Sunday, January 28, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 5

18. The Media Culture - Demons of Diabolic Deception

If we are to relate culture as being fountainheads of great possibilities in human understanding and interaction, the first priority for its appreciation, criticism and promotion rest's entirely with the media - specifically the print media - that has been around for centuries massaging the sore ego's of the Bengalee's. The Bengalee media has traditionally played a suspect role, as an accomplice to the crimes of the 'system' - or the establishment of the day. And the system ofcourse was then and as is today, in the hands of those small coterie and vested interest that have focused and promoted only our defeatist 'political cultures' complete with its communal overtones or undertones.

Every newspaper has a set of compliant columnist or writers, whose job it is to cater to commissioned writings. Pages after boring pages are filled up by institutionalized advice givers, which hardly have any takers. Some editors take on the dubious role of writing commentaries - other than lengthy editorials in sustained megalomaniac overkill. Filling up of pages is more important than content and consequently every newspaper has the same story line, indeed same photographs of event, good or evil. If you read one newspaper in Bangladesh, you have in all likelihood - read them all!

The culture of 'intellectual debates' revolve around personal insinuations, and is in very bad taste. It is a practice of people on the fringe of various shades of interest i.e. Indian RAW interest, Pakistani ISI interest, American CIA interest, Islamist Taliban interest, NGO interest - infact all interest less the interest of Bangladesh, to bray and taunt each other as agents for one or the other intelligence agencies, real or imagined. There is also the unwritten 'blacklist' of writers who are considered to have 'nuisance value' (including this author) a duo entendre, i.e. those that do not appropriate the 'official lines'.

It would seem that the political culture in Bangladesh is dominated by spooks and spies - and not known to many casual newspaper readers in Bangladesh is the existence of 'double agents' - who work for one or more of these agencies.- i.e. RAW agents pretending to be India haters, CIA agents posing as Commies, Islamist disguised as atheist etc.

19. The NGO Culture - Doomsday Doctrine Soothsayers

The worst category of intellectuals is ones that represent NGO interest. 'Ideas' authored by foreign donors spurt their adrenaline rush to write just about anything under the sun - to explain in pitiable circumstances the dire 'calamitous' state of the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. These stories are necessary to generate funding. Positive 'development' stories will ofcourse eulogize the 'role of NGO' - and the 'impact' it has on 'national development'. Printing of such fictitious success stories also brings in wads of cash for newspapers and periodicals. 'Weekend specials' more or less are NGO reportings - for the donors, and finds international donor credibility when printed.

Patriotism is a partisan product preferably played when pensions are pending!

The opinions of NGO 'intellectuals' have never been received favorably, and all we have to witness in terms of their 'debates' are stage managed vexing verbosity - which for all practical purpose contributes to divert public opinions on any major issue of the day - by these hypocritical, self serving and 'unwilling' accomplice to the system.

No great 'solution' are ever unleashed which could be of service to the people of Bangladesh. Routine catechism of ideas and counter ideas are played about like a game of Ping-Pong. Solutions ofcourse has a price of its own and is kept in reserve and meant for personal monetary gains. Apparently, good ideas that leads to solution is translated to mean - CASH flowing in from the open water taps from donors overseas.

Together with this are the opinions of our 'national leaders' who are nothing more in attitude and pretensions, acquired or otherwise, any different from those ruthless 'morol's or village headman's vying for complete control on a forever desperate rural community, that has only recently overthrown and replaced the old feudal system encouraged by the English.

Their mentality while very much constituency orientated is narrow and parochial - with intrigue and conspiracies the backbone for their survival. Civility and the healthy culture of democracy - while lambasted with almost daily intensity - is absent, and intolerance together with the sins of corruption and nepotism is still raising havoc - thirty watershed years after Bangladesh's Independence. The print mill shamelessly rolls on.

To date we do not have any international political statesman among the Bengalee's.

While many dailies masquerade as 'national newspapers' - the whole purpose of a National Though Process that could have been championed by the media - has not been achieved, and tragically in a nation with a total population of 120 million people, the highest circulation newspaper is a paltry 100,000: and cumulatively far less than a million newspaper is sold daily in Bangladesh.

Newspapers have regrettably never served the purpose of cultural education - other than opinions of establishment sponsored 'cultural activist' that have only one clear mandate - divide, not unify the nation on petty partisan and personal grounds and 'dhandabaji' (quick buck) interest.

For all practical purposes, the press, pundits and politician nexus has perennially prostituted the system to pre-empt all peremptory possibilities of the public!

The print media has subverted culture of any chance to empower itself, and we still grope in the dark trying hard to figure out rationale definitions - a denouncery effort that will find history someday judging us unfairly.

20. Cut and Paste Culture - Incoherent Diamante

Back to the 'babu' culture, the media in Bangladesh has not looked beyond Kolkata in West Bengal as the inspirational role model to emulate in its philosophy or presentation. The focus of its telescope does not go beyond Kolkata - and if by any accident its does, certainly not beyond Bombay!

Whatever 'culture' is been aggressively promoted are of the Kolkata and Bombay variety - basically cut and paste piracy of features and articles from the Indian media. A staggering 98% of our media - whether that be in Bengalee or English languages - survive on the open piracy of ditto materials from the Indian press. There is no regulatory body to control this offence, and whilst there is ample brow and chest beating of 'Indian cultural imperialism' - the media has no creativity in projecting its 'local culture' - neither the capacity to thwart the aggression - if at all.

