It’s well known how seriously the intellectual is taken in West Bengal. It’s only in this state where ‘intellectual’ – the artist, writer, poet, filmmaker – is almost a genus. Just like peasants, rickshawallahs, school teachers, you have intellectuals. It’s a conceit of Bengalis, who consider themselves a highly cerebral people. Amartya Sen, for instance, suggests that the rate of crime in his home state is low because Bengalis like to read. It’s also a quaint, if hilarious, Marxist throwback that seems at odds with a Bengal that’s being put through an accelerated modernisation process. Take Calcutta, which is full of bizarre sights such as Victorian buildings housing KFCs. The communist government has kept Bengal antiquated for so long that any sign of modernity seems hard to digest. As New Rajarhat transforms into a Bengali Gurgaon and Salt Lake acquires more and more glass-fronted offices, the intellectual continues to be referred to by this lofty title. They might not have strong ideological ties with the government like many did in the Soviet Union and in Bengal especially in the sixties and seventies, but they’re still “intellectuals” – henceforth referred to in ironic double quotes.
It’s funny how even newspapers outside Bengal take the appellation for granted. They’ve been in the news quite regularly since the Singur and Nandigram conflicts, when they emerged in large numbers to protest against the CPI (M). In Bengal, a section of prominent “intellectuals” supported the Left, choosing to overlook, as Swapan Dasgupta points out, the regime’s repressive policies. But after Nandigram and Singur, even partisans like Mrinal Sen rallied against the government. They felt the CPI (M) had gone too far in its drive to overhaul Bengal and not I’m sure, as Dasgrupta histrionically suggests, because they were upset that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has the audacity to leapfrog them from the late nineteenth century to the present.
Naturally the government isn’t pleased with the “intellectuals”. In an editorial in The Times of India, DN Ghosh, a former chairman of the State Bank of India, quotes an irate cabinet minister: “Let the artists paint pictures and authors write books. They should not stray into politics. If I were the police commissioner, I would have taken them to the Sagar island in the Bay of Bengal and consigned them to oblivion”.
But in Bengal, it would seem, no political party is complete without a division of “intellectuals”. The Trinamool Congress has Tapas Pal (the babyface actor who has created a template for maudlinness) and Kabir Suman, a singer and self-confessed polygamist and nihilist, who is known as the Bengali Dylan. I’m not certain what Dylan would think of lyrics like “Pagol… shaap ludo khelchhey bidhataar shonge” (The mad…snake plays ludo with god).
The first time I realised just how seriously Bengalis take their reputation was in college. I was strolling around campus on a pleasant evening. Since I was a fresher and prone to being ragged, taking a walk was a dangerous activity. Sure enough, I was accosted by a bunch of boys who happened to be part of the Bengali Literary Society. For them, even ragging was an intellectual activity. Getting me to sing a song or pretend to be a tennis ball as most other seniors had demanded would have been too low brow. Instead I was gruffly asked: “Which Russian authors have you read?” Stunned for a moment, I think I tried not to giggle as I mumbled “Dostoevsky”.
Illustration by Azeema Pardiwala