Essays on Bengal of a Bygone Era | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 10, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 10, 2016

Essays on Bengal of a Bygone Era

Author: Mahbub Alam || Shuborno Publication

I simply cannot resist focusing on a bit of information provided in the apparently tongue-in-cheek titled Haradhoner Doshti Chele o Onnanno, written by Mahbub Alam, former senior career diplomat of Bangladesh, and a history buff.  Talking about popular Bangla chhoras of yesteryears, and possibly also of the Internet Age, he draws attention to one that at least a good number of us have heard:  “I come, by come…relgari (railgari) jhomajhom….” And those wordings have drawn some serious chulchera bisleshon (sounds more appropriate in this context than the English equivalent “hairsplitting analysis”) and ponderous erudition from Bengali scholars and monishis. Sukhomoy Mukhopaddhay pronounced that the correct line should have read, “Rel (rail) come jhomajhom.” This view was robustly challenged by Dr. Sukumar Sen who thought it should be, “Rain come jhomajhom.”  Wow!  Go figure! A very simple joyous chhora for all and sundry to enjoy has been placed under a high-powered microscope to minutely examine its contents (maybe every letter therein)!  But that seems to be a proclivity of a section of Bengali intellectuals:  to create the proverbial storm in a teacup (probably over a teacup, or two)!  On a lighter note, the weight of such erudition driving the head into the neck could result in spondalitis! There, I have put in my own two-cent' worth of reflection.

Alam has an insightful observation on the enduring quality of these long-cherished chhoras: they have endured precisely because they do not pontificate. Long may they continue to delight the young (and old).  In the context of the relgari jhomajhom chhora, the writer has emphasized in his introductory piece that it would be wrong to assume that all of our enlightening and best chhoras are based on foreign (read: English) influences. He, though, laments that many of their messages and objectives are being lost to the relentless march of time. He takes note, for example, that the young people these days do not learn arithmetic by following the Haradhoner doshti chele chhora; they take recourse to the easier methods provided courtesy of science and technology.

 Other than the introductory piece, the book contains ten essays related to education, some only tangentially.  Some serious discussions are interspersed with lighter ones, and the uninitiated will learn about the business acumen of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, the broken friendship between two towering figures in Bangla literature: Rabindranath Tagore and D.L. Ray, Rabindranath's benevolence, and other major and minor facts of Bengal's education-related history. Of particular interest to me (probably others, too), having been at the receiving end of some strong parental (read:  father) discipline for some admittedly MINOR indiscretions, the essay on Bangla Pathshala is illuminating. We learn about the systematic progression of education along defined lines on the assumption that the foundation had to be strong (contrast that with the manifold shortcomings at the foundation level these days in many schools with the result that a vicious cycle of weak foundation leading up to the apex level of learning that is ploughed back with the flaws to begin at the beginning). In the early to the mid-nineteenth century, Vishwanath Tarkaratna's Shishubodhok and Madan Mohan Tarkalankar's Shishushiksha helped lay the foundation for the children's education in Bengal. 

Harsh behaviour, rough language, and liberal use of corporal punishment topped off by caning were common among the teachers, and, significantly, as the precursor to a continuing tradition, they were not paid much for their teaching efforts. Nonetheless, in those days, in spite of their meting out severe punishment to erring students, a section of the teachers were revered for their caring and sensitive nature.  While they endured their pecuniary privations stoically, they earned great respect and gratitude from the people for their honesty and simple lifestyle.  These relatively neglected pathshala teachers enlightened so many in remote corners of Bengal of the nineteenth century that their efforts bore fruit for the entire country that made noteworthy advances in the twentieth.

There is a delicious story of an admiring Brahman pundit who undertook a sojourn from Nabadwip to Kolkata (not an easy distance to traverse in those days) to meet the writer of the epic poem Brojangona, Michael Modhushudhan Dutta.  On finally meeting the “brown Sahib” dressed in European clothes at Stone Hope press, and learning of his converted Christian identity, he could only blurt out, “Son, you're damned!” An interesting observation deals with the topic of the educational direction of the British Raj during the latter half of the twentieth century. Much of it was aimed at grooming the urban upper and middle class children to become the ruling class of the colonial system.  Only a mere handful of books, notably Shishubodhok, were written keeping an eye on the agriculture-based economic and social life of the vast rural Bengal.  

Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was at the forefront of providing educational opportunities for the Bengalis.  He wrote, according to Chandicharan Bandopaddhay, 52 books, of which 30 were in Bangla, 17 in Sanskrit, and 5 in English. He was also in service of the British government. Allegations were rife that he used his position and closeness and influence with the British to push for his own books to be incorporated as school textbooks.  There was truth to the allegations, but equally true was the high quality of his books. He was a shrewd businessman to boot, using his own acumen and the British connection to advance the fortunes of his press.  

Bibhutibhushan had a stint in East Bengal as a roving educator on the merits of cattle breeding and their upkeep. In the course of his tour to various districts of this region, he came to the conclusion that the womenfolk of East Bengal were much superior to their counterparts from West Bengal in terms of liberal views, affability, and open-heartedness.  Significantly, he observed that they were generally more educated than their West Bengal counterparts. The feud between long-term friends Rabindranath and D.L. Ray was sad.  The author demonstrates that it stemmed from a jealousy against Tagore on the part of Ray, culminating in the staging of a particularly crass Ray-written play called Anondo Bidae, which, both suggestively and expressly, attacked Rabindranath's integrity. Significantly, Tagore did not use it as an excuse to retaliate, but was bemused by what had transpired.

Tagore was a generous person.  Alam gives an account of how he helped the noted Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra while he was struggling monetarily as he was undertaking his experiments in Great Britain.  He recounts how Tagore beseeched and gained the help of the equally large-hearted Maharaja of Tripura in coming to the aid of his friend, an act that enabled Jagadish Chandra to successfully conclude his scientific endeavours. In Alam's estimation, other than in Vidyasagar, not many instances can be found among Bengalis of being concerned about the wellbeing and success of another Bengali as could be in Rabindranath.  A whole lot of generous gestures that eventually brought glory to all involved. Haradhoner Doshti Chele o Onnanno might be sketchy in content, but each of the essays contain elements that are in themselves interesting and also invite the more inquisitive reader to explore in greater depth the stories that particularly interest them. 

The reviewer is an Actor, and Professor and Head, Media and Communication department, IUB.

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