'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ram Guha And Amitav Ghosh

"All told, the Bengali has shown a keener and more durable interest in other (foreign) cultures than, say the Marathi or the Tamil. ... Satyajit Ray was at one point both Bengali and British, then, at another point, Bengali and French....Perhaps the last Bhadralok thinker to be both Bengali and Indian was Tagore.... the ordinary folk - 'Sadharan Lok' - of Bengal are genuinely interested in the rest of India, the self-proclaimed intellectual, never"

- Ramachandra Guha

I have met and known people from all over India. A disproportionately large number of my acquaintances have been Bengalis; and up to a certain point of time, almost all Bs I knew were of the ultra Academic variety. I admit they were among the more interesting sets of people - in ethnicity terms - I have got to know. This longish post is on just one aspect of the 'standard' B intellectual's mindset - how he/she views the cultural formations of the rest of India, especially the South. And this post is also the take of someone who has never visited B country. Note: over the years, I have get to know a few non-Academic Bs too (including one unique character encountered in Pondicherry, somone who easily ranks in the top ten of the most unique people I have known, but I won't be able to say anything about him here and now).

When I read eminent writer and historian Ramachandra Guha's review of Amartya Sen's 'Argumentative Indian' (appeared more than a year ago and now, not available online), it rang a bell, loud and clear. Let me quote a bit from fading memory:
"The Bengali intellectual, when searching for examples to illustrate his theses, provides a rich variety of selections from his own language and culture and once he leaves home, makes a straight dash for Paris, Moscow, Havana or the US for illumination - the rest of India does not count for much."

Amartya Sen does use some non-B Indian examples to make his points, but almost all of them belong to a few distant categories - medieval Mughal/Islamic or ancient Vedic or Buddhist; and then, he moves to the world at large, giving contemporary 'Rest of India' a rather short shrift (his often articulated admiration of the 'Kerala model' of social development is, I believe, quite a different matter). When Gandhi appears in his book, it mostly to argue with (and sort of suffer in comparison to) Tagore. Guha points firmly at Maharashtra as a region that contributed at least as much as Bengal to the Indian renaissance of the 19th and early 20th century, and says it is a contribution Sen has totally failed to note. This is not to say Sen is dismissive of the other Indian states - they just don't seem to excite him too much. And Guha avers, his attitude is quite representative of the B intellectuals'.

My own first impression in this matter came from a TV Science Quiz show named 'Quest' which Doordarshan used to air in the Eighties. Produced by the Calcutta Center of DD, it always featured two competing teams drawn from bright Calcutta schoolers; these teams were perpetually named the 'Albert Einstein team' and the 'S.N.Bose team'. I distinctly remember thinking: "They could have named the 'other' team after Raman or Chandrasekhar or...but they have gone for straight to Einstein himself, as if this is some Bengal versus Rest of the World contest. Where the hell is the *rest of India*?!"

And over long years, I too formed an image of Bengali intelligentia that was not too different from what Guha sketches. In more volatile times, I had even tried to impress on some academic Bs I knew well, that such a thing as Rest of India exists and it counts for something - and got some interesting results. Here are some examples (*):


Example 1: Chennai, mid '90s. Myself and a Telugu friend ('Gult' hereafter) asked a Bengali colleague why he does not like Carnatic music as much as Hindustani (well, it might appear Hindustani music is not really pure B but at least in modern times Bs have contributed as much to it as anybody else).

Note: The B here (let me call him B1) was quite into culture and knew Urdu poetry by Faiz and Spanish poetry by Neruda as well as his Tagore and Jibanananda Das.

B1: Karnatic is mostly about devotion, sort of a devotion to a personal God. I am not very religious. And all this unvarying piety .... puts me off.

Self: But Hindustani also has a very strong devotional aspect. And you do listen to it.

B1: But devotion is only a *part* there, whether Hindustani or Rabindra Sangeet. Here, it is the whole thing. You know, it is like for us, rice mixed with curd can be a side dish but out here, curd rice can be the entire meal. That is something I don't enjoy so much!

Gult: Curd rice does not make up the entire meal even here! Anyways, if you look at say Tagore, he is almost always devotional; at least mystical, in his music.

B1: That is not true; his work spans the whole range of human experience. And even when he is devotional, he does not keep calling God names, like a 'Sahashra Namam' or something. He does a lot more than that.

Self: The 'Sahasra Namam' is not really a Carnatic music composition. So...

B1: Well, what I meant, the gist of what I said is, here the themes are limited. I prefer emotions, nature, landscapes, seasons,... they have much wider appeal than just personal devotion. And even the way people approach music is so religious here, for example, the devotion to Tyagaraja, the chanting....

Self: That is only a display of reverence to a teacher.

Gult: Yes, even Tagore was addressed as 'Gurudev'. So, what is wrong with the Tyagaraja Aradhana?

B1: Nothing wrong as such. But, the degree of it... well, I have seen people treat Tyagaraja as a God, doing Puja to him and stuff. Even some non-Musical people, even they keep his pictures in the wallet!

