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Triumph of the outsider - The Indian Express

Gautam Sen ()
10 February 1997

Title : Triumph of the outsider
Author : Gautam Sen
Publication : The Indian Express
Date : February 10, 1997

The chequered history of the Bengali babu is evidently coming to a
close. The slender political hold over Calcutta and the aesthetic
pretensions of the babu are succumbing to the inexorabic forces of
the marketplace.

Much of the modern history of the Bengali babu and Calcutta has
been self-indulgently misunderstood as the outcome of lofty, if
misplaced, idealism. It was largely a response to economic forces,
whether it was Naxalite militancy or the upward mobility of party
cadres under contemporary dispensations.

One of the few individuals to portray the babu with unflattering
insight is the consequently reviled, and simultaneously envied,
Nirad Chaudhuri. His astute assessment of the babu was unwelcome to
a culture which saw itself as the true inheritors (sic!) of Greece,
Florence and Elizabethan England, unlike the vulgar imperialists
who needed to assert superiority by force. But the all-pervading
squalor of their physical environment, mirroring their
powerlessness, remained and remains intact.

Like the great Madhusudan Dutt they read books in English and
imbibed the ideas. But they were social inferiors and outsiders who
failed to realise the importance of the native sound of the spoken
language in its social context, which generates nuance and invests
cultural substance. They were not subjects of history, merely a
ghostly colonial shadow without power.

But the babus were deluded by the easy sense of superiority in
relation to the poverty and social backwardness of surrounding
regions. Their irresistible crawl towards the real goal of a
public service pension to the counterpoint of confused ideological
refrains continued. Even the critique of their Nobel laureate in
the Japanese press, as the product of a defeated culture, made no
impression. After all, their scepticism of Japanese claims to
their place in the world was mediated by the very colonial culture
that underpinned their own sense of self-importance.

The transfer of the capital was beginning of the end and partition
delivered the coup de grace. The loss of the advantages of being
the capital city in terms of employment opportunities and prestige
combined with partition, 35 years later, to dislocate the economy
and rob the middle class of self-confidence. The loss of Hindu
landed wealth also curtailed the subsidy to imitative eccentricity.

The refuge in revolutionary pipedreams and decadence, spurred by
the odd token of international recognition, was a symptom of the
orphaning of Macaulay's children. That tradition continues on the
fringes of Calcutta society and the Bengali academic diaspora.

While other Indians achieve great feats, with quiet modesty, like
the building of the Swaminarayan temple in London, Bengali babus
everywhere turn up their noses at the faith of the uncultured. They
talk with familiar intimacy of a handful of prominent NRI
Calcuttans, confident in the knowledge of their own secure
pensions. The risks of the real world befuddle babus, eliciting
sneers, but the corresponding rewards also elude their grasp.

The concluding chapter of the Calcutta babu has now begun. The
accumulated debit entries no longer match the credit side of the
salary column. As the relative incomes of Calcutta's Bengali middle
class dwindle it becomes harder and harder to sustain a lifestyle
that would, at least, include the sparking cost of children's
education, the marriage of daughters (a forlorn search for
well-paid professionals) and, of course, accommodate their
favourite pastime of gluttony.

In a sense, the politics of Calcutta reflected a futile attempt to
maintain a balance in the widening gap between the debt and credit
entries and the calamity it entailed for social life.

The portfolio adjustment that has resulted, in much of the city,
involves liquidating real estate assets to finance consumption and
flight beyond it to god-forsaken places like the Eastern bypass.
Some of these housing complexes resemble Afrikaner dormitories for
the politically and economically disenfranchised.

There is a tragicomic quirk to the story. The political authorities
prevented eviction and open market sales because tenants outnumber
owners in the city. The paradoxical beneficiaries were the
business communities which enjoyed economies of scale in corrupting
the relevant authorities. They acquired the encumbered properties
at a discount and then organised the eviction of tenants by
wielding economic and political muscle, which the original owners

The politics of Calcutta was a struggle to arrest the inexorable
socio-economic decline and flight of Macaulay's orphans until the
rural CPI(M) vote-banks made Calcutta's babus irrelevant.

The wealthy business communities, in their turn, had refused to pay
for public services because of the slow advance of their ownership
of Calcutta's real estate assets, owing to babu dominance of local
politics. But they eventually bought the politics, the judiciary
and the inept bureaucracy. They are now poised to control most of
the city that is worth having, a pleasant expanse of wide streets
with distinct possibilities.

Calcutta is likely to revive because the business communities that
refused to subsidise the cantankerous babus have every reason, as
well as the means, to improve the quality of life in a city that
they have finally made their very own.

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