Who said Bengalis love fish and sweets over everything else? Neither Sourav the tragic hero nor SRK the new poster boy tops the list. The one thing that all Bengalis adore, sometimes subconsciously, is self-criticism.
Let's check out some pet peeves:
- It's true that Rabindranath Tagore had won the Nobel prize, but it has been stolen.
- Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was a great patriot, but no one knows exactly how he died.
- Presidency College has lost its glory, though it's now a University.
- Young Bengalis — that's anyone between 2 to 45 — don't know enough about Ram Mohan Roy or Swami Vivekananda or Vidyasagar or just about any illustrious Bengali, except, of course, Sourav again.
- Jyoti Basu and the CPI(M) had made the state a shamsaan, and now Mamata is adding bits of wood to the pyre.
- Basically, it's Kaliyug, and the best thing to do is talk about it over tea and a generous helping of oily snacks.
When one proves conclusively that all Indian states and everyone else in the world too has moved way ahead of Bengal, one feels this glow of martyred satisfaction that is so much better than any substance-induced high.
Strangely enough, non-resident Bengalis have mostly prospered in both India and abroad. So what has happened to the folk back home in the tropical, verdant, politically controversial state?
Historically, the greatest blow was dealt to the state's economy by the Partition. No, it's not that far back in history to be ineffectual. In fact, given the continuing problem of Bangaldeshi exodus, it's quite 'alive' as an issue. It was not just the jute industry that suffered; the effect of partition is an ever-lasting confusion of identities. Your neighbor speaks the same language, eats the same stuff, and your sons play on the same field. And then one day, an international border (which is an imaginary line in your sons' Geography books), divides the little field between two countries. Your neighbor's relatives (and your common friends) walk across this border after a few days, claiming asylum. Suddenly there are too many people, too little room, and way too little food. You listen attentively to the explanations of politicians, read the papers, watch television debates among learned folk. Meanwhile, life falls to pieces.
OK, this is sad and boring, so time for a list again:
- Next in line, Independence and the riots.
- Before the dust could settle, Bangaladesh claimed its freedom in a bloodier war with Pakistan.
- During the rest of the 1970's, Bengal lost 1/4th of its youth to the Naxal movement.
- The emergency and one more war came and went.
- By then, we were into the 1980's, and the CPI(M) rule was getting harsher.
- On 6 November, 2000, Jyoti Basu stepped down, ending his 23 year-old rule as Chief Minister.
- We all know about the mass murders and gang rapes of Nandigram, and how Mamata Banerjee ended 34 years of CPI(M) rule on 20 May, 2011 by becoming the state's first woman Chief Minister.
No one can deny that Bengalis rose, again and again, in violent revolt against any oppressive ruler. It could be the Mughals, the British, CPI(M), Mamata. But something always remained unchanged. And that was a kind of worm in the core of the society of Bengal. All Bengalis are not lazy, just like all Sardars aren't dumb, and all Gujaratis aren't avaricious. But Kolkata, for decades, had been cultivating a culture of going slow. It might come as a shock, but among the four metros, Kolkata, as a city, is actually the youngest. It started becoming what it is today only in 1690. So the feel of an ancient, tradition-bound metropolis was carefully constructed and maintained by a people who wanted to live easy under the guise of this blessed 'slow, old-world charm'. Any society trying to remain disguised in this way is also bound to be the most restless under its surface, and Kolkata is no exception. Therefore the dichotomy of extreme rebellion and mindless conformism, massive business success and utter comfort with poverty; all exist side by side.
Bengal voted for Mamata since there was no other choice. The woman may be nuts, but was there anyone else around as an alternative?
Bengalis are one of the most globally scattered communities. That's why it is impossible to gauge whether Bengali is the fourth, fifth or sixth most spoken language in the world. An accurate census of Bengali speakers is harder than counting penguins across continents. During the first decade of the current century, hordes of young Bengalis migrated to other states to ride on the crest of the digital boom. A part of that crowd is already eyeing Bengal, and Kolkata, as a 'hot spot' again. Many entrepreneurs have already returned and launched their own labels from Kolkata after making it big elsewhere while the state changed governments and ever so much happened.
There is, once again, a turbulence rising beneath Kolkata's gentle, well-bred smile.