The Kolkata fever reaches a ejaculatory climax, when artist, poets, writers or 'littereteurs' reach Dhaka. The media goes on frenzy, reporting, interviewing, photographing, cajoling and sycophanting. Even obscure artist that the Indian High Commission in Dhaka showcases occasionally is given national coverage by our 'national newspapers'. Tragically any artist from Bangladesh visiting West Bengal receives no such coverage - and this has too often been a bone of contention, especially when 'important cultural personalities' are given a cold shoulder in Kolkata.

If cinema is any worthwhile indicator - while we strictly and 'patriotically' denounce any attempts to screen Indian movies in our cinema theatres - the truth is a resounding 100% of Bengalee thrillers are cheap imitations of Bombay blockbuster - and the local cable TV network is very much Indian property where Bangladesh or its culture, stands nowhere in the list of priorities.

The only significant difference that we have had in our culture over the last half a century is while the 'educated' Bengalee went ga ga over the English inspired 'babu' culture in the past - the 'educated and cultured' Bengalee today goes wild over Kolkata and Bombay - ONLY. '

World culture' per se is not understood or appreciated and is still remains a veritable culture shock.

So low is the level of intellect that less than 1% of Bangladesh citizen watch or understand the happenings on the BBC, CNN, even the educational Discovery and National Geographic channel. While Hindi is not a second language for the Bengalee in Bangladesh it has become an ex officio spoken 'national language' - understood by more than 80% of Bengalee's in Bangladesh, regardless of educational backgrounds.

21. The Twenty first point - The Hype and Hysteria of Bengalee Language

While Bengalee is arguably the fifth largest spoken language in the world, and while the importance is often polemically reiterated with pride every 21st of February (with reference to the students agitation in 1952), the truth is Bengalee in some round about way is a language condemned to extinction by its 'educated and cultured' citizens.

The Language Movement of 1952, which is considered by many as the pivotal Bengalee episode to the start of our Independence struggle is ofcourse another myth that needs to be demolished.

It surrounds the Bengalee claim of being 'the first people in the world to shed blood for their mother tongue'. How can we forget the Red Indians, who were killed in large numbers because they spoke the native language and not English that was forced on them. What about the African slaves who suffered the same fate in their 'new world'. And what about the Polish - just to name a few?

While it is true that Bengalee's resisted the Pakistan founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah's attempt to make Urdu the national language of the then Pakistan - mainly in what he perceived being more Muslim in character as opposed to the Hinduized Bengalee language. The reisistance basically was against the mindset and the communal aspersions of Bengalee's being 'lesser Muslims' - or Hindu converts and those that were 'martyred' in 1952, were actually killed by stray bullets of the Police and were in no way directly involved with the ongoing Language Movement.

The nincompoop Jinnah - instead of Urdu, had he only said that "Hindi and Hindi only will the national language of East Pakistan' - he would have been spared the subsequent insults history would heap on him. If he only had the foresight to appreciate that soon down the line, Bengalee's will adapt Hindi as an ex officio language understood by 80% of the population - we would have been privileged nation - and not at the cost of innocent lives. Frankly I see no difference between Urdu and Hindi - other than the written script, one a derivative from Arabic, the other from Sanskrit - period.

The country wide protest that exploded in 1952, more than the demands for Bengalee as a National Language, was because of the killing of students. Let me again remind readers, that the 'shadharon jonogon' had great respect for its student community that went to cities for an education. The first protest procession was against killing of students, initiated, led and marched by the Non Bengalee residents of old Dhaka - not by Bengalee's.

Overnight the Shaheed Minar (Martyrs Monument) was erected. Its present shape and design was however approved, and the construction completed on or about 1963 at the behest of the then Bengalee loving Governor of East Pakistan - Azam Khan, a Pathan of Pakistani descent - not a Bengalee.

The supposedly secular structure exuded an ambience of a religious, not cultural symbol, with restrictions placed on wearing shoes or sandals on anybody visiting the site on the 21st February. Other days of the years, then as is now, sees a brutal desecration with the assembly of gamblers, goons, drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes plying their trade: that traditionally is washed, cleaned, painted over and made 'holy' for just that one day of the year. An expensive ritual - all in the name of culture.

It now seems only endorsement by the international communities can ensure the fragile health of the 'mother tongue' and the Bengalee also had moments of 'great pride and glory'- when the UNESCO decided to give recognition to the 21st February as the 'International Mother Language Day' in 2000. Interesting as this may sound - non of the world media covered the 'auspicious announcement' even for a fleeting second - yet 'cultural activists' in Bangladesh took over the media for a whole month to gloat and 'feed the masses' about this great triumph.

First Published January 28th 2001

Sunday, January 21, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 4

15. Anatomical and Geographical Mutilation - The communal criteria for cultural chastity

Nowhere else in the world is the snipping, or not snipping of a quarter inch of flesh, off the reproductive organ of a Bengalee male, more actively and emotively discussed in a culture then among Bengalee's - a point not overlooked by the seventeenth century agnostic Saint Lalon Fakir, in one of his hymns - now a Baul anthem:

'Sunnot dilay hoi Musholman, hairay nari loker kee hoi bidhan'
if circumcision be the mark of a Muslim, how do I recognise its female

'Amee Bamun chini poitay proman, amee baunee chini keesheray '
I know a Brahmin from his holy thread, how do I recognise a Brahmin female.

