Sunday, May 26, 2013

Uttarpara Jaikrishna Library

The mysterious rooms on the first floor had been locked forever. Rumors were if you tried really hard, you could still hear Michael Madhusudan reciting MeghnadBadh Kabya on his deathbed. I tried, but only heard footsteps a couple of times.

The ground floor of Asia's first public library and its 1.5 million books were still accessible to "public" although subject to Swapan-da's level of non-cooperation -- ranging from "parbo na" to "ek ghonta pore eso" -- and whether the backup librarian's flirtatious advances towards the temporary clerk received a relatively benign response.

But those were minor hurdles.

The shelves that needed no librarian would last at least 10.5 lives. Enough food for even a fasting 12-year old hopelessly addicted to extremely fast reading.

Major problem was the walk. If the school ends at 3:20, the library closes at 7:00, and if it takes 20 minutes to walk from school to library, and then another 45 minutes from library to home, how many words can you read? Clearly not enough.

Fortunately, to solve this precise problem, intelligent Brahmins and Germans came up with two crucial inventions - poite and bicycle.

More importantly,these two inventions work together really well when a generous baRomasi gifts a 13-year old boy a brand new bicycle despite vigourous protests from the boy's parents.

Quality of life can jump exponentially and in unexpected directions when all of a sudden 20 minutes become 5 and 45 minutes 10. You might end up exhausting all chhoToder bangla books available on accessible shelves much sooner than you had anticipated, and while searching for a Sansad Engligh-to-Bengali dictionary with your left hand, your right hand might nervously extend towards the ingreji shelves.

In 1851, East India company refused to help JaiKrishna Mukherjee, but could not stop him and his community. Enterprising individuals and communities somehow manage to beat states -- mercantile, communist or both.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Gandhi, Bose, GOI Act (1935)

My dear Subhas Babu,

[This was very formal which was unusual for Gandhi-Bose communication]
"I must dictate this letter as I am willfully blind. Whilst I am dictating this, Maulana Sahib, Nalini Babu, and Ghanashyamdas are listening. We had an exhaustive discussion over the Bengal ministry. I am more than ever convinced that we should not aim at ousting the Ministry. We shall gain nothing by a reshuffle; and probably, we shall lose much by including Congressmen in the Ministry. I feel, therefore, that the best way of securing comparative purity of administration and a continuation of a settled programme and policy would be to aim at having all the reforms we desire, carried out by the present Ministry. Nalini Babu should come out, as he says he would, on a real issue being raised and the decision being taken by the Ministry against the interests of the country. His retirement from the Ministry would then be dignified and wholly justified. I understand that so far as the amendment of Municipal Law is concerned, separate electorate for the Scheduled Class is given up. There is still insistence on separate electorate for Mussalmans. I don't know whether opposition should be taken to the breaking point. If the Mussalman opinion is solid in favour of separation, I think it would be wisdom to satisfy them. I would not like them to carry the point in the teeth of the Congress opposition. It would then be a point against the Congress."

-- Mahatma Gandhi (21 December, 1938)

Under the provincial constitution imposed on Bengal by Government of India act 1935, Bengali Hindus were permanently debarred from exercising any political power in their province.

250 seats in Bengal Legislative Assembly were apportioned as follows -

1) 117 for Muslims of Bengal elected by only Muslim electorate.
2) 48 for any resident of Bengal elected by general franchise.
3) 30 for persons belonging to Hindu "Scheduled" castes - certain castes regarded as "depressed", elected by general franchise.
4) 19 seats for representatives of industries, commerce, elected by their electorate.
5) 11 seats for Europeans, persons of British origin temporarily residing in Bengal, elected by their electorate.
6) 8 for labor, chosen by a labor electorate
7) 5 for landowners, chosen by their special electorate
8) 3 for Anglo-Indians, chosen by their special electorate
9) 2 for Indian Christians, chosen by their special electorate
10) 2 for Universities
11) 2 for women
12) 2 for Muslim women
13) 1 for Anglo-Indian women

As a result of this act, Bengali Hindus were eligible to compete in 117 (250 - 117 - 11 - 2 - 2 - 1) seats at most, to be elected by general franchise. Even among these 117 seats, 30 were reserved for scheduled castes, quite arbitrarily picked. On the other hand, Bengali Muslims could contest 203 seats (117 + 48 + 19 + 8 + 5 + 2 + 2 + 2), 117 of which were to be elected by a Muslim electorate. Based on 1931 census numbers, Muslim population in Bengal was anywhere between 52-54%, which clearly did not justify the numerical distribution of 203-117, even if one were to accept the underlying premise of communal and casteist electorate. British community of Bengal was given 4% of seats in Assembly when their population was not above 0.0004%. In reality, the position of the Hindus was even worse than what this unfair statute implies. They did not win 117 seats they were eligible for. Besides, some of the winners, from both "high" as well as "scheduled" castes joined with Muslims against the general Hindu group, including Nalini Ranjan Sarkar, finance minister in Huq-League ministry formed in 1937, whose resignation, or lack thereof, was the subject of Gandhi's letter to Bose.

In the elections of 1937 based on the provisions of GOI act of 1935, Congress still emerged as the largest party in the legislative assembly, followed by Muslim League and Krishak-Praja-Party. Bengali Muslim votes were almost evenly split between all-India Muslim League, which in Bengal was the party of upper-class Muslims, and Fazlul Huq's Krishak-Praja-Party (KPP), which was the party of peasants and tenants. Because of the electoral system described above, a coalition system was inevitable. Huq first approached the Congress, but all-India Congress was unwilling to co-operate with any other party in provinces where they did not have absolute majority. That forced Huq to join forces with League to form a coalition ministry, and eventually the focus of KPP-Muslim League coalition shifted from socio-economic reforms to communal issues.

