Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Purba Paschim — easily one of the best known Bangla novels ever written — is centred on the lives of Mamun and Pratap — college friends in pre-partition Calcutta whose stories diverge after 1947. Pratap and his entire family leave their ancestral home in East Bengal for Calcutta. He faces financial hardship, cramped living conditions, loss of a son, and many other tragedies and tribulations. But in a sense, he has a normal family life, consisting of birth, marriage, funerals and everything in between. Pratap dies a fulfilled and content man. Mamun’s case is different. He emerges as a well known newspaper editor in East Pakistan, contributing to the democratic movements of the 1960s, participating in the Liberation War, and in the formation of the new country. While not exactly rich, there is never a hint of him facing penury. But for all that, Mamun has a rather unhappy personal life — a failed marriage, a complicated relationship which dooms the marriage of a niece, no kids.
I don’t know whether Gangopadhyay means it thus, but to me, the two characters seem to symbolise the paths taken by the two Bengals over the past 64 years — a democratic and stable West Bengal versus a Bangladesh buffeted by the revolutionary highs and counterrevolutionary lows alike.
One can think of a variation of this dichotomy in a number of other works of fiction depicting the diaspora from the two Bengals. Compare the experience of Ashima in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake with that of Nazneen in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. The integration into the west is much easier for the wife of an MIT teacher. And her son, Gogol, when all is said and done, has existential crises that are not really all that different from Douglas Coupland’s protagonists — a far cry from Magid and Millat of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
And underlying all the differences, we can surmise, is the economic differences between the two parts of the divided Bengal. Traditionally, the western part was industrialised, and Calcutta was undoubtedly richer than the rural eastern hinterland. One would have expected West Bengal to have a higher per capita income at partition. It’s hard to guess which part would have grown faster in the 1950s and 1960s — West Bengal was besotted with the refugee burden and political violence, but East Pakistan faced systematic discrimination. My guess is that both had stagnated. And then, into the 1970s, we know that Bangladesh lost a fifth of its economy in 1971 — nothing remotely comparable happened in West Bengal.
Thus, one could reasonably expect that West Bengal would be considerably richer than Bangladesh when the Left Front came to office in 1977. For the next 34 years, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that the communist ruled state had stagnated. We know, on the other hand, that Bangladesh staged gradual economic accelerations over this period.
Would Bangladesh have closed the gap with West Bengal during these decades?
I don’t know. I haven’t actually seen any study comparing the two Bengals’ economic performance. I decided to look up some numbers myself, and was astonished to see what I found — that Bangladesh was slightly richer in 1994, but West Bengal had raced ahead in the intervening years!
That’s what is shown in the chart comparing per capita income. I have taken the state GDP data from Indian statistical agency, converted it into BD taka using the latest exchange rate, and compared it with the BBS official figures. Now, we can quibble over whether the market exchange rate is the right measure here. Ideally we would want a purchasing power adjusted exchange rate. But I don’t have one for West Bengal. And yes, this could make a huge difference. So don’t take these numbers too seriously. May be they reflect something real, may be not.
Instead, let me ask a different question — how come no one has done this study?
And not just per capita income. That’s just one metric economists are fond of using. What about a comprehensive study of indicators of social progress? We often hear, particularly from well-meaning westerners like Nick Kristoff, that Bangladesh is doing so much better than its erstwhile western half of Pakistan because we invest on schools, particularly for girls, while they spend their money on guns and puts their girls behind purdah. Well, Bengalis of either side of the Radcliffe Line has a lot more in common with each other than Bangladeshis have with Pakistanis. Has anyone done any comparison of how women’s lives in West Bengal compare with Bangladesh?
Other scholars compare the populism-military rule-dysfunctional democracy dynamics of erstwhile East and West Pakistans. Has anyone in Bangladesh asked how democratic practices, and civic institutions, evolved in West Bengal over the past decades? Is there something we can learn from there?
I have often contended that Bangladesh is not much understood in India — I give you the ramblings of Manmohan Singh and Jagdish Bhagwati as exhibits. Perhaps Bangladesh is not understood in West Bengal — the part of India that should have more familiarity than Delhiwallahs or Southerners — either, I don’t know.
But it seems to me that Bangladeshis are also not very curious about West Bengal.
And that is a shame, because if my suspicion is true, then Bengal has truly been divided, mentally as well as physically.
Updated (1025 BDT, 16 Aug)
It occurs to me that a full appreciation of the physical division of Bengal is not necessarily a bad thing. Once we reconcile ourselves to the finality of partition, we can begin to analyse each other, and our common past, in a rational manner.
Updated (1230 BDT, 18 Aug)
In light of Diganta’s comment, this chart shows GDP per capita in US$ using purchasing power parity exchange rates (ie, taking into account price differences properly). Source: Groningen Growth and Development Centre Database.