The suspicion between the two communities among the Bengalee's contributes to a reckless desire to out smart each other at every given opportunity. The West Bengal Bengalee's regardless of the community he represents forever gloats with the notion that Bangladesh is 'opar Bangla' or the 'other Bengal' - not an independent country - this representing a regret of not being able to create an autonomous divide off India, whilst Bangladesh is truly the world's first Bengalee nation state.

The Bangladesh Bengalee however is responsible for this patronising attitude of West Bengal, as he has failed to establish himself as an independent people in his dealings and cultural attributes - and has remained subservient to open and blatant attacks, from the gifted 'dadas' (big brothers) who often then not will demean the Bangladesh Bengalee with snide remarks about his origins even as he enjoys all hospitalities in Dhaka.

The 'opar Bangla' concept also has a distinct 'communal' overture. There being hardly any river that divides the Bengal - 'opar' means in a condescending way - as the 'other bank' of the river - almost like referring to a leper colony of untouchables or lowly people. Yet in any visit to Kolkata our 'cultural luminaries' will prefer to refer themselves as people from 'opar Bangla' with an element of pride interjected - little knowing that by doing so they only sanction the mentality of a caste, creed and religious divide.

It was the faux pas in 1999, in a book fair inauguration in Kolkata, where the Prime Minister or 'Prodhan Montri' of Bangladesh was deliberately referred in more than five separate occasions as the 'Mukhyo Montri' or Chief Minister of Bangladesh, that the 'intellectual sabre rattling' started in hysterical proportion. The tragedy is - more than two dozen of these 'intellectuals' from Bangladesh were present in that inauguration - and none had the courage to stand up and protest immediately. Yet on their return to Bangladesh, we were bored stiff with the months of tirade in the press to placate their irate feelings and the public outcry was tremendous.

No public or state level apology was ever offered to our Prime Minister - and consequent to that, thankfully the visits of West Bengal's cultural 'dadas' has trickled to a stand still. While our 'intellectuals' have never accepted that their West Bengal counterparts were communal, it was the ultimate attempt of the Muslim hating Ananda Bazar Publication, the apparent 'authority' on 'babu culture' to open an enterprise in Bangladesh in 2000, that probably for the first time saw an open resistance from the 'progressive' lot of writers, columnist and poets - to successfully deny them an entry.

Religion is and will always remain a divisive force in the myth of Bengalee culture - regardless of how best we try to circumvent each other feelings.

" Cross-cultural exchange often results in what anthropologists call acculturation, when the members of one culture adopt features of another. " John H. Bodley

16. Dichotomy of Decline - The Myth and Mantra of Secularism

Forgotten conveniently is the fact that whatever 'Bengalee culture' we know or can comprehend is the product of acculturation, and more than Hindu or Muslim precepts of culture as is implied today, it was constant fusion among cultures for thousands of years that has contributed to the resilience of the Bengalee, and his great fecundity to adapt - which in essence, if at all - is his real cultural gains.

It is this great melting pot, a fusion of cultural elements that came down over ages and include elements from the animist, pagan, agnostic, monotheistic, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, the Sufis and Vaishnavites, and their many offshoots - the Baul's being one of them, and on to the more modern versions of Secularism - a philosophy though mysterious and haunting to the Bengalee's - culture's have traditionally congealed in Bengal - never confused.

" Many societies today interpret the natural world and form beliefs based on science and logic. Societies in which many people do not practice any religion, may be known as secular societies. However, no society is entirely secular. " John H. Bodley

Secularism as practiced in Bangladesh is by and large a perplexing and cosmetic diversion to conceal the confusion of those that are not readily brave enough to publicly declare themselves atheist for fears of being branded heretics or pragmatic enough to accept plurality.

These are hyperbole's, played about by elements in the society who prefer to call themselves 'progressive' and is a fashionable Dhaka based middle class enigma, a mirage at best which many consider the modern Bengalee's 'real cultural gains'. The philosophy never found wide acceptance in the society despite it being a state pillar of Bangladesh for well over 18 years - and as I have tried to explain in many of my writings, its biggest threat and ultimate demise is due to the diction of its dissemination - again to the riffraff 'layman'.

Our secularists have never attempted to explain the philosophy with reference to its natural existence in our culture for thousands of years. Consequently the diction used and the methodology argued in almost all secular writings and speeches has created an illusion of the promotion of atheism, a very modern philosophy which never existed in the mainstream culture of the Bengalee. It was this confusion that created a sharp divide and created suspicion among the 'layman' - that secularism is some kind of a Hindu 'babu' plot.

Secularism was stripped from the state pillars of Bangladesh in 1988- 89 without any protest and was replaced with a theocratic version of 'state religion' Islam, which was no more than a ritualistic 'circumcision' of the state by the brutal autocrat Hossain Mohammed Ershad. No attempts have since been made to reintroduce secularism - such is the fear of political rejection of our leaders that its is a philosophy that is now propagated only in the radical fringe.

Argued hysterically as Bengalee culture is actually the remnants of what the English colonisers have left behind, together with 'necessary innovations' to accommodate more recent variations as time and exigencies determined. Secularism was one such.

17. National Culture - The Climax of Confusion

The word 'national culture' evolved with the rise of military autocracy in 1975 - as a means to an end, when the Bengalee was smarting and contemplating over his future, given the death and departure of democracy or semblance of whatever we had achieved since 1971 - the bloody birth of Bangladesh. An 'Islamisation' of Bangladesh was urgently thought of, to counter the 'chetonization' (spirit of the War of Liberation) - which apparently was the penultimate 'secular' aspect of the Peoples Republic that had gone astray.

