The closing of the Bengali mind
I returned to north Bengal last week for a short holiday in the Darjeeling hills. I spent my early childhood in North Bengal and it's always been my remembered fairyland. Nestled deep in mountains is the delightful Glenburn tea estate, a boutique hotel modeled as a remnant of the Raj. Glenburn is a teaplanters "burra bungalow" complete with bearers serving hot cups of 'cha' and campfire dinners of gin & tonic, roast chicken and lemon souffle.
Raj nostalgia works beautifully to attract tourists but when an entire state remains trapped in nostalgia, as Bengal seems to be, then nostalgia becomes a force of deadly inertia. Even if Pranab Mukherjee becomes India's first Bengali president, Bengal may never again experience a 21st century version of its famous 19th century renaissance or re-birth. Arriving at the dilapidated chaotic Bagdogra airport and driving on bumpy roads through shockingly primitive villages that seem untouched by the 21st century, it seems as if Bengal is in danger of being left far behind the new age dynamo states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.
Mamata Banerjee's victory last year created hopes of change. To be fair, her first year has been burdened by massive expectations. Struggling with an enormous debt, a deeply politicized society and a non-existent work culture, the change in government has not yet begun to change the society. Bengal's highly talented people, its greatest resource, continue to flee. The state is now so poor that soon Bengal will be the main supplier of domestic servants to the rest of India, as even Bihar slowly pulls out of the Bimaru trap. There is still no promise of industry returning to Bengal. A terrible possibility looms: are we witnessing the End Of Bengal?
Today every great Bengali is either dead or living outside Bengal. Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray have passed into Bengal's ancestral pantheon. The celebrated Bengalis of our time from Amartya Sen to Amitav Ghosh have migrated from Bengal. The only resident Bengali who is still somewhat of an all India hero is perhaps dada Sourav Ganguly. But after Sourav,who? Why is Sourav Ganguly Bengal's only cricket star, in spite of the passionate celebrations after KKR's IPL win? Don't stars beget other stars? After Satyajit Ray, shouldn't there have been other Satyajit Rays?
As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, we must also mourn that Bengal has failed to produce another Tagore. Worshipping past icons as deities is a disservice to those very icons who themselves were original iconoclasts, who broke dramatically with their own pasts and were unafraid to challenge convention.
Talented new film directors like Sujoy Ghosh of the hit film Kahaani, doyens of the arts like Aparna Sen, the Shankars, even designer Sabyasachi do Bengal proud, but the majority of young Bengalis are failing to obtain the kind of quality education and access to new ideas, that Bengal was once famous for. Bengalis no longer generating the one resource it has always generated: the visionary, inventive and iconoclast mind.
New ideas and clever technology are the buzzwords of the economy and Bengal, as the foremost 'intellectual' state should have been the first to jump onto the knowledge industry. But alas the power of the Bengali's mind was considered least important to the progress of Bengal by a Left regime which stamped out free thought. Even more damagingly, the flight of capital and the gradual destruction of an entrepreneurial culture prevented the intellect of the Bengali from being turned into a resource for the global economy. There are no Narayan Murthys and Nandan Nilekanis in Bengal.
The golden era of Bengal, the Bengal renaissance of the 19th century, happened as a creative response to the shock of British rule.The jolt to traditional values from the British created new cultural dynamism within the Bengali. Today, one set of party faithful may be replaced with another, but without a shock or a jolt from the outside, a social and political re-birth cannot happen.That shock therapy lies in reversing the industrial decline of three decades, on a war footing.
Can a Rammohun Roybe be born in today's Bengal? When educational institutions are on the verge of collapse, when there has been an anti English language policy for 25 years, when the ideological core of the Left has evaporated leaving behind the Left's worst imitators, that is, those who believe only in violence and thuggery, when a society has been almost irreversibly damaged by the legitimization of violence,how can there be another change agent as impactful as Roy?
The educated have been edged out of public life by clashing rival cadres of CPM and Trinamool. Unless the educated Bengali, the bhadralok and bhadramahila, plunge once more into Bengal's public life, another renaissance of Bengal is impossible.
If dissent leads one to being labeled a 'Maoist', how can Bengal generate new ideas? Paranoia breeds isolation, a truism that Mamata Banerjee has failed to recognize. Yet Mamatadi's task is unenviably humungous. Society's roots have been cut because every social institution has been politicized by the Left. When politicization is so deep rooted, another party can only bring in its own version of politicization.The larger social tragedy remains untouched.
This is the tragedy of a society where excellence is considered elitism, where rich and poor are seen as mortal enemies, where agitational confrontational politics has been legitimized as the only method of so called pro-poor politics.
Bengal's growth rate is slowing, literacy rates lag behind Uttarakhand Himachal and Tripura, the school drop out rate is 78.03 per cent, only Bihar, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Sikkim fare worse. In 2005-06, only 27.9 of Bengal's households had access to safe drinking water, in Maharashtra, the figure was 78.4 and in Tamil Nadu 84.2. Regime change has occurred but Bengal is still destroying the one resource it was famous for: the mind.
"Mon-o- mor -megher shangi- ure chole digdiganter pare", my mind flies with the clouds towards the far horizons, wrote Tagore.
When Bengal's mind is not free to fly, how can the state take off?