Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 58

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

The western admirers of Amartya Sen as a public intellectual may not be aware that he is actually in a long line of globally engaged cultural elite that Bengal has produced. (This is true to some extent of the elite elsewhere in India as well, particularly around Chennai and Mumbai, but I think in sheer scale over the last two hundred years, Bengal may have a special claim). One aspect of this phenomenon is worth reflecting on. These members of the cultural elite were well-versed in the manifold offerings of the West, but they came to them with a solid grounding in the cultural wealth of India. Take Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833). He was, as Nehru describes him in his Discovery of India, “deeply versed in Indian thought and philosophy, a scholar of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic, ..a product of the mixed Hindu-Muslim culture, …the world’s first scholar of the science of Comparative Religion.” He contributed to the development of Bengali prose. He was a social reformer in Hindu society, actively engaged in serious religious debates with Christian missionaries in India, and a champion of women’s rights and freedom of press (standing up against colonial censorship). Yet when he went to England he caused some stir as the urbane face of a reforming Indian society, was active in campaigning for the 1832 Reform Act as a step to British democracy. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham reportedly even began a campaign to elect him to the British Parliament (but Roy caught meningitis and died in Bristol soon after).

The line of cosmopolitan Bengali public intellectuals later, of course, included Rabindranath Tagore, the scientists Satyen Bose and Jagadish Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen, all of whom were deeply immersed in indigenous culture and vernacular literature. I have already mentioned about Satyen Bose’s enthusiasm for science writing in Bengali. Jagadish Chandra Bose was not just an international pioneer in the investigation of radio and microwave optics and of plant physiology, he was the father of science fiction writing in Bengali, and his 1922 Bengali collection of essays Abyakta is a landmark in Bengali literature. Many people do not know that Satyajit Ray’s main source of income was not his internationally famous films, but writing books in Bengali mainly for children and adolescents—many Bengali youths knew him more as the creator of a famous detective character ‘Felu-da’ and the editor of a popular childrens’ magazine, Sandesh, founded by his grandfather. (When our son Titash was growing up, the task of reading bedtime stories to him was on me, and I read many of the ‘Felu-da’ stories to him in Bengali). When I went to college, one of the first things I read of Amartya Sen was an article by him on unemployment in a popular magazine in lucid Bengali prose. I also remember in the early 1990’s one day at Ashok Rudra’s home in Santiniketan he, I and Amartya-da spent a whole evening on honing good Bengali synonyms for technical terms that the latter was going to use for a Bengali book of his on economics.

This grounding in the vernacular for these and other Bengalis (including myself) creates an asymmetry in our encounter with western intellectuals. Quite often it has struck me that we know much more of their literature, culture, history and philosophy than they do of ours. This gives the Bengali (and other like-minded Indians) a certain confidence in dealing with western influence—we bask in its illumination and absorb it to the fullest, without getting unanchored from the rich Indian indigenous roots.

Recently when the New York Times Books section interviewed Amartya-da and asked what moves him most in a work of literature, he said: “I don’t think there is a shared object that moves me in every case. Rather, it is how a book develops and makes room for interesting ideas. In one way or another, we should be able to accommodate ‘Hamlet’ and the sonnets, Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and the fifth-century Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidasa’s ‘Meghaduta’(The Cloud-Messenger)”. When they asked him which books were currently in his night stand, his reply counted in the same breath the recently published biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by Sylvana Tomaselli as well as some well-known selections from Bengali poems by Tagore and Nazrul Islam, and the third-century Indian writer Shudraka’s revolutionary play ‘Mricchakatika’ (The Little Clay Cart).

When I discussed with my friend Sudipta Kaviraj at Columbia University about this particular asymmetry in our encounters with the West, he, in his typical erudite way, referred me to the discussion in Hegel of the ‘master-slave dialectic’: Hegel says that the ‘slave’ – that is all people who have less power and live under someone else’s dominance – have to be cleverer in their understanding and negotiation of the world – because they have only intelligence as their weapon. Cognitively, they thus have a fuller view of what the world is really like than the ‘masters’. Sudipta calls this ‘cosmopolitanism from below’ in the colonizer-colonized intellectual interaction.

Of course, there was a time when the colonizer simply dismissed the cultural wealth of the colonized. Lord Macaulay’s well-known 1835 Minute on Indian Education contended that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. The arrogant parading of such colossal ignorance on the part of the colonizer persisted for more than a century after. What to me is more interesting is the reaction of the colonized elite to this, even lingering in the post-colonial era. Some part of this elite remained imitative in fawning admiration of the West—‘mimic men’ to use the title of a V.S. Naipaul novel. Another part, probably larger in number today, resorted to resentful rejection and hostility to the West. These latter in their politics belong both to the Left and the Right. The Left will give the usual anti-imperialist rationale for their rejection of the West, even though in their rejection of the western cultural legacy of the liberal order they will, ironically, quote in justification either Marx-Engels or, more recently, Foucault-Derrida, as if the latter are some eastern sages.

