Last year, I was on a teaching assignment to Bengaluru and during a weekend house party at a friend’s home, an unexpected argument broke loose on how people living/working/travelling in/into Bengaluru, meaning, mainly, outsiders from other states (like us), were not conversant with writing or speaking or reading Kannada.
The discussion that got unnecessarily heated up practically drove a wedge through our motley friends circle. Ones rooting for the motion — local Kannadigas, as you may have guessed — were outnumbered by the rest. They harangued about how we had usurped jobs and lands and buildings and shopping malls and streets and how, if we were making our livelihood in Karnataka, we must localise ourselves, by speaking the language, eating curd rice and possibly watching regional cinema.
The host of this get-together — who began this conversation — was a Bihari marketing professional, who had lived and worked in other states, including West Bengal, and he insisted (the way I did) that we had never felt a compulsion to learn Kannada. Just the way he had never bothered to learn Oriya when he resided in Bhubaneshwar or Marathi when he was in Mumbai.
To calm matters down, my mother who was also present there joked how my father’s Telugu-speaking driver had tried in vain to even teach her Telugu. Since Telugu was my father’s mother tongue, my mother said that she had sincerely tried for a while. However, she failed miserably, confessing that she found the language extremely complex, both grammar and pronunciation.
I brought up an incident that transpired almost two decades in Bengaluru.
That was the time when I worked here as a journalist. An irate autorickshaw driver had unleashed his ire on me when I was unable to communicate in Kannada, screaming the phrase ‘Narth Indian,’ even as I argued (in vain) that I was not. The same way a young couple in my father’s organisation, when my parents resided in Bengaluru, was denied a rented apartment. The property owner had conferred to them and my mother the title ‘Narth Indian’, despite my mother trying to convince him that the couple were actually vegetarian and that we all were Bengali.
'Anything above the Deccan Plateau is Narth!’ the rude proprietor allegedly scoffed, banging the door closed on their puzzled faces. His ire possibly stemming from the fact that my mother had called seeking an appointment to survey his apartment where she had introduced herself as Mrs Sushmita Kundu Rao, which is her name after her remarriage to a Telugu man who resides in Bengaluru.
However, this column is not about Bengaluru, Karnataka, or the language debate. This morning a friend texted me the link of a news article doing the rounds on social media cross-referencing the big fight, we all had last year.
I stared at the headlines that stated the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee’s misplaced belief that if someone is living in Bengal, he or she must learn Bengali. Reiterating that 'outsiders' instigated the doctors’ agitation in the state, she accused the BJP of targetting Bengalis and minorities.
Are you serious, Didi? Can she insist that everyone in Bengal speak Bangla, given how many Bengalis live elsewhere? (Photo: PTI)
Such news articles are not new. Almost every single day, the newspapers in the city of my birth carry articles on how the honourable Chief Minister is livid with the chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’.
The video of her stopping her car to chase away a bunch of men crying out — what is now labelled as the BJP slogan — is now social media history.
I frankly can’t fathom why this is creating such a giant hullabaloo?
I mean, let us face it; the whole state is veritably swarming with Marwaris. And I am being blunt here — not to hurt a particular community, or a people, but to just question pointedly: why is this such a burning issue, especially after the TMC got a right royal drubbing in the recently concluded polls?
Is Mamta Banerjee and her party cadre living under the dystopian reality that only Marwaris or so-called non-Bengalis voted for the BJP in West Bengal?
In the last couple of months, anyone — and I mean just about anyone — starting from our domestic helps who commute by local train and live in squalid poverty in faraway villages, to my driver, to Ola/Uber cabbies, to my parlour girls (most of whom are Bengali), my fitness trainer, my friends, their house helps, drivers, nannies, friends, colleagues — not a single person in this pool being Marwari, have all come clean that they would rather vote for the BJP.
I am not sure why they voted for the BJP. Or what they felt would be better, in the long run, or, what is already.
What I am trying to say and establish is this double speak of my own community who have silently watched their homes, businesses, vintage cars, antique furniture, rare paintings and marble statues — their so-called cultural antiquity — be bought over by a community that is more successful and prosperous in business and finance.
And before we bring up our favourite word and pass-time —culture — let’s get real.
Most mainstream, big budget movie producers are either Marwari — or funds come in from Bangladesh. And I am using the word ‘most’ before we start jumping up and down, agitatedly and protest (clearly in our DNA). Most malls are owned by Marwaris, as are high-end restaurants and most big brands coming into Kolkata are all being welcomed not because of Bengali entrepreneurs. Most buildings are promoted by either Punjabi or Marwari builders and that’s because we — the Bongs — aren’t able to maintain these veritable white elephants. Because most youngsters have fled the state which gives them great education but zero jobs.
Why young Bengal is denuded: 'Outsiders' did not cause the doctors’ agitation in West Bengal. Systemic violence did. (Photo: Reuters)
And honestly, with the kind of violent student politics being encouraged in this city even at the undergraduate level, I see many more gen-nexters make the unholy exodus.
That is really my focus point. So much of what we tom-tom as “Sholo Ana Bangaliana” birthed and is flourishing thanks to a community that is practically running the economies of this once-upon-a-time great metropolis that produced Tagore, Ray and you know the rest. Right?
It did not start with one political party screaming the slogan we all love to hate. It has been happening for years. Even centuries.
Our so-called babu culture, the glory of the coveted Bengal Renaissance, our columned palaces, our rare artefacts, our vinyl records and vintage cars — what’s all this worth?
