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


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