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Friday, 24 June 2011

Siliguri: Travelling to the North Bengal University

I don't know when the landscape changes from sun-bleached beige to rain-fed green. Having traveled the breadth of the vast flat expanse of the Indo-Gangetic plain, I look out of the aircraft window and am startled by my first sight of the north Bengal countryside. Gone are the mottled brown fields, scorched by the mid-summer sun and singed by the loo winds, that I had been flying over for the past two hours. Gone too are the sharply etched, broad-but-brown rivers lazily looping through a relentlessly flat terrain. The mild sunlight, so different from the blinding glare I have left behind in sweltering Delhi, glints off the sloping tin-roofed houses and the many big and small rivers as well as scores of ponds and tanks and rivulets. A green haze spreads as far as the eye can see.


As the plane drops altitude, I begin to espy a gently undulating land unfolding a patchwork of every imaginable shade of green. The emerald of tender paddy in the fields, the darker green of the tea plantations, the sombre green of swaying palm trees, and the many shades of absinthe, myrtle, shamrock, jade and olive among the folded earth that I cannot identify from this distance stretches as far as the eye can see. The verdure makes me catch my breath as I am reminded of Faiz Ahmad Faiz's immortal coinage: Kab nazar mein aaye gi bedaagh sabze ki bahaar. ('When will we see the spring of a stainless green?') A purple mist on the horizon signals the eastern Himalayan ranges fabled for their mild climate, rare orchids, alpine forests, azure lakes, ancient temples and monasteries, and breathtaking views of the Kanchendzonga Peak

The international airport at Bagdogra is a busy one for its size, for while Bagdogra itself has little to offer, it serves as a gateway to the hills. My plane disgorges a motley bunch of honeymooners headed to the salubrious climes of Darjeeling, businessmen and entrepreneurs going to the nearby cities of New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri, students returning from the schools and colleges in Delhi, traders and executives working for the many tea estates in the region. Several tourist destinations located in the majestic north-eastern Himalayas beckon from a short distance. Darejeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok lure with their heady mix of colonial-era architecture interspersed with Buddhist monasteries, trekking through dense forests and craggy hills, and the delights of rafting and fishing in the Teesta river. Located in Darjeeling district, the town of Bagdogra is remarkably free of all such distractions. After the airport, its chief delight is the North Bengal University where I am headed.

Invited by the Department of History to attend a seminar on Memoirs and History, I have come armed with a paper on 'Roshnai', Sajjad Zaheer's memoir, and the perils of mixing memoir with history. First published in Pakistan in 1956 and in India in 1959, Roshnai was written in the Mach Jail when Zaheer was imprisoned for the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case from 1951-1954. With no access to notes or reference materials, Zaheer covered the period from late 1935 till mid-1947, and wrote a first-hand account of the early history of the Progressive Writers' Movement (PWM) strictly from memory. Cross-checking of several incidents with the testimonies of other writers associated with the PWM as well as other literary and non-literary sources, reveals lapses, omissions, obliterations, inaccuracies and biases. My paper attempts to show that while 'Roshnai' is an important book, even a valuable one, it needs to be read with caution and constant co-relation. While its author is to be lauded for his modesty and self-effacement, he is also occasionally guilty of effacing the contribution of several others or, in describing events and personages, tinting their description with the colour of subjectivity and prejudice. And, so, while 'Roshnai' deserves to be read, it must be read alongside other texts that shed light on the formation and evolution of the PWM. I conclude by making a plea for not merely 'Roshnai' but all memoirs: that they be read as a supplement to history, not as a substitute.

My paper strikes an unexpectedly warm and enthusiastic chord among my listeners. It is heartening to find that my audience - the majority of whom do not understand Urdu and a great many of whom are unfamiliar with Sajjad Zaheer and his literary contributions - is moved by my presentation, so much so that I am given extra time to go into more details. On the other hand, this being Bengal, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. For not only are Bengalis more erudite and scholarly than average Indians but they have more reasons to be aware of the framework of my paper: the Progressive Writers' Movement on which I have fleshed out my argument on the gains and losses of 'Roshnai'. Lest we forget, it was in Bengal that the movement for progressive literature found its most fertile soil and it was in Calcutta that the Second All-India Conference of Progressive Writers was held in 1938. Also, it is but natural that in present-day Bengal - attempting to rise like a Phoenix from over three decades of Communist rule - that the excesses of the Movement should find an instant rapport. (The two delegates from Bangladesh have their own observations to supplement mine, given their experiences with progressive literature.)

An animated discussion follows my paper: on the tendency among writers' groups for a core, ideologically-driven group to emerge; on the perils of a writer's commitment to ideology (in this case Communism) over-riding all other impulses, including literary and cultural ones; on the tendency to divide writers into opposing, and warring camps, i.e. progressive vs. reactionary; on the fallout of invoking art to mobilise and unite people; on the political underpinnings of popular literary and cultural movements; and on the tools of marginalization and alienation employed by writers' blocs against those who deviate or differ from a laid-down 'policy'. I am struck by the fact that the gains and losses of mixing memoir with history can apply just as effectively to mixing art with politics, ideology with literature, culture with politics and many such permutations-combinations. And who better than the Bengalis to know the 'those-not-with-us-are-against-us' brand of politics from first-hand experience!

The delegates are treated to some typically Bengali treats: mach for lunch and dinner accompanied by heaps of fluffy rice and followed by delicious mishtidoi (yoghurt flavoured with khajuriguror palm molasses); self-choreographed naach performed by final-year history students; Rabindragaan sung by no less than the Head of the History Department, Prof Anita Bagchi herself; and on our last evening that most eponymous of all Bengali institutions: the adda organized by the seminar coordinator, the inimitable Prof. Ichhimuddin Sarkar. An adda is an informal gathering where you indulge in some serious gup in the course of an intellectual exchange, usually accompanied with endless rounds of chai and animated, even heated, arguments. Ours starts tamely enough, with the students asking us sedate questions about future academic prospects, but ends up with a volatile discussion on the urgent issue of separate statehood for the hill district and the long-neglected rights of the hill people. As outsiders we are struck by the extent of discontent raging across the Dooars and Siliguri areas and the widespread wish for a separate homeland for the Gorkhas settled and domiciled in India.

Naturally enough, this part of North Bengal, sharing an international border with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh (and Tibet not too far away), has a crucial strategic importance for India. While the Siliguri Corridor or the Chicken's Neck is a corridor no more than 20-40 km in width, being the only rail and road link between the Indian mainland and the seven sisters in the north-eastern arm of India it has crucial geopolitical significance. Heavily patrolled by security forces, this part of North Bengal is the cause of much concern: as a future threat perception among India's security establishment and as a worst-case scenario by development experts, social scientists and planners. Barely a week into her office, the newly-elected Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has raised fresh hopes by promising a way out from the 'Darjeeling impasse' within three months. Already, she has commissioned a mini-secretariat for North Bengal and released a 200-crore budget for the development of this much-neglected region.

The hills are alive with the din of Mamata Di's supporters. I take home packets of fragrant Darjeeling tea, plucked from these very hills. I also bring back memories of a serene, almost jewel-like campus nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas and the snatch of a song recited by our host:

O mero baideshi abandhu re
Ek bar outtar bangla asiajan
Hamar jag khan oerchiajan
Tomar kotha koyajan
Hamar kotha oshunirjan re...

(O my outsider friends
Come to my North Bengal
See our land
Tell us your story
And listen to my story...)

(This article was first published in The Friday Times (Lahore), June 24-30, 2011)

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