Given the fact that more than 85% of the population of Bangladesh live in villages, it is ironic that the 'cult rituals' of a handful of city bred middle class before 1975 and the military cantonment version of Islam thereafter was propounded as our 'national culture' and we still have not found a third more acceptable alternative.

Conspicuous was the acceptance of Islam, the religion and way of life of more than 95% of the population of Bangladesh as anything but 'culture' - neither is Hinduism more articulately explained - other than this being a religion of o 'kafir's' or 'idolaters' in the Islamic scheme of things.

This is where the media is guilty of compliance to insensitivity and misdemeanour as they have been used blatantly to carry forward the age old English and now the 'Western' mandate of Islamic and the Brahminical supremacist philosophy that deliberately destroy anything that could be of benefit to all the people in a culture.

The secular possibilities in Islam, that led to the conversion of our forefathers was imminently displaced by religious disharmony, and while Islam found acceptance due to its natural assimilation into any culture it made inroads into - post 1975 a new version that equated Bedouin cultures of the desert as the pure Islamic culture, was been propagated in effect to counter Brahminist supremacy disguised as 'Bengalee culture' - by a handful of Islamic extremist. This new version is the 'pucca Muslim' or pure Muslim culture and I personally see no difference in this and the 'shuddho shaskriti walaaz' that I have described earlier.

The new God was the habit one wore - not any religion - with rites and rituals in foreplay, some so strange that they are not even heard of anywhere in the Islamic world, or for that matter in the 'Bengalee world' for centuries.

Politically at election eve the 'pucca Muslim' culture ensured greater vote banks - and our progressive secularist chose to turn a blind eye when its own party the Awami League went on a binge of Islam in the run up to elections in 1996. Smart political move that gained them lost power in 21 years, but firmly established religion as a major contributor to politics. Thanks to Bill Clintons visit to Bangladesh in 2000, the 'pucca Muslim' version of culture has received the Western endorsement of 'moderate Islam' - another confusion that will hopefully one day, bring in a version of 'secular Islam' - but may not end Bangladesh's innate identity crisis. After all the Talibans in Afghanistan is an American invention, I see no problem in 'moderate Islam' in Bangladesh - since Allah moved base from Saudi Arabia to Washington many, many years ago!

As the media would help project, it is only the Brahminist and Bedouin supremacist cultural activists who are constantly at loggerheads in Bangladesh cultural division - sadly if either of these are accepted as the 'true culture' in the future - it will only prove beyond doubt that Bengalee's are nothing more than an 'puritanical extremist' people harbouring fratricidal hatred amongst its communities.

Heartening though is a realisation that the media in Bangladesh is no parameter for the judgement of 'public opinion' nor does it reflect the mentality and attitude of its 'common layman' - who unbeknownst to many - lives a life temperately oblivious of the communal disharmony that afflicts the urban middle class in a rural community that is by and large tolerant and more democratic in character, compared to the cities.

First Published 21st January 2001

Sunday, January 14, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 3

"Self-identity usually depends on culture to such a great extent that immersion in a very different culture - with which a person does not share common ways of life or beliefs - can cause a feeling of confusion and disorientation. Anthropologist refer to this phenomenon as culture shock." John H. Bodley

11. From paddy field to power - Belated Histrionics

Education came to Bangladesh very late - and whilst the 'common man' would eulogise the importance of education by a proverb 'lekha pora koray jay - gari ghora choray shey' or 'those that read and write - ride cars and horses', in reality it meant being as close to or as good as the British sahibs who drove cars or rode horses - while the natives stared back in disbelief and applauded! Progress through education, to the 'common lay man' meant an ability to only buy a car or a horse. Riffraff thinking or culture shock?

However the horse was not an original species of Bengal and neither was the automobile a Bengalee invention. They came from the 'civilised' west and by some strange quirk of fate, came as status symbol's. Flippancy aside, what needs to be emphasised is that the 'common man' envisaged great changes to come with an education. Ironically those that they chose to educate, were to evolve as a new kind of coloniser, a new breed of oppressor and exploiter - the 'coveted' education no more worthwhile than a tool for achievement of short term goals, and long time social domination.

Together with this was the inferiority complex, rejectionist attitude and 'backwardness' of the Bengalee Muslims the majority of whom form today the Bangladesh Bengalee, who were reticent towards any modern education and therefore quite a few years behind the Hindu Bengalee of what was then the political or geographical map of 'undivided Bengal'. They therefore rode the proverbial 'car and horse' quite a few years later - and that regret of a 'belated start' lingers in his attitude to this day.

This is where the whole issue of culture started to get way out of line for the 'educated middle class' - the now dominant socio-cultural force in Bangladesh, who very quickly realised that his forefather's religion i.e. Islam has already put him quite a few years behind the 'progress' and stature of the educated Hindu Bengalee, essentially the first lot of clerks or 'babus' of the British Indian Empire.

A demographic majority - the Muslim Bengalee - that he was then and he is today, meant rubbing more salt to precariously exposed open wound. He had to catch up and catch up fast - with leaps and bounds. The mad dash had only just begun - the chaos and confusion, a legacy of what we have achieved.

