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By Avishek Biswas
“You may not be a worthwhile Bengali without being a bhadralok”, writes Parimal Ghosh in his book ‘What Happened to the Bhadralok’. Deep Halder’s latest book ‘Bengal 2021’, although written in the backdrop of Bengal’s assembly election 2021, seems to probe into that titular inquisition of Ghosh’s book as Halder moves from the “Bengal Club” in the first chapter of his book to the “Ground zero Singur” in its last. In this journey from a cozy atmosphere of an elite Calcutta club to reach the hub of agriculturists’ anti land acquisition movement at Singur, Halder travels through many deep rooted layers embedded in Bengal’s ethos.
While the writer looks at issues of recent Covid pandemic and natural calamity like Amphan to understand how the Bengal Government has sailed through them or completely failed to grapple the situation, he also digs at some historical junctures like partition, refugee crisis and dalit subordination in Bengal. This is where Halder transcends a trained journalist in him and the book Bengal 2021 becomes much more than a mere journalese. In chapter 8 of his book titled ‘Chotolok vs Bhadralok’ when the writer defines what it takes to be a bhadralok (people of genteel society with refined mannerism) in Bengal, the reader feels the time-traveller in him. ‘Bengal 2021’ is a brilliant exposition of how Bengal has grown and changed along with time. It is not the quintessentially Calcutta narrative anymore. There are other voices that can speak; other topographical locations that also matter. The writer intends to show that Bengal is buzzing with polyphonic voices like Jyotirmoy Mondal from slums of Kasba, award winning dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari or even that anonymous Namasudra at Thakurnagar who has been working for Viswas Hindu Parishad for a long time.
The book tries to explore hitherto unsolved riddles or binaries so alarmingly present in Bengali society- Ghoti-Bangal, Hindu-Muslim, savarna-dalit, chotolok-bhadralok and most importantly the rhetoric of bangali (Bengali) identiy. Bengal politics now is deeply troubled by questions of insider-outsider and who is a true Bengali. The writer subtly touches on many layers of this entire cultural paradigm.
Although Halder’s journalist friend talks about B.J.P’s North-Indian culture and their supposedly Hindi imposition often countered by such parochial sentiments of a ‘Pokkho’, this will be historically incorrect to conclude that Bengal has been a homogenous Bengali den. J.H. Broomfield had clearly shown in his book ‘Elite Conflict in a Plural Society’ that at the beginning of 20th century nearly half of Bengal’s population comprised of men from the poorer rural areas of Bihar, the eastern United Provinces and Orissa. In fact, Satyajit Roy’s 1976 film ‘Jana Aranya’ shows a Bengali graduate’s initial abhorrence of entrepreneurship and the resultant domination of Marwaris and Gujratis in these fields. What is perhaps new is that people outside the domain of Bengali bhadralok intelligentsia have also started making their presence count, both culturally and politically.
Reading Deep Halder’s book ‘Bengal 2021’ can be a really enriching experience because it goes beyond the mere political hurly-burly and searches for the larger soul of Bengal. May 2 will answer if “the sky is a shade of saffron?” as the writer puts it in his brief but significant postscript. But knowing about this changed Bengal makes this book a valuable read anyway.
(Biswas is Assistant Professor, Vidyasagar College)