Self: Tyagaraja in the wallet??

B1: Well, that picture of an old man who looks like a Fokir and is dressed in rags, always sits with his legs crossed....

Gult: Baboi!! (eyes turned up in reverence) Om Sairam!


Example 2: Hyderabad, late 90's. A Bengali Physicist ('B2'), who had been in the 'South' for a few *years* told me:

B2: Hey you know what, today I was in bus and listening to the cricket commentary on my pocket radio. There was a loud roar of the crowd and the chap from the front seat turns and asks: "Outtaa?" Strange, these Telugus pronounce zebra as 'jebra' and earth as 'yerth' but 'outtaa' for 'out'. Too much!

Self: That chap spoke Telugu. What he asked, when translated into English would be "Is (someone) out?"

B2: But why 'outtaa'?

Self: 'out' is a technical term which he did not translate or even distort as you said. The 'aa' ending is sufficient to frame a question with 'out'. So he asked you a question in Telugu with an English technical word - and you misunderstood!

B2: You mean, the problem was that I do not know Telugu?

Self: Certainly. If you knew even a bit of it, you would not have found what he said ridiculous, at least. But why would you care to learn a language you find funny upfront?

B2: Hey, by any chance, you mean to say, I am a language chauvinist?

Self: Not yet! Anyways,.... how did you reply?

B2: I told him: "Not outtaa! Sixeraa!"

Note added in 2010: Much after this post was written, Shah Rukh (he is of course, no Bengali) tried to mock Rajnikanth with "Yennada Rascalaa?!" - a daft passage from Om Shanti Om - which many in the Northern part of the country seemed to think was very funny!

More recently, when I read (eminent Bong writer and scholar) Amitav Ghosh's 'Hungry Tide', I could not help feeling how B-centered the work was (actually, there was nothing B-chauvinistic in it but my own world-line made me look at it in a particular way although I was no longer among B academcians - indeed *any* academicians).

And then, the other day, I saw 'In an Antique Land' by Amitav Ghosh himself. Leafing thru it, I found myself reading the chapter 'Mangalore'; and boy, it was one hell of a brain exercise. Decoding a name spelt 'BMA' in an obscure Arab manuscript as 'Brahma' and correcting it to 'Bomma', Ghosh launches into an incredibly rich and cerebral exploration of medieval maritime Malabar and Tulunad - details touched upon include the 'Babbariya Bhuta'(**) cult of Mangalore and its contemporary form, the Vachanas of the great social reformer Basavanna,...; and places visited in the sweep of his exploration include, apart from Mangalore itself, 'Dahfattan' (modern 'Dharmadom', Ghosh tells us), 'Fandarin' ('Panthalayini Kollam') and even the remoter 'Jurbattan' ('Srikandapuram' - I could not make out the connection here) in Kerala. Ghosh also informs me that 'Samutiri', the traditional title of the Raja of Calicut was derived from 'Samudra', the ocean, Calicut being a very maritime state - something no Kerala history text I studied mentions.

Must say, with this profound interest in a region of India far removed from his (in the process, Ghosh has more than doubled my knowledge of Tulunad, which lies right next door to my native Kerala) and the loving detail in which he has marshalled data and worked out his ideas, Ghosh has certainly provided a telling counter example to Guha's thesis (and mine)!


(*) - Anecdotal evidence is dicey, I know, but that is all I have. And (in all respect to Guha) I suspect Guha's issue with B intellectuals sprang from the *behavior* of some specific B's he met in his academic life as much as from broad statistics he might well have accumulated. He gives an example, complete with the accurate transliteration of B accent (something I did not try in reproducing the dialogs above) here:
(search for the string ‘Ei shala Jawaharlal Nehru shapotaar!’). Of course, although I too have had parallel expreiences when I was in the academic circus, my life has since happily diversified and I have got to know quite a few 'normal' Bongs as well.

(**) - the 'Bobbariya Bhuta', Ghosh tells us, is the spirit of a Muslim trader and seafarer who died at sea. I guess the name is derived from 'Berber', the north African ethnic group from which many traders and explorers hailed - ibn Batuta for instance (more recently, this group also produced soccer maestro Zinedine Zidane). There are parallels between this cult and that of 'Vavar Swami' of Kerala, traditionally a Muslim lieutenant and friend to Ayyappa of Sabarimala. This Vavar is also said to have been a maritime guy (although not sure if he died at sea) so, the spirit of Mangalore might well be him - or a close parallel. And let me add, I had all along thought 'Vavar' to be a corruption of 'Babar' but now, it looks more likely to have been a derivative of 'Berber'!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Two Quotes

1. "They believe that God is all-powerful, but also all-forgiving, and so accordingly feel that it is the Devil whom they must please, as he is the one who rules their lives while here on earth." - Anton LaVey's take on the Yazidi sect (quoted in Wikipedia)

2. "Yama(*) is also 'Dharmaraja', the Lord of Dharma, Virtue. And he is a stern and just judge - handing out punishment to evil-doers. But *this* world and its ways are different. Yama can't do aything about those who live here - his authority is limited to the dead." - from 'Govardhante Yatrakal', a Modern Malayalam novel by Anand.

