By Hirak Dasgupta
The Ram Navami celebrations were lacklustre this year. The Corona virus had blown the preparations to smithereens. Had the virus not mired the plans of the staunch Hindus in my city, the celebrations would have been a grandiose affair for sure. There has been a constant rise in fervour among the Hindus in my country—a sense of renewed attachment to their religion. But this had been predicted long before Prime Minister Modi came to power. What was supposed to happen has happened. But I have no reason to complain. Grand or not this festival is probably important to the Hindus and I believe in the principle, ‘Live and Let Live’. I have lost my faith a long time back and a rekindling doesn’t seem likely. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t look up at the skies on the odd occasion of insurmountable grief and curse the invisible Gods! Even the most raging of atheists wish there was actually a God watching over from some mystical realm. I was born into a world of tolling bells, smouldering incense sticks and the scent of chandan, and the sight of foreheads resplendent in copious quantities of turmeric and vermilion. The odd occasion of milk-pouring was there too. But I don’t detest all these. One cannot deplore one’s origins. One can however outgrow them and I have outgrown them in my darkest times.
There are two types of major cities in India – and I am not talking with respect to their geographical extent or economic standing – the new ones founded after independence by wide-eyed politicians, who still had traces of pre-independence honesty left in them, and the old ones with hundreds of years of compelling history. None of these cities are homogenous. India does not give scope to anything inside her to be homogenous. From the chicken tikka masala served up at a roadside junk-food trolley to the crowds gathered in Ram Lila maidans on Dussehra, everything is mixed with something of a different kind. So when you begin to dig up a major Indian city’s history, you essentially remove palls of different eras stashed one upon the other; each era shaped by a unique mix of people – never homogeneous – almost certainly a potpourri of ethnic streams. My city Durgapur with her three centuries of history is still a baby in comparison to the likes of Kolkata. Two hundred and thirty of those three hundred years of her lifetime had been spent as a teeming frontier village under feudal landlords. But my city effortlessly assumes the role of a microcosm – a peep in to the tapestry of our broad country.
A drone shot of my hometown was taken by a young and upcoming photographer a few days back and quite frankly I was startled by the lushness of my birthplace. Even with its eroding green top, the city still looks fantastic from the sky. As with all old places, this city is a mishmash of palls from different ages. My city Durgapur borrows its name from one Durgacharan Chattopadhyay, a wealthy landlord who was granted land in these parts by the Maharaja of Bardhaman sometime in the mid 1700s. His ancestors had come from what is now Bangladesh and being Brahmins helped them etch their mark wherever they went. Feudal India of yore was keen on granting land to the upper castes and letting them enjoy the fruits of the land in exchange for unwavering fealty to the monarch. But a lot has changed since the time of Durgacharan. In the Nehruvian Soviet-style rapid industrialisation era, they decided to start the Durgapur Steel Plant in collaboration with our former colonial masters and things were changed on a war footing. Whether it was a partial atonement on part of the British will never be known. But the steel plant soon began to churn out copious quantities of steel and turned into a major employer in the infantile Republic. Vast swathes of forest land were cleared, a new township was erected for the employees and the old village was pushed into anonymity.
My wife and I are descendants of erstwhile landed gentry like Durgacharan. But unlike his line that has done quite well in retaining most of the family’s fortune and even compounding it many folds, ours had been rather lousy. The partition did not help either. There is a very popular quip in West Bengal. Every fellow with roots in erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh, claims to descend from wealthy landlords. They supposedly had huge ponds the size of lakes and farmlands as vast as small towns in each family! But all that is utter nonsense. East Bengal was and continues to be one of the largest rice and fish producers in the world. But that hardly warrants such tall claims of lost inheritance. Ours – my wife’s and mine – was a genuine case of property mismanagement. Long before Bengal was divided into two separate countries, our ancestors had begun squandering their wealth on lavish escapades. This involved maintaining horses in stables and riding horse-drawn carriages on bumpy village roads. Dressing in fine silk or translucent crumpled-cotton panjabi gowns with frilled dhotis was haute couture, and twists of pearls around the neckline added the extra panache.
Calling in tawaifs (high-class courtesans who specialised in Hindustani classical music) from Lucknow via Dhaka or Kolkata was a symbolic gesture. One did not have to have any taste in music whatsoever. This oddly mirrors the scenes in erstwhile Calcutta and pre-partition Delhi. So, when the partition peeked in the horizon on a land steeped in intense communal strife, our ancestors were forced to forsake all their landholdings in the east and venture west. By then there was nothing left in the coffers. They came to the west in hordes; the early birds in good health, and the unfortunate ones naked and famished. My wife’s side still did better. Some wise ancestors of hers had started acquiring properties in a frontier town of Northern West Bengal near the foothills of the Himalayas. That place used to be the gateway to the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan. The citizens of Bhutan used to ascend to their mountain abodes after conducting business in British India through this little town-gate. That place was and still is called Alipurduar, now a bustling town and district capital in North Bengal. The “Duar” stands for “Door”. In fact, the vast swathes of forest land, rolling hills and tea plantations that surround Alipurduar are collectively called the Dooars – an anglicised version of the Bengali word Duar meaning door.