The Right in India will show disdain for western culture, harking back to the glorious past of the Hindu civilization where everything that is worth knowing is in the ancient Vedas (or in Islamic culture to the glorious earlier part of the last millennium). I have often noted a streak of deep inferiority complex underlying both these strands of intellectual discourse of “protesting too much”—on the Left, a licking of the wounds left by the imperialists and blaming all present failures to them (as if we don’t have the capacity to mess up on our own), and on the Right, empty bragging to cover up their intellectual hollowness or what Joseph Conrad once termed the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”, (and, of course, lapping it up if by any chance praise from some western institutions comes their way). In contrast with these strands the leading type of Bengali (and as I said some other Indian) cultural discourse has been somewhat exceptional in confidently assimilating whatever is good in western culture and yet not losing one’s footing in their indigenous legacy of language, literature and culture.

Unlike those with this kind of confident assimilation, there are others for whom militant antipathy is often the default reaction. Let me give an example from the mundane experience of adversarial social interaction with westerners. I was once traveling in a car driven by a fellow Indian on a California freeway. At one point I saw a car in the adjoining lane when the driver lowered his window and shouted at us, “Go back to fucking Mexico!”  My companion became very angry but I tried to calm him down, and said that unless some direct harm was caused, he should only feel pity for such ignorant racists (just as when I first read Lord Macaulay’s remark quoted above about the literature of India and Arabia, I did not feel anger, only pity for his ignorance). My Indian companion then grumbled, “In any case why should I go to Mexico?” I told him that the confusion was understandable as Mexico shares some latitudes with parts of India (Mumbai and Mexico City are roughly on the same latitude) and skin color of people, and that the stereotypical immigrant in California was more likely to be from Mexico than from India. I also thought to myself about the advice that the Duke gives to Desdemona’s father in Othello:
“The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief/He robs himself that spends a bootless grief”.

The confusion about Mexicans and Indians also reminds me of an incident I faced in San Francisco one night as I was returning to Berkeley after watching a late night movie at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was about midnight and I had to rush to catch the last underground (BART) train to Berkeley. Being the last train it was jam-packed, I could barely stand, clutching a handle inside the train. Very soon I found out that next to me and pressed against me was a drunken Mexican. Even he confused me as a fellow Mexican and started speaking loudly in Spanish with me (as if I was a long lost amigo). I tried to tell him that I did not speak Spanish; when it finally dawned on him, he then switched to English, and, much to my distress, soon started to vent his anger in that language against gringos. In the pressing crowd it was difficult for me to move away, as he went on “…you see these gringos have stolen our land…California belongs to us…but take it from me, we’re going to take this land back…You see all these gringos, they may look nice, but let me tell you, they’re all full of shit”. I was thinking if a fist fight was to start then, in that crammed space I was sure to get some blows and my jaws broken. Fortunately, the surrounding gringos remained resolutely impassive.

In parts of the Western academia there were some other ramifications of the colonizer-colonized cultural interaction that came to my attention when I settled in Berkeley in the late 1970’s. I saw in the left circles in Berkeley and elsewhere in coastal US an environment of encouraging the tolerance for a certain facile form of ‘third-worldism’. Among radical or even liberal western intellectuals it gave rise to a lot of chest-beating for the harm their governments and businesses had done elsewhere. Without denying the ugly reality of this harm, and the genuine distress about this among many of my leftist friends, I should also mention that I have sometimes sensed in others a whiff of pious condescension in the sympathy or a kind of showy competitive radical chic. I remember once reading a satirical verse on this:

I am sorry for what my people did to your people,
It was a nasty job.
Please note the change of attitude
On the bumper of my Saab.

(At the same time I think V.S. Naipaul in his typical dyspeptic way goes a bit too far on this when he pours scorn on some western radicals, “the people who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centers of revolution with return air tickets,…all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security”).

And taking advantage of the guilt trip of the western liberals a whole section of  ‘third-world’ intellectuals had covered their mediocrity with anti-imperialist or post-modern rhetoric and also sometimes touching on holier-than-thou race-gender sensitivity buttons, all with the purpose of smoothening their climb up the academic ladder which otherwise would have been difficult for them to reach. For a time I became rather allergic to such rhetoric, the fashionable atoning/appeasing kind on one side and the self-serving kind on the other, proliferating in seminars and campus debates. These games are, of course, more easily played in the softer disciplines in academia, but I also remember once sharing a cab in New York going to JFK airport with a Latin American mathematical economist who tried hard to evoke third-world camaraderie in me and went about telling me that “the gringos even steal our theorems”.