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Monday, November 16, 2009

Remembering 'Parashuram'

The Statesman yesterday carried this article reminiscing about Rajshekhar Basu, who wrote under the pen-name of Parashuram. I am writing this particularly for my literate Bengali readers, though that shouldn’t make it uninteresting for all lovers of good culture, even those who are not Bengalis. To read more about Parashuram’s multi-faceted genius, you might try this blogpost too.

In the days when Tagore was still shining like the mid-day sun in Bengal’s cultural firmament – meaning the 1920s and 30s – a lot of people began to worry that the next generation of creative people would be eclipsed in that awesome glare: after all, they said, only grass grows under a banyan tree! The truth is, however, that Tagore in his most glorious but waning years saw a thousand talents bloom in the arts and sciences, commerce and politics all around him. Though most of them acknowledged his immeasurable superiority in almost all works of the mind, they were – by the Lilliputian standards of today! – giants in their own right. I have in mind talents as diverse as Sukumar Ray and Satyen Bose and Prasanta Mahalanobis and Nandalal Bose and Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali and Subhas Bose and Biren Mookerjee and Radhabinod Pal… Rajshekhar Basu was one of the worthiest members of that splendid galaxy.

This is an age when millions of Bengalis are growing up to be ‘educated’ without reading anything outside textbooks and cram sheets for examinations (and ashamed or scared of reading anything but, especially in Bengali), when numberless doctors and engineers and accountants and suchlike are comfortable if not proud about the fact that they know virtually nothing outside their narrow areas of specialization (and yet get very angry if compared with carpenters and cobblers and plumbers – though I have never yet managed to understand what is so utterly contemptible about a man who can fix my water pipes, and so immensely admirable about someone who can mend boilers or bones but knows nothing else); an age when the vast majority of us can neither speak in chaste Bengali nor confidently speak or write anything better than pidgin English (witness the cover of a ‘Bengali’ magazine like Sananda, where half the stuff is English phrases like ‘latest beauty tips’ written in Bengali!); an age when we are all too ‘busy’ to read or engage in any of the fine arts seriously, though so many of us do little beyond going to (or taking our children to) tuitions, and indulge in pleasures none of which exercise the mind or even body in the slightest. It is also, weirdly, an age when most of the ‘educated’ among us are happy to imagine that we have ‘advanced’ greatly in the last half century. Well, Parashuram died almost half a century ago, and thinking about his accomplishments takes my breath away, especially when I compare him with 'achievers' among my contemporaries.

Well-enough qualified as a chemist to be hired by the legendary P.C. Ray for the Bengal Chemical Company, competent enough as an administrator to become general manager and secretary of the same company (which position he held for thirty years), also a trained lawyer, single-handed compiler of the first (and arguably still the best) real dictionary of the Bengali language, a brilliant word-spinner and illustrator who wrote some of the most idiosyncratically funny stories we Bengalis have read (I won’t even begin to discuss such gems where most readers will either not know what I am talking about or won’t understand), he also had time to write what, I believe, remains the most erudite yet lucid 700-page summary of the Mahabharata that has ever been written in Bangla, an absolute must for all those who will never get around to reading Kaliprasanna Singha’s magnum opus (which, I guess, would be 99.9% of today’s Bengalis!)… and maybe I am forgetting, or still don’t know about, other things that he did besides. He lived a life in the mould of the universal man, and he was truly a citizen of the world, in the best sense of that expression.

If that, even half a century ago, was what it meant to be a ‘successful’ man in Bengal, worthy of respect and emulation, how many of my countless students and ex-students under the age of 35 even understand what success means, let alone think of trying to reach for such standards? And how can they justify their not trying, except by either ignorance or apathy? Alas, as a cover story in a certain edition of Desh magazine firmly announced a while ago, there is no denying the fact that, for all our fancy outward show (so many NRIs, so many shopping malls, so many cars on the road), Bengali culture has become a matter of modhyomedhar joyjoykaar (a celebration of mediocrity): we may be moving about much more and much faster these days, and chattering our heads off, but inside our minds we have chosen the stagnant little pond in place of the ocean that we once loved and aspired to. And so those who still talk of oceans are regarded as weird, if not as enemies of the people: I shudder to think of what almost happened to the only man who could see in H.G. Wells’ horror story The Country of the Blind.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Somebody was lecturing me about humility the other day via email. Here’s my take on humility: as the several posts on this blog clubbed under the label ‘tributes’ give evidence, I am humble enough to pay my unconditional respects to both the great and the good, but I believe it is a betrayal of the very essence of humility to allow every man to pretend that he is as good as the best I have known. Jesus preached humility, yet there was nothing kind and gentle about the way he berated the Pharisees. A man as ordinary and powerless as I will probably be able to do nothing at all to prevent our once-rich culture from sinking to a nadir, but I can at least pay tribute where it is due, and I can at least sneer all my life at people who have no standards at all, and who think that that’s perfectly alright, so long as they have a big house and a car in the garage and a son in the US. And how will such sneering help? Well, in Churchill’s famous words, such ‘modest’ people will know that they have much to be modest about! (one certain proof of their cultural inferiority is that many such people – and they fancy themselves to be educated bhodrolok, too – cannot think of doing anything better by way of riposte than to write raw invective anonymously as ‘comments’ on my blogposts: the kind of invective that any drunken rickshaw puller who has never gone to school can handle with his peanut-sized brain. Their crude rabidness only deepens my conviction that culture matters, and success and education are not meant for all…)