My father’s folks landed in Kolkata a few years before the partition. My father was in fact brought to the city as a six month old infant sometime in the middle of 1940 all the way from Barishal, East Bengal. But by then their patriarch – the elder brother of my grandfather and the eldest of five children – had squandered most of the wealth on horse racing and other unmentionable pursuits. In the West they did manage to squeeze into the general tapestry and began to do moderately well as employees in Marwari firms. My grandfather in fact found fame as a teacher of English, German and French and quickly joined the Indian National Congress. He was a man of letters and found solace in books. But the rest of his clan in Kolkata was far away from books. They were the quintessential middleclass susceptible to propaganda and they sizzled in their hatred for Muslims. It was because of the Muslims – they believed – that they were now servants to a clan from the desert sands of Rajasthan. It had never dawned upon them that the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ could become a reality. But it now seemed to be the manifest destiny. Back in their heyday, the sprawling farmlands in East Bengal had suckled them for centuries and they had ruled with absolute impunity. They had never set foot inside the crumbling huts of their Muslim subjects and had never kept count of how many died of disease or hunger. The very thought that these “insects” were now bound to become the masters to those lands was unsettling to the core. Something had to be done! But what?
The farthest my father could remember was Kolkata during the Second Great World War. He would often recall how the ominous sound of sirens set the women in the household into immediate motion. It was an ever-expanding big household with many people, and more kept adding every month as communal tensions hissed in the farthest stretches of Bengal. The women would collect the children scattered across the dilapidated three-storeyed rented house and rush into the coal storeroom. That place was a dungeon – my father would say. “There were huge black scorpions the size of a grown man’s fist in that dark and musty sooty walled room. I was stung once and I could not sleep the whole night from the pain and fever. But it was still better than being bombed by the Japanese! The echo of the exploding bombs in the hushed up nights and the showers of black plaster with a spider or two on our heads and faces is something I’ll carry to my funeral pyre. My mother would put pieces of rolled up cloth between my teeth and my sister’s so that we did not bite our tongues off in the shudder. Later, when the Japanese raid parties had flown back to their base, we would come out one by one from the dungeon. By this time my father and the other men would come out of their own hiding places in the kitchen and the toilets and grin. On nights such as these the usual chatter during supper would be limited to how the Muslims were responsible for our predicament. It was as if they were the only ones to be tearing apart our land and everything from the Japanese bombs to our tenuous existence in an imploding city was their doing. My father – your grandfather – was the only one to point out that epochs such as these were a long time coming and could not be pinned down on one community. Needless to say he was pretty unpopular for his plain speaking. But his status as the principal bread winner meant that the other men stopped short of calling him an anti-Hindu, anti-clan, Muslim sympathizer.”
Close on the heels of the War came the staggering sights of the Bengal Famine. Still a child, my father was scarred by the visceral scenes of walking skeletons, extruding eyes, and bleak voices begging for fan (rice water); and then came the Direct Action Day of 1946! My father would often lament that the Bengal famine was a break of sorts from the heavy curtain of ceaseless communal tensions that stifled Kolkata all through the forties. It was a tragedy and an eye opener at the same time. For a brief period at least some people realised that the real separator was access to food and not who you worshipped. Heart-warming instances of camaraderie among Hindus and Muslims began to pop up here and there in Kolkata. These were ordinary middle-class people who wanted to stand by the emaciated migrants from the villages. For a while it seemed that the fracture was healable. But the Direct Action Day changed everything forever. My father lost a distant uncle and his dear Hamid chacha, the kite-maker, in the riot. As the riotous mobs scrounged through the city for blood and cut down anything that they did not approve of, my father’s place quickly turned into a safe house for a handful of people, who had all but their dear lives taken from them. My grandfather did not ask about their religions before giving them shelter, much to the dismay of his folks. Before the open wounds of the Direct Action Day could be stitched together, Bengal and Punjab were dismembered forever.
My father came to Durgapur in 1962 to join the fabled Durgapur Steel Plant and my mother joined him in 1971. My father brought with him his father’s books and way of seeing the world. Even in the sixties Durgapur was fast becoming a microcosm of India. Everyone everywhere wanted a job in the Steel mill and they began pouring in from Bihar, UP, MP and as far down south as Kerala. They even had a few British shift in-charges – some friendly, others not so much. A young man in his twenties, my father quickly befriended another young Bengali from Murshidabad, Mohammad bin Qasim. My mother brought with her something less salubrious.
