bengal, momentous changes are drafted over cups of tea. This house believes it must all have begun with the adda.