(*) - the god of death and justice in Indian mythology.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Cyclist In Urban India

I have been a cyclist for a very long time. By a conservative estimate, I have done more than 1 kilometer of cycling for every day I have lived. I would claim this is a high figure for an Indian town/city-dweller of my generation who has never gone on lengthy (>50 km) cross-country or inter-city cycling expeditions. The total was achieved by (rather prosaically) cycling to work and to study, day after day, year after year, in city after city...

Indians belonging to the so-called urban middle class seem rather ... er... ambivalent about cycling. Many readily say how cycling is good for health and how it would keep traffic and pollution problems down - but then hardly anybody actually cycles. Anyways, this is not an essay about cycling; I merely record some urban cycling experiences of mine.

1. Bangalore, sometime in the mid 1990s: On a hot and dry summer day, I was cycling down MG road and felt like a drink and turned into Brigade Road and into the galli where Pecos, the famous pub stood. There were plenty of motorized two-wheelers parked on the roadside and I tried to put my bike there when a young fellow in uniform materialized and with a wave of the hand, asked me to beat it. I asked him what the problem was and he would not answer. I said I would pay whatever was the parking fee for the scooters but all he would do was to repeat "No cycle!" each time with greater vehemance. I gave up but I really needed a drink so I went searching in the inner gallies for a place where my bike would look more unobtrusive...

2. Chennai around 2000: I had just joined a company and was looking for a house. I had a lot of local exploration to do to see possible apartments and for a week or so, I used to borrow bikes from the security guards who were on duty at our office (by the way, I used to offer them a rent for the bike, some used to receive the dough with thanks and there was one chap who said: "No money, Sir! When I sit here on duty, I am not using my bike so why can't you use it instead?" I did not quite understand his logic but appreciate(d) his generosity). A Mallu colleague (who hails from a part of Kerala famous for Communism) told me: "what you are doing ( clarification: he meant borrowing the cycles from the proletarians not paying a rent) is a bit of a shame!"

3. A smallish town in Kerala, around 2000. I was new to the place and since the countryside around was scenic, felt like a bit of cycling. I did not see any bicycle rental shops. I went to a shop which sold bikes (in Kerala and in many other places, bicycle sellers seldom rent them out - the latter is distinctly lower-brow trade) and asked if there is some place that let them out. The folks there responded with surprise: "These days nobody gives or takes bicycles on rent. That is old hat!" (well, 'St. Mary's' at my then hometown of Chalakudi used to do (and still does) just that; and I have written about it elsewhere in this blog). I gave up and went on a long cross-country walk.

4. Pune, around 2004: I had a near collision with a middle aged guy on a motorbike. Both parties were at fault; but I felt I was more so. I turned to say sorry when he exploded in a stream of expletives. I was stunned for a moment, then returned the stuff with interest and, still fuming, made my way to my then office. The incident had shaken me up and I told a colleague about how folks could simply start off swearing at strangers. His 'explanation' was: "if you too were on a mobike or even a pedestrian, that fellow would probably not have shouted. I guess he guessed from your bicycle you were *a plumber or smalltime mechanic* so he might have gone straight to gaalis!"

5. Pune again, quite recently: I pull over to a restaurant. There was an area of the pavement clearly demarcated as "parking for **** restaurant". It was full of mobikes but at the end there were about a dozen bicycles. I tried to put my bike among them when a security guard came and said: "You can't put the cycle there!"
Self: "Why not? All these are bicycles!"
Guard: "But they belong to the employees of the restaurant"
Self: "And I came to eat here! Anyways, what exactly is the problem?"
Guard: "See, if the cycle is stolen.."
Self: "But *you* are here anyway..."
Guard: "Not that way! If a customer's bike is stolen, that will be a major problem and I cannot give guarantee..."
Self: "And it is okay if someone flicks an employee's bike eh? Anyways, don't worry, if someone makes off with my bike, I won't blame you!"
Guard: "You don't realize! If something goes wrong, the manager will..."
Self: "I won't tell the manager! And I am hungry!"

6. Pune, the other day. At a mall near the station, there is no place to put a bicycle (the mobike area is out of bounds of course). A succession of guards guide me to a dark corner behind the building where a few cycles stand, leaning against a wall. I put mine among them. A few hours later, when I get back, most of the other bikes are gone, mine is there all right, but both tyres are flat. I confirm that someone has 'punished' me, then begin what turns out to be a 7 kilometer tramp home, hauling the bike along...

Tailpiece: The only occasions when I got to cycle abroad were in nearby Nepal - where you do get cycles on rent easily (well, it was long back, in 1999). We were visiting Pokhara and one afternoon, I went pedalling around the small town. When I got back, Mom reported: "Our travel agent called up and asked for you and when I told him you had gone cycling, he remarked "That is great; only 'Foreigners' do it and now Indians too!""