BJP’s long list of faux pas: Takshila in Bihar, Santiniketan as Tagore’s place of birth…

BJP leaders have made several faux pas in Bengal<i>. </i>Amit Shah wrongly claimed Santiniketan as Rabindranath Tagore’s birthplace while others mocked at Bengalis calling poet ‘Thakur’ and not ‘Tagore’

BJP’s long list of faux pas: Takshila in Bihar, Santiniketan as Tagore’s place of birth…

Sujata Anandan

Years ago, in a different India, some friends from Bombay, who had grown up in the city and knew no other than the city culture, decided to make trips to their home states together, just for a lark in order to absorb other ambience, including that of smaller towns and villages.

There were Keralites, Tamilians, Punjabis, Bengalis making up the half dozen or so couples and singletons and it was truly a great adventure. But it was the trip to West Bengal that really stuck in my mind.

One of the things that we had decided was that apart from the food, both local and street, we must also visit one cinema hall and one theatre to get the flavour of local film and drama – most of us had a smattering of our native tongues, though none could read or write in their own languages.

Now, while in West Bengal, we were spoilt for a choice of films. But none of us could read the Bangla script - unlike in Bombay, it was not Devnagri and no translation was on offer.

One friend did speak Bangla but with a rather anglicised accent. He approached a typically Bengali gent, complete with 'dhuti' and black umbrella, at a paan shop near the cinema hall.

“Ai bhai, ai bhai!” he called out to the very scholarly-looking gent. “Ai konta film cholchhe ekhaine? Aamake bolbein?”(Which film is being screened here ? Could you please tell me?).

The Bengali gent looked him up and down his nose for a few seconds as he chewed on his paan. Then he replied with a question of his own.

“Aapni ki Bangali?”
Our friend was thrilled that he had made a connection.
“Hain, hain!” he nodded enthusiastically.

The gent had a disapproving look on his face and spat out both the paan and the words, “Bolbo naa!” (literally, will not tell you but meaning, get lost).

And even as everybody stood stunned wondering what had been said to offend the man, he marched off in typical fashion, holding one end of his dhuti, wielding the umbrella like a stick, his back stiff with outrage.

A little confabulation with the paanwala revealed the man was his regular customer and had probably taken umbrage at a Bengali being unable to read his own language and speaking the tongue like a westerner.

That experience cautioned me enough to drop the “an" from the end of my surname and pose as a Punjabi in Madras or Calicut whenever I was assigned to the South Indian states under the mistaken impression that I would do better as a South Indian in South India – as I later told one of my editors, my smattering of Tamil or Malayalam was passable in the drawing rooms of Bombay or Delhi but I needed some subterfuge as a token South Indian in South India. For in states south of the Vindhyas, outside the cow belt, if you want to get along, you should at least be able to speak the language correctly, even if you knew little else about their deeper culture and traditions.

Which is why I am surprised – though not really--that Narendra Modi's BJP should make so many faux pas in and about Bengal. Now the BJP president should at least have ascertained where the greatest icon of Bengal Rabindranth Tagore was born, which was not in Santiniketan, and that Vishva Bharati was a university set up by Tagore as a confluence of India with the world. And BJP spokespersons as well as their sycophantic news anchors should have first ascertained how Bengalis pronounce Tagore's name before trying to ridicule a Bengali for calling him correctly as Robindranath Thakur instead of the anglicised Rabindranath Tagore.

Knowing what Narendra Modi's BJP is all about, I should not really be stunned that a party that claims to be so steeped in Indian culture should not even know about the anglicisation of Indian names by the British – like Calcutta for Kolkata or Cawnpore for Kanpur which have now gone back to the original through no great effort by the BJP. But, of course, this happens because Modi leads from the front.

Did he not think Takshila was in Bihar and not know Rukmini was the princess of Vidarbha when there is such an overwhelming tradition of Vithal-Rukmini in Maharashtra? Apart from being historically and geographically challenged, Modi and his supporters seem to be otherwise fact-challenged too – like, there is nothing like climate change, when people grow old, they simply begin to feel the cold in their bones and grumble about climate change. Or on how gas can be produced from a gutter with a simple pipe and upturned utensil. And the supreme confidence with which they relay the gutter-gas theory to IIT students or the Tagore-Thakur pronunciation to Bengalis is admirable, if not astounding (or should it be the reverse or both?).

I have noticed that such supreme stupidity is unique to bigots and fascists of all hues who necessarily do not have a scientific temper and do not challenge ossified presumptions and falsehoods. But then I came across a University of Nebraska study on fundamentalists and socialists and realised this could be a defect of birth rather than conditioning – how else do you explain that these days there are bitter quarrels within families over fascism and democracy with both parents and children exposed to the same circumstances taking opposing views on either? When even exposure to the correct facts does not persuade the bigots that Bangladesh's GDP today is more than that of India or that India has hit a 70-year low in GDP under Narendra Modi?

The Nebraska study classified political choices -- of conservative and liberal – into two categories fuelled by juices in the brain – appetitive and aversive. Appetitive types are desirous of everything new, strange and choose pleasure over pain while the aversive types are defensive about everything, including differences in others and are constantly under the feeling of threat and being gobbled up by predators.

The appetitive types are more empathetic to everything and the aversive types are full of disgust and distrust for anything but their pre-conceived notions. Which, in the Indian context, explains the political choices in a single family these days – I am sure the liberal voters are more outgoing with sunny dispositions (according to the Nebraska study they are moved by things like bunny rabbits or beautiful sunsets) and the bigots are more conservative (according to the study they avert their eyes from car accidents, do not tend to the wounds of people, etc).

It explains why so many Modi supporters, including presumably highly educated intellectuals, end up making such fools of themselves and steadfastly refuse to accept new facts and changes.

But as the BJP tries to storm Bengal, it is also clear that through the Independence struggle, it was the crucible of liberal nationalism and since then has always voted left or left of centre - the appetitive rather than the aversive sort of people. But they are also fiercely protective about their culture and icons. The BJP had better put their leaders through a fact-check course before trying to storm Bengal which gave to India its first image of Bharat Mata. Painted by Rabindranath Tagore's brother, Abanindranath Thakur (Tagore!).

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