Soumallya Chattopadhyay said...

I do agree with your view,that the diversity in every field of work is shrinking very rapidly.People are heading doggedly in order to send their wards in any roadside engineering colleges or medical colleges.As a result,the works of Genius in the field of fine arts are getting scarce.
It is very much astonishing as well as lamenting to see that people(especially the common herds)are madly trying to admit their sons in a third class private engineering college;but none of them advise their children to pursue the main subjects such as Physics,Chemistry,Mathematics,Economics,History,etc.in colleges like the Presidency,or St.Stephen's,or JNU.I have even heard people telling their sons:"Jodi sesh porjonto kichu na hoy,English honours porbi"......Now form this statement,it is obviously clear,why most of the people are unable to understand the works on literature;and why most of the people can't write sensible sentences in English.
And moreover this trend is not contemporary.I have heard that this madness has been going on since ages.
I suppose that you have seen in the newspaper,that NASSCOM has announced that almost 80% of the contemporary engineers lack employable capacity.It clearly indicates where our present Education system is heading onward.
In this context,I would like to ask you,can you tell me where the flaw is in our present education system?Can it be improved?Can the attitude of the people be changed?,so that once again an age comes where a lot of INDIANS would shine in every field of work?(Be it Educational or Social or Political)?I shall wait for your kind reply.

Yours faithfully,
Soumallya Chattopadhyay

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Any short answer will be glib and unsatisfactory, Soumallya, but I shall try nevertheless: change for the better will come again only when parents stop believing that shortcuts can lead to worthwhile success of any kind, and when we start taking genuine interest in non-material pleasures again (like becoming more interested in music rather than in music systems, and more interested in wildlife parks than in shopping malls)...as to whether that is likely to happen soon, your guess is as good as mine!

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

It is great that you regularly blog about heroes of India which at least I had no knowledge about. It is always somehow better for me to have examples of people of ability in our culture and country than to look elsewhere. His breadth and depth of knowledge and the amount of work he accomplished despite having a top administrative post is simply mind boggling, by any standards and in any era. I cannot even fathom the amount of hours he would be working in a day to achieve all what he did. My efforts at greatness pale into insignificance and therefore inspire me to work more. Thanks for blogging about him, and I will look forward to more tributes of this sort from you.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Navin's comment makes me happy. He got my point just right. Though I sound scathing at times (which is born of chagrin or despair), my whole purpose is not to belittle people around me for the sake of belittling them (which would be perverse) but to inspire them to achieve many great and wonderful things - one way to do which is to tell them, or remind them, about great and wonderful things that people have done before, even without the many advantages that we enjoy today (such as fast travel and word processors and search engines on the internet and grants/scholarships that allow so many people to concentrate for years on doing just one thing...)

sunup said...

Dear Sir,

I just went through your latest blog titled Remembering Parashuram. Your reply to Navin was quite thought provoking. There are very few Indians left who take pride in what their fellow Indians do, in any facet of life. And a recent article on the Kolkata Metro completing 25 years of service just confirmed that. The Kolkata metro service was designed and built by RITES engineers without the help of a single foreign consultant. Even the rolling stock was procured from ICF, Perambur. In all these 25 years, there were no single derailments or ramp collapses unlike the case of the much glorified Delhi Metro. No one acknowledges these facts, let alone celebrate the event. But everyone were so gung-ho about the Delhi Metro – designed by Siemens, rolling stock from Korea, etc etc. As if our very lives depended on the foreigners. Most of us only care for the ‘foreign’ things now – be it culture, art, music, literature, technology.

