Saturday, November 11, 2017

Interpreting Ghare-Baire in 2017

Tagore’s Ghare-Baire was published in 1916, eleven years after the partition of Bengal and five years after its reunification. The story revolves around the nationalist movement, Swadeshi, in the backdrop of a partitioned Bengal. There are three main characters in the story, Sandip the revolutionary, Nikhil the rich but rationalist landlord and his newly emancipated wife, Bimala. Tagore has manifested his dislike for violent nationalism in the story. Sandip, a dear friend of Nikhil, is a strong proponent of Swadeshi and has a huge fan following. He wants to achieve his objectives at any cost. So much so that he would not shy away from acts like arson, sabotage and spreading communal venom. Nikhil on the other hand doesn’t believe in violence as a means to achieve Swadeshi. While the ideological clash is happening between Sandip and Nikhil, Bimala enters the plot and falls for Sandip and his ideology. The ambitions of Sandip pushes the estate into communal violence and in the end consumes Nikhil. Bimala, now a young widow has realised her folly, but it is too late.

Satyajit Ray’s cinematic adaptation of the novel by the same name was released in 1984 and was a huge success. Ray was a lifelong Leftist and the story more or less served his ideology. Like most of Tagore’s work Ghare-Baire is still very relevant. It resonates with readers even though it is was written a hundred years ago. We still see Sandip around us carrying on with similar agenda, not afraid of using violence as a tool to achieve his goals. But India has changed a lot in the past hundred years. The India of 2017 is polarised between the Left and the Right, between the conservatives and the socialists/liberals.

Today we have TV debates on, who is a nationalist and who is not? Who defines nationalism? Can nationalism be forced upon us? And sure enough Tagore has been extensively quoted in the context. You can read it here and here. Sadly the people who quote Tagore to drill down the point that he was against nationalism, do not tell us that he was against violent nationalism, not the concept per se. His writings were influenced by the nationalist movements happening in Europe and the subsequent rise of Fascism. European countries were carrying out war in name of saving the nation and Tagore must have felt that the violent streak of nationalism in Indian would probably destroy the multi-cultural, multi-lingual India. But this selective quoting is hardly surprising. Media houses today are sharply divided on ideological lines and the viewers/readers are left to do their own research.

Bimala, are you listening?
Back to Ghare-Baire. The story portrays Sandip, the revolutionary, as a selfish man. He would entice others to give up imported food, clothing and accessories, while he himself is unable to give up imported cigarettes. He puts up an appearance of a simple man with only national interest at heart but prefers to live in luxury. He says, poverty drags down the energy of leaders. But his charm is such that Bimala, who has recently, at her husband’s coaxing, stepped out of the women’s quarter, falls for him. She believes every word he says and goes to the extent to stealing money from the family vault, to help him.

As I said earlier, all of Tagore’s works are timeless. They will resonate with us, no matter when you read them. So is Ghare-Baire. The three characters developed by Tagore are three categories, in which most of us would fit in. The Sandips – activists, orators, messiahs of the poor but at the same time extremely selfish and dual faced. The Nikhils – rational, won’t fall for mass movements, take their own informed stand, would not be popular with masses and would eventually succumb to actions of Sandips. Bimalas – fresh arrivals into the real world, gullible, passionate, impressionable, wannabe saviours and eventually disillusioned.

Since Tagore portrayed the nationalist side of Sandip, let us try the other side. The Socialist Sandips. These are the D. Rajas, Brinda Karats, Hardik Patels and Tessta Setalvads of today. They would masquerade as mass leaders, the face of farmers, Dalits, the minorities and the disenfranchised. They would take the stage and give a brilliant speech. They would try hard to win over the Nikhils but would eventually make do with Bimalas. They are the ones who would wear Khadi and cotton to public rallies and would silently enjoy their single malts after a hard day at “work”. They are the ones who would decry privatisation and American capitalism but would send their children to American universities. They are the D. Rajas who appear to be the representatives of the poor but claim 65 lakhs as air travel expense in a year. In the film, when Bimala confesses to Nikhil about the theft from the family vault, Nikhil says, “Now you know how difficult it is to say no to Sandip”. This is pretty much what the Bimals of today experience. They know they are being cheated but are so in awe of the Sandips that they simply brush aside such double standards and follow them religiously.  

The Bimalas of today are mostly university students, the painters, the writers, the actors, the historians, the theatre walas and other such. Mostly young, impressionable and wannabe saviours. They want to save the world, from nationalism, Trumpism, capitalism, Fascism and other isms. They all look up to the Sandips. They are ready to jump in at the slightest nudge. They form self-help groups where they help each other by sharing, loving, commenting, on the social media contents put up by the Sandips. No matter how stupid, incorrect or immoral the content is, it gets widely circulated and soon becomes popular. They are the Humans of Hindutva, The Wire, The Scroll and such. Spreading pure hatred and claiming victimhood. Many of these Bimalas end up disillusioned sooner or later. Remember the Bimalas of Delhi who rallied behind Kejriwal?