"In the Victorian usage, culture referred to the controlling of the unrefined behaviors and taste associated with the lower classes. Thus, the Victorian term culture referred to the refined tastes, intellectual training, and mannerisms of the upper classes" John H. Bodley

13. Trials and Tribulations - The Bengalee in the 'Modern' world

The Hindu Bengalee 'babus' not only made good use of the 'modern' education available, he also expended and expiated great importance and efforts in the replication ('aping' if we may!) of the sahibs genteel manner, disposition, eccentricities - in essence the ubiquitous snobbery that characterised the constipated, stiff upper lipped 'English' gentlemen of the Victorian era.

This Bengalee version of 'culture' or social refinement, called 'bhodroloke' (gentleman) was lapped up and celebrated as an unique social and cultural accomplishment, and the defacto 'status symbol' of the 'modern, with it' Bengalee, had finally arrived. They were great role models for those times, the beginning of the 'stone-age tribe' to attire their naked souls with the garments of 'progress'.

Never too used for regrets, the Bengalee made up euphemistic excuses in his new found snobbery to indicate that indeed it was the sahibs mistake not to have discovered the 'tribe' earlier! The 'Bengalee jaati' or Bengalee race jingoism started from that point onward.

Clearly the British had accomplished their mandate of 'divide and rule' from the 'bhodrolokes' that they created. On the one hand it was the 'bhodroloke' or gentlemen who have been controlled versus the 'chotoloke' i.e. low life's who needed controlling - and did not fall in to the new 'system'. Ironically it was also the beginning of a clear divide between the Hindu and Muslim Bengalee. The word 'communalism' is a British invention and a seed of discord were thereafter sown and divides the Bengalee till this day.

The talented Bengalee also conjured his new absolutism by coining a phrase 'two step forward and one step backward' - which he now wears as a mantle on his overburdened head, laden with the load of confusion, the foremost being his yet undiscovered sense of identity.

What would be the culture of the Bengalee?

Will this be the standards and 'values' of the anachronistic 'babu culture', or will it be the ones that a 'new breed' of Bengalee demand and try to advance as their abject destination, is a question that bedevils the Bengalee to this day. We still do not have an easy answer and the Muslim Bengalee who found more and more reason to be suspicious of the 'babu' culture further complicated the situation. They had their reasons.

"The introduction of consumerism into many small societies has led to what anthropologist refer to as cargo cults. In cargo cults, people focus much of their religious energy and time on trying to magically acquire commercial goods." John H. Bodley

14. Religion - The Racist Divisions of Faith

The cult of 'babus', with their new found influence and position in the cultural hierarchy, and their economic and political independence gained through active 'collaboration' with the British at the expense of their unfashionable 'native culture' caused the communal riots which precipitated the division of India on religious line, i.e. Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, that sealed the fate and was the final blow to the chances of a great Bengalee race evolving into a distinct geographical entity. Some historians suggest that the Bengalee's conversion to Islam in Bengal was not due to a rejection of Hinduism, but more due to the caste divide of its community. Majority of Muslim Bengalee's were from the 'nomoshudro' or 'untouchables' class, who were continually exploited and oppressed by the Brahmin's or the 'priestly' class of superior Hindus from where the 'babu' culture originally evolved.

It was the secular and humane possibilities of Islam that probably attracted the Bengalee Muslim forefathers to embrace the religion more than a thousand years ago - and also the 'ek-iswar' (one God) pantheons of monotheism, that is thought to be the basis of the original indigenous culture of the 'native' Bengalee that sought similarities and therefore great acceptance of Islam.

Religion was deliberately used as a weapon to confuse and condemn the Bengalee to his now hopeless state, and therefore the debate in this millennium needlessly revolves around the acceptability of the 'full sleeve' or 'half sleeve' versions of Bengalee culture !

First Published 14th January 2004

Sunday, January 07, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 2

06. The Confusing Cultural Components - Thriving on Chaos

Well let the 'cultural confusion' begin with this hybrid mix, an art specific.

Very rarely in the world does one come across the term 'Cultural Function'. Yet here in Bangladesh it is something that we have grown and lived with, and have pretty much gotten used to. It usually is a 'panch mishalee' or a cocktail program of five or more cultural components, in the neighbourhood auditorium, hall or community centre - even the streets and bye lanes are passé, where 'cultural exercise' if we may, is nothing more than rendering of a few ritualistic songs from Tagore or Nazrul with unsmiling and unemotional artist who keep their eyes closed and nostril's flared, poetry recital in a language that is not only archaic but deliberately 'intellectual' - yet Bengalee, a humorous skit thrown in for good measures, dancing, half a drama (one act plays), a 'patriotic song' - followed by a celebrity appearance etc. To promote token awareness of 'indigenous' culture a folk element might be interspersed - and kept for the fag end of the 'functions' these days is the liveliest component, drawing the largest audience which is more in tune with changing realities : performances of Bengalee rock music band's popularly called Band Music, that has predominantly the young oriented with Western music - screaming and dancing, to the disgust of purist.

Despite its immense popularity Band Music has still been shoved to the sideline by 'mainstream' culturist who portray this 'new addition' as 'oposhangskriti' or 'subversive culture'! An in-depth study of the new phenomenon will conclude this piece.

07. The Elitist Cultural Pogrom - Sliding Backwards hopelessly

However surprise of all surprise - all of this is upstaged by none else then a 'Chief Guest' - who is somebody that has sponsored the program or is an, 'educated and cultured functionary' of the local political elite, whose job, as the invitation card will explain in bookish Bengalee, is to have 'consented to grace the occasion with his Honourable presence'. He is privileged with a 'red carpet' reception as he walks in, red rose bouquets handed to him by children, cutting of red ribbons follow, whereupon he sits in the special throne placed in his honour centre stage, and 'declares the function open'.