Back in 2013 when the Ram Navami festival was upon us, we were jolted out of our siesta in our sleepy little colony by long lines of marching men chanting ‘Jai Shree Ram’! This was a procession unlike any we had seen before. Men with frizzy hair wearing saffron headgears and wielding naked swords screamed in frenzy. Huge saffron flags swayed in their hands – the flashy red ‘Shree Ram’ insignia emblazoned upon them calling for war against the defilers. For a Hindu like me there was nothing to be worried about in all that. This was not a procession of Muharram. The glittering green and red flags, the unabashed display of naked swords, the clanging of spears and the flogging of bare backs during the Muharram processions was a sight my mother had taught me to abhor. And abhor I did!
“These bloody cow eating Muslims are violent!” she would say out of sheer habit. But I had grown up seeing the Muharram processions. I was born in Kolkata and spent quite a bit of time at my maternal grandfather’s place each year. His old rented apartment was in close proximity to a predominantly Muslim area and he treated a large number of Muslim sailors at his dispensary in Khardaha. It was he who had taught me the difference between the Shia and the Sunni sects. I was probably eight or nine then. But he always had a charming way of teaching complicated stuff in the easiest of words. But if there was one thing he had failed miserably in – even with his ferrous grit – it had to be about making humans out of at least two of his three children. He had come to Kolkata during the partition of 1947. A decade before that was spent in various prisons for being an extremist in the eyes of the British Raj. In a sequence of hot and cold treatments in the prison camps, the British Police would flog him once and then hold the carrot of a Londoner’s life next. When he did not budge they would make him swallow his own faeces. His back was a riddle of crisscrossing scars. I could see them when he dressed up in the morning to go to his dispensary. The man was more fit in his late eighties than my father at forty. I never saw him complain about the scars, not even once. But he had oodles of grouse about the way Bengal was partitioned. This grouse however never did translate into a hatred for Muslims.
Our generation wasn’t the one to be driven out of our ancestral lands in East Bengal by Muslim rioters. The things that my maternal grandfather and his wife had to witness were far different though. East Pakistan had been violently ripped apart from the eastern fringes of the incipient republic. Bengalis had been forever doomed to exist as two separate people. Torn up bodies, corpses of women being raped by necrophiliacs, children crushed under the heels of rampaging mobs – sights conceived in hell and realised on a gory canvas. My grandfather would somehow escape to Kolkata with his family, leaving behind his beloved shire Barishal forever. But that was only made possible by the grace of a few Muslim families, who had risen against the times to harbour Hindus. He landed in India only to realise that Muslims were fleeing from Hindus here. Roles had been reversed, but the depravity retained. From that point on it was a constant struggle for the refugee couple. But the man was a doctor and the wife had been a teacher in what was now East Pakistan. So, my grandfather began seeing patients – initially the refugees in the same camp he had settled in – and whipped up quite a reputation as a man with a Midas touch. My grandmother found a school to teach in and mothered two more children – daughters – after the firstborn, who had escaped the fires of partition with the young couple.
The pain of the last generation had diluted to more of a symbolic hatred for Muslims within the bloodline, I guess. The vicious animosity that my mother and her siblings felt towards the Muslims was founded more on the memories of their parents than on the sketchy recounting of my maternal uncle. As far as I can remember my grandfather cursed and swore at Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah in one breath, but he never uttered a single expletive about the Muslims. When asked he would say, “What can I say? There were Muslims who were cutting down Hindus. And then there were Muslims who were saving our lives. I guess people had been infected with a rabid pathogen at that time. Those who showed the symptoms became bloody murderous then. I also witnessed the exodus of Muslims to the other side after coming here. They were being treated much the same way as us on the other side!” But this was not what my grandmother thought and she had ensured that her children thought like her. While the doctor saw humans as friends and fiends, the teacher saw them as Hindus and Muslims.
