On Anglo-Bengali Cosmopolitanism

BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

The 2019 electoral results from Bengal in the Lok Sabha elections sent tremors through the entire intellectual establishment in the state. The state’s earlier ideology-based Leftist-Marxist politics has given way to a new era of identity-based politics. Incidentally, it would be prudent to mention that the European elections that followed closely on the heels of the Indian elections, voted along identity lines too, with migration and cultural nationalism being key issues. Hence identity-based politics is a global phenomenon and differs only in the form or shape it assumes; in some societies it’s race and in others it’s faith or ethnicity or nationality, and it is here to stay. Now the paramount question remains how should Bengal and its Bhadralok elite respond? Should they lament the passing of “…an old order changeth, yielding place to new” like an aging Tennysonian king or a decaying Bengali zamindar, as in Satyajit Ray’s film Jalshaghar? Or mutely and haplessly accept the new idiom of a faith-based identity brand of politics as the only possibility? Here the Bhadralok elite are in focus, since they feel most besieged by the results and left in a state of despair and disbelief. In this commentary I approach the identity question specifically in Bengal from pluralistic perspective, that there are multiple identities to which we are loyal apart from our faith and ethnicity and what struck me was the identity which many of us owe allegiance to: Anglo-Bengali or Anglo-Kolkata cosmopolitanism. In the next few sections I will elucidate as to why and how I feel this can be a powerful and emotive identity which can influence political discourse in the impending decades.

SHARED HUMAN ­EXISTENCE

During the shrill pitched electioneering week I happen to attend the pre-launch of the movie Indian English, based on the life of a Kolkata Anglo-Indian girl Jillian Haslam in one of the new intellectual cultural enclaves of Kolkata. Refreshingly, there was no mention of the political wrangling going on outside the precincts of this enclave, where old loyalties were being shred to pieces with virulence. What was totally marvellous was the active and enthusiastic participation of Kolkata citizens across the entire social spectrum—from journalists, writers, artists and several ordinary citizens who felt a sense of ownership of this tale.

The impression conveyed was that this was Kolkata’s story and our story, although involving a native English speaker. The same kind of deep-rooted Anglicised culture shared across the entire social spectrum involving all social classes, faiths, ethnicities, communities is truly manifest in films like Bow Barracks Forever and 36 Chowringhee Lane. At the very basic fundamental level of human existence we had the interweaving of tales of living, suffering, struggling, celebrating and laughing of Eurasian, Anglicised and ethnic Indian communities to create a distinct world. What one finds in movies like Bow Barracks Forever is the intimate and close interface between the ethnic Bengali or Indian and the Anglophone world, in specific cases the Eurasian society in terms of characters constantly interacting and creating a dependency for their lives. This is a distinct brand of Anglicised, Westernised cosmopolitanism which sprung forth in Bengal and specifically Kolkata over the past three centuries. This betrays the notion that the alien European Anglophone culture was embedded within the socio-cultural and intellectual framework of Bengali society. It’s important to state that this happened despite the ugly racist discriminatory policies of the colonial rulers to keep the Indians and Europeans separate and at loggerheads. Hence this blending of cultures and individuals have scant to do with the colonial British Raj and not a colonial legacy in the strictest sense of the term. Perhaps it’s a commentary on Bengali tolerance and assimilatory quality that we managed to absorb the Anglicised influence and blend it into our own cultural ethos and create a new world of “Anglo-Bengali Cosmopolitanism” or “Anglo-Kolkata Cosmopolitanism”, since it’s most prolific and grounded in the urban society of Kolkata. Here the most visible and poignant imagery of the playing out of this Anglo-Bengali Cosmopolitanism is the way we celebrate Christmas in the city.

A few years ago I wrote an article inspired by my nostalgia for the growing up years and the Christmas celebrations, titled, “Merry Christmas the Kolkata way”, which attracted a lot of attention on the internet. I argued that Christmas was an inter-community celebration in Kolkata and people of Bengal from all faiths and communities participate and immerse themselves in the gaiety and festive spirit unlike anywhere else in India. This was augmented by an interesting anecdote in Robin Andrew’s book on Christmas stories, Christmas in Calcutta: Anglo-Indian Stories and Essays, as to how when a researcher posed a question to the individuals why they were queuing up for cakes at Flury’s if they weren’t Christians, and the queued ones responded, “why not?”. Most recent production being that of Usha Uthup on Christmas in Kolkata, where she sings that wonderful Christmas carol “Holy Night Silent Night” and is depicted as this lonely Anglicised lady living frugally in a small apartment with a young maid and setting up Christmas dinners. During my Kolkata visits I love walking around the old “European” quarters like Sudder Street or Chowringhee to meet and interact with old residents, with many of them of European ancestry, now settled in the West sharing anecdotes of their living here with the taxi drivers, autorickshaw drivers, servants and cooks with a spirit of redolence. The Anglicised world of Kolkata was not a sterilised, sanitised world of “pukka sahibs” and “memsahibs”, but one filled with all sorts of characters including vagrants and deviants adding to the colourful fabric of the social world enriching it, making it ripe for any celluloid venture.