I remember telling a guy some years back that it was J.C.Bose and not Marconi who pioneered the radio. The guy was like “J.C.Bose, who????”. Such is the sad plight of us Indians. And I remember you telling us years ago that the Germans revere their own brands and look down upon anything foreign. For them the Brauns, Grundigs, Benzes etc. are any day more preferable than the Hondas or Fords or Sonys. Wonder if our pidgin mindsets would ever reach those levels.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I know exactly how bad you feel, Sunup, because I have heard the same lament from many other good people whose talents and valuable contributions went unrecognised, and so they felt cheated, and lost the motivation to work hard and well at anything any more. I think the atomic scientist Kakodkar had exactly this in mind when he (at first) strongly opposed the government of India's decision to go, hat in hand, to the US begging for nuclear-power generation technology: it would, he said, negate half a century of valuable work done by Indian scientists, and entail a great loss of national pride. But then again, I wonder - if all that work had been useful work, why should the government have felt the need to beg from a foreign country after all these years?... in the same vein, I still continue to wonder, so many years since I taught you in school, why most of the sophisticated equipment used by doctors in our best hospitals have to be imported stuff still, despite the fact that we keep tom-tomming that we have the best engineers, managers and entrepreneurs in the world...

As for things cultural, the less said about the awareness of modern young educated Indians of their legacy and their pride in it the better! It seems we are gripped by a national death wish - our ultimate ambition is to become a nation of pallid clones of semi-literate Americans.

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

This was a beautiful post - truly thought provoking. It is sort of sad that sometimes even those of us who know and feel these things, who aspire to reach above mediocrity of mind and want others to do the same do not take the time or the effort to think about them or to tell other people abut them. The pinch is felt, but does it get much beyond skin deep for even those of us who do lament at the intellectual or emotional or mental apathy around us? I think not. I who have lamented about the fact that some of my peers and friends do not know the first thing about say, Ramayana and Mahabharata have done nothing to even attempt to change that fact. Thank you sir, posts like these are invigorating and reminds one that the human mind knows no bounds, it leaps and blossoms but sometimes that might not be enough, you have to impart what you learn, what you believe. Thank you very much sir :-)

Vaishnavi :-)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks, Vaishnavi.

In connection with this blogpost, I should very much like non-Bengali readers to share stories about people of their own communities whom they deeply admire. The older I grow, the more ashamed I feel to realise that I know so little about great men and women in other communities all around this vast country (just don't talk about people you think are 'great' merely because they are rich and famous in the trivial film-star sense, please).

Rajdeep said...

I can understand how you feel. Most people around these days will not even recognize the names you have mentioned at the begining of your article. We neglect our own people and then complain foreigners are not respecting us. Regarding someones comment. It is very true that Germans like their own products. As do the Japanese. They all have pride in their technology. It is sad that even though Swadeshi got us independence, now anything we take pride in having is very much Videshi, except our conceit and superstitiousness.

Tanmoy said...

Thank you Suvroda, for taking out time to write about Rajsekhar Bose. His literary work has always brought me immense pleasure and your recollections make re-read some of his work once more. I love such posts from you and especially remember the one you wrote on your grandfather and also on Rani Rashmini.

Whilst our country continues to remain in this “transition phase”, I would like to believe we probably would emerge better someday. However, I am not sure whether that would come true in another hundred years.

To me the problem is as a race we are not open to feedback and that is why we don’t ever correct ourselves. I fear that kind of attitude in all of us Indians. Whilst I do feel, the entire world is facing the crisis of people blindly running after money, neglecting their own culture, not respecting their libraries and museums but every country is doing something about it. Museums are becoming interactive and attractive, students are encouraged to do internships in them as well as in the libraries, school trips are organised to facilitate going to places where you get to know about your heroes and many such initiatives are undertaken. Many of these initiatives, I am sure are failures but some of them are success too. At least none is ridiculed to do something of that sort. In India, if you talk on such issues most people think you are wasting your time. People would take hours to discuss and ridicule the effort but would not bother to spend a minute to think, “if there is any merit in the feedback”. I fear that attitude in all of us. That is why, if people don’t use libraries, rather than encouraging them to go – we close them down or for that matter nobody bothers to even change the defective bulbs in Indian Museum. A race that does not want to correct itself or is intolerant to feedback has already hit the axe on its foot. We are all “mattobors” in our own comfort zone and that is why we don’t care.

I sincerely wish the current generation of people who have more access to information is more appreciative of constructive feedback in order to be good Indians and raise good Indians.

Our attitude has already given rise to goons like that in Maharashtra who take advantage of our ineptness and gain political mileage. Neither can we deal with those goons, nor can we resurrect what we have lost. I dread the day when such goons would come to Bengal too and somehow I believe that day is not far away - already Bengali politicians are claiming themselves to be poets, musicians, singers all culminated in one in their party websites. I hope we realise we need to get our own house in order before we are forced to accept something which we never wanted to.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

The paradox about contemporary India, Tanmoy, is that as our economy opens up and grows richer, we are culturally becoming ever-more uninformed, narrow-minded and opinionated...