Our deemed filmmakers, artists, singers — they need patronage to survive. To be seen and heard and talked about and listened to, outside their home state.
While we deliberate on the price of the Hilsa and while we figured out elaborate Jamai Shoshti menus at Bengali restaurants across town and go shopping for the same, let us not pretend we haven’t co-existed with Marwaris, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Anglo-Indians and others. And that as a community, in general, they are better in making money.
Why are we not talking about the empty coffers, instead?
Why they all say, “Ekhane kicchu nei (there is nothing here).”
Why we all agree.
In deserted, disparate, desperate silence.
As for Mamta Banerjee and her petty kitchen-style politics, I find this sort of imposition of language in any state a regressive and dark move. This is the worst kind of regionalism there is, even as we thump our chests on being secular and liberal all the while.
As for me, I know Hindi and I can read and write it the same way I can Bengali — which was my second language in school.
However, I don’t know Marathi or Kannada. While I have the utmost respect for the culture and language of those cities and states, to be forced into mastering a language — as a sign of solidarity and homogenisation and as a qualification to be able to work and live in a particular state — is nothing short of cultural arm wrestling.
Would he approve? Unlikely, given that Vidyasagar was modern and inclusive. Unlike Bengal's powers that be. (Photo: ANI)
Also, I wish the honourable Chief Minister would herself note that the state that barely has any more young Bengalis left. So she’s, in reality, acting as the cultural and moral ambassador and spokesperson of a ghost community who have long sailed from their own shadowy shores and infested almost every state in this country — especially Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, for better career prospects.
Imagine if Bengalis were forced to learn Kannada? Or Marathi? Or Telegu? Or any other language, for the sake of argument?
And, I use the word ‘force’ here.
Imagine, if that not only dented our so-called intellectual supremacy complex that thrived on poking fun of Oriyas and Biharis and Punjabis and South Indians, but at the same time also revealed the abysmal state of affairs in our own home state. The emptiness of our coffers. The death of industry and economics. The constant brain drain. The violence and politicisation of deemed universities. The dastardly lockout of government hospitals and the state-sponsored hooliganism prevalent in the state.
The way we go on and on about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar — when there is so little left of us.
Engineers, media and advertising professionals, musicians, writers, marketing honchos, academia, now doctors — what if we are all just vacuously staring at a mass exodus of talent and resources and young blood?
What if we are asking them to leave?
Those who made West Bengal their home... the outsiders.
Anti-BJP supporters in West Bengal calling Modi fans ‘Bhakts’ — ask yourselves how many times your secular, well-educated, liberal, English-speaking, club-trotting mothers and families have told their daughters and granddaughters to marry anyone except a Muslim man?
How many times have you watched landlords turn away a Muslim woman (God help if she’s also single) or a Muslim couple?
How many times have you referenced areas like Park Circus and Metiabruz as ‘Mini Pakistan?’ Or made inferences saying Muslims are 'very dirty'?
How many times have you called Anglo Indians “tesh (wayward)”?
When the Chief Minister — a woman and single herself — had lashed out at a rape victim on one of the city’s most posh streets, calling her a “liar”? Faking a crime as dastardly as sexual violence?
Or ordered a sharp and timely political satire to be withdrawn from plush multiplexes as it allegedly took potshots at the present government?
How many times have you made fun of Biharis and Oriyas, indicating that in your view, they are only capable of menial jobs like being a cook or a driver? Or rolled your eyes at a Marwari, secretly resenting their financial muscle power at how they practically own the whole city today?
How there are literally no Bengali businesspersons or industrial houses left anymore?
How almost all the youngsters in your state want to flee to faraway cities where there are jobs, where hartals and michils are outdated — where the phrase ‘cholbe na’ is a distant far-cry.
How we jumped the gun and spewed justifiable anger and nationalism when the broken bust of a Bengali stalwart made headlines?
Not the only broken thing around: The vandalised statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. (Photo: Twitter/@derekobrienmp)
How we judge people whose English is not as fluent as ours?
How there was so little left of our so-called “cultural pride”?
What we refer to as Bangaliana. How we hoarsely blamed the BJP, because it was convenient — instead of asking the tougher, more relevant questions of governance, gender inclusiveness, economy and rural development.
How we celebrated the hiring of Shah Rukh Khan as the state’s apostle — our brand ambassador.
A Muslim man. A Delhiite. Another city and culture we routinely scorn at for their aggressiveness and materialistic show of success and wealth.
Because we needed a Delhi ka munda. Right? When Shah Rukh Khan became Bengal's ambassador. (Photo: PTI)
The truth today is as harsh because it hits home. Our red has bled. Our blue is tainted.
Our present is clearly a splash of saffron.
Yes. We have lost, and those who lose are called “losers”.
We have lost something more critical than a Lok Sabha election mandate. We have lost the right to our intellectual snobbery and our highflying claims of being liberal. Our slogan 'Ma, Mati, Manush' is a shrill half-cry. Our own fallacies and failings are exposed. They now stare at us in our reddened faces.
While we may boast of Shiraz biriyani, and Nahoums brownies, and Bada Din, and Durga Pujo, we are as divided as defeated — as much in denial as the rest of this nation.
So, quit the blame game. Or finger pointing. Or the hackneyed political analysis on TV channels.
Let those who won celebrate.
Let those who were runner-ups feel as much.
As for the rest of us:
Where do we return? What awaits us? How far have we come?
Ma. Mati. Mukhosh.
Will that be the new slogan?