INTELLECTUAL SCHOLARLY WORLD

Apart from the Christmas celebrations and the cross-cultural movies, the vibrant world of Shakespearean theatre and English-language plays and poetry is a testimony to the deep proliferation of the English language in Bengali society. The wide variety of English-language books available in the bookstores is astonishing and the passion with which practitioners of literature and arts still cherish the English language and its associated culture. Unlike in several other metropolitan cities and towns in India, there is no clear demarcation of “Civil Lines”, “Cantonments” as English-speaking areas, with Westernised culture and “vernacular” “non-English speaking” zones. In most parts of urban India the English-speaking or Anglicised cultural zones were elitist constructs separating the local populace from their ruling classes as evident from the recent “Khan Market” jibe. The “Khan Market” jibe connotes a society or collective which is detached from the local ethnic populace a la “natives” drawing from British Raj lexicon, completely removed from the reality of the everyday commoner and arrogant because of its privileged status of being able to speak a language of the West and possessing their cultural attributes. In the context of Kolkata we do have a “Park Street” gang analogous to the “Khan Market”, who are elitist and Anglicised or the “club set”, the kind of individuals one would meet in the numerous colonial clubs here. However this is not the only facet of Westernisation or Anglicisation in cultural terms, it can be countered by the “Bhowanipore gang” or “New Alipore gang” or even by the suburbs of Kolkata. Once I recollect visiting an English professor of a government college in a swamp of a low-income neighbourhood infested with mosquitoes to find him in his Spartan simple study lit with tube lights, smoking cheap cigarettes while reciting Romantic English poets with whitewashed walls lined with second-hand books on Western literature and philosophy. All of this was a poignant experience to witness passionate scholars of Western literature living in penury and carrying on with zeal teaching and writing; they had so little yet they owned so much of the cultural and literary riches. This counter-elitist word thrived on pedantry, deep scholarly rigour which ridiculed the “Park Street” gang as superficial, shallow and ones who just imitated the British or European in their sartorial habits and manners. As a matter of fact, this counter-elitist Anglicised world is epitomized by stalwarts like Utpal Dutt, the superb Shakespearean thespian, Rudraprasad Sengupta and a plethora of English teachers and professors. As a matter of fact I once drew up a list of cultural icons for this Anglo-Kolkata world like Victor Banerjee, Aparna Sen, Usha Uthup and then realised that they were powerful icons for the Bengali cultural world too. For many ordinary middle-class Bengalis, who never had access to the rarefied echelons of the “posh set”, the only route to attaining status was by scholarly rigour in English language, literature and arts. Scholars like Professor P. Lal or Professor Tarak Sen held a large section of the audience in thrall with their rendition of English literature and Western civilisation in terms of litterateur and ideas. There was an element of pride in pure scholarship and not speaking the “bar” English with clipped accents sans a rich vocabulary. Hence there was no class resentment towards the “swish” “posh set”, who were constantly derided for their hollow mimicking of the British gentlemen and sleek clubhouse manners of the English upper classes. Recently, a cousin of mine stated that her daughter was good in English since she had attended a English-medium school, met with my prompt and sharp response that that was not good enough, but one needed to plough the depths of English works of arts, philosophy and literature; gobbling down a few Galsworthy, Trollope or modern day Scruton to qualify as an erudite Anglophone even in my generation. In other words, unlike the context of “Khan Market” or “South Mumbai” set in Kolkata, there was a specific middle-class or even lower middle class economically world of Anglicisation and Westernisation replete with scholastic rigour. Westernisation or Anglicisation of the posh “club set” was on competing terrains of social status and scholarly rigour of the “schoolmaster” variety. Personally I recollect how winning a quiz contest or debating society contest meant enormous pride for simple middle-class schoolboys like myself and an instant passport to fame. Perhaps this alternative route of entry into the charmed world of “Angreziyat” or “Macaulay ki aulad” never created the kind of intense resentment against Anglicised world or European culture now being whipped up in the current milieu.

At the very basic fundamental level of human existence we had the interweaving of tales of living and laughing of Eurasian and Indian communities to create a distinct world. While at the intellectual and high-cultural level we have had a scholarly rigour with passion-imbued individuals who propelled the Anglophone knowledge and cultural treasures through their writings, teachings and conversations, the ubiquitous Bengali adda.

Hence, I would argue that in this battle for identities we can pitch this particular Anglo-Bengali cosmopolitan identity as a force for shaping political and intellectual discourse since it’s deeply rooted and existed in all multiple layers of human society, from the very elitist to the mundane.

As we are aware one of the interesting campaigns of this new identity-based politics has been a trenchant attack on the “Anglicised” liberal set or what’s called the “Macaulay ki aulad”, with accusations of them being smug, aloof and distant. As a matter of fact, more than any other target group this Nehruvian Anglophone world and its pantheons have been most severely under attack for on elitist grounds more than any other social group, by the new emerging Indian identity politics irrespective of their Right or Left ideological predisposition. An oft-repeated snide is this “Oxfordwallah” or “Oxford-Cambridge para hua” hurled at the so-called toffs who enjoyed disproportionate privileged social status. I recollect in multiple book launches a diatribe against the so-called “deracinated” Anglicised elites who came to rule India in post-Independence period being launched with intense passion.

Any serious conversation about identity politics should account for this world of grassroots, inclusive, Anglicised cultural construct and how it can be reinstated with its glory and casting off all the fallacious accusations of elitism and conceit. I feel that if we need to project or “market” to use a modern 21st century parlance this identity brand, then we need to project the “best”, which is scholarship, intellectual rigour and the human connection of shared existence and not snobbish exclusionary rituals of accents and mannerisms. Here Bengal, with its distinct grassroots Anglo-Bengali cosmopolitanism, can lead the way.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.