Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013

Essay

Bengal and the Bengalees

Bengal and the Bengalees

(Chittaranjan Das — man of letters, political leader, spokesman for nationalism — died eighty eight years ago on 16 June 1925. The following article is an abridged version of a speech he delivered at the Bengal Provincial Conference held in Calcutta in April 1917.

We present it for its literary merit to our readers.
— Literary Editor)

Today in this Great Assembly of Bengalees I have come to speak of Bengal. You have commanded me to do so, and I hasten to answer your command. In this Hall of Union I shall not waste your time by spinning words at long length about my fitness or unfitness. But I have loved this land of mine with all my heart from childhood; in manhood, through all my manifold weakness, unfitness and poverty of soul, I have striven to keep alive  its sacred image in my heart, and today, on the threshold of age, that image has become truer and clearer than ever. And I can boast of no claim to leadership, as based on title, the claim that springs from deep and passionate love, that claim is mine.  Love, like a lighted lamp, will lead me on my way; and your combined fitness transmitted to me will make up for my deficiencies.
. . . I rather feel an inexpressible pride in describing myself as a Bengalee. I know that the Bengalee has a culture and philosophy of his own, that he has a law, history, philosophy and literature of his own. And so I can declare with confidence that he knows not my Bengal who describes the Bengalee as wanting in manhood.
But we may take it for granted that the Bengalee has many faults which require to be corrected; and in that sense we may concede for argument that the Bengalee is deficient in manhood. To correct this deficiency . . . must be the aim and endeavour of our political efforts.
We repeat ad nauseum the political maxims of Burke; we imbibe the words of Gladstone and think perchance they represent the acme of political wisdom; or we make choice quotations from Seely’s ‘Expansion of England’ and Sidgwick’s treatises on politics. There is no end to our talk about schools and systems of politics; we learn by rote all the polished phrases that we can pick up from the texts and scriptures of European politics; and fancying ourselves invincible in our panoply of learned phrases, we challenge the government to enter into a war of words with us. We fancy that we shall triumph by talk and discussion; and so we burden all our endeavour with a load of unnecessary words and formulas.
Only we neglect the one thing essential. We never look to our country, never think of Bengal or the Bengalees, of our past national history, or our present material condition. Hence our political agitation is unreal and unsubstantial — divorced from all intimate touch with the soul of our people.
What is our relation to the vast masses of our countrymen? Do they think our thought or speak our speech? I am bound to confess that our countrymen have little faith in us. And what is the reason of this unfaith? Down in the depths of our soul, we, the educated people, have become Anglicised; we read in English, think in English and even our speech is translated from English. Our borrowed Anglicism repels our unsophisticated countrymen; they prefer the genuine article to the shoddy imitation. Besides, we seem to look upon them with contempt. Do we invite them to our assemblies and conferences? Perhaps we do, when we want their signatures to some petition to be submitted before the government. But do we associate with them heartily in any of our endeavours? Do we cooperate with them in deed and truth? Is the peasant a member in any of our committees or conferences?
No truth, no right, can be based upon a falsehood; and hence I have said that our political agitation is a lifeless and soulless farce — a thing without reality and truth. . . The Hindus of Bengal had lost strength and vigour alike in religion, science and life. And the Musulmans also had similarly declined since the days of Alivardi; their strength and manhood had been swept away in that passion for luxury which is a sure mark of weakness and decadence.
It was in this period of gloom and depression that the English tradesman came to India. He raised his empire in a world of ruins, and by rapid extension of power gave proof of his wonderful energy and vitality. . . We accepted the English government, and with that we accepted the English race — their culture, their civilization, their luxury and their licence. . . We, in the blindness of our misfortune, drifted away from the ancient landmarks of our soil — its history, its culture, its law and its philosophy, and went in passionate pursuit of the literature, science and philosophy of the English people.
Then, after long years, Bankim came and set up the image of our Mother in the motherland. He set up the image and inspired it with life. . . More time passed. The trumpet of Swadeshism began to sound in 1903. The people of Bengal began once more to understand and realize themselves. Rabindranath sang: ‘The soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal — make it true, O Lord.’
The Swadeshi movement came like a tempest; it rushed along impetuously like some mighty flood. When the soul awakes, it awakes without calculation; when man is born, he is born without calculation. Man comes into life because he must; and the soul rises to consciousness because it must.
Bankim’s song went through our ears and thrilled our hearts. We understood once again what it was that Ramkrishna sought and found; and we understood how it was that Keshab Chandra could leave the outer world of argument and enter the inner world of the heart. The speech of Vivekananda filled our souls. We understood that the Bengalee might be a Hindu or Musulman or Christian, but he continued to be a Bengalee all the same. . . In this world of men, the Bengalee has a place of his own — a claim, a culture, a duty. . . In the wonderful variety of God’s infinite creation the Bengalee represents a distinctive type, and Bengal is the image and embodiment of that type, nay, more, it is the life and soul of that type. . . The Bengalee cannot forget that he is a Bengalee first and last. . . Just as the laws of gravitation existed before the birth of Newton, so the nationality of the Bengalees existed before the advent of the British people; only the shock of an alien civilization was needed to make us conscious of this spirit; and the shock was supplied from Europe.
We had corn in our granaries; our cattle gave us milk; our tanks supplied us with fish; and the eye was smoothed and refreshed by the limpid blue of the sky and the green foliage of the trees. All day long the peasant toiled in the field; and at eve, returning to his lamp-lit home, he sang the song of his heart.
Today that peasant is gone — his very breed extinct; gone too is that household with its ordered and peaceful economy of life; the granaries are empty of their golden wealth; the kine are dry and give no milk; the fields, once so green, are dry and parched with thirst. The evening lamp is not lighted; the household gods are not worshipped. . .
How has this fearful nakedness and desolation come about? Whatever the evidence of history may be, considered deeply, the fault is our own. . . Wherein lay our mistake? It sprang from the clash and conflict of ideals. The conflict of ideals between the East and the West — it is this which has been the cause of our present weakness and feebleness.
The ploughman of Bengal, as he followed his yoke, would sing to himself: ‘You know not true village, my soul; fallow lies this field of life, which would give you gold if you tilled it well.’ And so the boatman of Bengal, as he plied his oar, would sing: ‘Take up the helm, my soul, for I can row no more.’. . . Even the tradesman as he returned from mart and market-place would sing: ‘The day is gone and evening has come; ferry me over, O Lord.’

(Courtesy: Chittaranjan Das, ed Verinder Grover, Deep & Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1994)