Following this a long drawn speech, where the emphasis will be nothing more than the 'importance of holding such cultural functions' in our 'day to day to day' life - and tongue in cheek, solicit support for his candidature in the upcoming municipal or state level polls as the case may be.

The applause from the audience follows as if on a queue, and continue uninterrupted well until the 'Chief Guest' has left the venue - usually before the 'Cultural tamasha' starts - and signal for the raucous ribaldry to begin !

Some 'functions' may continue unabated till the wee hours of dawn and the entire neighbourhood would have to brave it - regardless of old, young, sick, healthy, births or deaths ! Rain or violence may sometimes prove a damper - however the culture of insensitivity, violation of privacy and public nuisance is all part of the Bangladesh 'cultural inheritance'.

Human rights violation? We still haven't quite got that figured out.

From neighbourhood, towns to municipalities - on to the huge state sponsored 'cultural functions'; variations abound yet the format is dreadfully the same as in the basic neighbourhood 'functions'- including the ones we have to view on television. Yawn!

They are 'part and parcel' of political rallies and precede or follow political speeches. Incredible amount of money is spent - yet what are real returns from such charades are never discussed. A lot of this garbage is (exported) 'sent abroad' in state sponsored 'cultural delegations' - and whilst the local media demon's will harp up stories of how foreigners were 'enthralled' by our 'cultural troupe'- we have never heard any appreciation or critique of such events from the foreign press or their media?

To date there is no international cultural personality among Bengalee's.

Foreign dignitaries are routinely subjected to the onslaught and ignominy of 'cultural functions' - and one remembers the boxer Mohammad Ali dosing off to sleep in a 'function held in his honour' at the President House in the early eighties!

A mish-mash of various components of culture are supposed to 'enrich' our 'ordinary people' and anyone that has the 'privilege' of coming anywhere near us following our orientation to such idiosyncrasies.

08. The 'Educated and Cultured' Bengalee - Beginning of an Anathema

Therefore what we have accumulated in large doses consequent to such exercises, particularly in the Bengalee middle class is a now a brand new and yet more complicated breed of denizens called the 'educated and cultured Bengalee' - to replace the sobriquet 'educated Bengalee'.

They could well be the second-generation 'educated' offspring's, - with the genetic strains of 'Oitijyo' firmly in place! These days they also come tagged with newer and more colourful labels like 'cultural luminaries', 'conscience of the nation', 'national poets', and 'literatteurs' - not to forget the much fornicated expression - 'intellectuals'.

This is somebody who is ready to mouth the quotes of your favourite Bengalee poet at the drop of a hat, discuss in 'symposium' the earnestness of remaining Bengalee, the great pride and respect he has for his forefathers, a large dose of 'political democracy' - which is usually partisan in nature, of how 'dangerous' it is to promote or 'ape alien cultures', bring in historical references from your grandfathers time to explain to you, how useless you are and how little you have learnt since the year eighteen hundred and so and so, and ofcourse the 'great Bengalee culture' that starts only with Rabindranath Tagore (eyes closed again) and ends with him too !

All of this 'fatwa' (edict) while he sports a smart shirt and trouser, or the more patriotic and supposedly 'pure Bengalee attire' of a Punjabi kurta - none of which are really Bengalee in origin?

"All the people of a society collectively create and maintain culture. Societies preserve culture for much longer that the life of one person" John H. Bodley

The ultimate feather in the cap to 'modern Bengalee culture' it appears was Tagore's Nobel Prize for Literature way back in 1913. That Tagore was awarded the prize for Literature (a bad English translation of Geetanjaali) and not 'Bengalee literature' per se - is a fact that is quickly brushed aside.

Tagore for reasons unknown, is held in near religious reverence in Bangladesh, considered a 'world poet' - when much of the world has not even heard his hard to pronounce name, and any innocent 'or ignorant enquiry' therefore into the 'sage' is equated to a 'blasphemous attack'. An absence of knowledge on Tagore - in depth and details - may result in your Bangladesh citizenship to be stripped - after all it was he who penned our 'national anthem' (Amar Sonar Bangla) - or was it a lift-off from the Baul tune that the local postman of infamy, Gagun Harkara would hum, as he delivered letters to the poet in the sack full?

Apologies in order. (A very Bengalee gesture of sobriety and decency!)

To add a healing balm to those readers, 'gravely incensed' by the above - I nonetheless have to admit, that Tagore must be credited - for without that 'fateful' Nobel Prize - the Bengalee would have remained an unheard of 'stone age tribe' inhabiting the vast wilderness between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal - by rest of those 'brutes in the civilised world' !!

09. Golden Bengal - The Cultural Diaspora

The mental picture of a 'Sonar Bangla' or 'Golden Bengal' that the 'serious Bengalee' conjures in his imagination, is however one of Bengal in the turn of the last century - and one that is completely alien to the way the world is shaped today i.e. Bangladesh 2001.

With reminiscences of village peasantry and their life - where bullock carts have more preference than an automobile, where polluted ponds (wash, bathe, fish, urinate, defecate and then drink the same water) is more acceptable, than 'tube well hand pumps' - are only indicators that Bangladesh has been condemned by its 'cultural activist' to dwell in the 'beauty' of the dark ages - well before the advent of any technological advancement.

