Friday, March 27, 2015

Absence of India Conservative Intellectuals - By Ramachandra Guha

Caravan has carried a very interesting article by Ramachandra Guha, Where Are India’s Conservative Intellectual? The article addresses what has long worried people who see merit in the economic policies of conservative politics, in India, but at the same time disapprove of their religious agenda.

If you remove the Muslim majority countries from the mix, India is the only major democracy where religion finds an important place in conservative politics. Guha attributes this to the fact that those who espoused this brand of politics in India, mainly in pre-independence era, a time when the conservative voice was quite strong, were affiliates of organizations with a deeply Hindu character.

In a post-independence India, Guha observes, conservatives gradually lost their prominence in Indian politics as mainstream Indian politics gravitated towards the Left – where both the ruling party – the Congress – and its principal opponents – Nehru and his detractors (Jay Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and the Communists) - represented socialist, liberal political orientation.  This left-orientation was also found in academia.

Guha dismisses the current lot of columnists and opinion makers with a soft spot for conservatism on the ground that their body of published work is limited to 300 to 400 word articles. This absence of conservative intellectuals in India, Guha concludes, is responsible for religion being a major part of the conservative thought.

Conversely, he says, the West has always had intellectuals in conservative politics who have always kept religion out of it. Western conservative thinkers, Guha says, base their idea of identity around which conservative politics revolves on cultural and geographical similarities. 

To press his argument that the presence of conservative intellectuals would have helped Indian conservative politics keep religious extremism at a distance, Guha cites the example of Jagdish Bhagwati, the conservative economist who is an economic adviser to the current conservative government in India, for advising the BJP government to reign in the religious fringe if it wanted to carry on with its development agenda.

Guha poses Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) as a model conservative intellectual. Guha says Rajaji was patriotic who could rise above his personal differences with his political opponents and unite with them in national interest, like he had supported Nehru on the Kashmir problem despite his personal personal differences with Nehru. Rajaji was religious but far from being an orthodox. His economic outlook was conservative in nature and therefore opposed to Nehru’s. Rajai had argued for more openness in economy but Nehru had dismissed his views calling them reactionary and unsuitable for India only to be proved wrong a few decades later.

Guha’s analysis of Western conservatism is mainly theoretical and that’s why it misses an important point. Although theoretically Western conservative parties have kept religion out of their identity mix, the tendency of conservative politics to be majoritarian, even if based on demographics, automatically excludes communities following minority religions in Western societies. Identity and religion are hard to separate, especially due to rising religious radicalism however desirable it may be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Byomkesh Bakshi - a Detective with a Difference

A detective novel deals with a dual challenge: one is to examine human nature and tie up its tendencies with requirements of an air-tight plot and the second is to simplify it beyond any shred of ambiguity for the reader…who, unlike the reader of a literary novel, will not settle for anything less than complete clarity. In other words, ensure instant intellectual gratification, no slow-seeping comprehension acquired long after the novel is read and shut. This is true of any detective novels.

But however homogeneous detective novels may otherwise be, the author endows something unique on every imaginary investigator, in terms of style of investigation, dressing, even background. And while the homogeneity that characterizes mystery novels – a tight plot with the culprit lurking behind a maze of facts and the detective removing them one by one to bring him to the reader – makes you want to read another mystery, you want your mysteries solved by the distinct style of the detective you like.

Ever since the Byomkesh Bakshi bug bit me some time in December, I have been mulling over the uniqueness of Byomkesh Bakshi vis a vis others in his fraternity. What is that I will read a Byomkesh novel for? I watched several episodes of Byomkesh Bakshi serials and then a few weeks back I bought a Puffin Classic, a compilation of three Byomkesh whodunits. And I find myself yearning for more.

The Rhythm of Riddles is about a building full of tenants. The tenant staying on the ground floor suddenly gets murdered. The killer leaves some clues but they together lead, if anything, to confusion. Slowly Byomkesh unravels the mystery discovering threads leading to pre independence Bangladesh and blackmail. In Byomkesh and Barada, Bakshi exposes a man appearing in the guise of ghost to scare away the occupant of a house so that he can get his hands on the diamonds hidden in it.

Dibakar Banerjee the film director whose movie on Byomkesh is going to release shortly has written a very good introduction telling why a certain atmosphere – an uncle’s house located in a small town - is important to enjoy Byomkesh and that he discovered the charms of Boymkesh in a similar setting in the 60s while visiting an uncle’s house and has remained a fan since.

The one I liked the most is the last story in the collection, The Death of Amorto. A complex plot, it is set in the period after world war two. American soldiers, after staying for some time in interiors of Bengal, have left leaving behind their arms and ammunitions which have fallen into the hands of locals to the concern of law-enforcement authorities. A boy, who had ventured into a forest, has been found dead by his friends who had gone into the forest search of him following a gunshot. The death of Amroto is followed by the death of another local, this one a gruesome murder. Byomkesh removes lot of red herrings, details, contradicting facts to demystify matters and shine a light on the killer and his motivations.

One of the things I find unique about Byomkesh is that among all Bengali detectives I know, Byomkesh is most rooted, a complete Bengali middle class without any trace of cosmopolitanism undermining his Bengaliness, unlike Faluda, for whose creator - Ray - Sherlock Homes was a major influence, and Kakababu by Sunil Gangapadhay, who is more obsessed with worlds affairs than the neighborhood murder. 

Feluda and Kakababu had to be made cosmopolitan in keeping with changing taste of audiences in a post-independence India, but Byomkesh, having been written into existence by Saradindu Bandyopadhay many years before independence, didn’t have to meet the requirements of changing taste in a post-independence India.

Another way in which Byomkesh is different from other literary detectives is that Byomkesh is a more rounded character than the average literary detective. We know Byomkesh had once fallen in love and married a lady, Satyabati. Byomkesh’s father was a math teacher and Byomkesh holds a degree in physics, etc. We also know Byomkesh calls himself Satyanweshi, a seeker of truth, and not an investigator or detective.

On the other hand, we know very little about other famous detectives beyond the fact that they have an analytical bent of mind. In fact, Conan Doyle had revealed very little about Sherlock Homes as a person (the pipe-smoking thing is not a personality trait or a circumstantial detail, just a style) in his early novels and not until Doyle matured as a writer, many years later, that he realized that what he had drawn was a mere character sketch and not the entire character – and to make Homes more human he revealed more bits of Homes personality and background in his later Homes novels. (In fact, some critics have observed that the reason why Homes is one of the easiest literary characters to adopt for movies is that Doyle wrote very little about Homes as a person, which allows the film maker to interpret Homes however he wants.)

Similarly, we know very little about Feluda as a person and about many, many more detectives who may dazzle us with their investigative skills and sharp repartees but still be scantly known even if we read their exploits in novel after novel.  

Even after being adopted for several movies and once by Satyajit Ray too,  Byomkesh was largely a parochial affair until Rajit Kapoor made Byomkesh Bakshi a household name by playing the sleuth to perfection in an eponymous tele serial on Doordarshan, Byomkesh Bakshi, in the late 80s and early 90s (before cable TV arrived). Since then although many have enacted the detective on TV, I have not been able to separate Rajit Kapoor from Byomkesh. When I think of one the other automatically springs to mind.   

Again there is a renewed interest in Byomkesh Bakshi. Many new actors are bringing the sleuth to life on television, in Bengali. I hope they will endear the new generation to Byomkesh. And just as Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered as the creator of Homes, the numerous film-adoptions notwithstanding,   I hope  Saradindu Bandyopadhay will be remembered as the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi regardless of how many times Byomkesh is adopted for TV and movies.

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