I read this very weird editorial in my newspaper yesterday. It says – quite justifiably – it is a pity that while we are going gaga publicly celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, we have chosen virtually to forget another great titan of yesteryear, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, outstanding chemist, teacher extraordinary and pioneering Bengali entrepreneur. From which the editorial writer goes on to infer that it is clear Bengalis have chosen to put literature far above science, which itself ranks higher than entrepreneurship on their priority list, and that bodes great ill for Bengal. The editorial grimly ends on the warning note that Bengalis, having made their choice, ‘can continue to spout poetry amidst overwhelming squalor and demeaning poverty’.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I found this an absolutely remarkable example of muddled thinking. Whenever did literatteurs as a tribe (leave alone Tagore) glorify squalor and poverty? Since when did being interested (or creative) in literature automatically indicate a contempt or apathy for science? Who says all Bengalis have forgotten P.C. Roy? He was never exactly a pop idol anyway, and the right sort of people certainly do remember him – on Tuesday, August 2nd, there was a lecture cum photo exhibition about him in one of the leading universities of the state. What should we have instead: yet one more meaningless public holiday or a jamboree IPL style? Which Bengali who knowledgeably adores Tagore has deliberately forgotten Roy? And where did the editorial writer meet Bengalis ‘spouting poetry’? I should have thought Bengali businessmen (I wouldn’t honour the majority of them with the tag of entrepreneur) were a far more common species these days! How does forgetting P.C. Roy prove that we are ‘devoted’ to Tagore? I have written about another truly brilliant Bengali, Rajshekhar Basu aka Parashuram on this blog earlier. He was equally at home with both science and literature: how many ‘cultured’ Bengalis remember him? Which country, now universally recognized as ‘advanced’, had to eschew literature and the arts in order to pursue science and entrepreneurship?
As a teacher, I can testify from a lifetime’s experience that Bengalis care as little for science as for literature or the arts, leave alone entrepreneurship. I can safely aver that in 98 out of every 100 Bengali families today, except perhaps the very rich and the very poor, parents are drilling it into the minds of their children that their only aim in life should be finding a reasonably safe, reasonably light, reasonably well-paid job which gives one some ‘social status’, meaning that they absolutely must cram a few dozen textbooks to become either salaried doctors or engineers (definitely not scientists, unless they fail the entrance tests at least once!), both Tagore and Roy be damned. The even sadder truth is that most of the children, even if bored to tears with their academic rat race, are quite convinced that their parents are right, have only their ‘welfare’ at heart. As I frequently tell my own pupils, in another twenty years’ time we shall not have competent teachers or judges or plumbers or carpenters at all, leave alone scientists and artists and writers: we must make do as well as we can with a whole country full of just doctors and engineers (besides plain crooks and salesmen of countless hues, including journalists and ad-copywriters). This is the ground reality: how does it pay to fool ourselves otherwise? With even the media spouting this kind of nonsense, hasn’t it become truly a case of the blind leading the blind?