Congress refusal to make a special case for Bengal was a mistake. Because of the numerical distribution, it was impossible for Congress to win absolute majority in Bengal any time in near future. Huq's strong power base among Muslim peasants would have been the ideal platform for Congress to stay in touch with Bengali Muslim masses, which, as an opposition party, they failed to do over the next few years. In Assam, Congress did decide to share power in a coalition provincial government. [to be continued ...]

Source: Thy Hand, Great Anarch! by Nirad C Chaudhury -- Chapter - Politics in Bengal (1937-38)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Friday, April 04, 2008

Darjeeling Unlimited

Peter Sarstedt was born in New Delhi, to Albert and Coral Sarstedt, both in the civil service, in what was still a British possession in 1942. The following year, his parents moved the family to Kurseong near Darjeeling. Did Anderson know this bit of trivia before deciding to give Sarstedt's 1969 UK chart topper "Where do you go to (My Lovely)" a rebirth in The Darjeeling Limited's graceful prequel Hotel Chevalier?

Unlikely, but not impossible.

Could Anderson predict that his eclectic use of Ray's musical scores and widely publicized references to The Darjeeling Limited as a tribute to Ray -- and to Renoir who during the shooting of The River in India met Ray and encouraged him to make films -- would inevitably attract critical comparisons contrasting Anderson's clinically detached deadpan irony with Ray's empathetic humanism?

Very likely.

A. O. Scott (NYT):
But humanism lies either beyond his grasp or outside the range of his interests. His stated debt to “The River,” Jean Renoir’s film about Indian village life, and his use of music from the films of Satyajit Ray represent both an earnest tribute to those filmmakers and an admission of his own limitations. They were great directors because they extended the capacity of the art form to comprehend the world that exists. He is an intriguing and amusing director because he tirelessly elaborates on a world of his own making.
Robert Davis (Errata):
Anderson bluntly ties the ceremony to the father's funeral using a jarring flashback that feels like a scene from Reservoir Dogs, a film that's probably closer kin to The Darjeeling Limited, with its color-coded characters, eclectic music, and slo-mo strides, than the films of Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir that Anderson cites as inspiration.
Predictable, and a little unfortunate. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is definitely not the most artistic expression of inspiration. And how uneasy lied the head that wears the (somewhat reductionist) humanist crown?

At least a little.

An auteurist look at Ray filmography might not quickly reveal the fact that eight out of his first eleven films were faithful adaptations of works by three great turn-of-the-century humanist Bengali writers -- Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (1894-1950) -- who were a generation or three older than Ray. Apu trilogy, Jalsaghar, Teen Kanya and Charulata created Ray's legacy, and even today, especially in west, he is primarily remembered for a set of films that spoke of a world Ray had very little first hand experience of. Kanchanjangha, a real-time narrative set in Darjeeling and Ray's first film based on his own script, was greeted with a coldness typical of Darjeeling winters. Pensive detached Monisha, eccentric bird-watcher Jagadish, narcissistic Indranath, Ashok of humble background but of not-so-humble demeanor, and the upper-middle class milieu of elite Bengalis vacationing in a hill station and speaking Bangla with a liberal sprinkling of English, were not easily reducible to universal archetypes. Ray also drew significant flak at home for his portrayal of Apu in segments of Aparajito and Apur Sansar which were perceived to be cold and detached, a departure from the original.

Darjeeling, the backdrop of Feludar goyendagiri, a short mystery, also witnessed the debut of Ray's legendary detective Feluda. With the help of Feluda's dry wit, sarcasm and cynicism, eccentric Professor Shanku's exploits, brilliant translations of Lear and Carroll on the pages of Sandesh inspired by Sukumar Ray's genes and his absurdist universe, idiosyncrasies of numerous single middle-aged outsider male protagonists, distinctly unique but similarly quirky, in dozens of short stories including the one on which Agantuk, Ray's last film, is based, Ray created a reflexive creative world of his own, cherishing and defying the boundaries of genres with equal glee, a world at least as far removed from Tagore's and Bibhutibhushan's as from Anderson's.

More troubling is the subtle insinuation of racism in Jonah Weiner's Slate attack piece - Unbearable Whitenes:
Rita isn't a character so much as a familiar type: the mysterious, exotic, dark-skinned beauty. Jack hardly exchanges a word with her, but, reeling from a bad breakup, he begins pestering her to leave her Sikh boyfriend, convinced for no good reason that she can turn his life around.
That paragraph perfectly describes Hari's attitude and feelings towards Duli, tribal "Miss India" in Aranyer Dinratri. Assuming Weiner would not find Aranyer Dinratri and Ray equally obnoxious, isn't he expressing a double standard which simultaneously forces white man's historic burden to become a contemporary white man's guilt as well as a brown man's privilege?

Going back to Davis who correctly notes a void at the core of the film:

Anderson is too ironically deadpan to embrace any sudden transformations in his characters, so they don't seem remarkably changed by [an event by a river], which effectively reduces it to a plot point with an emotional patina, rendered impotent by a filmmaker who seems to think that he can compensate for the emptiness at his film's core just by pulling away from sentimentality. He's trying to fill one void with another.
The river event might be impotent which is partially the point, but the void is powerfully resonant of what is absent.