Alive In India
By Barnita Bagchi
I was small, in winter we would sometimes go to my father's ancestral
village in Murshidabad, a northern, Muslim-majority district of West
Bengal in India. I remember sugar-cane juice drunk in front of 'Hazarduari',
the thousandwindowed nineteenth-century Nawabi edifice, and rides in
bullock carts. I also remember, in my father's village, playing on the
ruins of the fancifully-named Buddhist 'Raktamrittikavihara', to dig
up which a budding archaeologist cousin of mine had gone to the village,
only to be delighted with the pickles and 'murki' (sweet puffed rice)
that she was plied with regularly by our aunt.
my sister and I accepted what I now realise was a strikingly multicultural
Indian heritage from my father's side of the family. A universalist,
atheist intellectual, he draws the strengths of his conviction from
having been brought up in a Muslim-majority agrarian village, as the
son of a Brahmin who earned a living by being a small landholding farmer,
and, as a subsidiary, by having low-caste disciples or 'yajmans', many
derived from the 'goala' or dairy caste. My grandfather did not read
or speak Sanskrit. His religion was intensely rooted in the vernacular,
in the world of the Bengali 'krittibasi ramayana', and the oral 'panchalis'.
He lived in an agrarian economy where cash exchange hardly figured.
He was a practical farmer, struggling with the upkeep and maintenance
of a large extended family, in no way ending with his own immediate
one. He felt no affinity with neo-Hindu revivalism, and was immensely
relieved when his son chose to leave, after rebelling against constrictive
dogma, a famous educational institution run by such neo-revivalist missionaries,
foregoing its lucrative scholarship. My grandfather feared that such
institutions tried to create ascetics or 'sanyasis', whereas his own
model of the religious was intensely rooted in the quotidian world where
one responsibly accepted the yoke of 'sansar', our mundane world.
The cultural worlds
and material practices of men like my grandfather demonstrate how many
different, conflicting kinds of multicultural elite, as much as heterogeneous
subalterns, have shaped the history of Bengal. Neither the preachings
of the Ramakrishna Mission, nor the genteel squabbles of the metropolitan
'bhadralok' or bourgeosie made an impact on my grandfather. He had his
own devoted brand of 'vaishnavism,' (a pacifist sub-sect of Hinduism),
ate fish, but not meat or eggs or onions, according to the quirky tenets
of Bengali vegetarianism, and spent most of his time worrying about
whether enough rice or 'dal' would be produced on the land to feed the
burgeoning kin, from cousins-in-law to first cousins.
The eroded red earth
of Murshidabad has its own unforgettable gaunt harshness, and in the
'pahari' or hilly area in our village, far down below flows the Bhagirathi,
leaving wistful memories of a time when, before it moved away, it actually
fed the village. When I was in Murshidabad last year, conducting field
interviews on girls' education, my grandmother remembered that a single
well in the low area on the trough of the upland had been the only source
of water in the village, and she remembered in particular a woman servant,
fond stories about whom have been handed down to us, who struggled in
the rainy seasons to cart water up slippery, muddy, near-impossible
terrain. The Brahmin widow, with her own memories of hours of arduous
work feeding and managing a bustling, teeming household (including the
'munish', or the landless labourers), clearly felt great affection and
solidarity with the loved and exploited household labour.
Why invoke these
memories now? For me, Murshidabad became a vivid, living reality, and
could not be relegated any more to the cupboard of memories, last year.
I had recently returned to India and joined a research institute for
development studies, after finishing a doctorate from Cambridge. Eager
to do fieldbased work from a universalist, cosmopolitan perspective,
I found that Murshidabad's combination of low female literacy and multicultural
amity made it a good choice, together with the contours of a feminist
journey of revisiting and rediscovering. I was going to interview ten
to fourteen year olds on the narratives and aspirations of their education.
though, between planning and making the trip. That was Gujarat, Godhra,
and post-Godhra: riot, carnage, and pogrom. Friends from a courageous,
tireless activist non-governmental organization focusing on multicultural
initiatives, Majlis, requested volunteers to go and do relief work there.
Terrified, I went, and found a whole lot of other young, braver people,
among them a Catholic filmmaker originally from Goa, now from Delhi,
who came to Gujarat just as readily as he went to work in Kashmiri Pandit
camps. Yes, such Indians do exist today, and are living testaments to
the compassion, sensitivity, and vibrancy of the unsectarian Indian
multifaith ethos that the religious fundamentalists are seeking to deny
the existence of.
The children of Daryah Khan 'gummat' (camp) in Ahmedabad made my palms
ache with their eagerness to shake and hold hands with me, and the ache
remains as a testament to the cordiality and humanity of the violence-affected
human beings, and the near-absolute sense of inadequacy I was left with.
Meanwhile, even now advocates from the aforementioned activist organization
are patiently, painfully, camping out in Ahmedabad so that for the quasi-legal
records of the Human Rights Commission, the truth remains recorded for
The trip to Murshidabad
brought new life and recovery after trauma. Here, girls of all faiths
cycle about freely. At the 'bolan' festivals, people of all beliefs
sing, bringing to life the rich folk syncretism that is part of the
ethos of the place. Some of the beautiful Nawabi buildings are being
refurbished, and in all the 'bags' or gardens, there is peace. There
is endemic poverty, beyond imagining. But Reena, Phulsura, Moushumi,
Hawa, and the other girls I spoke to about their education all had powerful
aspirations. Those aspirations are thwarted by a host of deterrents,
including the growing menace of dowry, lack of grassroots-disseminated
information about government schemes for women's empowerment and education,
and the powerful increase of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalisms with a
huge array of funds that appear by magic.
It is a fragile peace, and vigilance is required in maintaining it.
And such peace vigilantes are there in legions, such as the Hindu teachers
I interviewed in a 99% Muslim village, and those villagers themselves,
who are working together to create a beautiful school, with its own
proud library, or the young Muslim woman Reena, struggling through college
by making 'beedis', who trawls the Hindu 'padas' taking stock of village
welfare measures such as the public latrines.
In my father's Muslim-majority
village, villagers are requesting help in setting up a high school for
girls. Perhaps this would be sited somewhere near the medieval Buddhist
'vihara', and the girls would be taught perhaps by a woman such as the
present teacher of the primary school, a Hindu, whose journey back every
day to her home in the nearest town is an unpredictable adventure on
the backs of lorries.
And yes, my grandfather
was a non-Sanskrit-knowing farming Brahmin who lived all his life working
competently and peacefully with Muslims and lower castes, his son is
a universalist atheist, and his granddaughter went back to record rich
narratives of girls' education in the poverty and multicultural richness
of her ancestors' district. My young Catholic filmmaker comrade has
millions more such active, peaceloving fellow-Indians. Let the religious-political
fanatics take heed.
Dr Barnita Bagchi,
Indira Gandhi Institute of
General Vaidya Marg,
Telephone nos +91 22
28400919/ 20/ 21, Extension
554 (Office), 254 (Home)
Fax +91 22 28402752
The author is a
feminist academic at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research,