No wonder friends of mine in the decal business were in for a rude shock - when they did not find a single buyer for the sticker 'Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomai Bhalobashi' - or 'Golden Bengal I love thee', in the book fair of 1990. They had printed more than 50,000 of them!

"Today for instance many people around the world use similar kinds of technology, such as cars, telephones and televisions. Commercial trade and communication technologies, such as computer networks, have created a form of global culture. Therefore it has become increasingly difficult to find culture that is shared within only a single society." John H. Bodley

10. Traditionalist and constant rewind - The backward way forward !

At fifteen if you are not a Marxist you are a fool. At twenty-five, if you are still a Marxist - you are a bloody fool!

The 'traditionalist' lives by his double standards. What he publicly 'expounds' with aplomb, is actually what he holds in contempt in private. The tall talks and the fashionable Marxist utopia - without which a Bengalee is never complete - of 'standing by' the 'shadharon jonogon' is the greatest lie he has invented. To remain poor but proud is the 'culture' that he must underscore in his attempt to appear a cultural cognisanti.

It is this appreciation of the 'golden days of yore' and the propaganda of the concern for the 'shadharon jonogon', that keeps our cultural dinosaurs, pundits and their prodigies foaming at the mouth - as if the whole world has somehow stopped circling, when the Bengalee decided to change the British soporific pun 'of what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow', to that of what 'Bangladesh thinks today - the world will think tomorrow'.

How little Bangladesh means in the confluence's of nation's or where we stand with our pompous 'Bengalee culture' are standard issues that 'may not be discussed' with pain of being branded renegade, or even 'unpatriotic'. We have decided to close ourselves in an isolationist mode and take great pride in wallowing in our own excrement. A constant rewind is thus what we have inherited to explain our 'culture' - the fast forward button in reality does not exist.

This constant rewind is aptly described visually and textually to subscribers of Readers Digest, February 2001 edition. Readers will find similar pictures and attitudes in an ad placed by the flag carrier of Bangladesh, that has a blurb:

"Fly Biman to Tagore's Golden Bengal. We have kept them safe for you as the 21st century unfolds when exploring the past is even beautiful than dreaming for the future. Make it once in your lifetime with… Biman Bangladesh Airlines, your home in the sky'

I would have loved to add, explore the past - dont even dare dream, because Bangladesh is a once in a lifetime experience - a bitter experience.

But why is that so?

First Published 7th January 2001

Monday, January 01, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 1

"The English term culture actually came into use during the Middle Ages. It is derived from the Latin word for cultivation as in the practice of nurturing domesticated plants in gardens. Thus, the word originally referred to people's role in controlling nature." John H. Bodley

01. Where we are at - The Perceived Threat Analysis

Culture, its strength, and far reaching implications in social, national and political life, has remained the most dangerously misunderstood human phenomenon in Bangladesh's aesthetic development. In our constant yearning for 'excellence' - culture in Bangladesh has by far remained a force that has rarely been cultivated and nurtured towards those basic human instinct's : understanding and appreciation, to the way forward.

In Bangladesh culture always had the natural capacity and ingredients in huge bounties to enrich itself through exchange and 'fomenting', of newer trends and attitudes. Had we allowed only an iota of 'space' for sustained nourishment, it would have helped gel unique new dimensions, with far reaching implications. Instead we have chosen to restrict and restrain positive inclinations that time demanded, and have rejected them without enquiry or understanding, expeditiously tagging them that one all encompassing sinister label, 'threats from aliens' or 'alien culture'. We have traditionally shied off acquiring knowledge, more than what our 'text books' could offer. The stimuli for recognition of natural extelligence that leads on to acculturation and the book of human experience that is so much a part of it, is albeit unknown to us.

The potent 'life force' culture truly represents in any civilisation, is something that we have never recognised, and the basic understanding of the confluence's of human interaction over time and space, wherein 'time' does not mean something that 'necessarily' remain stagnant has only exasperated our imagination, and our complications continue to multiply. Our limitations and inability to perform has become pathetically apparent.

02. Innuendoes in our Vocabulary - The Puritanist Trap

To begin, the word 'shuddho shangskriti ' or 'pure and unadulterated culture' in our popular vocabulary, indicates in a peculiar way, that by some tryst of destiny only the Bengalee race has been blessed with an 'experience', no other culture in humankind has had the (mis) fortune of inheriting!

The 'puritanist' Bengalee mindset is constantly trying to redefine its cultural bearing, its identity, and every time it does so - it only reels backward into a veritable time-warp, which as I have argued in several of my earlier writings: has been the traditional enemy of Bangladesh.

The existence of debasing and such hard to define term such as 'Bangali mulyobodh' or Bengalee value system in our cultural life - has only contributed to 'devalue' and derail all our inherent possibilities. If at all there is such a 'system', who ascertains the parameter's of 'value', and how 'invaluable' our culture is, in economics or heritage terms, is something that has never been explored, explained or examined. For now it is a void in the great Bengalee psyche.

"Cultural adaptations have made humans one of the most successful species on the planet. Culture must benefit people, atleast in the short term, in order for it to be passed on to new generations." John H. Bodley

03. Obfuscating our Strength - The Educated Scavengers

Bangladesh is not devoid of creativity or great talent, the most important criteria in the development of culture. What has hindered any major cultural breakthrough is an establishment supported paranoia - a prevalent notion amongst it aristocracy who wish to position themselves as cultural harbingers, that Bengalee culture is indeed so 'unique and rare' that the only way forward is by its 'conservation' - equivalent to a species going extinct.

