‘’These days I work only for money, because there are no good scripts or good directors – they don’t even know how to cut a shot properly.” Soumitra Chatterjee
This quote from one of the towering figures of Bengali cinema is sure to ruffle a few feathers. But a prophecy of Bengal’s downfall had been foretold almost seven decades ago. In his well known autobiography, Nirad C.Chaudhuri had predicted the perpetual decline of the Bengali, stating that whatever they had earned would be “threatened with extinction” This wasn’t enough. He even wrote a book titled ‘Atmaghati Bengali’(The Suicidal Bengali). Chaudhuri was confident that the end would come either through a catastrophic holocaust or slow, painful decay.
Slow and painful decay seems more apt. Ages after Chaudhuri antagonised his community with his views, his prophecy seems to have proved a point. Bengalis form the second largest linguistic group in India. And nowhere is the decline more noticeable than West Bengal. The leaders of India’s nationalist movement and intellectual progress have degenerated, torn between their glorious past and deplorable present.
The state, which till the early ‘60s was the hub of industrial and commercial activity has been ruined by partition, famines, political unrest and misgovernance. The flight of capital-both in terms of finance as well as human resources has been consistent. The most promising talents leave it on the smallest pretext, looking for a promising future in upcoming metros like Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Reminiscing their glorious past is a favourite hobby for Bengalis these days. Bengal had the privilege of having the first modern university in south Asia and the first Indian college to offer modern education. It was the centre of reform movements and witnessed a renaissance in arts and literature, creating a political consciousness in the minds of the ‘bhadralok’. Bengal’s finest hour was Rabindranath Tagore being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. No other community could boast of producing eminent personalities in all walks of life-science, literature, philosophy, politics as Bengal did during the 19th and 20th century.
One major reason was the early exposure to English education, leading to the rise of the Bengali ‘bhadralok’-a well to do, upper caste Hindu segment. Employed by the British to run the state, the bhadralok was an educated, culturally evolved pen-pusher. Perhaps that was the major reason for Bengal’s sudden rise and rapid fall.
At present, most eminent Bengalis who have made their mark in any field- business, literature and music stay outside Bengal. A major part of its public institutions-colleges, hospitals and libraries are in shambles, due to sheer politicisation.
Cultural achievements are far and few. Bengalis seem content producing repetitive, moribund films, theatre and literary pieces. The only flicker of hope remains art, as Kolkata based painters still draw crowds amongst the Indian art circuit. The cultural vibrancy is a thing of the past. Political parties whip up Bengali chauvinism at the drop of a hat, once they feel cornered. A government, with millions of registered unemployed in its rolls and a bankrupt economy, spends public on folk theatre stages and sponsoring football tournaments.
“There is no perpetual activity in government offices. Government officials normally turn up hours late for work, and idly spend their time solving crossword puzzles, ignoring the concerns of helpless people waiting outside’’, remarks Nirmal Dutta, a manager with National Insurance who now resides in Delhi. The life of people outside is no better as government sponsored unions regularly thrash reporters, teachers and foreign investors.
Inured to such chaos, the Bengali has become myopic. Some scholars are of the view that the domination of the bhadralok on society is a major reason for today’s lazy, pessimistic Bengali. For a large section of the population, there seems to be no world beyond Bengal. The three-decade long communist rule made things even worse.The often repeated, hollow theories like ‘Centre’s apathy towards Bengal’ are discussed in TV shows and adda sessions dominated by bureaucrats and their cronies. It signifies a demise of the values and work culture.
Yet, amid all the doldrums there is a glimmer of hope. There are some half-ditched efforts to encourage a proactive work culture though they are bhadralok dominated. However, accomplishing this mission is an uphill task. The freefall of the Bengali can only be checked if there is a profound change in his outlook.
The inevitable downfall of communists won’t cause a miracle- as a fickle minded chief minister, Mamata Banerjee continues carrying the legacy of rabble-rousing politics, strikes and agitation to its conclusion. For Bengal to revive, Bengalis need another renaissance. Till then, there is no scope for a recovery.