The Netaji controversy has come like an extended Durga Puja for Bengalis this year: almost two weeks old and just as fresh, letting us unpack our old stack of conspiracy theories about our favourite superhero.
The two intelligence files that said Jawaharlal Nehru and subsequent Congress government were snooping on Subhas Chandra Bose's family simply confirmed our long-held suspicion that non-Bengalis were trying to take every bit of glory away from us. Frankly, many of us were even deliciously outraged--our parochialism had finally had something to back it up. The last time we were this relieved was when Mamata Banerjee stopped trying to speak in English during TV interviews and Sourav Ganguly hit a century against Kenya in the 2003 World Cup, enabling us to chant "Maharaj Maharaj" again.
For all you might have learnt about Bengalis from books and media--most of which have been pedalled by us--we aren't a liberal lot. The most insidious forms of parochialism can be found in our "cultural capital" Kolkata, where highly educated parents tell their impressionable children that the decay of the city was due to non-Bengalis, who were to be viewed with a mixture of suspicion and disdain. Kids less than 10 years old are taught how the Marwaris robbed the "indigenous" population of their wealth and prosperity by taking over businesses with their shrewd acumen.
No one is spared the scourge of this prejudice. Refugees from the 1971 war treated deplorably and bunched together in dingy, inhospitable shanties; migrants from Odisha and Bihar who do the jobs beneath the Bhadralok identified as taxiwalas and cooks, parents asking children to stay away from Muslim neighbourhoods unless a craving for biryani rises and love for foreigners stopping at Chinese food.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a culture such as this would need its heroes. This need also encompasses validation, ideally from an international audience. Unfortunately, the last time the twain came together was at least half a century ago.
This is why Netaji is so important. We don't care about his legacy so much as what he does to our confidence as a race. Netaji is our brand ambassador for muscular Bengali nationalism--a kind of giving it back to the rest of India that stereotypes us as Rosogolla-munching types--in much the same way that Ganguly became our brand ambassador for sports.
A race forever in search of its icons, Bengalis are loathe to give up on their cultural supremacy and hence hark back to our Tagores and JC Boses. It is also this paucity that births our constant sense of persecution - to find a straw man, an enemy that has denied us our rightful place at the head of the table.
This leads to defensiveness and a rejection of a balanced debate on Bose's legacy and his troubling alliance with Axis powers--Netaji can do no wrong, in the same way that Calcutta's decay is justified as an old-world charm and progressiveness. Any opportunity to extol his greatness, or that of Vivekananda, Khudiram and anyone who was born over a hundred years ago, is taken up with glee.
All, however, is not lost. A recent rally demanding all Netaji files be declassified--as if our lives depended on that--drew thin crowds in Kolkata. Maybe it's not too late to hope that that we will start to live in the present and be happy with our heroes and flaws--like everyone else--without looking for superhumans who never existed. Aami Subhas Bolchi was last heard seven decades ago. It is time to let go.
(The views expressed are personal.)