From my father’s side I inherited an irreligious viewpoint. From my mother I inherited the vile spectacles of acerbic hatred for Muslims. This hatred reached its zenith when I began hobnobbing with a now disbanded far-right faction in my city. It was 2013 and the writing was on the wall. Mr. Modi had been propelled to the pantheon of Hindu Gods already and the foreshadowing of him becoming the next Prime Minister was all but true. I had been initiated into a world where Muslims were the principal enemy, the nation had a liberator finally and the rite of passage was bathing in Muslim blood. The glint on the stash of swords and tridents in the secret hideouts of the band was enthralling to the point of being orgasmic. I was rich, I was bored and I hadn’t read anything written in any book of theology or philosophy. I was feeding on what was being fed – right-wing propaganda at its absolute best – and it came in the form of videos loaded in compact discs, pen-drives and emails. WhatsApp was still afar. But Facebook had become the primary farm for cultivating hate. Unmitigated hate campaigns were spreading like a conflagration on Facebook and we were feeding on them. Videos of minority persecution in Pakistan and Bangladesh were being passed around as happenings in India. The English Defence League (EDL) – the infamous hardcore right-wing British partisan outfit – was in full bloom then and a community called “Hindus Who Support the EDL” had sprung up. We were all indoctrinated into that philosophy. I can recount one incident from those days. I find it funny and pitiful upon me now. I used to write fervently in favour of the EDL on Social Media until some white supremacist guy shut me up saying “Shut Up you curry-munching brown monkey!” I went snivelling to the Admins of the EDL page and got the same response though! So I went sniffling to the Admins of the “Hindus Who Support the EDL” and they consoled me the “Hindu upper-castes are true Aryans and thus blood-brothers to the Whites” tripe. But the prospect of taking a life was noxious and addictive to the point of being blinding and I was surrounded by indoctrinated men like me. And we all believed that Mr. Modi was the true incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Our band was regimented. Upper-caste Hindus like me were given leadership roles, and the most loquacious of us received mentorship in the art of spreading propaganda. The Lower-caste Hindus in the band were injected with an odd sense of unwavering fealty to us. They were told that they were the Vanar Sena (monkey troop) in charge of protecting us in war and they believed every word of it. The objective was to create a hive-mind order and the right-wing’s stratagem had worked. I can draw countless analogies between Himler’s dabbling in the occult and what was being done with us. The extent to which this hive-mind order has spread through the veins of my country in the present time is nerve-wracking. It would take no less than a tragedy to veer me off the course of certain doom.
By 2016 I had lost all my fortune to a slew of bad business deals and quickly realised that my sworn “blood brothers” weren’t there beside me. I was cast into the nether regions of my city – the warrens for the labourers of the steel mill. But the beauty of the warrens is that they do not discriminate. Hindu, Muslim, rich, poor – if you can adjust with the squalor and the quibbles, the warren takes you into its bosoms and takes care of you with an equal eye. I also realised that although I had become a staunch worshipper of Durga, I was living with her all this time. My wife left our lavish apartment and followed me into a life of severe austerity. My parents followed me as well. But I soon lost them in quick succession. I was now a rootless man with no possession or people to call mine except for my wife and two children and it was at the precipice of losing my identity that I learnt lessons that were truly priceless. I was going through my version of hell but it was nothing compared to the scenes my parents had witnessed. The same set of events that had mangled my mother into a bigot had left my father uncorrupted. It was all a matter of choice and I chose my path. I found my salvation and transcendence not in bigotry and far beyond the manacles of organised religion. It was while defending our fundamental rights in those squalid warrens that I found the warm embrace of brothers-in-arms. There in the pits of brutal hunger games we were no longer Brahmins, Subaltern Castes, Muslims or scions of rulers of yore. We had been elevated to the ranks of human beings. All the platitudinous propaganda we had ever been preached had been quashed under our own heels. Now that I have battled past those days of struggle I consider them my redeeming years; years that helped me unlearn hate. I had my father’s books and the inherited thirst to read more to keep me company and I read to my heart’s content. As I sifted through pages – paper made and electronic – of thousands of years of accumulated philosophy and theology I began to settle down with Seneca’s stoicism and Spinoza’s God.
Now, as I write with a sane head upon my shoulders, I cannot help but introspect. We Indians – I have come to realise – have the very deplorable habit of deifying humans at the drop of a hat. The moment we are convinced by some sheer happenstance that events surrounding a man are divine by nature, we will deify him. We will find someone to exaggerate history, expurgate facts, and write gospels about the man. Soon places of worship will spring up here and there and statues will be inaugurated at crossroads. This is exactly what is happening to B.R. Ambedkar now. What began as a counter strike against casteist practices keeping Babasaheb’s philosophy in the fore, has now quickly precipitated into a supposed army with striking resemblance to the Hindutva partisans they pretend to fight. This is exactly what powers politicians in India. I was talking to a bunch of young folks a few days ago about their political ideologies taking into consideration their existing membership with the ruling party of West Bengal. They promptly answered that they would follow their local Dada (political big brother) anywhere. They could not care less about ideologies. They were followers and that was what they did best. We have the quintessential Bhakts thus! This psychology plagues us as a society in general. We cannot look beyond icons and idols. We cannot be iconoclasts for good reasons and spurn idolism once and for all. Coupled with the pathetic literacy rate our renaissance is yet to arrive at our shores. I could unlearn hate. It is time we all did.
Mr. Hirak Dasgupta is a writer, teacher, and columnist at the Times of India.
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