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  • Published 23.06.02
The knighthood bestowed on a non-resident Indian economist, Partha Sarathi Dasgupta, illustrates how the Bengali world has been transformed in the 60 years since the last Bengali, Biren Mookerjee, was so honoured. Swarajist affectations have been dropped and icons refashioned. The diaspora has dealt a fatal blow to the lingering shade of the 19th century civilians and barristers, Brahmo as well as Hindu, whom Satyendranath Tagore derided as ingabanga. It meant "England-worshipping Bengali" for Rabindranath Tagore. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson translated it as "Anglomaniacs". It was always an outsider's description, never used by anglicized Bengalis themselves. Born in the heartland of that world, my grandmother spoke always of "the set". It was ironical that Satyendranath Tagore should affect such disdain, for he was the first Indian member of the Indian Civil Service that was, adapting Voltaire on the Holy Roman Empire, neither Indian nor civil nor a service. His wife devised the modern way of draping a saree. Ackroyd's biography of T.S. Eliot lists his younger brother as the second Briton (after Rudyard Kipling!) to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Rabindranath himself wrote scathingly that if you wore a morning coat in the evening, an ingabanga magistrate would condemn you to solitary confinement. I can believe that, for my grandmother recalled Sir Tarak Nath Palit's horror when someone asked for mustard with his mutton. Obviously, it was a common solecism of the times. According to my friend, Arany Banerjee, his grandfather, Aswini Coomer Banerjee, a prominent barrister with Jorasanko connections, thought "mustard with mutton was food for a glutton". Central to the ethos was an imitativeness that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee defended robustly by citing Roman emulation of the Greeks. "The result of that imitation was the elocution of Cicero, the histories of Tacitus, the epic of Virgil, the drama of Plautus and Terence, the lyrics of Horace and Ovid." More pointedly, "The Bengali sees that an Englishman is superior to him in everything, in culture, in education, in strength, wealth, and happiness. Then, why should he not try to be like an Englishman?" The great novelist did not himself belong to an elite that included Britain's only non-white hereditary peer. Yet, he justified its emergence as both natural and necessary, unlike lesser folk who snapped and snarled at what they could not aspire to. It was part of this carping to portray the ingabanga as anti-national; four incidents suggest a more complex division of loyalties than D.L. Roy's mocking lyric suggests. First, Baron Sinha of Raipur introduced Sanskrit to the College of Heralds and House of Lords with his motto, Jata Dharma Stata Jaya. Second, another law member, S.R. Das, founded the Doon School as an Indian equivalent of an English public school because he felt that his own two sons who had been boarders in England had become estranged from their roots. Third, the viceregal drawing room must have been stunned when, asked to sing, Sir B.L. Mitter's wife burst into Bande Mataram. Finally, B.L. Gupta, Das's father-in-law and my great grandfather, who joined the ICS in 1871 with R.C. Dutt and Surendranath Banerjea, placed friendship and Indian rights above career advancement. Writing to Indira Devi Chaudhurani, Tagore fulminated against Gupta, with whom he stayed in Puri in 1893, for persuading him to swallow a snub and dine with the European magistrate. But a decade earlier Gupta's note on discrimination against judges who were "Natives of the country" (a clever way of taking the sting out of the pejorative official term) as opposed to "European British subjects" had precipitated a hysterical European upsurge over the Ilbert Bill. Nirad C. Chaudhuri called the storm a "watershed" in India's evolution. Less well-known is the incident of Gupta presiding in the high court when word reached him that Banerjea, his friend and former colleague, had been arrested and taken to the Presidency jail. He at once closed court for the day and went straight from the Bench to Alipore to greet his old comrade, who was by then a seditionist in the eyes of the government. These were not the actions of a sycophant or of someone who was frightened by authority. But Tagore is right to say that the British did not accept even anglicized Bengalis as equals. They were certainly favoured, and knighthoods were generally reserved for them while less sophisticated but equally loyal babus had to be content to be a rai sahib or rai bahadur. But even the ingabanga was kept at arm's length until the Calcutta Club was founded as a stately retreat for Indians and Europeans above a certain level. The races congregated in different parts of the Bar Library. Personal intimacy was rare. A British civilian's comment in 1880 on the B.L. Guptas - "Mr and Mrs G live in a very nice house and have their rooms furnished just like those in an English house" - reeked of subtle condescension. As Tagore also says, the ingabanga's stature depended on the length of his British connection. Someone who had lived three years in England regarded "himself as infinitely superior" to someone who had spent a mere year there. What he did not say was that other Bengalis accepted that yardstick, witness the BNGS ("Belait Na Giye Sahib") jokes. Since the attitude still persists, the NRI is tops even though he might fail all the other tests of the old elite. Today, thousands of lower middle class Bengali emigrants rub shoulders with the British in their own homeland. When they revisit Bengal, it is with dazzling accents, suits, money and a framework of reference that stands orthodoxy on its head. One sees the contradiction in Singapore where I have again taken up abode. Some second generation local Bengalis could pass for suave ingabanga sahibs until you meet their womenfolk. Wives are imported from Bengal, which means Barasat or Boinchee for these are the only places where these migrant families have links. When an extremely rich Singaporean Bengali took his mother back on a pilgrimage of nostalgia, he booked into a grubby little boarding house in Salkia (where his papers and money were stolen), not because he was mean but because he knew no better. It is often the non-resident's fate to be caught in a time warp. But he is the Bengali future, if there is one at all. I do not have in mind glitterati like the latest knight, Amartya Sen, Jhumpa Lahiri or Sumantra Chakravarty (the highest ranking Indian in Britain's civil service) who are world class, but the many Bengalis in Britain and America whose savings convert to a fortune in rupees. They are buying up plots and flats from Salt Lake to Alipore. This is the phenomenon of the new millennium, and its rise coincides with a physical revolution in Calcutta. Development, perish the word, has drastically changed the character of that bastion of residential privilege called "south of Park Street". More than stately homes are buried in the earth that is churned up to erect matchboxes of poky flats that incongruously blend modest lifestyles with once fashionable addresses. With their corner-cutting, criminal links and cash hoards, the new tribe of operators known as promoters has exorcized the ghosts of the Bengali sahibs who inhabited Elysium Row and Hungerford Street. That elite is as moribund today as the Brahmo Samaj and for similar reasons: run of the mill society has stolen its ideological clothes. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar's crusade for widow remarriage has served its purpose. No need either for the ingabanga when schoolboys from Haltu to Hathibagan flaunt striped ties, puja pandals resonate to English slang, knives and forks clatter in cheap eating places, and IFML - guess what those quaint letters stand for? - is the hallmark of the progressive Bengali intellectual. There are no ingabanga knights left. A knighted Bengali NRI marks the beginning of a new social cycle.