Finally the Nikhils. They are the worst off. No one wants to listen to them. Because they talk of taking a rational stand. And that requires a lot of research and tough decisions. They tell people not to blindly follow an ideology or an ism just because others are doing so. They tell people not to believe everything that appears on the internet. They tell people to see things in a context and make sense of it. But then The Nikhils are asking for too much. If every one of us were so adept at rational thinking we would not have seen outdated ideologies like Communism getting elected. We would not have seen people getting hysterical about a cinema that they haven’t even seen. Then we would not have seen people shamelessly defending Aurangzeb for his ruthless and communal reign over India. But just like in the novel, Nikhils are meant to die, metaphorically at least. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Why are we scared of history?

We all know at least one person who is scared of mathematics. The numbers are their worst enemies and even calculators do not turn out to be of much help. But recently there is emerging a section of people who are scared of history. Especially if they are told that what they believed to be true, is not really true. They will get angry. Accuse the others of distortion. Find reasons to trash the counter view. And above all demonise the ones who come up with alternate history.

Most of the anger and disregard for the alternate history is not based on facts. In most of the cases, if not all, the anger stems only because the “new facts” go against what we were taught at school. Or what is widely accepted as truth. Combine it with the personal hatred to a certain ideology and the entire effort of uncovering new facts is branded as politically motivated.

I am Tipu from TV.
For the authentic version please read books
Picture courtesy: Google search
A recent instance where people got very upset with history was the decision to celebrate “Tipu Jayanti” by the Karnataka government. While the Congress government projected Tipu as a “freedom fighter” and hence justified the celebrations. The BJP, on the other hand, said Tipu was actually a tyrant and a religious fanatic hence he should not be celebrated.

If one really wants to get into the details of what really Tipu did during his days, one has to read, a lot. This is obviously a tedious task. So people take to the easy way. They just see who is saying what, with complete disregard to fact, and take sides. If one hates Modi then Tipu was a hero. If one hates Congress then Tipu was a tyrant. It is that simple. Facts have no meaning.

But how did this come about? Well it is not surprising that it has. For a very long time we were fed with history, which was liberally coated with ideology. Starting from our ancient history to years leading up to independence, we have read what a handful of people thought was right for us. For a really nuanced reading on how our history has been adapted, manipulated and changed, one can read “Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their line, Their fraud” by Arun Shourie.

For long we have been fed a filtered out version of history, which suited the establishment. From vehemently supporting the Aryan Invasion Theory to painting a false picture of “Mahatma” Gandhi, it was all done to align the establishment thought with the popular narrative. Though the Aryan Invasion Theory has long been discarded and was replaced with “Aryan Migration Theory” (which also remains controversial), the Mahatma is still the father of the nation. There are many uncomfortable instances from his days in South Africa and later in India. If one really gets to read about them, Gandhi would become a fit case to be tried for domestic violence and abetting man slaughter. But that is a different story.

Back to history. There was a particular interest in canonizing the Mughals by historians. The Indian historians have done it and so have foreign historians. It is because of these efforts that today we fondly remember the Mughal rule as the “golden age” of India. The moment an alternate fact comes to light, we flare up and denounce the messenger as, a “Sanghi”, “fascist”, “nationalist”, “ultra nationalist”, etc. again without any regard to the facts presented. How can we forget the noise created when the name of Aurangzeb Road was changed.

But why are people so upset at someone coming up with a set of historical facts that challenge the status quo? Isn’t that what scholarship is all about? New discoveries, findings and updating our understanding of the past? A simple explanation can be traced to how people read such new facts.

The alternate history of Tipu or that of Aurangzeb, are being seen as anti-Muslim. The narrative being built is that, criticising the Mughals or any of the Muslim rulers from history is an excuse to criticize the entire Muslim community. You can read such instances here and here. Naturally, such reports make people think.

What we do not understand is that what someone did in the middle ages has nothing to do with what is happening today. We as individuals understand that we cannot and should not punish the family, for a criminal act committed by a family member.

Here we are talking about things done hundreds of years ago. How can the Muslims today be held responsible for what Aurangzeb or Tipu did all those years ago? Should be hold responsible the entire Austrian population for the birth of Adolf Hitler? Or for ever be in debt to the Americans for giving us Lincoln? 

History needs a dispassionate mind and a holistic approach for us to understand it. We should not see the acts of medieval and ancient personalities with the lenses of 21st century values. Every single historical figure, from Buddha to the Mahatma, is bound to fail such a test. History should be read and studied as it was. Not as we want it to be.