Joy (the other) Bangla?

Posted in Bengal, comedy, Drama, history, movies by jrahman on October 11, 2017

Interesting things maybe happening in the Indian Bengal, and not just with films, though a film is a pretty good place to start.  Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksho — a family dramedy about changing role of women in the mid-20th century bhadralok society — garners two wholehearted cheers.  Moushumi Chatterjee puts on perhaps the best performance of her career, and Konkona Sen Sharma is in her exquisite elements.  That’s two cheers, not quite a third for Srabanti Chatterjee though, who pales before the two veterans.  More importantly, the first two-thirds of the movie is astute social commentary that is simply fun to watch.  Depiction of the partition-induced transformation of a landed gentry East Bengali caste Hindu family into trade-dependent petit bourgeois is up there with the best of partition-related art.  Indian Bengalis tend to have a hard time pulling off East Bengali accent — this is a rare and pleasant exception.  For all that, however, the movie is far from being a great one because of its last third.  And yet, it’s the ending that made me think.

The story ends with this:

I haven’t read, and thus can’t comment on, the Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay novel that Sen adapted.  Perhaps the writer was more adept at explaining the characters’ motivations, but on the screen, the plot is completely lost when it’s linked to Bangladesh’s Liberation War.  No, I am not talking about the supposed link between the Indian Naxalites and the Bangladeshi freedom fighters — such links may not be part of the mainstream history because they weren’t all that common, but this wasn’t a documentary (as an aside, I wonder whether the hyperventilating so-called pro-71 bloviators brewed similar storm as was the case with this).  Rather, the problem here is that it’s not at all clear why these increasingly (self-)liberating women — with radical paramours — would want to invest in the Bangladesh project.

Did they imagine yet-to-be-created Bangladesh to be a socio-economically egalitarian, inclusive, emancipatory polity?  If so, that would be quite distinct from the East Bengali Hindu perspective that we see in, for example, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s work, where (usually male) characters feel nostalgic about the land they left behind, and imagine that an independent Bangladesh would, if not undo partition, at least blur the boundaries demarcated by Sir Cyril Radcliffe.  It would have been fascinating if any feminist motivation was made clear, but Sen makes no attempt to do so.

Of course, one might take a cynical view that Sen (and perhaps even Mukhopadhyay) were simply trying to cash in on the booming Bangladeshi market.  Perhaps.  But there are others in the Indian Bengal with views about partition, 1971, being Bengali and all that are quite a departure from the Purba Paschim mold.

Consider this from Garga Chatterjee:

The Hindu Bengali majority political entity of West Bengal is a product of the 1947 communal Partition of Bengal. The public opinion shaped around 1946-47 for a partition of Bengal envisaged a permanent Bengali Hindu majority homeland. The official stance of West Bengal being just another appendage of the secular Indian union is far from how West Bengal was conceived by its proponents as a place for Bengali Hindus to flee to escape religious persecution.

This idea that West Bengal is the refuge of last resort for Bengali Hindus is something that is widely held, just like East Bengal (in its political form as the sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh) is the permanent Muslim Bengali majority homeland (and demographically increasingly simply a Muslim Bengali land). The gulf between constitutional official-speak from above and tacitly understood people’s conceptions from below is obvious. Mainstream political discourse with its set of lakshman rekhas necessitates the usage of codes, private pronouncements and the usage of signals that put forward ideological stances without publicly spelling it out. While the Trinamool doesn’t have overt Hinduness as its political ideology, being a mass-party, it also draws upon this understanding, not in the communal, exclusivist, anti-Muslim, hard-majoritarian undertone of the Hindu right, but as a near universally-shared conception in West Bengal of West Bengal being the fountainhead of Bengali Hindudom globally.

Chatterjee’s facebook posts are far more strident, profuse in 1971 era slogans such as Joy Bangla and tumi ke ami ke Bangali Bangali, but also curious addressing of Mamata Banerjee as mother-of-the-Bengali-nation.  Yes, yes, beware of Facebook echo chamber.  And politics remains hard work.  For all I know Chatterjee’s is just a voice in the wilderness.  But in the world of Brexit-Trump-Macron, can we really dismiss any idea as fringe?  And for that matter, wasn’t Chowdhury Rahmat Ali just a political nobody coining weird names in the early 1930s?

Few months before Sen’s movie was released, I chided Naeem Mohaiemen and Arnab Ray for ignoring Ms Banerjee in their New York Times double-bill:

I say probably because neither author actually touches on the mercurial politician currently ruling the Indian state. Given the fractious nature of Indian politics, she may well end up being a key figure in New Delhi. Given the sorry state of affairs she has got, Bangladesh bashing may well play a big part in her electoral strategy, provided this stuff matters to her rural and semi-urban constituency. But this is not something either author explores.

On reflection, I think I was too easy on the NYT writers!  Garga Chatterjee may or may not represent anyone in the Indian Bengal, but Mamata Banerjee undoubtedly does.  As Narendra Modi seeks a re-election while the Indian economy slows, she will matter, as will what she represents.  And the ramifications of raising Joy Bangla chants outside Bangladesh will likely be felt in the country.  Yes, Dhaka will need to factor Kolkata in its policy calculation, even though it’s not clear what can be done by Dhaka when Kolkata and New Delhi renegotiates their balance of power.

That last point is not understood well in Bangladesh.  Consider this:

Dhaka needs to be warmer to Kolkata. West Bengal is a huge province of 90 million people, and the linguistic-cultural partner of Bangladesh. Also, there should be new and natural models of engagements in the sub-regional context of the more connected world.

For example, in Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) initiative, China has allowed its Yunnan province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to deal with other member nations ie Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand under the banner of the forum directly on many issues.

Such natural models should be tried in eastern sub-region of South Asia.

The lesson from the example would be that New Delhi should let Kolkata to deal with Dhaka — somehow the author completely misses that important point!

Garga Chatterjee isn’t unfamiliar with Bangladesh.  It sure is interesting to read him during our interesting times.

(This piece was started before the 70th anniversary of partition — vagaries of life and all that).

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