Can a Bong be wrong?

Us bengalis are a proud lot. This pride stems from our appreciation of Robi Thakur, Amartya Sen, Sourav Ganguly, sandesh, our “culture” and many other aspects of our lives. In fact, we are so content with ourselves that we might be the only people in the world with the blanket term, ‘non-bengali’ — which basically refers to anybody who is not within the exclusive group of bengalis. It almost seems that you’re either a bengali or you don’t matter to bengalis at all.

Bengalis lately have been bursting with some extra pride after the joyous and glamorous festival of Durga Puja. This year, however, I chose to pause and reflect on whether we really are justified to be as proud as we are merely for being born bengalis. On introspection, I found that we have indeed fallen behind other states in those very aspects of life that we pride ourselves in. Maybe its time to get a reality check and get over ourselves.

Let’s begin by discussing the problematic romanticisation of the city of Kolkata. From the carriages along Red Road to hand-pulled rickshaws and trams across the city, it has all been preserved through time to sustain and feed this romantic idea. We simply don’t realise the infrastructural and planning problems associated with this. Let’s consider for instance, if a tram ever breaks down on the narrow lanes of the old city, traffic across that entire stretch will be stuck. Is it really worth the trouble?; especially when the average bengali, despite being stereotyped as “lazy,” will never even consider taking the tram. Everyone will chose to walk (its faster!). Beautiful but dysfunctional is indeed not what we would like our capital to be and yet, most of us still insist on having these little charms in the city.

Secondly, I find it troublesome that bengalis believe themselves to be the “intellectuals” of the country. With a cha cup in one hand and a cigarette in another, a bengali dada prides himself on being able to debate on any topic under the sun on autopilot. But this profound knowledge has not led us to academic or professional excellence in the recent past. If we look at the prestigious college entrance exams of our country, namely IIT-JEE, NEET or CAT, West Bengal as a state fares poorly. This can be most easily judged with the case of the IIT entrance examination. Year after year, it has been seen that top rankers in WB-JEE fail to secure ranks within the top 100 in IIT-JEE.

This low percentage of bengalis at top notch institutes and training centres became obvious to me personally, when I joined the “Foundation Course” at Hyderabad in 2017. This is a course that all civil servants in India — whether IAS, IPS, IFS, etc — undertake together right after qualifying the civil services examination, also known as the IAS exam. There, I was extremely surprised to find that out of a batch of more than 200, there were only 2 bengalis (including myself of course)! This scarcity of bengalis, made me realise that the era of “bengali babus,” when Bengalis dominated Indian civil services, is long gone.

This is especially disappointing as having grown up in Kolkata, I remember the great pressure that many of my friends would face from their parents to study day in and out so as to secure a good future for themselves. In fact, a child growing up in Kolkata, along with his fierce bengali mom, undergoes cut-throat competition from other such pairs to not only get into a good school but also to get into the best tuition centre for after school hours. Luckily, my parents never encouraged me to join tuitions, but I did witness a lot of my friends losing their lives and creativity with their noses stuffed in textbooks all day.

This rat race, however, may be justified by many with the argument that bengali students ultimately do well and a topper’s list may not reflect the average bengali’s intellect. After all, people in Bengal may not want to leave their own state and go to colleges and training courses amidst “non-bengalis.” However, on gauging the standards of our own state universities, we find that they too are falling behind in national rankings, despite being highly prestigious once upon a time. In the ‘overall’ category of National Institutional Ranking Framework by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, we find only IIT Kharagpur and Jadavpur University in the top 20 from West Bengal, the former being a central university. On the other hand, Delhi and Tamil Nadu have 4 universities each within the top 20! Even UP, which is often undifferentiated from the neighbouring state of Bihar by an opinionated Bengali, has 3 universities, one more than West Bengal, in the top 20.

This probes us to question whether Bengal as a state is securing a good future for itself, at all. On the surface it seems that we are doing fine. It is true that the state has the 6th largest GDP in India. But on digging deeper, we find that this figure means close to nothing since we are also the 4th most populous state in the country. The per capita GDP of Bengal is amongst the lowest (21st)! This is surprising given that the British had invested in and developed West Bengal more than other states, which gave us a great head start. Further, after independence, Kalyani, Durgapur and Haldia were developed as industrial centres. Alas! None of this helped Bengal become an industrial powerhouse, probably due to the legacy of a single party’s long rule and the tradition of strikes and gheraos by unions. Hence, it is pressing that Bengal as a society nudges itself and consciously rises above this economic stagnancy instead of looking forward to strikes and bandhs with the nostalgia of playing galli cricket on unexpected holidays.

Another false idea that Bengal must address as urgently, is that we as a society produce powerful women and are overall a relatively gender-equal society. This might not be the idea of bengalis alone. The country’s imagination of bengali women involves dark eyed feisty women with long curly hair stained with vermillion, who do not think twice before arguing with their husbands and getting their way. Yet in reality, married women in Bengal are battered in their homes. In fact, the state has had the highest record of domestic violence at the national level for seven consecutive years. In 2014, it was reported that more than 1 in 10 cases of crimes against women were reported from the state. Further, 1 in 5 cases of cruelty by husband and relatives were from the state. These numbers are far higher than those of UP, Rajasthan and Haryana, which are seen as the most patriarchal states of our country. I must acknowledge here that Bengalis are definitely different from the rest of the country in that we worship devi shakti and hence, Ma Durga and Ma Kali. However, in reality, people of the state have lost the compassion and the tolerance that they claim to uphold.

Lastly, we must address the snootiness that Bengalis hold regarding their “culture.” Bengali pride in this regard stems from the fact that Bengal indeed was the birthplace of modern Indian literary and artistic thought with figures such as Abinanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Satyajit Ray and many others. In our endeavour to continue with this tradition of producing artists, we find that every bengali kid apart from being made to study from the wee hours of the morning is also sent to classes, most often forcibly, in painting, singing, dancing, elocution, guitar, harmonium, etc from a young age. Today, however, very few young people in Bengal are producing works of the same quality and relevance as those of the figures mentioned above. Singer and songwriter, Neel Adhikari, recently described Tagore as “our best pop-star ever” but also added that his works are over a 100 years old. Further, it has now become debatable whether the title of the ‘cultural capital of India’ should be given away to Mumbai, whose home grown Bollywood industry has successfully captured the country’s imagination. Some truth may be found in this argument as even eminent Bengali film directors like Anurag Basu and Shoojit Sircar had to move to Mumbai before their careers reached their pinnacles. It is, hence, pressing that Bengal revamps its cultural space, allows new innovative thinking and invests in those who indeed harbour talent and excellence.

All in all, Bengal urgently needs social and attitudinal changes. We cannot keep playing our nostalgia card. Instead, we must view our past as something that provides us with a good starting point to jump start from. All we need is a conscious decision to thrive due to our past and not remain dependent on it.