Problem is, we have not learnt the first rule of conservation, and really where to start? We remain in a state of flux and those that indulge in the 'luxury' of 'cultural exercise' or prefer to identify themselves with social bouquet's of 'cultural activist' are ofcourse a parochial minority their greatest achievement: an 'educated' status.

It is necessary here to have a clear insight into this apathetic Bengalee 'educated' mindset - specially when he desperately tries to masquerade as a representative icon, for the rest of the population of Bangladesh, whom he patronisingly refers to as the 'shadharon jonogon' meaning ' ordinary', or 'riff raff layman'.

He is ofcourse part of the implied 'oshadharon jonogon' or extra-ordinary people, who has only acquired a hog wash of an education, a legacy of the British colonisers, meant only to raise himself into this veritable pedestal from where it is only 'propah' to look down with an extremely myopic vision at his less fortunate native 'country cousin'.

His inferiority complex is evident in his calling or business card, which provide not only his very short name, but longer lines of his BA, MA and Phd degree collected over a period of time, and spiced with the names of the educational institutes that were kind enough to hand him over 'overseas' - complete with his 'Distinction' and 'First Class First' result! The worst cultural obscenity are cards with photograph inlayed and one is likely to get confused as to the bearer's intentions i.e. is this a ready ceevee or an identification label?

All of this reflects back to mentalities and memories of the turn of the eighteenth century, well onto the nineteen sixties, when Bangladesh truly was an agrarian and rural society, and where it was normal for hundreds of peasants from over 'baro gram' or twelve or more villages to congregate, congratulate and pay 'obeisance' to any prodigal son who was fortunate to have completed his Bachelor or Master degree from the 'city'. Matrimonial proposals saw them feasting nightly, in the houses of prospective in-laws.

In those days of 'yore' the 'city' was ofcourse Kolkata or Dhaka. The acquiring of 'coveted' degrees would immediately place the fortunate in a category much above the rest of the 'commoner' - a new 'Prince' of sort, whose father or uncles could well be 'rustic peasants' sunk knee deep next door in the paddy fields, in his community or village. The degree therefore was no more than a 'coronation' acquisition.

04. Tradition - An Obscurantist Conspiracy

'Oitijyo' or 'tradition' - a sham and esoteric ideology in the cultural domain, is what they had hoped, could be championed due to this newfound stature, and it was very fashionable those days for the educated gentry to 'acquire' those pretensions. The establishment was constantly on the lookout for such 'educated', if not gifted individuals. They were the available 'civil people' ready, to fill in the jobs in the new civil service - which was the only convenient ladder in place to rise to a new pseudo aristocracy, promptly.

Nothing exceptional could be expected culturally out of these weird new specimens - but they did master the fine art of 'rejection' - i.e. anything they perceived to be a threat to their limited intelligence. Rejection of new ideas, trends or philosophies came naturally and has since been the forte of cultural manipulation by these die-hard neo traditionalist, their mentors and this came hand in hand with unnecessary state patronage, as they formed the core group of the new ruling establishment. It is therefore a disgrace that 'culture' as defined in Bangladesh even to this day is nothing more than the harping of 'traditionalist' dogma - or the perpetuation of hate mongering and promotion of small coterie interest - by those that have connived to ensnare their shameless presence in the so called Bangladesh 'cultural arena' through ages - propelled in recent times, by sustained media overkill.

Narrow, political, business and social exigencies and use of 'black money' have been more important than sharing or collating rudimentary human interest or experience, in the propagation of 'culture'. Fascist forces and unholy machinations have perpetually been employed to keep Bangladesh's cultural possibilities to deliberately tether on the brink of backwardness. This has all too often contributed to the absence of any effort for a progressive or uniform cultural enhancement, or the development of a 'National Thought Process' that is the abject need of the hour, if Bangladesh wants a firm footing with the players, in the global cultural arena, here in the new millennium.

05. Culture - Groping for a definition

But before I ramble on, it becomes imperative to try and explain what culture is all about?

"A common practice is to divide all of culture into three broad categories, material, social and ideological. A fourth category, the arts, has characteristics of both material and ideological culture. Material culture includes products of human manufacture, such as technology. Social culture pertains to people's forms of organization - how people interact and organize themselves in groups. Ideological culture relates to what people think, value, believe, and hold as ideals. The arts include such activities and areas of interest as music, sculpture, painting, pottery, theater, cooking, writing and fashion. Anthropologist often study how these categories of culture differ across different types of societies that vary in scale size and complexity." John H. Bodley

Clearly there is no ONE easy definition - and those that have tried have always been proved wrong. From these earlier and simplistic definitions, culture has meant different things to different people over different periods of time. Again I reemphasize here the vitality and vibrancy of time and space as the hard basis to any standard definition of culture - for far too many definition are becoming obsolete over too little time. Such is the buoyancy of culture in this new millennium.

Ironically it is only the 'components' of culture' (the arts) - and not diversity in culture, itself that is blown out of context to the average citizen of Bangladesh in an excuse of an 'explanation' or definition, when he tries to delve deep and fathom the unfathomable sea that culture truly is all about. It is again 'attempted' explanation by doublespeak neophytes to 'culture', such as the author of this piece, that probably adds more to this confusion!

First Published 1st January 2001