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Decolonization of The Bengali Psyche

Updated: Sep 3, 2020



I must begin this essay by invoking Dostoevsky's underground man for I am as much at fault as anybody else clinging on to the past. I live in a house built during the colonial era; I still use a typewriter; I have not one but two vintage lamps on my table, and my photo gallery is filled with sepia-tinted photographs of Victorian Calcutta. And yes, I refer to my city as Calcutta, not Kolkata.


"I am a colonized man; a sick man; a timid man. My identity is diseased."
-Notes from Calcutta

(A crude attempt at a joke)


I have read Bankim Chandra and Sarat Chandra. I've read Manik Bandopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay. I've read Jibananda Das and Buddhadev Basu. I've even read about Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. But is that enough? Can I call myself a Bengali Intellectual just because I can quote Anandamath and Dhanshiritir Tir from memory? Does my affinity towards Mohiner Ghoraguli negate my colonial viewpoints?


Earlier, it was considered impossible for someone to give a rousing speech in Bengali. All the congress leaders, including the Grand Old Man of Calcutta, spoke exclusively in the tongue of their colonisers. Not much has changed. I am writing this in english and you're reading this in english. Could I have written this article in Bengali? Being completely honest, no. Atleast not an article with literary merit. My skills in my own mother tongue are heavily limited. I can speak Bengali. I can read Bengali. I can even write amateurish poems in Bengali. However, while I might talk of Pramathanath Bishi's allusions to religion and Bankim Chandra's vivid imagery, I'm afraid I'll never be able to replicate them. My hold on my own mother tongue is so weak that I can hardly form a sentence worthy of praise.


If I were to live in a modest flat instead of this colonial abode, would I be any different? Would I still cling on to my false and archaic visions of grandeur? In short, would I still be an insufferable litte faux-intellectual? Most probably.


To understand the psychology behind the colonised Bengali, one must learn about its life-cycle.


Now, through extensive research and experimentation, I've come to the conclusion that the average colonised Bengali Intellectual goes through three stages in their life cycle:


(i) The First Stage : The little precocious toddlers, well on their way to becoming colonised Bengali Intellectuals, begin their "holier-than-thou-esque" journey of life by going to sleep only when their parents sing Tagore. They grow up listening to Tagore, maybe even learning his songs. Now, at this point, you might ask, "Well Anuraag, what's wrong with loving Tagore?"


Well, there is nothing wrong with loving Tagore. These children however consider him to be the only Bengali academic. They read exclusively english (they read Tagore's stories in english too) and they look down upon anyone who can't communicate in their coloniser's tongue.


(ii) The Second Stage: The second stage in the life cycle of the colonised Bengali, begins when the once-precious little toddler turns into an angsty 15-year old. These children, all of a sudden, develop an interest in the films of Satyajit Ray. After watching Aranyer Din Raatri, they decide to read the book it was based on. They end up loving the book and thus begins their fascination for Calcutta. They read up on the Bengal Renaissance, they start listening to Baul music and they start watching Ray-Sen-Ghatak films religiously.


This stage is also the most dangerous. This is when the snobbishness, characteristic to the colonised Bengali Intellectual, pops up. Their research is limited and they pretend to know more than they do (Case in point: This Article). They also believe that the Bengal Renaissance was a reaction to the company rule rather than against it. They are so blinded by the rose-red glare of the past that they do not realize that our colonisers were the ones who prevented the Bengali Renaissance from being a truly enlightening period of time.


(iii) The Third Stage: This is it. The final stage in the life cycle of the colonised Bengali Intellectual. This is when they either reject the Bengal Renaissance or double down on the views they held in stage two. But what is common across the board is their love/hate relationship with Calcutta. They love the city's past and hate its present state. But why do they hate the present condition of the city? Is it because of financial or political reasons? No.


It is because of their belief that the "once-oh-so-glorious" city of Calcutta is artistically dead.


The city is, in all honesty, neither creatively, nor artistically dead. Neither is it going through a period of stagnation. These colonised pseudo-intellectuals, however, are blind to anything that happens in the present. They are too busy looking into the past with their rose-tinted contact lenses, to notice the current scene of budding local artists, writers and musicians.


But how does this connect to our colonised psyche? Well, it is our very belief that the 'good-old-days' were in-fact, all that good. Sure, the Brahmo Samaj Movement was a groundbreaking initiative but it was still limited to the über-rich upper-caste zamindars and nobles. Manik Bandopadhyay died without a paisa to his name and so did the hundreds of other writers and artists these intellectuals keep droning on and on about. Take into account the numerous famines that plagued Bengal and you will realise that the past is not as amazing as it is often made out to be.


How are we supposed to shed our colonial shackles if we keep fantasising about colonial times? The key to these handcuffs that bind us, ladies and gentlemen, lies in the present.


So, repeat after me:


ভূতে থাকলে,

ঘাড়ে চাপে

রিপন সাহেবের ভূত।।

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