Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Those who read books

Bhabatosh Dutta, eminent economist and teacher, wrote  about an unlikely scholar, Nirmal Chandra Maitra. Maitra was a sub-deputy collector in Chattagram when Dutta began his teaching career two years after the raid on the armoury there. Forty to fifty years later, Dutta wrote, “I have not come across another person with such immeasurable knowledge: he went to the very depth of literature, history, philosophy and political science.” After retirement, Maitra wanted to teach at a college. Bhabatosh Dutta dissuaded him because he felt such an erudite person wouldn’t be able to endure the ignorance of college teachers of the time.

Another economist, Ashoke Mitra writes in his autobiography  that shortly after completing school, he made friends with an older man, Suranjan Sarkar, who lived elsewhere. He worked with the Customs and shared Ashoke Mitra’s passion for literature. Suranjan wrote brilliant letters about the fiction and the biographies he had just read and quoted extensively from poems.

Sunanda Sikdar’s Dayamayeer Katha is a beautiful memoir about her early childhood in a remote East Bengal village in the 1950s. Sunanda writes  that an illiterate farmhand, Majom Sheikh, used to walk long distances on empty stomach to listen to books being read aloud. Once, little Sunanda asked Majom, what he had told Allah during a prayer. Majom replied, “I said, ‘Lord! Please give rain and rice to those you have sent to the world. Keep their children in good health. Make all men, animals, insects, plants and trees happy.’”

The thread that connects the two government officials and the wise unlettered farmer is their love for written words. They read without expecting material benefit and didn’t gain anything by reading except, to paraphrase Russell’s words, becoming better human beings. Such people have become almost extinct, but in olden days, we met them at times. Here are a few more true stories.

A colleague of my mother was trapped in an unhappy marriage. Her husband was cruel, but she suffered him as divorce was unthinkable for middleclass Indian women then. But one day, her patience ran out and she went to a nearby police station in Kolkata to lodge a complaint. The sub-inspector on duty asked her if she had a child. She had a son. What subjects did she teach at school? English. The policeman then said, “Madam, I can start a case against your husband. But will that solve your problems?”

As she pondered in silence, the sub-inspector said, “Madam, please recall Tennyson’s Home they brought their warrior dead: ‘Rose a nurse of ninety years, / Set his child upon her knee-- / Like summer tempest came her tears-- / “Sweet my child, I live for thee.’ I would advise you to live for your child.”

After my daughter was born, it was a big task to locate the office that would issue a birth certificate. After visits to several municipality offices, I discovered the right place: a dimly lit room in a medical college building. A lone clerk in a shabby shirt sat behind a desk, reading a Bangla newspaper and smoking a bidi. There was stubble on his face, and arrogance. After waiting for some time, I pulled a chair and sat down across the table, but still, the man did not notice me. As I had nothing else to do, I too started reading. After a long time, he looked up and noticed the book in my hand. Then suddenly, his face lit up. Putting down the paper, he said, “For whom the bell tolls? I love Hemingway. Do you know who Robert Jordan was? People say Hemmingway modelled him on Christopher Caudwell, the British essayist who died in the early days of the Spanish Civil War.”

I said I had once tried to read Caudwell but gave up because he went over my head. The man continued, “Caudwell was badly hurt. He lay down with a machine gun as his Republican comrades retreated, just like Robert Jordan. He was not even thirty. All his books came out after his death. His first book, Illusion and reality is a masterpiece. Please read it.”

My work was done immediately while I wondered about the difference between illusion and reality.

Postscript: Robert Jordan may not have been Christopher Caudwell in real life. Wikipedia says he was possibly an American academic, Robert Merriman.